Back Issues: ‘The Boys’ is over-the-top, graphic

Most of the time, preparing for these columns is fun,

I get to revisit favorite comic storylines, read new ones and fill in sometimes rather sizable gaps in my knowledge of characters. I summarize bizarre stories, then imagine Paul LaPann reading what I’ve written and shaking his head in dismay (Paul’s more of a down-to-Earth, nonfiction guy).

Sometimes a show or movie comes along that’s based on a comic I’ve avoided because the subject matter doesn’t appeal to me or I read just enough to know that I didn’t want to go any further. That’s why you got Cliff Notes summaries of the Vertigo titles popping up on TV in recent years. “Lucifer” and “Hellblazer” aren’t up my alley, and I got two pages into “Preacher” before conceding that however well-written it might have been, I was never going to give Garth Ennis’ popular series an objective look because of its sacrilegious subject matter.

But when Amazon announced it would adapt “The Boys,” a Dynamite Studios comic by Ennis and artist Darick Robertson, I wasn’t overly familiar with it, so I started reading a collection of the issues. It was not fun. I made it 10 issues, which is probably nine more than I needed to convince me not to watch the show, which premieres Friday.

The concept is solid: Superheroes whose powers set them apart from the common man living as out-of-control, entitled celebrities, answerable to no one.

The story opens with a romantic interlude interrupted when A-Train, a super speedster in the vein of the Flash, takes down a villain in a manner that brutally kills an innocent bystander. Her boyfriend, a man named Wee Hughie (modeled after actor Simon Pegg, who will appear in another role in the series), is understandably traumatized and dismayed that no one seems to care about what happened to the love of his life.

Hughie is recruited by the mysterious Billy Butcher to join a covert team tasked with keeping superhumans in line. The group also includes Mother’s Milk, whose super strength is a secondary asset to his relatively calm, reasonable outlook; the Frenchman, an eccentric, friendly fellow prone to violence when provoked; and the Female, a mute, murderous girl with the power to take on the toughest supers.

As we’re meeting these characters, readers are also shown the behind-the-scenes actions of the world’s premiere super team, the Seven, as the male members sexually abuse a female rookie and the Wonder Woman analogue makes it clear she could care less. Meanwhile, Hughie’s injected with a compound to grant him super strength and brought along on a mission to gather blackmail material on the debaucherous exploits of the young team Teenage Kix.

The characters would have been interesting if the stories weren’t saturated with graphic violence and sex. Calling it gratuitous would be an understatement. Ennis said in interviews that “The Boys” would “out-‘Preacher’ ‘Preacher'” in terms of so-called mature content.

And it’s not only the “bad guys” doing horrible things. The only distinction between the Boys and the supers they oppose appears to be that the Boys do terrible things to people they think deserve it, whereas the supers do terrible things to anybody.

Even if the TV show doesn’t reach the same level of vile, falling a few steps short will produce content on which I just don’t want to waste my time.

“The Boys” is hardly unique among comics when it comes to graphic content. But at least in, say, “The Walking Dead,” I find the story compelling and watch the characters struggling with the horror, rather than reveling in it. And the violence there isn’t played for laughs.


Recommended Reading

Except for a few spinoffs, “The Boys” is largely self-contained. If you want to read it, go for it, but I’m recommending some comics that are just plain fun instead:

* “Unbeatable Squirrel Girl: Squirrel Power” — One of these days, if the Squirrel Girl TV show ever gets greenlit, I’ll write about my favorite comic character in my favorite comic book series. For now, get started with the first volume of her ongoing title, where she takes on Kraven the Hunter, Whiplash and Galactus.

* “Astro City: Ordinary Heroes” — Any issue or storyline of Kurt Busiek and Brent Anderson’s 20-plus year epic delivers superhero comics at their best. This collection features a heroic legacy spanning three generations, a lawyer handling mystical cases, a literally washed-up villain and a cat who walks through walls.

* “JLA: World War Three” — Nothing wrong with deconstructing the archetypes from time to time, but see superheroes at their best in the face of a world-ending threat in the culmination of Grant Morrison’s epic run.