by Noel Oxford
Time to face up to it, lads. Superheroes are shitheads. They just are. They’re cunts.
That – that right there – is the singular realisation that has sailed over the head of almost every hack who ever dreamed a dream of crafting the definitive grim-n-gritty ‘realistic’ take on the superhero genre. It doesn’t matter if you reimagine Superman but give him a frown, or if you make Batman a panty-sniffer who swears, you’re still writing about daft childrens’ characters who raid their wardrobe at random in order to go out and punch evil. There’s nothing in reality that even remotely resembles a superhero – and a good fucking thing too. They’re cunts.
Perhaps it’s not the premise that’s wrong though. Perhaps it’s just the viewpoint. Let’s not forget that ‘Rising Stars’ and ‘The Dark Knight Returns’ et al stick pretty much to the costumed version of events, so is it any wonder the heroes have been whitewashed? These superpowered pricks, they want to pretend they’re just ordinary schmoes, people like us, and so that’s the way the story’s been told. Well, they’re not ordinary, and they’re not like us. They’re cunts.
That’s the genius of ‘The Boys’ by Garth Ennis and Darick Robertson. They’ve crafted probably the most realistic superhero narrative ever committed to panels, and I don’t think they were even trying. All it took to pull it off was to reverse the point of view, and embrace the idea that – in spite of our inexplicable love for them – superfolk are all massive, pulsating, smegma-beflecked bell-ends.
In the Ennisverse, superheroes are pretty much rock stars, along with everything that entails: bloody-minded greed; exploitative commercial cynicism; arrogance so towering it’s visible from space; debauchery that could get a stiffy out of even the most jaded Roman praetor; and above all, gross, criminal, genocidal incompetence at anything approaching dealing with reality. You wouldn’t put Ozzy Osbourne in charge of Homeland Security, would you? We’d be at DEFCON 1 every time Ronnie James Dio broke cover. But in the pages of the Marvel/DC funnybooks, that’s exactly the situation. Nikki Sixx is in Washington DC snorting down line after line of chop, with one thumb jammed up a Playboy bunny’s bumhole, and the other planted firmly on the nuclear button. No wonder it’s always kicking off apocalypse-style.
If superheroes are cunts – and they are – then it’s necessary to find a way to keep them in their place. That’s where the titular Boys come in. They’re a CIA-backed heavy mob of five trenchcoated misfits led by a wideboy named Billy Butcher, all of whom either love violence, hate superheroes, or both. Our surrogate in this tale is Wee Hughie, a Scotch conspiracy theorist freshly recruited to the cause after the love of his life is pulverised into collateral jam during a fight between a negligent speedster and a fur-collared miscreant. Her death is of as much consequence to the bloke who caused it as it is to the sinister men in black who visit an utterly devastated Hughie shortly thereafter to buy indemnity and silence on behalf of their super-powered charge.
It’s that kind of nasty, pitch-black cynicism that typifies ‘The Boys’, and it’s a perfect antidote to the seam of boss-eyed, shouty morality that runs through comics as a whole. In short order, we meet The Seven, the world’s premier satellite-based superhero society, and bear witness to their unwholesome recruitment and vetting techniques. We’re introduced to Tek Knight, an amalgam of Batman and Iron Man who’s battling an unerring compulsion to fuck things – robots, cars, chinchillas, his butler – an uncomfortable state of affairs as far as his blissfully oblivious teenage sidekick Laddio is concerned. And we get front-row seats as Teenage Kix, America’s pre-eminent after-school hero club, come apart at the seams when Butcher starts dropping paydirt on them from a great height, in the form of indelicate photographs.
But ‘The Boys’ is not solely concerned with the hero-of-the-month being battered back into subservience, there’s a bigger narrative unfolding that hints at great catastrophe yet to come. Ennis has indicated that, at issue 36, we’re barely half-way through the story he envisions, and as such, it’s the longest original series he’s done since ‘Preacher’. So far, ‘The Boys’ looks likely to at least match that piece of work for quality.
Sure, there are complaints. For the life of me, I can’t fathom the jarring decision to model Wee Hughie’s appearance on Simon bloody Pegg. Occasionally, Ennis seems to lose sight of the fact that less is often more when it comes to black comedy, laying it on perhaps a tad thick at times. Meanwhile, although the ultra-violence is almost always kinetic and vividly rendered, I’ve seen faces divided from skulls so often in Ennis’ work by now that it’s become a trademark bordering on a cliché. Overall, I’m finding myself wondering how well the superheroes-as-twats gimmick is going to spin out across 70-odd issues.
But then again, it’s Garth Ennis, one of the sharpest and funniest writers working in comics today, alongside Darick Robertson, whose crisp and expressive pencils lend the cynical bleakness of this world a shred of genuine warmth and humanity. And if nothing else, it’s refreshing as spring fucking rain to see the decree nisi that finally divides superheroes from the übermenschen pedestal that mainstream comics writers have fawningly and pathetically bestowed upon them, like submissives gagging for the gimp mask.
If you like your humour dark and bitter, and if you ever felt suspicious of the improbably perfect, unaccountable and arrogant archetypes typifying the rest of comicdom, then ‘The Boys’ is for you.