This is Propaganda, I’m Richard Bruton and this is what I’ve been reading lately:
Written by Garth Ennis
Art by Darick Robertson
When you’re living in a world full of shiny costumed heroes tearing through the sky and dark, shadow-living vigilantes stalking criminals through the night it’s good to know that you, the common man, are cared for and protected in this utopia. But, unfortunately, the actual truth in The Boys is that the superpowers don’t really give a toss about you. After all, when you’ve got all that power at your fingertips, it’s like caring about the ant you just stepped on.
But the US government cares. Not about you of course, but about protecting themselves from the most dangerous force on Earth – superpowers. The decision is made that something has to keep them in check; something scary, vicious and downright nasty. So the US government talked to the CIA and the CIA talked to the Butcher and the Butcher assembled his nasty, highly-skilled, dangerous and unstable little team, all dedicated to bringing down supertypes wherever and however they could. These are the Boys. Whenever a Superhero needs teaching a lesson or pointing out the error of their ways, Butcher and his crew do their jobs, get their hands dirty and leave the hero well aware of his or her place in the status quo.
In this first collection, Ennis uses the classic device of using the new character – the Simon Pegg inspired “wee Hughie” – to act as the reader’s eyes on the story. Wee Hughie’s introduction perfectly sets the tone of the series – one minute he’s in love, carefree and dancing with his girl, next minute he’s left holding her dismembered arms after she becomes collateral damage in a superpower fight. Hughie’s shocked expression and reaction to her death and his growing awareness of the disdain his species is held in by the superpowers is a perfect introduction to the world we’re reading about. The first half of the book concerns Hughie’s courtship by Butcher, as he slowly brings him into the team. After that, we’re propelled with Hughie straight into the worst excesses that Ennis can throw at us. Through Hughie we see exactly what the Boys are there to stop; super-orgies, power struggles, abuses of power, the money, marketing, drugs and debauchery. Ennis takes great delight in giving us not only his own twisted version of the JLA but he throws in the Teen Titans as well for good measure. All of the big superheroes are pastiched here and there are no prizes for guessing who’s who.
(the phrase let me lend you a helping hand takes on a macabre new meaning for Wee Hughie in Ennis and Robertson’s The Boys, published Dynamite Entertainment)
As far as I’m concerned this is Garth Ennis’ big comeback – he’s either coasting (if you’re being charitable) or lacking ideas since coming up with Preacher over 12 years ago now. Everything he’s done in the intervening years has been either a Preacher clone (Punisher?) or pretty crap (Wormwood?). I’m beginning to think that even Ennis was starting to believe this, as he was often quoted as saying that “The Boys will out-Preacher Preacher”. The Boys, I’m really pleased to be able to tell you, is the first really decent thing I think that he’s written since Preacher. I know a lot of you will point to the excessive comedic violence, the crudity, the sick jokes and the abundance of bodily fluids and claim it’s yet another Preacher rip-off. But even if it is a Preacher clone, it’s the best bloody Preacher clone anyone’s come up with since, well, Preacher.
Darick Robertson is also on fairly familiar ground here. The style and feel to the book is very reminiscent of his work on Warren Ellis’ Transmetropolitan and even Ennis’ Punisher from Marvel Max a few years back. It’s quite obvious that Robertson can draw this sort of thing over and over again. Of course, there’s a big difference between being able to draw it and actually making it look good. But Robertson’s artwork is perfect for the Boys, and his fairly naturalistic, figurative style that perfectly captures simple human emotion also manages, whether through design or accident, to make the superpowers even more grotesque and distant from their own humanity.
There’s nothing particularly original in the Boys. It’s Garth Ennis doing a nasty superhero killer comic, with all the perversion, violence and menaces to society that entails. It almost conforms to a tick list of popular ideas on grown up looks at superheroes (© Alan Moore) But the two comics that sprang most readily to mind when I was reading the Boys were Rick Veitch’s Brat Pack with it’s dissection of the grubby side of dressing up in lurid, revealing costumes and too much interest in marketing dollars and most particularly the quite wonderfully and insanely brilliant Marshal Law by Pat Mills and Kev O’Neil. Marshal Law is particularly relevant as we’ve just had an announcement that Top Shelf will be releasing a much needed deluxe collection of this seminal comic.
(Marshal Law Takes Manhattan by Pat Mills and Kevin O’Neill)
However, despite owing a huge debt to many, many books, particularly those mentioned above, The Boys is no mere copyist. It’s a hugely entertaining book, packed full of blackest humour, inspired violence and a great story. Darick Robertson does a bang up job on the art, the characters are fun, interesting and readable but most of all, the Boys gives us the triumphant return of Garth Ennis. We thought we’d lost him for a while, but on the evidence here, Ennis certainly has a few more great comics up his sleeve yet. And not all of them are based on Preacher after all.