It should be noted from the outset that a reader's appreciation—or lack thereof—of Garth Ennis's work will directly impact their enjoyment of The Boys. Those familiar with the author will expect, perhaps even relish, the detours into gross-out humor and disgusting gags, the confrontation of sexual taboos, and the predilections of fetish (and never in subtle ways), heartily rounded out with foul language and bloody violence. If you are a fan of Ennis, you should have absolutely no trouble enjoying The Boys. If you are not, then you are not likely to find much comfort within the pages of this opening chapter of his ongoing anti-superhero series, which is a shame.
Ennis is quite clearly uninterested in the superficiality of the superhero genre and its one-sided notions of good versus evil, and this series allows him to take the concept of secret identities further in The Boys than typical cape-and-tights stories dare (or care) to tread. The superpowered heroes—or supes, for short—presented here are narcissistic, deranged freaks who are usually just as bad, if not worse, than the villains they stop. Their secrets lurk far deeper, and are far darker, than a mere alter ego. Their actions have consequences and repercussions that are often overlooked by society at large because of the celebrity culture they inhabit, and because the very nature of their existence can threaten to destabilize the status quo.
That's where The Boys come in. A CIA-funded squad of mortals led by Butcher, the team's primary goal is to keep the superhero community in check, to make sure they know they are being watched. Through blackmail and violence, the Boys seek to put an end to the supposed superiority of the supes, particularly the organization known as The Seven, a Justice League-type conglomeration of heroes with their fair share of secrets and vices.
One point of contention for genre fans may stem from the fact that many of the supes in this book are obvious caricatures of established heroes like Superman and the Justice League; in fact, no mainstream comic book character is safe from Ennis's pointed commentary. Prior to finding a home with Dynamite Entertainment, the six issues collected within this volume were originally published under DC's Wildstorm imprint. The series was canceled quickly, after DC became uncomfortable with the deeply nihilistic viewpoint Ennis was leveling against the superhero genre, particularly some of their central, iconic figures. Thankfully, DC's cancellation left Ennis free to continue the story by setting up shop with another publisher.
In introducing Butcher, his team, and their antagonists, Ennis establishes an alternate world where the Twin Towers still stand, and although New York does bear signs of a devastating attack, this world's version of 9/11 is a mystery. He also raises many questions about Butcher's past, his relationship with The Seven, the history of The Boys, and the political and business dynamics that run beneath it all.
Although the book is rife with all of Ennis's trademarks, there is, of course, a deeper meaning at work, a strict method to the man's madness. He is taking nearly a century's worth of comic-book misogyny and sexism, the traditional boys-club staple of superhero tales, and crafting a nastily dark and gritty revenge tale that promises to evolve into an important work of fiction. The women in The Boys are traumatized, used, and brutalized, their innocence savagely lost, sometimes in shocking fashion, and each of them are forever damaged. The men around them, both good and bad, are instruments of harsh violence, separated only by the context of morality.
Complementing the story are cocreator Darick Robertson's terrific illustrations. As he did in Transmetropolitan, Robertson manages to capture and build a vibrant, living world. His panels have a depth to them that constantly indicates the life of New York. His backgrounds are rich with graffiti strewn across buildings that have obviously seen better days, populated with the appropriate class of people. The physicality imbued upon the characters read you in on their personality instantly—the sardonic, sometimes cruel smile spread across Butcher's face clearly extends into the depth of his eyes, as does the smug superiority built into the posture and gait of the male members of The Seven. You can see the pain and horror in those who suffer loss, and the emotional damage etched into them. His pencil work gives the spark of life to the book's scripts, preventing the work from tumbling too deeply down into the dark muck.
The Boys is not a book for the politically correct crowd, or for those easily offended. Ennis and Robertson are carefully building a real-world take on the genre in which they can examine the facets of masculinity, sexism, and violence. Their opening gambit is a terrific introduction that lays the groundwork for a larger story, presenting several pieces of briefly mentioned history and developing relationships that will no doubt be exploited in future volumes. It isn't pretty, but it is a serious work told in oftentimes entertaining fashion. The Boys is very much an adult-oriented book, and those that can overlook, or even embrace, the darker tone of the series will find a challenging, rewarding antidote to the oftentimes-simplistic viewpoints of traditional superpowered-hero books.
Reviewed by Michael Hicks on April 8, 2008
The Boys, Vol. 1: The Name of the Game