'Who watches the Watchmen?' is a well-known phrase to comic book lovers, and the comic book series The Boys (opens in new tab) gives you a gruesome answer.
That question, which is at the heart of the seminal '80s series Watchmen (opens in new tab), begs the question: who will police the people with power? It certainly is a heavy topic to consider, and one that writer Garth Ennis, artist Darick Robertson, and others throwing Billy Butcher and his crew of heavies at every corrupt superhero in sight.
Then The Boys beat them senseless, and sometimes bloodless.
Written by Garth Ennis
Art by Darick Robertson, Peter Snejbjerg, John Higgins, Carlos Ezquerra, Richard P. Clark, Russ Braun, John McCrea, Keith Burns
Published by DC/WildStorm and Dynamite Entertainment
Set in a world where superheroes are privatized soldiers with celebrity status and operate with complete impunity, in The Boys collateral damage is commonplace, and the citizens of the world blindly cheer for their god-like heroes. The premiere superhero team, the Seven, is funded and managed by a multi-billion dollar corporation known as Vought International. With that kind of power and money, the supers run roughshod around the world.
Enter the Boys, a C.I.A.-backed team of augmented mercenaries hired to make the worst super offenders pay for their transgressions and their disregard for human life. Be it with a beating or a toe tag.
We meet the titular group through the eyes of Hughie Campbell, a man who has lost everything at the hands of the super-fast, super-negligent 'hero' known as A-Train. Hughie is our proxy, the powerless commoner who lives at the whim of these superheroes. With no outlet for justice, Hughie slumps into a deep depression. It's here we meet Butcher, a hard-talking Englishman with a proposition for Hughie. Help his team of hitters to expose the 'heroes' for the assholes they are.
The team consists of Billy Butcher, his bulldog Terror, Mother's Milk (a former soldier and second-in-command), Frenchie (the short-tempered detective), and the Female (the team's resident quiet assassin). The Boys have a drug known as Compound V coursing through their bodies, giving them enhanced strength and durability - enough to withstand the onslaught of an enraged team of superheroes... and boy, does this team love to enrage.
The ballad of Hughie and Butcher
The heart of the story lies in the dichotomy between Hughie and Butcher. Butcher, having lost his wife at the hands of Black Noir, sees himself in Hughie. From the moment Butcher reads Hughie's file, he feels a kinship with him and takes him under his wing. However, all of Butcher's attempts to build Hughie into a 'Butcher 2.0' are for naught - Hughie is a good guy; Butcher is not.
In the tenth arc, 'Butcher, Baker, Candlestick Maker,' (opens in new tab) Butcher's origin story is told. Akin to the movie Joker (opens in new tab), it's about building a villain. Butcher's experiences with his extremely abusive father put him on the road to violence. The rape of his wife by the 'hero' Black Noir leads to her grizzly death when her super baby erupted from her uterus and tried to kill Butcher. This event focused Billy Butcher's violence like a guided missile. After his little brother's death, Butcher knew there was no one left to stop him from going over the deep end. Then he met Hughie.
Throughout the series and its spinoffs, Butcher systematically kills anyone infused with Compound V - first the so-called 'heroes,' but then even turning on his team. Hughie, Butcher's surrogate little brother, is the only one left to stop him. From the start, Butcher was training Hughie to take the place of his little brother as the person to stop him.
Heroes, of a sort
Garth Ennis takes the superhero genre and infuses it with debauchery, gore, and dark humor. The superheroes are personifications of privilege and unchecked power.
In the world of The Boys, It seems like all the worst people in this world have abilities and use them for good just long enough to land a sponsorship deal or a spot on a high profile team. But behind closed doors, their moral depravity knows no bounds. They abuse their status as pseudo-gods to kill, manipulate, and go on drug-fueled sexcapades, leaving every non-super in their wake broken and mangled.
Hell, the entire storyline of The Boys: Herogasm (opens in new tab) revolves around every superhero lying about going off to save the world. Instead, they all head to Isla McFarlane (I assume a nod to Spawn creator Todd McFarlane) and have a bunch of sex with suped-up escorts, and each other, naturally.
The Boys leans heavily into its social commentary as well. It illustrates how power corrupts and enables those involved to be as bad as they want to be. The mega-corporation Vought-American uses its unlimited resources and power to create the supers, exploiting them for money and influence. The things powerful people do behind closed doors are often too much for the average person to bear, and these augmented humans embody that idea whole-heartedly.
Viewer discretion is advised
This is not a series for the faint of heart. The themes and topics covered, and more so, how they are covered, are raw and somewhat unfiltered. The Boys uses dark humor to introduce the reader to its most uncomfortable scenarios, disarming your sensibilities and making something horrible seem palatable, even for a brief moment. You can't help but chuckle at the plight of a violated butler and his ultimate revenge on a depraved, sexual deviant posing as a super. The series' charm is derived from its humor and its dark take on sensitive subjects.
Also, a ton of superhero sex. A whole bunch.
Ennis grants his characters rich backstories to explore throughout the series. You grow to understand the motivations behind Butcher's crusade, empathize with Hughie's inability to adjust to the rampant violence, and understand the dynamics of this ragtag group of super mercenaries.
The titular team in The Boys are a makeshift family, which comes across as their adventure unfolds. Characters like The Female see real growth throughout the series while Butcher slips further into his own personal vendettas, away from his seemingly just agenda. Between all the absolutely insane events, you believe these hardened killers love and respect each other. Their established bond and understanding of one another makes later events in the series that much more impactful.
How do I look?
The art in The Boys does an excellent job of mirroring the story's extreme aspects. The exaggerated grimaces evoke character's emotions very well, while detailed depictions of decapitations, dismemberments, flayings, and wild super sex flood the series's pages. One thing I noticed is the uncanny detail put into the character of Hughie. Based on the likeness of actor Simon Pegg, Hughie stands out in the book in an almost uncanny valley sort of way.
While standing next to the likes of Mother's Milk or Frenchie, Hughie seems very out of place. Like Michael Jordan interacting with Bugs Bunny in Space Jam (opens in new tab). My mind would not stop screaming, "That's Shaun of the Dead!" every time Hughie graced a panel. Juxtapose Hughie's level of detail to a scene of Frenchie crawling around like a spider, and you tend to lose your suspension of belief. I know it's a comic book, and that makes it all the stranger. That doesn't take away from the highly detailed imagery in The Boys, but I encourage you to stare at the first panel Hughie is introduced in and tell me it doesn't weird you out a little.
Verdict(opens in new tab)
The Boys is a very over-the-top satire of superhero comic books. Its subversion of the genre makes for a unique and uncomfortable look at the abuse of power by mighty people. The Boys themselves are a fleshed-out group of misfits you will come to cheer for as they enact sweet revenge on all the worst super people you have ever seen. They want what we want, accountability of the powerful.
Fueled by Compound V, The Boys cut a bloody swath through the ranks of heroes. If you enjoy dark comedic craziness, give the series a try. Also, lot's of Scottish cussing. I found that enjoyable.