The GeeksverseLeaving Proof 162 | Garth Ennis takes the superhero comics industry to task in The Boys

Leaving Proof 162 | Garth Ennis takes the superhero comics industry to task in The Boys
Published on Sunday, December 2, 2012 by
A look back on The Boys, the recently-concluded superhero satire series from Garth Ennis and Darick Robertson. PLUS: Links to the latest trade paperback and graphic novel reviews and another anime viewing recommendation.

I finally got around to reading the finale of Garth Ennis and Darick Robertson’s The Boys this week after my order for The Boys, Vol. 12: The Bloody Doors Off came in last Wednesday at my local comics shop. I’ve been following the series since 2007, when Dynamite Entertainment picked up the publishing rights to the title originally held by DC Comics and began regularly issuing trade paperbacks of the series. The final story-arc “The Bloody Doors Off” (The Boys #s 66–71) and epilogue “You Found Me” (The Boys #72) did not disappoint in the least. In a comics genre—superheroes—where irrevocable character evolution and definitive story conclusions are often considered editorial and commercial anathema, The Boys‘ explosive, gut-wrenching swan song stands out and apart.

After the rush of the emotional roller-coaster ending had worn off though, I found myself in a bit of a contemplative mood. What was The Boys (and its three spin-off mini-series) all about?

The Boys, which started out as a mature readers title in DC’s Wildstorm Comics stable in 2006, can be classed as many things, whole or in part: A pointed, ultra-violent, and risqué superhero comics satire, a caustic criticism of American patronage politics, a somewhat surprisingly effective love story, a modern genre tragicomedy, and a lot more.

In a way, it can be viewed almost like Garth Ennis doing remixes of his greatest hits—the writer used the series as a forum to revisit certain topics and themes that have come to inform his reputation as a comics author over the years. The series’ frequent irreverent jabs at organized religion are straight out of Preacher, the book’s violence equaled, and then significantly surpassed, the gory levels set in Punisher MAX; its bizarre, eccentric, and plain old crazy cast of characters rival those seen in Adventures in the Rifle Brigade, the skewering of superhero clichés echoes Ennis’ work on The Pro, and the sardonic but nonetheless knowledgeable parsing of 20th century military history bears links to the author’s work on War Stories.

But The Boys isn’t just about Ennis retreading, updating, and expounding on old material. It may seem odd to say this about a comic book series where a villain houses a hamster in his rectum and one of the protagonists’ allies is a well-endowed Russian superhero codenamed Love Sausage, but The Boys actually finds a more circumspect Ennis at work. This isn’t to say that he is any less of a transgressor against conventional reader sensibilities (and some would say good taste) on the title as he has been in some of his most outrageous comic writing—this was the book that promised to “‘out-PreacherPreacher in its earliest advertising campaign, after all—but the provocative material in the series on the whole seems to be as much about deliberate self-parody and reflection on the comics industry as they are about pushing against the boundaries of what is acceptable in American superhero comics as far as violence, sex, profanity, and off-color humor are concerned. The Boys sees the re-use of a lot of well-worn Ennis tropes, but they are in the service of a theme and message that are relatively novel to his body of work.

One of the features that has surely made a memorable impression upon most readers is Ennis’ translation of figurative criticisms of the superhero comics industry into literal story events. A story-arc (We Gotta Go Now,” The Boys #s 23–30) satirizing the impenetrably convoluted—and frankly, incestuous—nature of Marvel’s “X-Books” ends up revealing a conspiracy of silence that hides the childhood sexual abuse perpetrated by a transparent Professor X pastiche against multiple generations of his orphan and outcast students. The charge that massive superhero “event” crossovers are nothing more than exercises in excess is interpreted in Herogasm as the world’s superheroes using the pretext of having to repel a massive alien invasion in a distant galaxy as a cover story for an annual holiday spent on a remote resort island indulging in orgies and massive quantities of drugs. In The Innocents (The Boys #s 40–43), a sadistic adult superhero tries to take over the leadership of a group of earnest, if somewhat incompetent, costumed teen do-gooders, Ennis’ dig at the industry trend of dragging even the most innocuous, all-ages accessible superheroes into the realm of “grim and gritty” comics for cheap thrills and easy sales spikes.

It is explained in I Tell You No Lie, G.I. (The Boys #s 19–22) that in the world of The Boys, all superpowers come from the same source: Compound V, a drug originally developed by scientists working under the direction of the Nazi party to create a super-powered soldier. Through the series, Ennis cultivates this element to tie into the contention that the “biggest” superheroes are ultimately nothing more than brands meant to capitalize on shallow consumer ideals—custom-designed to fit corporate specifications as they apply to various market demographics—to be maintained and protected at all costs to preserve their huge licensing and marketing value. Was this specific idea intended by Ennis from the outset to be one of the foundations of the narrative? Not knowing how far in advance Ennis had the book plotted out, it’s impossible to tell, but it’s probably fair to say that Ennis and Robertson’s experience with DC Comics—which canceled the title with the sixth issue, allegedly because executives did not like their parody of the Justice League of America*—had a significant impact on the tone, direction, and content of the stories the pair continued to tell with Dynamite’s appropriation of the series’ publishing rights.

In an article published earlier this year, Ennis  was quoted by SciFiNow‘s James Hoare as saying:

I find most superhero stories completely meaningless, which is not to say I don’t think there’s potential for the genre—Alan Moore and Warren Ellis have both done interesting work with the notion of what it might be like to be and think beyond human, see Miracleman, Watchmen and Supergod. But so long as the industry is geared towards fulfilling audience demand—i.e., for the same brightly colored characters doing the same thing forever—you’re never going to see any real growth. The stories can’t end, so they’ll never mean anything.

In contrast to, say, Mark Millar’s work on The Authority, the scorn Ennis slathers on The Boys‘ send-ups of DC and Marvel’s most popular properties isn’t really meant for the superheroes per se—although his disdain for the tired caped archetypes shows through—but rather, it’s intended for what he sees as a superhero comics industry stuck floating tired gimmicks and telling warmed-over, indefinitely on-going stories featuring “branded” pretenders to the title of hero and the legacy of myth, and for this reader at least, it is this notion that is the most notable metatextual theme of the work.

*- Ennis recounted the break from DC Comics in a 2007 interview with Heidi McDonald for The Comics Beat (emphasis added):

The Comics Beat: What can you tell us about the specific problems that caused The Boys to leave DC?

Garth Ennis : I think if I were to sum it up in one line, it would be that you can have comics where people do awful things to each other, like Preacher, but you can’t have a comic where super people do awful things to each other, like The Boys, and I think that rather than any specific instances—panels or pages or lines in the story—that was really the problem in a nutshell. When you have comics that—even superficially—look a bit too much like the company’s regular output, and the characters in them are doing the most ghastly things and behaving in the most awful way, and blaspheming and swearing and so on, that creates a real problem. That just will not fly. And that, more than anything else, was what brought an end to The Boys’ time at DC.

Recent reviews

Here are the latest trade paperback and graphic novel reviews on the site:

On Occult Academy

I recently finished viewing all 13 episodes of Occult Academy, an A-1 Pictures/Aniplex production that originally aired in the summer of 2010 as part of TV Tokyo’s Anime no Chikara (“The Power of Anime”) project. Contrary to initial impressions suggested by the show’s title, Occult Academy isn’t just a straight up horror series: A decided science-fiction conceit plays a central role in the main plot that revolves around a time-traveling agent from 2012 going back in time to 1999 to find and destroy “Nostradamus’ Key,” a mysterious artifact that will supposedly trigger an alien invasion that sets off the apocalypse. The show’s main protagonist, Maya Kumashiro, takes over Waldstein Academy after the death of her father—occult researcher and Waldstein Academy principal—under mysterious circumstances. In the course of her investigation into her father’s death, Maya encounters mothmen, chupacabras, poltergeists, witches, and all manner of supernatural creatures while also being dragged into the aforementioned plot to find Nostradamus’ Key. It sounds more scattershot than it actually is—the show focuses more on character development than the details of the various subplots, which primarily serve to showcase Maya’s evolution from emotionally-guarded skeptic to the mature leader of a ragtag band of occult investigators, and the show’s writers effectively mine the process for action, comedy, and some genuinely affecting emotional notes (episode nine, “AKARI of snow,” and episode ten, “AKARI of fireplace,” are especially good). The animation and design are top-notch, and keen-eyed viewers will notice unmistakable visual nods and homages to everything from The War of the Worlds to David Cronenberg’s The Fly to “cute witch” anime like Sugar Sugar Rune. The series starts out a bit slow, but overall, Occult Academy is highly entertaining stuff that fans of animation should seek out.

Occult Academy is available on DVD, Blu-Ray, and can also be viewed on both the Crackle and Crunchyroll video streaming services.

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5 Responses
    • Occult Academy sounds like something I could get interested in. I like “kitchen sink” concepts when done well, a book (or show) that has elements of everything thrown in. When done poorly, they are a mishmash of too much and don’t end up being anything, but when done well they can be very good.

      • The whole Anime no Chikara (“Power of Anime”) line-up on TV Tokyo was built around the idea of mixing genres and making shows that are accessible to both young and old viewers. Besides Occult Academy, another show in the line-up was Night Raid 1931, about a Japanese covert operations unit in Shanghai in 1931, trying to maintain the uneasy peace in China at a time when the country was teetering on a civil war between Chiang Kai-Shek’s Nationalists, the Communists, and insurgent groups funded by destabilizing foreign powers (including Japan). Oh, and the Japanese covert ops unit’s members all have unique special powers (teleportation, telepathy/remote viewing, force field generation, etc.). It’s a mix of spy thriller, historical fiction, and superhero genres and it works for the most part. It could be the premise for a groundbreaking AMC or HBO series or something. Watching something like that, it just makes me feel all the more frustrated that North American animation houses don’t have anything even remotely similar to offer and even if they did, none of the major US or Canadian networks (broadcast or cable) would consider picking it up, because they’re absolutely locked into the mind-set that cartoons are mainly for kids, and the only cartoons adults will watch are comedies like The Simpsons or Family Guy.

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