Vol 1: The Name of the Game
Written by Garth Ennis
Art by Darick Robertson
Barbican Comic Forum
00000000 / Kraken
The one thing that has always stuck in my head about The Boys is Garth Ennis’ claim when it was first coming out that it was going to – and I quote – “out-Preacher Preacher.”It’s interesting to try and think about what this means exactly.
I don’t imagine that there’s many people reading this who haven’t heard of Preacher but just in case: it’s basically the most perfect comic written for teenage boys. It’s got swearing and sex and violence, a man who has a penis for a head, another man who has an arse for a face, it’s got vampires and a Clint Eastwood kinda guy who kills people, it’s got angels and demons fucking and Elvis Presley and tanks and voodoo and Bill Hicks. It’s like an all you can eat buffet of “badass stuff”. Plus – buried underneath it all there’s a thing about God and Responsibility or something? That doesn’t quite make sense but certainly sounds kinda cool.
The question is: with The Boys going to “out-Preacher Preacher” which aspect of Preacher is he referring too? I mean The Boys doesn’t have any vampires. There’s no people with rude bits on their heads. And unless you count all the superheroes it’s nowhere near in the whole “I love America” thing (altho Garth does bat his eyelashes at New York a few times…). What is does have tho is lots of extreme swearing, lots of extreme sex and lots and lots of very extreme violence. But here’s the thing that I find curious – in a way it doesn’t really add all that much to the series and if anything it would almost be better without them. Yeah – that’s right for once instead of extolling the cheap low-brow comic book pleasures of things that smack you square in the face (is that… Superman’s ass I see before me?) I kinda wanna join the other side for once and say that while yeah The Boys is worth your time and actually quite smart and intricate and cool in the stuff that it’s doing – you kinda need to be willing to look the other way at the start with all of the cheap “crowd-pleasing” stuff it throws in at the start. Or to put it another way: it’s a kinda a comic with a split-personality. On the one hand it kinda takes a long hard look at the idea of what a superhero is – what it represents in American culture, what kind of lies it covers up and going further: how that relates to power in general and especially the use of violence and all of the political and psychological consequences of that and but also (on the other hand) it’s about making the crassest, most gross-out jokes possible like it’s… well… a teenage boy that’s just discovered the joys of jacking off. Imagine an unholy combination of Noam Chomsky / Seth Rogan genetically spliced together and you’re about halfway there. There’s speeches about the dangers of unchecked corporation Capitalism but there’s also a puddle of semen coming from underneath the door – and there’s specks of blood in it.
I’d love to pick Garth Ennis’ brains about this just to see what he would say. Part of me thinks that maybe this is just the sort of thing that’s into. I mean in the past he’s literally created a character called “Master Baytor” so it’s obviously the kinda thing he’s into. But then there’s a 9/11 sequence that happens in the – fourth volume I think? – that I think is one of the most powerful and gut-wrenching things I think I’ve ever seen in a comic ever and I can’t even understand how it’s the same writer. And it’s like: is all the juvenile stuff that’s “out-Preaching Preacher” really where his heart lies? Or is it just market forces and an attempt to get as much teenage boys reading it as possible? I mean yeah Hitler Stan Lee fucking Wonder Woman is not a sight that I’m going to forget in a hurry but then I’m not sure it’s something I really needed to see (lol).
Basically I guess what I’m trying to say is: if this is your first time reading The Boys then do your best to try and overlook all the things it’s doing for the cheap seats because it’s honestly still one of the most insightful and crazy daring comic books that’s out there and contains all sorts of parts that have wormed their way right into the depths of my skull (“It ain’t me son. I’m somewhere else watchin’ it happen.”). Yes it obviously enjoys calling people “cunts” a little too much – but that’s probably a small price to pay. People talk a lot about how books and films mean stuff how they watched something that “raises a lot of questions” about the modern world or whatever – but The Boys actually tells you. The pleasures of violence. And how it all plays out. You can even talk about the things it says about toxic masculinity if you want to – but it also shows you the unquenchable attraction of it too.
You just need to maybe – look past the love sausage a bit.
What do you think?
Islington Comic Forum
The main thing that occurs to me about The Boys is that it’s the most extensive homage anyone has ever written to Pat Mills. All the contempt towards superheroes is very reminiscent of Marshall Law and Billy Butcher is an incredibly thinly veiled version of 2000 AD’s Bill Savage, wanting vengeance against capes instead of the Volgons. (also I recently discovered Love Sausage is another affectionately plundered character from Battle’s Johnny Red, another of Ennis’ urtexts)
It’s an odd series. I seem to remember it was originally meant to run about 30-40 issues but ended up being about twice as long probably on account of Dynamite wanting to extend the life of their most (only?) successful title and you can see the story contains a lot of flab. On the other hand, the good bits, mostly about mid way through the series, are really good and the central idea of capes as a metaphor for corporate power works really well.
Weekend at Arnie’s
Adolescent as it is, I would argue the constant excess does actually play a crucial role in The Boys. I’m enjoying the TV adaptation, but at the same time, I can’t help feel it’s too lightweight. The actors aren’t beefy enough, there’s not enough sex, not enough violence, not enough… well, excess. You need the Supes to be these inhuman larger than life figures, and you need them to be up to their necks in filth for the whole concept to really work. Yes, The Boys goes for excess constantly with a kind of malicious glee that’s often tiresome and at worst feels like it exults in nastiness for its own sake (particularly towards women). Could it, for example, have done without Wee Hughie sucking on a giant octopus-woman’s teat? Yeah, I think it probably could! But the over-the-top lifestyles of the superheroes are an outgrowth of an unholy confluence of money, fame, and power – the modern equivalent of Greek gods.
Nearly everyone in The Boys are utterly compromised. The ‘good guys’ – the true patriotic American establishment – are just old money arms dealers and state hitmen who happen to oppose the slightly more evil Vought-American because Vought is cutting in on their racket. Haliburton buys a president, so Vought buys a VP. The Boys themselves seem like good people – until the fighting starts, and they paint the walls with some poor idiot who got in the way. That complicity is what allows Butcher and his gang to use Compound V without screwing up the narrative. If they were just good people fighting bad superheroes, it would make the Boys into superheroes themselves, and it would just be another story about good guys with powers stopping bad guys with powers. But the Boys are not good guys. In any sane world, there would be no need for the Boys and the excessive violence they mete out. Their ultraviolence and their superhuman abilities are entertaining and fun to cheer on as long as the capes exist – the Boys in a world without supes would be a terrifying prospect. By the end of the book, when superheroes have been effectively neutralised, all the Boys are dead – all except Wee Hughie, who never allows himself to reach the same depths as the others.
That, I think, is the central point The Boys’ entire critique of the superhero is built on. Superheroes only look good because they exist in a very specific set of fictional circumstances that allow them to be necessary rather than completely terrifying: supervillains, alien invaders, Atlantis. In a world without those supernatural threats (threats that can somehow be solved by a few special individuals but not by the vast resources of, say, the US Government), superheroes would rightly scare the living crap out of us.
The 9/11 clusterfuck sums this all up in one horrifying sequence. It’s not just a mistake born of stupidity and greed. It’s this gradual, terrible snowball from bad to worse to catastrophic, as the consequences of each decision stack up, and you realise what a grotesquely bad idea it was to send superheroes into that situation. When The Boys works (cause there really is a lot of flab around the edges), when you get past the love sausage and the hamsters and the exploding sex toys, the series’ secret weapon is the way it thinks through the implications of a superhuman world. What would superheroes be like if they really existed? Probably like the very worst qualities of athletes and movie stars magnified a hundredfold; and since heroism isn’t exactly a growth industry, they would have to be kept afloat by a vast merchandising empire that requires them to spend more time on publicity than on helping anyone but themselves. What would happen if untrained, unqualified people who can punch through a plane fuselage without thinking tried to thwart a hijacking at 30,000 feet? Pretty much what you’d expect. And what would happen if you put a revenge-driven, hate-filled sociopath crazy enough to take on Superman himself in charge of an unaccountable CIA death squad and set him loose? Yeah, Butcher was never going to turn out a hero.
It is a tale
Told by an idiot,
Full of sound and fury,
Barbican Comic Forum
I think I’m the most staunch defender of the Boys so far in the thread. I’m just going to give a series of disconnected thoughts, and hope that some will have something to add to, or contradict about, most of them.
The biggest criticism I can give of the Boys is that it is too complete a desecration of the rules within which superhero books exist; after reading it, it’s difficult to return to a JLA book which ignores these realities and blithely read on.
In the same vein as Preacher, Ennis explores the back story of the monsters, as much as possible – he seems to want to explain his monsters rather than just have us cower in fear of them. For Butcher here, read the Saint of Killers a decade prior.
The excess and revelling in it is, as stated by someone else, part of the point. In a non PG13 world, why wouldn’t superheroes behave this way? Is it boring and repetitive the more you’re exposed to it? Yes. But I would also argue that that’s part of the point; the protagonists are given the liberty to be shocked, initially, and then disgusted, and finally just tired of the excess as we tire of it as well.
For me, its not an all time great series. But it asks the difficult questions in a narrative convention that remains difficult to square away. Questions about the duality of having a secret identity, questions about the motives of those around you, questions about deference to power structure that were around before us and will be around after us. Questions, even, about the simple economics of a superheroic world. Its also a book about how dirty you can get your hands without being tainted yourself; the greatest and truest line of dialogue in any comic book film is, “you either die a hero or live long enough to see yourself become the villain.” At every turn, Hughie has a choice as to whether to go deeper into the rabbit hole or turn around to preserve himself. He sees those around him as heroes, but the book even takes them apart to show us that nobody is that heroic.
And yet. It ends optimistically. I’m not sure there are many books that complete the circle as well as this one does.
I don’t know that it’s a bad book; the craft shines through too consistently for me to damn it. At worst, I would call it self indulgent. But it is so much better than that at its best.
If you’ve had the patience to read this, and the stomach to handle my own self indulgence, then you can probably give the first volume of the Boys a go and see for yourself.
Barbican Comic Forum
The Boys is super homophobic, and the half-added attempt to address this in the narrative falls extremely short. Discuss.
Weekend at Arnie’s
It’s been a while since I read it right the way through, but given the racism and sexism that crops up that wouldn’t surprise me. ‘Faggot’ seems to be Ennis’ second favourite word after ‘cunt’. Charitably, the Swingwing arc – a Very Special Episode about a gay panic murder – is well meaning but very dated; I don’t think you can even give him that when it comes to the way he portrays African Americans.
Peckham Library Graphic Novel Book Group
Barbican Comic Forum
I tend to view Garth Ennis as exhibit A in ‘why having limits in comics is actually a good thing’ as I found The Boys tedious to get through and I did read it all. Someone gave me the entire series of books so I had the whole thing to read gratis, if I’d had to pay for it I probably never would have gone more than a book or two.
As satire it’s not that great. A rapin’, murderin’, drug-takin’ Superman? Oh call the doctor I think I’ve split my sides from laughing. And speaking as someone who has read superhero stories for decades with no problem this all seems bizarrely… tired? At least when Alan Moore takes the piss out of the form it’s because he has vague ideas of going somewhere beyond, when Garth turns away from this it’s always to his homoerotic WW2 war stories from his childhood.
The high point of the series is the story Ennis always tells in each series he does, the going home story. With ‘Hellblazer’ it was Kit going back to Ireland, with ‘Hitman’ it was Tommy going back to Ireland, with ‘Preacher’ it was Jesse and Tulip being dragged back to his childhood community, give him Superman to write and at some point Krypton will be back and a community of super-rednecks. The Butcher story doesn’t break any new ground, for Ennis his fathers are always either absent or making you wish they were, but it’s competently written.
The problem is the cynicism is laid so thick that no other emotion really gets through. Hughie is the only character that isn’t a collection of worrying tropes in a suit but I don’t really care what happens to him, he’s a Doctor Who companion walking around having the plot explained to him, and not one of the good companions either, he’s Polly. Yeah, or Frobisher. Compare that to the issue of ‘Hitman’ where Tommy meets Superman.
If you want ‘The Boys’ done well, read ‘Hitman’.
Barbican Comic Forum
00000000 / Kraken
I wanna say thank you to Tam for pointing out The Boys / Pat Mills connection. I don’t think I’ve ever Invasion apart from the very first episode (in one of those replica versions of the very first 2000AD) but it makes total sense. I guess they just swapped out Bill Savage’s shotgun for Billy’s trusty crowbar…
(and how can you not love a comic where one of the main characters has a trusty crowbar?)
This would also explain the slightly strange / very cool bit where in his bid to rehabilitate The Female and bring her back to humanity – Frenchie gifts her several cardboard boxes worth of 2000AD (lol this sounds like something I’m making up and I can’t find a picture on the internet but I know it happened I swear!).
At the moment it happens it seems as if Ennis is saying that superheroes will mess you up with their Nationalism and Power Fantasies (just as a name you’ve got to admit that “Homelander” is pretty much perfect no?) and you’d be better off with English comics which are savvy enough to make sure that they’re ambivalent about the figures they look up to (cut to: an American looking at Judge Dredd and saying: “So is this guy the hero or what?”). But then seeing how Billy Butcher ends up it’s obviously not that simple…
I’m not sure if I agree that the series is flabby tho. I mean yeah ok maybe at the start it’s a little repetitive maybe? There’s two volumes in a row that climax with a whole bunch of superheroes all being killed at once. But I do think it’s all how it keeps on digging and digging into the world it’s created and it’s a beautiful series indeed that manages to have two separate climaxes both of which would have been more than enough by themselves (The White House and the Empire State building). It’s like if Star Wars ended with the destruction of the Death Star and then followed it up with Luke Skywalker facing off against Han Solo and chopping his head off. You know – there’s been a few books where people have complained that there’s “not enough story” well – The Boys has story to spare you know? Yes it takes it’s sweet time getting there – but the wait is worth it. I still remember the first time I read it and being dumb-founded that they kept pushing it so far… And every single page was me going “No way” and “No way” and “No way.” I guess that’s the fun of reading a series like this compared to Daredevil – there’s no real need to keep the universe and characters intact – so you can just detonate them one after another and watch them all fall down.
Also I’m not sure that I agree with the idea that The Boys is homophobic. But then I never really agree with any of the arguments that people make nowadays about this or that thing being misogynistic or racist or whatever (I’d agree with the idea that David Chapelle is transphobic tho – although he’s also a funny motherfucker and while some of the time those two things tend to cancel each other out – whoops – sometimes it doesn’t: please don’t cancel me). It’s possible that I might be missing something but I’m not actually sure what the argument that The Boys is homophobic actually is? Is it because of the stuff that Billy Butcher says (all the “faggots” and “poofs” etc) ? Or because wee Hughie is (for all of his progressive talk) uncomfortable around gay people? I mean – there’s also a bunch of other characters who are just portrayed as being complicated and messed up human beings (gay or otherwise) but maybe that’s not enough anymore? I don’t know.
I mean – I guess I can understand how people can fall into the “depiction equals endorsement” trap when the main characters are supposed to be the heroes of the thing (if Batman says it then it must be good right?) but seeing how Billy Butcher turns out to be the major bad guy of the whole seriesthen maybe that should tip you off that maybe you’re not supposed to agree with everything he says? I mean: children’s books are the ones that deal in those simplistic terms where you’re supposed to model your moral behavior over what Peppa the Pig does or doesn’t do – but most of us tend to grow out of that pretty quickly and hunger for something a bit more complex – no? The line “comics aren’t for kids” anymore is mostly used for books where it’s all sex and violence – but maybe what’s needed now are stories where it’s not just about having every minority represented in the most positive way possible because well yeah – that stuff will rot your brain. Or to go with what Alister said: yeah ok maybe The Boys is dated but maybe that says more about us than it does about The Boys.
Weekend at Arnie’s
I don’t know about that – The Boys isn’t a relic of the 90s, it came out in 2010s; I could have seen the Swingwing arc on SVU ten years before and it would already have felt old.
What I would say is that Ennis’ assumptions – or let’s call them choices – about the world say a lot more about Ennis than they do about the world. It reminds me a little of South Park or Family Guy, where it feels like there’s an assumption of a kind of baseline default bigotry that (and perhaps I’m being naive) strikes me as far more telling than accurate. Or to put it another way: when an author puts a slur on every page, when the characters are stereotypes to the point of having the Italian Americans be big fat Mafia thugs called ‘McGuinea’, it’s hard to escape the sense they might be getting off on it. I wouldn’t exactly call that stuff complex. Depiction may not equal endorsement, but the author has to make a choice to depict one thing and not another, so I think it’s valid to ask what and how and why when it comes to those depictions.
One point in The Boys’ defence is that I don’t think it matters that Homelander isn’t much like Superman. It might be a better comic if he wasn’t an unhinged serial killer, if he acted more like the canon Superman, but then you’re just reading Red Son. The ‘joke’ is not that Superman is secretly a fascist or Xavier is secretly a paedophile, but that anybody with so much power can be good. As I understand it, that is the essential fantasy of the superhero genre: not that a man can stop a speeding train, but that those whose power makes them untouchable might use that power for good. What The Boys at least tries to do is to apply a more cynical understanding of humanity to that fantasy and expose it as a dangerous shill for power, a myth to keep us hoping for the impossible. Of course someone with that much power is not going to give a shit about justice. Of course the gods are going to treat us like toilet paper. Whether that case is made successfully or whether you accept that premise in the first place is another matter, but Homelander being nothing like Superman doesn’t matter all that much.
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The Boys is on my ‘nope’ list, which means it doesn’t interest me at all. We had Marshall Law already. Garth Ennis lost track after Preacher, and he is the sign of the downfall of the Vertigo kind of comics that replaced intelligence with violence. The artwork is alright, but I have way to many things to read already. It’s interesting that people are starting to read this after the series (which I’ll probably watch), since this comic was on the sale shelf at Forbidden Comics in London for almost two years and no one bothered. I put this in the ‘nope’ sack, together with Crossed, and any other comic that think violence and sexism are fun (even as a satire). I get that ‘you need to taste it before criticizing it’, but I’ll act like a cat, just sniffing rotten food and not taking a bite.I don’t mean to offend anyone, and I appreciate all the reviews.
Barbican Comic Forum
To be clear, it’s homophobic because one of the main characters uses homophobic slurs, gets called out on it by the ‘nice’ character, brushes it off with sarcasm and that’s basically the extent of the critical discourse.
It’s homophobic because the view that ‘any straight bloke’ would ‘get a bit freaked out by what [gay men] do’ is treated entirely uncritically – voiced by said ‘nice’ character.
It’s homophobic because MM says ‘he used to have a serious problem with f*gs’ (funny, it’s hard to get ‘used to’ from that sentence). Then lists a whole bunch of things he no longer believes about gay people: ‘They were weak. They were disgusting. You hated the muthafuckas, or there mighta been something wrong with you, too.’ (‘something wrong’… great…) So, what does he think now? Something positive, presumably? He could list things. But the silence is deafening.
It’s homophobic because Swingwing confesses to the murder of Stephen, then really goes to town: slurs and HIV and everything else. Vile stuff. Gay panic defence bullshit, quite frankly. And what’s his punishment? Basically nothing. He’s got to provide The Boys with intelligence. (We only later realise that Butcher sabotages his jetpack, which does lead to his death.)
It’s homophobic The Divine and The Flamer are characterised more or less entirely in terms of their sexuality (if you can call anything as shallow as that characterisation).
Added to this, the fact that there’s a trans character who is more or less the stereotypical caricature of a man in a dress, the fact that bisexuality and homosexuality is treated the same way as animal abuse etc. as a sign of the supes’ moral depravity. (There’s other stuff here: drug use, BDSM, self-harm, having a threesome that gets chucked into the same bad stuff ‘blackmail material’ boat.)
It’s homophobic because LGBT+ characters in this series are a punchline. And not even a funny one.
And let’s not get started on the way women, ethnic minorities (especially black characters) and disabled characters are treated. So, yeah, depiction isn’t endorsement. Yes, most characters are defined very shallowly. And maybe the slurs and hate is just part of the world being shitty and horrible. But there’s never anything in the comic to address this more specifically. No line about how in another world, all this could be better.
So, yes, the blond-haired, blue-eyed white guy is evil, and so’s the VA suit and so’s Butcher, and maybe that’s punching up. But Ennis definitely punches down a heck of a lot too. It bothered me when I read it when it came out. It became unbearable when I reread it.
In much of his comics work over thirty years, Garth Ennis was a lazy homophobe with an unexamined litany of anti-gay jokes, that weren’t meant to be taken seriously because who could really be offended? It’s not as if he meant them, not really, it’s just that gay men are less than his idealised man, and gay women just hadn’t found the right dick. ‘I’m shagging a lesbian – do I win a prize’ etc. And that was the basis of many of Garth’s jokes.
At some point Garth got a little woke. He realised that no, not everyone found his jokes funny, some of them actually hurt people – and the kind of people who got upset weren’t the kind of people he wanted to get upset. He realised he was wrong and he had been wrong for some time. Not only that but some of his lazy assumptions weren’t excused by the fact that he admitted they were lazy ones.
He used the comic character Kev to try and portray his own journey in that respect over at DC/Wildstorm. Hopefully maybe bringing a few of his readers along the same journey with him. The Boys through its run reflects the effects of that rather small journey even if it doesn’t portray it as explicitly as Kev does.
Garth tells some stories of extraordinary heartbreaking and affecting human insight, combined with extreme gross-out humour. He may be comparable to Kevin Smith and Seth Rogen in that matter, who have also faced similar criticisms. Sometimes you get one without the other – weirdly Troubled Souls and Dicks are the extremes on the Garth Ennis spectrum despite featuring the same characters. Some of that grossness has survived, some of it has not, and that always involves who the target of the grossness is. Garth didn’t realise the difference for a very long time, and dismissed the concerns of those who did. And he is still wont to slip.
It is notable that the TV series has done a decent enough job at maintaining the irreverence and grossness of the original, which retains its visceral appeal.even as Karl Urban’s accent slips all over the Commonwealth, while avoiding much of Garth’s issues over the years.
But this was released 2006-12, right?
I’ve got very little interest in looking past his constant stream of slurs, because why the fuck should I? Why should anyone? When you quietly brush aside racism/sexism/homophobia/whatever to look for the ‘deeper meaning’, you’re condoning it.
“Still wont to slip”, oops, poor little Garth had an accident. He’s a fucking adult, he should control himself or shut up.
Barbican Comic Forum
00000000 / Kraken
Ha. I agree that the Swingwing arc is like something you’d seen on SVU or CSI or even Hill Street Blues or something like that… And yeah I get it that I’m going a little bit too far by calling the characters “complex” (I mean it’s not exactly Alan Moore is it?) but I guess it depends on where you’re standing – if you want to decry The Boys as being homophobic I think it makes sense to say that – well – there’s a big difference between characters saying homophobic stuff and a writer writing something homophobic. I mean the gay couple that Billy and Hughie meet just seem like well – a normal couple? That’s nothing especially to cheer about obviously (big whoop) but it does mean that you have to work harder to convince me that The Boys is a comic that hates gay people.
To be fair tho – The Boys is a comic where there are stereotypes on every page. But then part of me is like: well – isn’t that kinda what comics do you best? You only have a limited amount of space to make your point so I don’t really begrudge people using a shortcut. I mean Billy Butcher himself is probably the most ridiculously Englishly English English character that has ever existed. I mean I’ve lived in England my whole life and I’ve never met a more anyone more English than him.
And let’s not even get started on the issue where you find out Frenchie’s backstory… I mean: it’s kinda beyond bizarre no? Fighting each other on bicycles and holding with baguettes out like they’re swords. Like it kinda feels like it’s been written by someone with brain damage you know?
But that’s kinda the interesting thing: as I doubt that anyone has complained that The Boys is a comic that hates the French (altho the ammunition is there if you want it) but then of course isn’t it always the way: no one really thinks nowadays that the French are a persecuted group (just as long as you keep them away from The Ultimate’s version of Captain America of course). I mean the people in the world that I take the piss out of the most are my friends and the people I’m most polite with are the people that I can’t stand (or to put it another way: “Calling mates “cunts” and cunts “mate””). Is it possible that there’s a similar logic with the notion of offense in the stories we read? The French aren’t a protected group therefore anyone can say whatever jokes they want and it’s ok. Gay people are persecuted minority therefore all depictions of them need to properly proper and polite. But the question this brings to mind is: ok but then how do you ever manage to surmount that hurdle? If you have someone that you always have to be polite to – then how are you ever going to let them get close enough to become a friend? But ha: maybe that’s exactly the wrong question to ask: because maybe the point is not assimilation – maybe the actual point is this “othering” status forever and ever. I mean – if you want to put limits on things then how are you ever going to break free?
(Please don’t cancel me).
And also well yeah – still on the SVU trip. I mean – if we can agree that a certain type of story dates in a certain way it’ll be interesting to see how future generations look at the types of stories that we tell ourselves now. I mean I know that saying this kinda paints a big target on my back but it seems as if most mainstream stories nowadays when it comes to minority groups are just about empowerment and positivity which yeah ok makes sense and with the world on fire people need to feel good in whatever way they can but you know – I worry about the long term effects. If every story you read needs to come with a disclaimer about whether or not the things you’re seeing are “good” or “bad” or whatever – then you’re going to end up with a load of very simplistic storytelling that does nothing but reinforce the worldview of the people watching along at home. What does a generation of narcissists look like? Oh. Wait. Don’t answer that…
It even happens in The Boys TV show (yeah I watched it). Spoilers warning the last episode: but isn’t it really funny / interesting / kinda dumb that in a TV show based on a comic that’s all about the empty and potentially toxic nature of superhero fantasies they decided to end the first season with one of the main characters having a big moment where she literally comes to the rescue with the non-ironic line of “I’m a superhero”? I mean in terms of mixed messages it’s like watching something about the benefits of sexual chastity and then ending with a hardcore porn scene with everyone with their thumbs up.
LOL. I’ll leave it at that.
Barbican Comic Forum
Hey, lighten up Buttercup. I thought this was a trip!
I can understand if it’s not to someone’s personal taste, but if you’re trying to suggest that this is an inferior or perhaps even dangerous (?) text because of the opinions of the characters it portrays then you’re just plain wrong. We’ve come a long way since the 1930s. This, my friends, is a masterpiece of macho magnificence and I encourage those in the ‘nope’ camp to toughen up, take the plunge and wallow in all its dark and filthy goodness. I’ll let you into a secret… that won’t make you a bigot, even if you secretly smile on the inside.
The thirteen-year-old boy in me adored it. Admittedly the dad in me had to conceal it from my three-year-old son as I read, and I have been discovered red faced and tittering underneath the duvet most nights this week clutching a torch, but I think that was part of the thrill. Ennis goes for cheap, smutty, childish laughs and that’s OK by me. I’m not ashamed to admit I enjoyed it, in the same way I enjoy watching the latest Tarantino film, reruns of The Young Ones or reading the latest Irvin Welsh. It’s just pulp fiction and society needs that. It’s OK to read about bad things, that doesn’t make you condone them or want to do them; in fact I’d go so far as to encourage it – the problems start when it’s banned. So, before you go burning your well-thumbed copies of Watchmen (lest someone accuses you of condoning genocide), consider this: Shakespeare was written for the masses my friends and in the context of his time it was considered offensive to many. The point I’m trying to make here is that there is no high culture or popular culture, no “bad texts” and “good texts”, there is just culture. Reciting a dirty joke you saw written inside a toilet cubicle has as much cultural worth as quoting the Bard, regardless of whether you interpret that quote correctly or not.
It seems a shame to overanalyse this book; that feels like I’m doing it an injustice. It does raise some interesting questions I suppose: what’s if our heroes aren’t the real heroes? Why do we need heroes to be pure and infallible? Pretty bourgeois ideals, non? But it’s hardly new or ground-breaking as has been pointed out already. Does it have to be? Perhaps he is trying to deconstruct the superhero genre, and maybe he’s asking some interesting questions. I don’t really care. After reading this thread the more interesting question for me was why the hell does everyone find it so offensive?
OK, Billy swears a lot. That’s part of Ennis’ style and an essential part of his character. It’s hardly unrealistic: I know people who are like that, don’t you? And I think that Billy’s behaviour is exactly what makes him the perfect antidote for the concept of superheroism? This book just wouldn’t work without it. I didn’t feel the profanity was too excessive, but clearly others did and I’m not quite sure why: how many cunts is one cunt too many?
Is it homophobic? I don’t think so. You can’t assert that there are unflattering representations of any groups because nobody is portrayed well. Except maybe Terror: love that guy!
They’re all grotesque and, if he is trying to make one, maybe that’s Ennis’ point. My man Thomas Mann once said that the grotesque is the only genuine antibourgeois style. Perhaps Ennis is rebelling against the corporate hegemony that moronic superheroism tropes support. Jings! There I go overanalysing again: I knew I’d spoil it.
Listen, whether we admit it or not as readers (voyeurs) we tend to enjoy the grotesque, the absurd and the downright dirty. Ennis just gives the people what they want. I suppose if we really want to go there perhaps we could even say that the puerile can play a function in political commentary. But for me this is really just about cheap laughs and there’s nothing wrong with that. I don’t see why that should cause anyone distress. If you don’t want to read it don’t read it but don’t take offence and don’t fret the small stuff. As a wise man once said: life is but a walking shadow, a poor player that struts and frets his hour upon the stage. And then is heard no more.
Relish this for what it is: a cheap thrill. Now I’m off to ponder the subject further whilst sniggering over more dick jokes. Thank you Garth.
If you think I don’t like this book because it’s too sweary, I envy your innocence.
Have you ever been physically attacked on the street by strangers just for being who you are? Read jokes on toilet walls directed at you by someone you’ll never meet? When culture (including this) says ‘hey, this is what [group] are like’, people internalise that. When culture says ‘hey, [group] are fair targets’, people internalise that too. And people act on what they believe. One series doesn’t make much difference, but it does make some difference, and to be able to ignore that is a privilege that many people don’t have.
When you tell people to grow a pair, lighten up and ignore Ennis’ little foibles, you might want to consider that maybe their lives have made them more sensitive to some things, and not to dismiss their opinions as “just plain wrong”.
Barbican Comic Forum
Seconded. You put a word like f*ggot out there, it’s not just swearing. It’s targeted, even when Ennis (through Butcher) claims it isn’t, because it’s a word that hurts one group more than others. It’s the same with the racial slurs. As readers, we’re supposed to actually hate Stormfront when he talks about The Female*. I’ve had the word he uses used about me. Gay slurs too. And I don’t need it in my entertainment.
Not arguing for banning it, just arguing that if you’re going to write a book using these tropes, you should be called out for it. And if you think it’s all harmless fun, maybe listen to other people when they try to explain why they disagree instead of dismissing their opinions out of hand?
*Gods, how is this her actual name? Is Ennis part Ferenghi?
Instagram / budaboyhq
As a member of the newly founded ‘Nope Squad’, I just want to add that maybe this kind of joke targeting ‘minorities’ needs to be handled with great care, specially nowadays with so much hate coming from politicians and alt-right people and such (an Avengers comic with two gay characters kissing was CENSORED in Brazil this week, for instance). If your ‘inner child’ thought it was fun, I daresay that maybe we have different kinds of upbringing, and I agree that this book might not please everyone.
However, I feel that Ennis sometimes duels too long in his sadistic visions, offering very little in return. It’s not like, say, Tarantino, who is controversial and pretty hard to swallow, but I felt transformed somehow by his most offensive movie (in my opinion), Django Unchainned. Or the violence in ‘Lobo is Back’, or even South Park. The thing is not the violence itself, but the way Ennis portrays is feels sometimes he’s enjoying it, and whoever is more sensitive to the targeted agression cannot help but feel disgusted. It’s comfortable to laugh and to enjoy this kind of violence, but when the target is YOU, then things aren’t so funny anymore.
But who am I to say anything? I’ve just ‘noped’ this book from my reading list anyway.
Barbican Comic Forum
00000000 / Kraken
Ah. Ok. Well – it seems as if passions are high and the blood is up. I’ve no wish to escalate the situation (especially after the experience of us all talking about The Walking Dead = ouch). And yeah I was just going to keep my mouth shut because it kinda feels like it’s a situation where it’s a little George Bush style “You’re either with us, or against us” and frankly that’s kinda absolutism always seems a little bit… strange to me. My brain never really thinks that things are only one thing. Maybe that’s more my issue tho lol.So yeah – me writing stuff seems like it’ll probably be a bad idea. So instead I just wanted to share this article I found in my forest of open tabs (even looking at them makes me feel dizzy) which basically sums up everything I could ever want to say. (Oh wow – maybe we’re all just having the same conversation over and over again?).
It’s called I Don’t Wanna Grow Up (And Neither Can You) and it’s written by Gretchen Felker-Martin.
But what’s left in art once you scour away the things that make you uncomfortable? What’s left for the people who make their living and/or maintain their sanity by approaching our own suffering from a place of skill, assurance, and safety? What’s left for readers and viewers trying to grow as people, to find empathy for those they’ve been taught to despise, to understand their own sexual shame and fear? What’s left for people struggling with the isolation of abuse who have no support and no words to help them name it? Art is the lifeblood of human connection and introspection. It is the foremost way in which we can confront our own weaknesses and failings. Sanitized and focused solely on the comfort and entertainment of its audience, it’s no more meaningful than a halfhearted handjob from an indifferent lover.
What’s interesting of course is that Gretchen is mostly taking about art made by minorities and art as a type of therapy and it’s possible that if you asked her that she’d say that The Boys exists outside of that circle. I’m guessing that all of us probably think that Garth Ennis has had a pretty lucky life right? Straight western white male and all the rest of it – yeah? But I don’t know. That seems pretty presumptuous to me. You never know what secret battles people are fighting. You don’t know what they’ve been through. What trauma they’ve suffered. What they still might be suffering now. So yeah I don’t want to point fingers or run the risk of making people feel bad. My hope is that this stupid little online book club thing can be a place where different people can share their thoughts and feelings and ideas about how they see the world and that maybe (ha) the internet can be used as a good thing for once (stranger things have happened right?).
But maybe that’s not possible? I don’t know.
Maybe we should just all try to be nice to each other? And try our best to understand each other too. And especially try to be nice and understanding when (for whatever reasons) people don’t extend that kindness to us?
And if that doesn’t work…
It’s just comic books right?
This has been a really interesting thread. For the record, I’m three volumes into The Boys and I’m really enjoying it – homophobic / racist / sexist / classist / elitist / misogynist / toxic-ly masculine depictions and all.
The thing is, those of us who can enjoy art like this, art that offends so many others, we would probably do well to recognise how valuable the expressed outrage of others really is.
In primate cultures, there is a spectrum of sensitivity to injustice/prejudice/inequity. Among those more sensitive to these things there is always a subset who are willing to speak out. In our culture, these are the people who actually go over to the able bodied 20 year old sitting in the priority seats on the tube and tell him to give his seat to the pregnant lady he’s currently ignoring.
These individuals who speak out serve a vital function in primate societies (and I say ‘primate societies’ because these phenomena have been observed not only in humans but in chimpanzees, bonobos and macaques too). They literally keep the peace. When you remove them from a community, the remaining population will experience a decrease in cooperation, a rise in factioning, and an overall increase in hositilities. Quite directly, the people who speak up when they see injustice make society safer and more peaceful for all of us.
Now, I don’t want to be considered a homophobe just because I like The Boys, nor do I believe that reading a book like The Boys is going to turn anyone into a homophobe, but I’m still glad when people call it out when they see prejudice, even if I myself don’t share their views, because I know that all of society benefit from their efforts.
Barbican Comic Forum
I’m sure you didn’t intend this, but I’m not exactly thrilled about being compared to a primate. Just saying.
You are technically correct, the BEST kind of correct. I certainly did not mean any offence 🙂
Slightly embarrassingly I can’t actually tell if your response was meant as a joke? I mean, you ARE a primate. And the point of citing studies in lower order primates was simply to point out that most aspects of moral judgement are turning out to be a hell of a lot more influenced by instinct than cognition (sorry philosophers).
Er, you do realise you ARE a primate?
Barbican Comic Forum
00000000 / Kraken
I appreciate the sentiment but I’m as skeptical as a motherfucker when it comes to the formulation – “the people who speak up when they see injustice make society safer and more peaceful for all of us.” I mean yeah ok this is such a typical philosopher thing to say maybe – but how exactly are you defining “injustice” here? Like there’s Fredric Wertham back in 1950s banning certain types of comics because he thought that there were corrupting the innocent. I bet if you asked him he’d say he was making society safer and more peaceful for the rest of us. Trouble is the people who opposed him would probably say exactly the same thing (uh oh).
It’s almost as if there’s no objective scientific viewpoint and everything only makes sense from inside a particular ideology.
(Who would have thunk it?)
Barbican Comic Forum
Yeah, so, I guess there is apparently?? some confusion about why a person (esp. a person of colour) isn’t totally down for being compared to chimpanzees, bonobos and macaques. But, yes, technically that is true. Good work, guys. But an appeal to nature is a racist view. It has always been racist. Please be better, friends.
Weekend at Arnie’s
Where are these phantom voices calling for The Boys to be pulped? Where are the goons with crowbars itching to smash up poor Garth Ennis’ printing press?
The problem with Felker-Martin’s argument is that it’s a phoney war. It’s telling to my mind that the only concrete example she cites of a censorious group is noted far left outfit the Westboro Baptist Church, and the only example of ‘cancel culture’ is related in the vaguest terms. It has never been at all clear to me why we should assume that the audience that goes wild for bland, safe corporate art like the Marvel films is one and the same as critics from the left who talk about bigotry and reactionary elements in our media; nor is it remotely obvious that even the harshest criticism of those things is equivalent to right-wing attempts to actually shut down and ban certain artists. Perhaps it’s too easy to mistake “I think this is bullshit and I want no part of it” as “I think you personally are garbage for reading this”. The latter sentiment might be common enough on Twitter, but I’m not convinced it’s a clear and present danger to free expression.
You can think something is shitty without wanting it censored – I think the vast majority of ‘the left’ would agree that censorship is more harmful than the things censored are. A lot of people who create ‘mature’ art don’t seem to accept that freedom of expression cuts both ways – if people can publish freely, they have to tolerate equally free reactions to their work.
Instagram / budaboyhq
Censorship, never, the comic is just not for me, and anyone is free to read what they want, with no judgements at all.
And it’s not for me at this moment, it doesn’t mean I won’t read it in the future- being able to appreciate other people’s articles is being one of the things that I’m liking most in this group, and this kind of dedication to sit down and write about a comic is quite admirable.
To answer your question, what is considered unjust will vary to a small extent between groups, but the foundation of the judgement across all species tends to be any behaviour which confers an unfair advantage on one member of the group over another. And I definitely agree with others here who have made clear we’re not talking about advocating censorship (hence invoking Wertham seems like a false equivalence), simply trying to acknowledge the value of the thorough and honest public discourse, and how it benefits us all even if we’re the one being attacked at any given moment.There is a somewhat unknown component of the Monkey Fairness Experiment (I’m talking about honest to god monkeys here, cute ones, Capuchins 🙂 ). Most of us have seen the monkey being given the cucumber express his outrage and not being given a grape like his mate, given they did the same work. I’m not sure why but what is rarely shown is that after only a couple of unfair rewardings of the partner, the monkey being given the grape will generally refuse the reward until his partner is given a grape as well. We (and probably Garth Ennis too) are more instinctively inclined to subvert injustice than to condone it.
OH DEAR GOD WHY Presentations
Twitter / Barbican Comic Forum
I wrote maybe 5 paragraphs on offensiveness and whether The Boys is offensive and then decided I signed up to this thing to talk about comics, so here’s this thing and all of the above by everyone is correct (especially YOU. Well done YOU):
I haven’t read through The Boys in a long time – not since the original run wrapped up many a moon ago. Alot of the detail, most of it, in fact, has fled my numb skull. But I will never forget the first time I read The Boys. It felt so fearless, so surprising, so transgressive (for good or ill), a story where all polite mores meant nothing in a world defined by cruelty and passive systems that would crush anything that stood in the way of shareholder growth.
There are things that stand out – the messy corporate satire, the brutal yet warmly familiar art (by both artists), the thrill of the dialogue (immoral or not) and the vicious brilliance of The Boys closing acts.
The Boys is basically the Fight Club of comics.
Thrilling not just in terms of its brilliantly, monstrously exciting plot, but in the sense that its Halliburton-Justice League satire felt like a secret smarter than everyone way of thinking. Much the way Fight Club and its “never going to be rockstars” speeches oft made you feel like you were in on a clever joke no one else was in on.
Basically – they both thrill the 15 year old in me who wore a Punisher t-shirt all the damn time. And that might be why it’s called The Boys. A group of insular man children who can’t fit in with the world and attempts to resolve that conflict by killing and fighting and harming and not seeing therapists. Did Hughie or Butcher ever talk through their trauma? Nah – they blew up national buildings and killed beloved icons. Those buildings and icons may have been toxic and needed taking down, but the act of aggression against them was too (and for those that finish the entire series – Ennis hardwires this idea, this moral conundrum to the point that it overpowers every other thread in the story – to unforgettably powerful effect).
And The Boys is from memory – insensitive and cruel to everyone and anything. It treats dogs like sex objects, fridges women, trades in darker than bleak sexual content and insists that a white man in a position of power is axiomatically a psychopath who must and will be put down in one way or another.It’s bleak and it’s black and it’s cruel and it’s vindictive – and that’s kind of it’s point. It’s a horrible world built on a system that feeds on horrific abuses of power and we’re part of that. It’s why it takes a big preachy (and horrific) sojourn into the history of caped crusaders in ww2. It’s why every relationship in its 60 issue span implodes in a mist of malevolence or tragedy.
Of course, that doesn’t mitigate or nullify it’s casual deployment of language that has historically been used to oppress and harm marginalised groups. I say this to contextualise The Boys rather than outright attempt to absolve it of responsibility. It’s not so much an act of cruelty against anyone as it is an act of cruelty against everyone. That will still hurt some more than others because art does not exist in a vacuum – but I would suggest that when you talk about the hurtful things The Boys does, it’s not about actively trying to perpetuate harmful acts against you, rather, when Billy Butcher looks up at the sky and says “I’m gonna fuckin have you, you cunt” – he’s talking about the world, not just Homelander (though he hates him too).
It’s fair to be angry at Ennis for trying to set you on fire, just know, he tried to set the building and everyone in it on fire too.
Barbican Comic Forum
00000000 / Kraken
I’d like to underline Amir’s last line in red pen three times and maybe add a “hell yeah” after and then – of course – set it on fire.I doubt many other people will see it this way – but I kinda feel like the big issue here is the conflict is between simplicity and complexity. The appeal of superheroes being (amongst other things) a place where everything is as simple as possible. The heroes and bad guys are clearly defined. There’s bright colours for the heroes and dark ones for the villains. Every story gets wrapped up neatly with a nice sense of closure and completeness. And everything is in it’s right place. etc.
Reckon that’s why Garth Ennis hates them so much.
I think I’ve already said that The Boys isn’t that complicated. It’s mostly a comic that’s sold on the thrill of excessive violence and swearing etc. But it’s more complicated than the vast majority of your typical superhero thing. Imagine reading a Batman book where you slowly started to realise that the real problem was Batman. I mean – it would make sense but there’s no way that DC would publish it.
But then I wanted to write a few things about The Censorship thing aka “Where are these phantom voices calling for The Boys to be pulped?” Which I feel like is another simplicity. I don’t really feel like the issue here is censorship or people pulping books or whatever. That’s silly. (Although wait didn’t someone in this very thread say something about how “this is why you need limits in comics?” hmmm. Oh well). You don’t need to pulp books or do anything as extreme as that. And really it’s all a lot more insidious. You just create a climate where people see that it’s not worth sticking their necks out because who really wants the hassle? If you’re from a certain segment of society and have been defined in a certain way then you look around at The Discourse and see that it’s probably best to stick in your lane in case you get accused of “cultural appropriation” or some such nonsense. (Just for the record I think that all culture is cultural appropriation – that’s how culture works you dullards). And yeah obviously you don’t need to censor a book to have an effect. I mean a few decades ago if you accused a work of being homophobic or racist then most people would probably just shrug. Thankfully we’ve got to the point where social progress has advanced to the point that people take those kind of things a lot more seriously now (which is good) but one of the unintended effects of that is that it gives the words an awful lot of power… And what was it that Billy Butcher said about power?
And the thing that I find very interesting about the whole people who “who talk about bigotry and reactionary elements in our media” (Felker-Martin calls them the left but I’d disagree with her about that – I think it’s actually more radlib or Tumblr Left but whatever) is that in terms of actual insight criticism it – isn’t very good? It’s the simplicity thing again: it’s about looking at the surface levels of something and then smashing a big red stamp on to saying “RACIST” or “HOMOPHOBIC” or whatever. I mean – if you’re into that kinda stuff then ok but as criticism goes it’s not particularly insightful or thought-provoking as really it doesn’t really go much further than saying “GOOD” or “BAD” and I can’t stop feeling that yeah – the only winners of that type of thing is Disney who keep churning out the same mass-produced safe focus-grouped corporate art that manages to tick every box of representation and good liberal attitudes but that slowly suffocates any real critical thinking about the world.
Something something Vampire Castle.
And well yeah – I don’t think The Boys is homophobic. At all.
I mean in terms of the charges mounted against it – it mostly just comes to “people say faggot and nobody says anything” and/or “characters act in a homophobic way or say homophobic things and nobody says anything.” I mean – I get that maybe it’s a bit much to call The Boys “art” – but seriously guys: this is how art used to work. It would present you with strange new circumstances that you’d never thought of before and it wouldn’t say anything so that you knew how to react. When Macbeth goes around killing people Shakespeare doesn’t include a character that says “this is bad.” When Winston Smith sells out Julia to avoid the rats George Orwell doesn’t tell you what you should think. When Johnny Cash shoots a man in Reno just to watch him die the next line he sings is not “and of course I don’t agree with that sentiment at all.” Because – fuck it – the thing leaves you enough space to make up your mind. When Wee Hughie gets freaked out by what gay people do you don’t need an author’s voice popping up in the corner of the page saying “by the way kids – Hughie is being a little bit of a hypocrite right now isn’t he? Isn’t it interesting how he protested to Butcher so much about not using the wrong words but he also has issues himself? Hmmm. Maybe no-one is perfect? Maybe everyone has retrograde attitudes that they should examine? Maybe we’re all just humans doing our thing and everyone is a little bit messed up? You didn’t think that before did you?”
Oh no actually wait – it’d be better just to stamp the whole thing with the big red “HOMOPHOBIC” stamp and move on.
And yeah – I can’t help but think that this way of thinking about the world is a prison. If you can only understand things in terms of these simplistic binaries where something is either Pro-Gay or Homophobic or whatever then it’s going to end up colouring your thinking to such an extent that you can’t think about things in any way else. I mean I realise that this might be a bit of a low blow but in terms of the conversation on this thread – for the most part the people who’ve been talking about the homophobic stuff have been the people who’ve actually engaged the least with the text and whose readings have been the least interesting and/or insightful. But then it’s a bit of vicious circle isn’t it? If you think something is Bad then why should you interact with it? But then if you don’t interact with it how are you ever going to realise that maybe it’s not actually as Bad as you think it is? Yeah ok maybe it’s full of sound and fury – but maybe it’s actually signifying quite a lot?
And also yeah – as an aside – when I did A-Level Media Studies one of the first things we did was learning about something called “The Hypodermic Needle Model” that basically said the message of a text is directly believed by the person who experiences it. That a book or a film or whatever is like a giant hypodermic needle that injects the intentions of the author directly into people’s brains. And yeah it’s something that a lot of people still believe it seems and really the only real problem with the idea is that it’s completely fucking ridiculous. Or in other words I don’t think people are racist or homophobic or whatever because of the things they watch or the media they consume (if only it was that simple). But yeah – the truth is more complex and if you really want to change the world and make it a better place then you probably need to change the structure of society rather than just… putting limits of comic books or whatever. I mean the idea that you could make a nicer society just by making nicer books and films is a lovely idea but I think it’s probably ultimately a ruse by Capitalism to make us all get Disney+ or whatever.
But again – it’s the simplicity versus complexity thing. Only well – grafting on some politics as well: where do you think your ideas are coming from? I mean: if you’re thinking in this GOOD/BAD kinda way then the mainstream is going to support you. If you want to decry something as being HOMOPHOBIC or whatever then I don’t really think you’re in the minority. There’s a lot of institutional support for that type of thinking and all the big media corporations are falling over themselves to be as unproblematic as possible. So yeah I guess it find it hard to see this in terms of “a subset who are willing to speak out” when looking over the media landscape it looks like the power is on your side?
But then again: maybe we’re looking in different directions? I don’t know.
This thread has been interesting that’s for sure. And I appreciate everyone who took the time to write something and chip in their thoughts and I hope that everyone has learned something? (That’s the hope anyway). What’s the Mark Fisher line?
“We need to learn, or re-learn, how to build comradeship and solidarity instead of doing capital’s work for it by condemning and abusing each other. This doesn’t mean, of course, that we must always agree – on the contrary, we must create conditions where disagreement can take place without fear of exclusion and excommunication.”
Weekend at Arnie’s
“It’s about simplicity vs complexity”
“Modern criticism is about stamping a big label on things you don’t like”
I’m pretty far from The Boys now, but because I have brain worms too:
Orwell and Johnny Cash absolutely tell you what you should think. Most authors do. They just do it with some finesse (incidentally, Shakespeare includes several characters who tell you explicitly “this is bad” – it’s kind of his thing).
I can see where you’re coming from, I really can, but if we’re going to have disagreements in the spirit of comradeship I do wish you would give your opponents a little credit. If it’s not actual censorship, well, it’s almost censorship. If you aren’t willing to chew through something you don’t like, you’re stuck in your little bubble. If you think something’s racist, well, you’ve obviously confused art for brainwashing and you want to shut everything down that isn’t safe… does that seem like a complex argument to you?
Maybe that’s not what you mean at all. I don’t, as you say, have a direct injection of your intent. But look: every philosophy, every angle, every critical turn has a cordon sanitaire of idiots who will apply it in the most simplistic way. There are also critics writing nuanced, interesting work about topics like cultural appropriation, about identity, about representation, about how sensitive issues are handled – whether or not you agree with them – and I think it does that work a huge disservice to write off the whole tendency as people with big rubber stamps saying GOOD or BAD. They don’t have institutional power on their side any more than anarchists have the Democratic party – they just sometimes overlap.
I said the pulping line because this issue of censorship is always hovering around when we talk about this stuff, often with this implication that, ooh, isn’t shouting at people on the internet a bit like censorship, and I think it’s worth asking what exactly we’re talking about. Okay, even if we take the most simplistic version – the Big Bad Stamp – maybe it’s not actual censorship, but it creates “a climate where people see that it’s not worth sticking their necks out”. Except… does it? Plenty of successful artists seem totally happy sharing their bad takes, and it doesn’t seem to have put much of a dent in their careers. Well, maybe it’s fine for the big names, but artists just coming up have to tread carefully… I could maybe believe that, but good luck proving it one way or the other. My feeling is this: art takes courage. Even if you really believe that what you’re making is good and right and true, that your art is complex and nuanced rather than clumsy, I don’t think society can really do much more for you than give you the space to try it out. The flipside is that if you fuck up, people will tell you, and if they think you fuck up, people will tell you, because fucking up is largely an eye-of-the-beholder type deal, and part of getting your voice heard is that people won’t always hear what you want. If you want to make art that isn’t “safe” – and there will always be a “safe”, on Urras or Anarres – I think you have to accept the risk of a little controversy. Or can culture insidiously spread ideas when we’re talking about censorship, but not when we’re talking about, say, racism?
It doesn’t require the author to explicitly say “bigotry is bad” or “stereotypes are good!” to pick something up from the text. Johnny Cash can tell you he shot a man in Reno, just to watch him die, and Folsom Prison Blues is not so complex that we can’t figure out how he feels about men, Reno, and shootings therein in this context. But it cuts both ways. If we can grasp nuance to an author’s benefit, we can also read less flattering implications between the lines.
Barbican Comic Forum
Joel, I don’t know how much you’re playing devil’s advocate here, so I’m going to try to ignore what I think is just bait and talk about the things in The Boys that are interesting (just in case anyone thinks I haven’t read it closely enough).
- Butcher’s relationship with his dad. Critical that the cycle of abuse flows down to his brother. Not enough comics cover this kind of thing. Also the point that his dad is absolutely right about wanting to fight him in his prime. This frustration is such a huge part of Butcher’s character. He always wants to be the biggest, alphaest male, but, unlike his dad and The Homelander, he has to be smart and cunning, not just strong.
- The other big thing is losing Becky. That’s obviously when his light goes out. It’s clear he sees Hughie in the same position as him, but without the abusive father, Hughie’s just hurt and in pain and vulnerable. Butcher exploits that, but I don’t think it’s malicious. I think he wants a mate.
- Hughie learning that you can never go home again. Although it was rather later on, on rereading I found myself comparing this with The World’s End. Not sure if that’s just the Simon Pegg link. Definitely a bit of a Local Hero vibe too. Not original, but nice to see Ennis writing something about the UK, instead of exploring what makes America tick (c.f. Preacher, obvs.). It’d have been really interesting to have Hughie as a Northern Irish character, actually – split between two worlds, carrying the legacy of colonialism along with a British identity.
- Hughie’s undercover times with G-Wiz and Superduper. Obviously, we know about Starlight, but the idea that not all supes are evil does challenge the ‘absolute power corrupts absolutely’ message (or, I guess, the Butcher quote in Joel’s post) of the series. Undermined by what The Boys become and the fact that the two teams are a bit lame. Queen Maeve is an even more interesting character – I’d say the most conflicted in the whole series.
- Military-industrial complex vs. military-industrial complex, but with superheroes. “Both sides are as bad as each other” is hardly a new message, but this is an interesting commentary on the role of Blackwater and other “security companies” in Iraq vs the US military.
- The relationship between Butcher and Director Rayner. Hatefucking needs more screen time.
- La Plume De Ma Tante Est Sur La Table. Best. Superhero. Origin. Ever. I look forward to seeing baguette jousting in the 2024 Olympics.
On consequences: Macbeth dies because of his tragic flaw of ambition (zomg, classic hamartia, amirite?). Winston ends Nineteen Eighty-Four literally brainwashed. The narrator of Folsom Prison Blues is – you guessed it – in prison and is tormented by the sound of the train carrying non-imprisoned people. The fightier members of The Boys die. Homelander dies. Black Noir dies. Maeve and nearly every other supe die. The VA suit sociopath finally shows some emotion when he realises supes are a bad product. Butcher get his way in the end, even if he has to use that cunning of his to provoke it. Hughie loses everything but the girl, and gets the chance to start over. Maybe that’s a commentary about how no-one is perfect etc. Maybe not.
Maybe a full-on No Country For Old Men ending would’ve been better. I personally think The Boys should’ve gone full Hamlet.
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