Sometimes a series deserves a second look. Such is the case with The Boys, a title that I initially read for the first dozen or so issues, but gave up on reading because I found Garth Ennis’s “mature” superhero tales to be anything but.
The early issues of the series were too preoccupied with attempting to shock the reader through puerile humour and extreme sex and violence–but upon checking out this latest collection (which comprises issues #39-47 of the main series), I was surprised to see that Ennis had built on these unsubtle foundations to create an unexpectedly layered and complex web of interesting storylines.
The most interesting element of the book is the blossoming relationship between Hughie–the reader’s “gateway” character, who provides a grounded viewpoint on the anti-superhero activities of the titular group–and Starlight, one of the few superheroes in the world of The Boys to possess a genuine sense of idealism and a desire to use her superhuman powers for good.
Although occasionally a little contrived, the developments that see the two characters begin to find out more about each other’s “day jobs” are very compelling, and they drive the book forward even when the more action-oriented plotlines fall a little flat (such as Hughie being sent to keep tabs on a Teen Titans/Legion of Superheroes-esque group of “challenged” teen superheroes).
In particular, a reference back to Starlight’s initiation into the top superhero team known as “The Seven” (a scene that stood out as one of the more off-puttingly gratuitous elements of the series’ early issues, essentially amounting to gang-rape) helps to redeem that unpleasant plot point by treating it with a sense of seriousness and realism that was lacking the first time around. Hughie’s discovery of Starlight’s secret plays out in a manner that feels realistic and almost underplayed, but it’s no less uncomfortable and heartbreaking because of that. In fact, it’s far more effective this way than it would have been if Ennis had made his reaction more extreme and explosive.
The writer might occasionally over-egg the pudding (for example, by conspicuously and clunkily setting up Hughie’s extreme distaste for the idea of sex between a woman and multiple male partners), but the relationship drama of Hughie and Starlight is well-written enough (for the most part) that the book would be interesting even without the contemptuous superhero mockery that has always been the series’ backbone.
Other characters receive a little bit of attention here and there–such as the Butcher’s relationship with “Mother’s Milk”–but this collection mostly focuses on Hughie and Starlight, and it is all the stronger for it. Some of the more political plot points might go over my head as somebody who has missed out on thirty or so issues of story, and some of the superhero parodies feel a little too obvious and unoriginal to count as truly inspired or insightful, but the relationship drama is strong enough to make up for these weaknesses.
The artwork is also fairly solid throughout, with such artists as Russ Braun and John McCrea stepping in to fill-in for regular series artist Darick Robertson in places. They manage to keep their style similar enough to Robertson’s art that the transition never feels jarring–retaining a certain cartoonish sensibility that helps to soften the edges of some of Ennis’s nastier plot points without ever feeling as though the artists are shying away from depicting the sometimes-unpleasant story elements that the script calls for.
As somebody who had written off The Boys as a one-trick pony that was so keen to focus on shock value that it had forgotten to tell a good story, I was pleasantly surprised to find that the book has matured into a more sophisticated title than its first year of stories suggested. Even without having read a good chunk of the series, the characters are interesting and distinctive and the plotting is tight and entertaining.
I could still do without some of Ennis’s more “extreme” indulgences, but I guess that without pushing the boundaries of taste and decency, The Boys wouldn’t be The Boys. At least Ennis and his artists have managed to prove with this collection that there’s more to the book than spandex-clad sex and violence.
The Boys: Innocents is available from Titan Books in the UK and Dynamite in the US.