Wednesday, September 17, 2008

A Few Words on The Boys

Over at his blog, Jog discussed The Boys a little earlier this week. I don't think he's far off the mark much of the time here. I really enjoy the book, but it is weak satire most of the time; it's a book better enjoyed as a regular drama with bits of humour peppered through. I think that any book of this sort is doomed to failed elements of satire, though. How can one examine superheroes in this manner without using obvious stand-in for well-known characters? How can one not take cheap potshots at Marvel and DC? It's not the purpose of The Boys, but I think Garth Ennis doesn't have much chance of avoiding it either.

While not the purpose, satire and mockery probably is a point of the book. Ennis has a history of mocking the superhero genre, particularly the self-righteousness of the main characters. It's a cynical attitude, that people aren't this noble, this moral, and those that claim to be are usually the worst sort of bastards underneath it all. As well, it's an obvious attempt at realism based on observing the behaviour of celebrities and others in power. If they act a certain way, wouldn't people with superpowers act in a similar fashion?

Beyond superheroes themselves, Ennis also targets superhero comics. In this world, they're cover stories for superheroes (not a new idea), and he uses that role to make fun of the writing of a lot of superhero comics (and, as well, himself). In one issue, he makes fun of the use of randomly bolded words in superhero comics (ostensibly meant to convey speech patterns and the stressing of certain words), but that's also a technique he uses, so it's not too serious a critique. Just a little insider humour.

Or, as Jog points out, in the third story of the series, "Get Some," part of the plot revolves around a superhero's comic and public image being linked to homosexual causes and issues much like a Judd Winick comic. Then, there's The Legend, a Stan Lee-like figure who used to run Victory Comics and now uses his vast knowledge to help the Boys take on the superheroes.

In one issue, Ennis even takes a shot at Vertigo where three guys at a comic shop debate which is the best: "Noncemancer," "Reverend Swear" or "Busydick: The Only Man." Again, cheap little bits of humour, but also not really the point of the book.

I think the manner in which Ennis structured the book hasn't helped it as it began with lots of this cheap little humour and only recently shifted gears for more serious hints at the overarching story (The Boys versus the Seven/Vought America). The first ten issues are mostly cheap jokes with some nice character stuff and the odd serious bit. It's easy to see how some readers could be turned off (especially when "Batman" begins having sex with random objects in "Get Some"). Then again, maybe Ennis needed to get it out of his system early. After all, the three stories since then have been more focused (still funny, but in Ennis's usual manner) and, definitely, stronger. The most recent story, "I Tell You No Lie, G.I." provides a very clear picture as to the point of the book and what it's really about--which is not just taking the piss out of superheroes.

The world Ennis writes here isn't meant to imitate that of other superhero comics either. These superheroes are rarely people given powers through chance or dedicating themselves to making the world a better place. The Seven (aka the Justice League of America) were bred by a corporation to suit said corporation's needs. While the Homelander may be based on Superman in his powers and public image, the reality is as far removed from Superman as you can imagine. He wasn't raised by decent midwest farmers, he was raised in silo with an H-bomb strapped to him in case he went rogue.

Ultimately, this is a book about the influence of power, the role of corporations in power structures, and the effect of said powers and corporations on the world. Not exactly what you'd imagine given the premise of the book (or Ennis's past work--although the role of power has always been one of Ennis's pet themes). Of course, it's given a human face and human reasons. No one on either side fights for what they think is right: on the Boys's side, it's all about revenge; on the supes's side, it's all about money, power and business as usual.

Those initial stories serve the purpose of the Boys making their influence known once again and introducing us to the world, shocking us at how things are. The leader of the Boys, Butcher, does this purposefully to new recruit Hughie to get him up to speed and make sure he's aware of what will be expected of him. Hughie nearly quits a few times, but sticks it out and is rewarded as he learns more and more about the reality of world--just as a reader who gets past the mediocre satire and mockery is rewarded with a more serious, well-crafted story.

Thankfully, up to that point, Ennis uses Hughie as a point-of-view character very effectively (and continues to do so). Hell, I'll admit that the main draw of this book, for me, at this point, is Hughie. Without him, I'm not sure I would have stuck around during those first few stories where it was a lot of the same jokes I'd heard before or thought up in high school.

Not sure where I'm going with this, but Jog's post got me thinking (and rereading the series--which I'd planned to do after the end of "I Tell You No Lie, G.I."). The Boys is one of my favourite comics and made my top ten of 2007 (and made my top ten halfway through 2008 list as well). If you stopped reading after the first ten issues, give it another shot--particularly the latest story.