Monday, April 21, 2014

The Boys - 2006-2012

So on Mondays I'm going to talk about larger things, starting with today. Today I want to talk to you about "The Boys," but first, absolutely no kids allowed on this one, because "The Boys" has absolutely everything in it that parents probably want them to steer clear of.

Over the top violence? Check. Sex with body parts drawn? Check. Profanity? Abso-fucking-lutely. A cast of characters where lots of them are pretty appalling people? You bet. A cynical world-view that can, at times, be bleak and oppressive? Damn straight. But you'll also get some of the finest gallows humor, superhero deconstruction and effective storytelling that's ever hit the comic book pages.

"The Boys" began its life over at DC/Wildstorm, and saw all of six issues published there before the book was cancelled, but it was picked up shortly thereafter by Dynamite Entertainment, and quickly became one of that publisher's most successful titles.

DC, it turns out, thought maybe it was a little too dark for them, although they really should have known what they were signing on for. After all, the two creative forces behind "The Boys" were writer Garth Ennis, whose "Preacher" was one of the biggest smashes DC's other imprint Vertigo ever had, and artist Darick Robertson, who with writer Warren Ellis had done "Transmetropolitan" with Vertigo (and believe you me, we'll do "Transmetropolitan" on one of our big Mondays sometime soon).

These were two guys who didn't want to push the envelope, they wanted to rip the damn thing up. But the violence and profanity in the first few issues of The Boys weren't really that far past what the other two series had done. It wasn't until the book relaunched over at Dynamite that it went from a hard-R to the NC-17 nasty masterpiece that it is. So what was the problem that got them cancelled from Wildstorm?

Ennis has said in interviews since that DC was really uncomfortable with the anti-superhero tone of the book, and that moving to Dynamite was what let the book to thrive, because they weren't on the hook to anybody over there. Dynamite didn't want them to reign it in - they wanted them to let loose. Nudity, violence, profanity - let loose the dogs of war, if you will. Dynamite wanted to see what Ennis would do with no one around to tell him "no." And that was that. "The Boys" could let its freak flag fly as high as it wanted to.

See, "The Boys" is really an upending of the apple cart that is superheroes. It's a book that takes the core conceit of superhero stories and gives it a good old slap on the ass. "The Boys" are a CIA sponsored unit whose job is to keep superheroes in check when possible, and to "deal" with them when not. When superheroes sprung forth into the world, they became instant celebrities. Some of them dealt with it better than others. "The Boys" are given a chemical to turn them into super-powered beings, so they can handle superheroes, but really, this just means they're insanely strong and tough. In many ways, "The Boys" are old-school legbreakers. And that's part of what makes this series so goddamn entertaining.

There are five members of "The Boys." First and foremost, there's Butcher. Billy Butcher is the leader of The Boys, and has been around the longest. He's loosely based around Michael Caine in "Get Carter." He's friendly, jovial even, but you also know right away that he is absolutely deadly. He's a soldier. You'll know that right at the start.

Next is Mother's Milk. He's sort of Butcher's right hand man. He's the only American on the team. He's an ex-Ranger, ex boxer. If they ever get a movie off the ground, I can see someone like Terry Crews playing him. Despite being probably the nicest guy on the team, he's ... got lots of family issues. On a lot of levels.

You have The Frenchman. He's crazy. He's scrawny. He's also half of the team's "muscle," because he's pretty insanely ruthless. He's fun, simply because you're never exactly sure how much is an act and how much is genuine psychosis.

There's The Female. She never speaks. She's the most deadly member of the team. She's also the most mysterious, and throughout the whole of the series, you still won't learn all that much about her. A little, yes, but probably not as much as you think you're going to.

And lastly, and perhaps most importantly, there's Wee Hughie, who is modeled after British actor Simon Pegg. Hughie is the new guy to the team, and the book opens with his recruitment, and it's through his eyes we get introduced to the world of "The Boys" when a superhero accidentally kills his girlfriend right in front of his eyes, and sends him into shock. Hughie is the character we come to know the most, and best, through the course of the series. And while he goes through some changes, probably the most impressive thing about Hughie is that at the end of the day, he's always Hughie.

At the opening of "The Boys," Butcher is starting to get the gang back together, but Mallory, the other co-founder of the group, isn't interested in rejoining, so this is why Butcher gets Hughie. Because The Boys needs to be a group of five.

I don't want to tell you too much about the whole story, but I can tell you a few things - you'll end up seeing parodies/homages to many familiar hero archetypes, and the more invested in comics you are, the funnier all of this will be. You'll see things that will remind you of characters from both of the two big houses, as well as a bunch of stuff you know they'd never dare to print. I mean, shit, one of the arcs of the series is called "Herogasm." You can extrapolate for yourself what to expect from that, I imagine.

This isn't a short story, so you'll probably want to delve in a little bit at a time. All said and done, "The Boys" has been collected in 12 trade paperbacks, or 6 oversized hardcovers. (In researching this article, I found there will also be "omnibus" editions in the near future, starting in July. Best guess from the description/page count is that there will be 4 or 5 of those.)

I know that sort of commitment can sound intimidating, but you should trust me on this - it's worth it. If you pick it up in collected form, in any collected form, you'll get all 72 issues of the main "The Boys" comic, and the three miniseries - "Herogasm," "Highland Laddie" and "Butcher, Baker, Candlestickmaker" - in their correct placement in the series. You'll get the sort of big screen epic that you really can't get from the big two.

For a long time, I wondered why most superhero stories never felt all that, well, real. After The Boys, I understood why. Don't get me wrong - I love superheroes, but when you see them in a horrible warts-and-all approach, where a few of them are good, most of them are indifferent and a bunch of them are kind of assholes, you start to see superheroes as the people rather than the mask. But even with that, The Boys has a great big storyline full of twists and turns, of horrible things but also of love and heroism, the true kind.

Still hesitant? Here, you can go read all of issue one, free and online, from the publisher, to whet your appetite - just click here. (It looks like there's a bit of a problem with it when I loaded it up, so your mileage may vary, but it'll give you an idea of what you're in for.) Trust me, if you like your stories dark and feral and sticky with just a hint of nobility around the edges, it's hard to beat The Boys.

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