“Proper Preparation and Planning” Part 3
What happened to the last version of the Boys, and how was Lamplighter involved? It’s pretty much as readers have surmised, but it’s still interesting to watch it play out–especially when Queen Maeve requests an audience.
For the bulk of his career (if not all of it), Garth Ennis has focused on characters, nearly always men, who have become so hellbent on revenge that it dominates all aspects of their lives. Ennis’s most famous and important work even concerns a man who literally takes on God. His second most important work is his turn at the helm of Marvel’s Punisher, which he began with a little-loved one-shot that demands re-examination now that we’re at issue 50 of The Boys.
There is a scene in The Punisher Kills the Marvel Universe that Ennis concocted as a way to make Frank Castle’s origin all the more . . . ahem . . . extreme.
In it, Castle’s infamous origin in Central Park was not the result of getting caught in the crossfire of a Mafia battle; instead, in the midst of whatever interstellar excursion the world’s heroes were involved in at the time, Castle’s immediate reaction is to gun down the nearest hero. The plot moves forward from there.
The Boys is that pitiful one-shot expanded and improved, but it still has more than just a slight resemblance to its ancestor. In one corner we have Hughie, a victim like Frank Castle who didn’t pull the trigger and who doesn’t possess the traits of a psychotic. Instead, he merely grieves; in the other corner we have Butcher, who actually looks like a British Frank Castle and seems to have spent his entire life hoping for the opportunity to get a second chance to pull that trigger right after tragedy struck.
Yes, they have support characters who are all variations of certain clichés (the purposefully stereotypical Frenchman, the outwardly-meek-but-inwardly-demonic Asian girl, the mama’s boy black man), but Ennis’s real concern is the nature of revenge. And make no mistake, Ennis knows that ground well and gives it the pro effort–particularly in this issue where the divide between Mallory’s hollowed man persona and Butcher’s narrow focus come to loggerheads.
Just what, pray tell, is the point, though?
If the point is to learn that Ennis thinks superheroics are stupid, mindless glorifications of American values, don’t we have Hitman for that?
If the point is that Butcher has had to become a monster in order to take down the monsters who are destroying the world, isn’t that what Punisher was for?
This far into the series it’s clear that all we’re really observing is a well-oiled-but-soulless machine. I maintain that Russ Braun’s pencils are a vast improvement over the poor performance Darick Robertson was offering up near the end of his tenure when it seemed he was running on empty, and the book is certainly expertly paced and plotted. Yet, how do you get past the fact that this is just Ennis doing a very Ennis thing?
Like every Rolling Stones album after Some Girls or every Pacino performance after Glengarry Glen Ross, The Boys is so obviously Ennis, so characteristic of so many other creations of his, that it looks and feels like an automated function. It may work in its way, and it may get the job done, but it’s completely lacking in spirit and vitality; it’s robbed of what made us so excited about the man in the first place.
At some point, Ennis is going to become his creation. His pet subject of revenge is going to consume him and there will be no other colors in his palette. I’d personally rather get off the ride before then.
I picked up The Boys #50 with the vague hope that the issue would be some sort of anniversary event. I know it was a bit odd to expect that sort of thing from Garth Ennis, who’s never really gone in for that kind of traditional Marvel-styled sentimental anniversary navel-gazing, but I thought he might do something in issue 50 that would really illuminate the series as a whole.
However, what Ennis does in this comic is far more interesting and far more true to thr series–and to his typical way of looking at comics–than a plain-old anniversary celebration.
The Boys #50 is the concluding chapter of a three-part story called “Proper Preparation and Planning.” Anyone who’s ever read this series can appreciate that the title of the story is meant with a heavy dose of irony and cynicism. A whole lot of bad shit has gone down in this arc (some of it intended and some of it unintentional) as part of a horrific conspiracy from the sinister Vought Corporation.
As the Wonder Woman analogue in this issue points out, the world has suddenly changed. It’s become even darker and more evil than ever before, “and now when you pop up and throw this in our faces, and it feels like we’re never going to hit bottom–!”
However, our heroes do get some sense of closure this issue. The status quo of the book dramatically shifts as a result of the horrors that everyone has experienced–and there are small reasons to feel optimistic that things can get better as the issue concludes. Isn’t that just the way with Garth Ennis comics?
We always seem to be brought to the edge of pure hell, of having the worst evils of the world visited upon our protagonists, and then . . . just as we’re about to despair of Billy Butcher ever finding a little bit of redemption we have reasons to hope he will come out on top.
Hope is always a small green shoot in the midst of an enormous pile of shit (or shite if you prefer), but it is always present. Our heroes may stand in pools of blood from dead soldiers, but soon after they will be walking the streets of Washington and pursuing their redemption. Shoes once immersed in blood are soon walking on marble.
That archetype in Ennis’s writing is on full display in this comic, and it is what makes an appropriate anniversary issue. Ennis’s heroes are tough men and women immersed in a dark and horrific world of torture, murder, and horrible conspiracies. Yet, there is always that small shred of redemption that they can hang onto.
There is some vast inner strength, an amazing emotional toughness that slows Ennis’s heroes to somehow stay true to their personal ambitions while confronting events that bring down greater people than them.
And that’s why I keep coming back to Ennis. If it were all despair and misery, his books would be painful to read. However, there is a fire to his characters, an amazing internal strength that they carry despite the horrors they are forced to experience that make them really hero
So The Boys #50 is, in some ways, a perfect anniversary issue because it illuminates some of the most important themes that Ennis loves to explore. This issue might have made a little more sense for me in the context of the whole story, but it still works great as a standalone story.
What’s Been Happening: The horrors of the Seven continue to unfold. After last issue’s summit and truce between them and the Boys (a negotiated cease fire due to no one’s willingness to endanger their expensive assets, distasteful as it was to all involved), Lamplighter flew off the handle and killed General Mallory’s granddaughters. He failed to get permission first.
So it’s time for another negotiation (it’s only two lives, after all), another ceasefire, more shows of force, more casualties, and more threats from all around–which is all to be expected, and it all plays out much as has been imagined over 49 issues of hints concerning just how bad it all got before Wee Hughie stepped up.
Everything before has been from Hughie’s perspective (as in his horrible protracted interaction with what was left of Lamplighter after the Boys got their piece of him), but now he’s away in the Highlands, and we have some more direct insider narration to rely on at last. It’s not pretty, but it is brutal and sharp and well-told.
The centerpiece of this issue is a visit from Queen Maeve, a powwow she consents to in the Legend’s dingy comic book storehouse basement. Braun does excellent work with every sullen expression, every guilty gesture, every protective or defensive pose in her body language as she explains to Butcher and Mallory just how horrendous the 9/11 fiasco really was.
We’ve known for a while that she was their inside man with the Seven, but we never really knew why. We’ve watched her not treat Starlight quite as badly as the men on the team do, but we also know she doesn’t dare stretch out a hand of friendship to her or anyone else.
For all her power (which is most likely, given all we know about the Boys’ world, neither divine or aristocratic—her title notwithstanding–but is instead just another version of Compound V poisoning that left her nearly as strong as Homelander) and beauty, she is as trapped as Annie is on the team of psychopathic idiots, and is just trying to survive from day to day.
However, because of 9/11 and other atrocities, because her fear of Vought-American’s chairman outweighs any worries she has from other supes, because of her unlucky possession of something resembling a conscience, she knows the Seven don’t deserve to continue to enjoy the status quo. So she’s working to take them to town with the only threat to them she can perceive. Her alcoholism is simultaneously real and a ruse, a coping strategy for a suffering soul who knows retribution will and should come.
Robertson’s cover is a clever play on the first issue, a window into an alternate moment. Braun’s straightforward style has been a seamless transition from Robertson’s slightly more pointed caricatures, as the characters remain utterly familiar. Tony Avina’s colors maintain the mood, all that vulnerable skin surrounded by long black trenches and shadowy architecture. If the blood-soaked hangar is a bit over-the-top (and repetitive), well, this has always been a book where subtlety is more in the form of slowly dawning implications in the midst of graphic scenes of violence.