Thursday, March 14, 2013

Some Thoughts Upon Completion of Garth Ennis's "The Boys"

One of my best friends spent years trying to get me to read The Boys. While we have a lot of overlapping interests in sports and books, I'm late to the comic game and he tends to like very different stuff. I grabbed the first volume back when Thwipster was a thing, and I think I got through half of the book before being fairly mortified by the graphic violence, borderline-misogynistic sex, and the overall brutality of the whole thing.

At some point, something prompted me to pick it up again. It might have been praise from other people. It might have been my confusing him with Ennis from Planetary. Either way, I powered through the first book, looked past some of the ultraviolence, and found some good. By the time I got to the last trade this past week, it turns out that I may have found one of my favorite comic series after all.

Follow beyond the jump for some discussion. Might get spoilery all up in this.

My overall feeling when finishing The Name of the Game was "I have no idea what I just read." It is just so over the top, it's ridiculous. The initiation for the new female superhero, the blood...everywhere. I had no clue how to even begin reacting to it, but given the praise, I soldiered on through the ridiculous ending of the second trade, and then reached the third trade, where things really started to come together in a way that made sense beyond the "let's be as shocking as we possibly can" aspects. The fourth volume in particular felt like a fun X-Men parody. I can get behind that.

Then came Herogasm.

Herogasm may very well be the most crazy, over the top thing I've ever read in a comic book. Detailing what is effectively a superhero orgy weekend, it's...I don't even know how to describe it, but it brought me right out of things again. It was unnecessary and strange and just didn't seem to fit even the ridiculous standard it set. It really soured me on the whole experience. I somehow soldiered on, still a little wary.

It was really the seventh trade that really started getting me into it for good. The one thing I felt The Boys was missing was that sense of humanity, going instead for a twisted view of what a world with superheroes would really be like. Getting into the relationship with Wee Hughie and Starlight was key, the Butcher was likable for the first time...

This brings us forward a bit. As the series came to a close, after doing some backstory arcs (of variable interest and value, but that's to be expected), we got the Butcher's arc. I know most who love the series love The Butcher, but he too often felt like a ringleader type with an interesting cast of characters surrounding him, not a major piece of the overall puzzle. So when I went to pick up the next trade in line and saw it was an extended Butcher series, I was a little disappointed. Having seen a glimpse of the overall endgame in the previous arc, to spend time away from that with a character I didn't especially care much about in either direction?

Boy, was I wrong.

As a basic place in the story, the Butcher, Baker, Candlestickmaker arc itself does a tremendous job fleshing out a significant background for a character that has more or less kept it tightly bound. We get the rage, we get the skill, and, devastatingly, we get why he hates the Supes now, and the over-the-top brutality that this series is known for finally has a purpose. As actual storytelling? Even better. The quality of writing, the way everything is lined up from start to finish? Flawless. Up there with some of the best I've had the privilege of reading period. The final scenes where The Butcher finally learns about what happened in order to get to the point where The Boys starts? Just gut-wrenching. At this point in my reading, I realized that The Boys wasn't for everyone (heck, I was doubting it was for me for a time), bot only did this arc fully and completely validate the entire series for me up to this point, but it really validated where Garth Ennis sits in comparison to his peers, how he can create something so out there, so over the top, and yet so effective at pulling the right strings. I immediately wished that this arc was something I could hand to people as an individual issue, to say "read this and you'll get something out of it." Without the rest of the story to fuel the necessary knowledge that makes this book work, it's just a story of a man dealt a tough hand. In context, it's a brilliant character study instead.

This lead things to a fairly fast and furious finish, with the major climax happening in the eleventh volume, and the finale of the twelfth. The sign of a good story is when you can tie up the loose ends in a good way (not necessarily a pleasing way, mind you, but a good one), and The Boys delivers with Butcher's endgame as well as polishing off the rest of what's laying about. With The Bloody Doors Off, I found that the the biggest story in the arc, the overall plot, is the bigger issue overall. I can't really say for sure I love where the Butcher ended up in this book. On one hand, I definitely feel as if the monomaniacal way Butcher wants to end things makes some sense given what we know about the character. The Supes are bad, Voight-American is bad, and so on. On the other hand, that he spends so much time building this group up simply to tear them apart? Allegiances seemed to matter for Butcher, but maybe not. As we see in his final scenes, everything he does seems to have a purpose. I'm just not sure I'm buying this specific one.

The end is a little more nihilistic than I would have preferred as well. Outside of Hughie and Annie, the idea that it's just going to be a new rotation all over again...I don't know. It doesn't really make sense with the "kill 'em all" attitude the series has had.

I can nitpick all day, though. At the end of it, the way things went about concluding was pretty satisfying, especially when I felt things were essentially done. For a series I went into with a ton of skepticism, with imagery and ultraviolence I had a lot of trouble with, the fact that this story made me place a lot of other comic trades on the back burner says a lot about how addictive the series was and how strong the writing is. Herogasm aside, I don't feel as if there was a significant miss anywhere along the line, even with the brutality. I struggled with a lot of what The Boys did, and perhaps what The Boys represented even as self-aware as it was, but I still really felt something from it. There's something to be said about that.

I wish I could recommend this series to everyone, but that wouldn't be right. There's too much questionable stuff to unequivocally say "yep, this is how to do a comic about superheroes gone bad, and you'd love it." But, really? This is the way to do a comic about superheroes gone bad: it probably would be ultraviolent, with a lot of weird sex and bad drugs and terrible people and worse outcomes. And maybe that was the point - that we should be glad we don't need the Butcher.

I know I am.

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