Garth Ennis keeps going back to certain themes and ideas in his comics. Things like the pressures of war, or the nobility of true friendship come up again and again. But the least interesting of all these ideas – by far – is the concept of superhero decadence.
There might be cheap thrills in seeing what disturbed people with insane amounts of strength and power can do, but it is rarely more than just silly. Ennis has been mining this vein since his earliest comics and has no respect for the vast majority of superheroes.
The first year or so of The Boys took all that silliness as far as it could go, and looked like it was going to go down the same old roads, but then started applying the idea of absolute power absolutely corrupting in all sorts of new ways.
After getting through some of the more obvious humour and plot twists, Ennis has taken The Boys onto another level. The past year of The Boys has easily been the strongest of the title, as all these ideas of black-hearted corruption and rampant, super-powered idiocy start piling up on each other. Most of the comic’s main conspiracies have been revealed much earlier than expected, laying the foundation for a suitably apocalyptic ending.
There is still some stupid shit going down, but Ennis gets away with all this with some typically strong character work. While many of his characters are unapologetic caricatures of real people, his leads tend to have a habit of acting like human beings, which makes the entire narrative arc of the whole series surprisingly unpredictable.
This has been most obvious in recent months – Billy Buutcher’s discovery that Hughie was in an actual relationship with one of his mortal enemies could have led to a violent bust-up, but after the two men actually talked about the situation, they almost managed to sort it all out without resorting to the usual histrionics.
In any other series, it’s the kind of situation that would inevitable result in some kind of shocked revelations at the comic’s climax, especially when Butcher’s first thought is that Hughie is a mole for the bad guys.
But is just doesn’t happen like that. Silence and secrets breed conspiracies, but this little conspiracy is wiped out before it begins.
And then there is the story of Hughie and Annie, and their sweet and small relationship that offers some hope for a little light amongst the inevitable blood. It all looked over after Hughie got to see her audition ordeal for the world’s biggest super-team, and said some very, very horrible things to her.
The Boys has just rounded the two-thirds mark of the overall story, so this kind of status-quo shakeup is to be expected, and with Hughie disappearing back home for a few months in his own spin-off mini-series, setting the stage for some grand confrontation somewhere further down the line.
But then, almost immediately, Annie followed Hughie into the pages of his own comic, and made the whiny little bastard sit down and listen to her story. They still have a long way to go and many things to settle by the time she gets to the end of that, but they’ve made a start. Instead of festering in their own guilt and anger, it all comes out quickly.
And that’s what made The Boys one of my favourite comics of 2010. Many reviews of the comic are still hung up on the superhero decadence, and they’re hard to argue with, because all that stuff is still there, and is only going to get worse as the Homelander takes his final steps into real insanity.
But there is also more to the comic that fucking superheroes, a whole world of real people dealing with unreal situations.
The Boys isn’t as obviously charming as Preacher, or as openly emotional as Hitman, or as devastatingly complex as Ennis’ mature Punisher stories, and some of the art over the past year has became disturbingly shaky, but it’s a thoughtful and nakedly emotional comic about the corruption of power. That’s always worth a look, and worth talking about, far more than any more superhero shenanigans.
Next: #6 - A badger with a bloody big gun