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Trouble with Comics, Farewell to The Boys

Farewell to The Boys

How long does it take most people to realize that a relationship is no longer working?

I mean a relationship that used to have some meaning — a relationship that shared laughs, thrills and wonder; a relationship that saw both parties grow and change and yet still respect and enjoy one another; a relationship that once had so much going for it.

How long does it take before someone shouts, “Damnit, get me the hell out of here!!”

Or, to put it in a perspective that we can all understand, how long does it take a comic collector to resist the compulsive and near-irresistible need to have a ‘complete set’ and stop collecting a series?

Well, for me it’s taken four years.

Or, to express it in comic book terms, it has been forty-one issues and two specials. Therefore it has taken me exactly forty-three issues in total before I called it quits.

That’s how long it’s taken me to realize that I’m finished with the superhero satire called The Boys.

And for me it’s particularly sad because writer Garth Ennis and I used to have such a wonderful relationship.

I first encountered Ennis via John Constantine. And then the relationship continued with The Demon, Hitman and Preacher.

When Ennis arrived on the North American comic scene he displayed an amazing ability to craft tales filled with wildly obscene ideas but still balance those elements with compassion and camaraderie between his characters.

Preacher would have Arseface and the in-bred descendent of Jesus Christ (the latter well before Dan Brown’s much prettier heroine in The DaVinci Code) balanced with the passion between Jesse and Tulip and their difficult, complicated friendship with the vampire Cassidy.

Hitman had the Ace of Killers, Baytor and zombie zoo animals balanced with Tommy’s relationship with Tiegel and all the guys at Noohan’s Bar.

And in Hellblazer Ennis wrote about the political evils of London, the demons of Hell and a cancer-ridden Constantine — complete with him giving Satan the finger — but balanced it all with the surprisingly poignant relationship between John and Kit.

It was his run on Hellblazer that displayed how masterful Ennis was in his ability to juggle various bizarre and violent storylines with characters who had strong friendships and romances. Before Ennis took over the series, Constantine oozed with swagger and attitude, but Ennis introduced a vulnerability to the character than hadn’t been seen previously. He was still a bastard and was perfectly described when he was told, “You’re a man who inspires the maximum loyalty for the minimum effort” and yet he was surrounded by people who, no matter how awful and dangerous he could be, would still call him a friend. And it was this theme of friendship and its rewards and challenges that would be constant throughout Ennis’ best work.

Perhaps the most amazing thing about Ennis’ popularity is that he managed to gain mainstream recognition without writing a bestselling superhero comic book.  The whole notion of Infinite Invasions or a Secret Siege Crisis is alien to Ennis’ style of writing.  When Green Lantern or Batman made an appearance in Hitman it was as if the heroes were intruding on Tommy and his friends.  And when Superman guest-starred it was a tale told with a uniquely Ennis perspective (the two characters sat on a rooftop and chatted about what Superman means to America) and earned Ennis and artist John McCrea that year’s Eisner for Best Single Issue.

The cornerstone of many of Ennis’ stories consisted of characters simply chatting with each other. They would be funny, strange and wondrous in their conversations. Their stories could be macabre and disgusting, but the characters would be so interesting that it made for compelling reading.

It was an amazing high wire act that few other writers have been able to achieve, but with The Boys it seems like Ennis has lost his ability to balance these elements and has finally come crashing to the ground.

The Boys is (supposedly) a satire of superhero comic books and in the crooked mirror that Ennis is holding we see how twisted and deprived superheroes would be if they existed in the real world. And in the process Ennis gets to mock the X-Men, Justice League, Legion of Super-Heroes and other superhero groups and their clichés.

Because Ennis wrote some of my favorite books, I was initially enthusiastic about this project. His work at Marvel with The Punisher left me cold, but with this book I saw an opportunity for him to work without the restraints of a corporate editor. And when DC/Wildstorm let the book go to another publisher because of its controversial nature, it was an opportunity for Ennis to do whatever he wanted in the series.

And perhaps that is the book’s greatest problem: an unrestrained Ennis is not necessarily a good thing.

It was the mini-series Herogasm that was the first hint that things weren’t working in our relationship. It was a six issue series that had the world’s superheroes faking an interstellar crisis so they could all retreat to a hotel to do drugs and have tons and tons of sex. (And, wow, doesn’t the story sound crass and immature when it’s described that way?)

Issue two actually broke my comic collecting habit: it was early in the issue when two of the prostitutes who had been hired to service the superheroes are talking in a swimming pool. One points over to the other and informs her that she’s bleeding and it’s probably due to all the super-sexual pounding she has been forced to endure. The hooker quickly leaves the pool and does not make another appearance in the series.

I have to assume that the scene was supposed to be a comment on how cruel these so-called ‘heroes’ could be, but at that point I stopped reading the issue and didn’t even bother to buy the rest of the mini-series. I saw no reason to keep reading a story that was on the same level of sophistication as a community theatre production of Showgirls

But, because of the long relationship Ennis and I share, I persevered with the regular series. I hoped that Ennis had merely strayed off the path with the mini-series. Herogasm was crude and over the top, but I trusted that there would be a more steady hand in the on-going book.

Back at the regular series, the back story of the main characters was slowly unfolding. In comic book terms, he was telling their secret origins. And, after revealing how one of the characters earned his codename, it is then illustrated that to comfort himself he hires hookers and, after having sex, he pays them extra so he can suckle on their breasts — hence the character’s name, “Mother’s Milk”. And there, in living color, we get to watch a grown man nurse on the breast of a prostitute.

For me, after the disappointment of Herogasm, that was strike two.

The final straw occurred in issue #41. One of the heroes explains in graphic detail why he was kicked off his last superteam: he’s a shape-shifter, he wanted to have sex with the leader’s girl friend and so he impersonated him.

The character continues, “Trouble was, she’d never tried anal before. And she ended up liking it quite a bit. So the next time she’s in the sack with the real him, it’s ‘Oooh, do me like you did last night’… and… well. One thing led to another.”

The other character then sarcastically responds, “That’s a lovely story.”

And for me, that was it. Strike three. I’m done. I’m outta here.

Do I really need to read an anecdote about a character impersonating someone and then tricking someone else into having anal sex? Or see a grown man breastfeeding himself with a prostitute? Or read about two prostitutes as they about how insensitive and dangerous (super) johns can be?  

I realize that those three examples are little throwaway bits and are insignificant in the grand scheme of the story — but that is exactly what makes them so annoying.

Preacher is populated with a quirky cast of characters with twisted stories and fetishes (the ghost of John Wayne, the astronaut-wannabe who wrote “Fuck You” to the heavens, Odin Quincannon and his love of meat), but there is an overriding theme in the book that the three main characters were trying to find some good – good within themselves, in their friends, in the world. The appeal of that series, and perhaps Ennis’ greatest ability as a writer, is that no matter how weird, violent or fucked-up it all might get, there was always the possibility of acceptance, forgiveness and even redemption.

But I can see none of that in The Boys.

Perhaps by the end of the series (which Ennis says will probably run to sixty issues) there will be some payoff that will have made the journey worthwhile. But I can’t stick around for another twenty issues. Not when he’s asking me to wade through so much puerile and pointless trash.

It is strange to note how Hellblazer, Hitman and Preacher (now all more than ten years old) all read as if they were written by a more experienced writer when compared to his most current work. Ennis once used to push the envelope with his storytelling, but now his stories read like they were written by a self-indulgent frat boy who marvels at the crudeness he creates and can’t wait to show all his friends how naughty he has been. 

The Boys is the story of superheroes who are unrestrained in their hungers, ambitions and depravities. Their existence makes the world an ugly and dangerous place. They do unspeakable damage and must be stopped.

And with issue #41 that’s just want I am going to do.

Just stop.

— Kevin Pasquino

  1. troublewithcomics posted this
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