Garth Ennis & Darick Robertson, et al, The Boys (Dynamite Entertainment, 2006-2009). $2.99; Ennis et al., Herogasm: From the Pages of The Boys (Dynamite Entertainment, 2009). $2.99.
By Tyler Curtain
Like the comic it reviews, this piece contains a good deal of profanity.
First, a bit of backstory. It’s almost 2010 and by my watch we’re nearly twenty five years into the trope that superheroes are bastards. Or, if not bastards exactly, then at least more like us than us--and therefore, for what it’s worth, bastards. If for the ancients the gods started out powerful, though petty and small, in the early part of the last century, our paper gods started out larger-than-life and good, and all the more powerful for it. Morality tales in black-and-white are rarely compelling, however. Now we have reverted to the tropes of the ancients and draw our heroes petty and small. Isn’t that one of Alan Moore’s more convincing twists of the tale in Watchmen? The conflicts, and thus the narrative arcs, of Golden Age Superman’s stories were generated by the Kryptonian’s commitment to the his ideals, which is itself the source of many problems in a fallen human world. Superman’s creators, Siegel and Shuster, wanted a costume drama about social justice and the defeat of corruption. An early avatar of left liberalism’s rage and moral strength, Superman’s crisp lines and tight suit cut sharply and satisfyingly across the early twentieth century America’s fears about rapacious capitalism and a gangster-faced underworld alike. The 1930s ethos was, of course, that crime doesn’t pay, and the James Cagney character gets it in the end. Perhaps more importantly, Superman was the hand of that justice. It’s a sociology where need or want doesn’t drive one to crime, but failures of character and chance. It’s a working class vision of what it takes to fight the world and win. People ate it up.
But people change. The world has sharp, ragged edges, and more often than not it seems always to have already won. Superman, and his morals, are alien. There was a turn somewhere between Superman and the 1970s. Our heroes are now dirty and sad. No one gets out alive. Cagney, the anti-hero, died in 1986, but that was the same year Watchmen was born. Its anti-heroes live and thrive.
I lead into a review of Garth Ennis and Darick Robertson’s excellent The Boys--now up to issue 33 and counting--with this bit of framing because the corrupted scaffolding that supports the long arc of comic justice is the explicit theme of the series.The Boys asks and narrates an answer to the question, what is the role of comic books in selling us a story about the wrongs that are done in our name and the evil that is sold like so much soap? Why do we love superheroes when it’s clear that they do so much harm?
The basics of the story: a black-ops CIA group known as “the Boys” is put into service to keep Superheroes in line. Not necessarily rogue superheroes, either. Any superhero who is deemed to be a threat--which just about includes them all. The supes are controlled by a shadowy, frightening conglomerate, "The Company," called Vought-American. The team is made up of five characters: Billy Butcher, the Frenchman, Mother’s Milk, the Female, and Wee Hughie. The team, like their names, are more types than characters. Billy and Hughie are fleshed out in the series, and it is Hughie who stands in for the reader. He’s conscripted into the group, is eventually told about the group’s history from a comic book guru conspiracy monger “The Legend,” and learns to piece together a life by being disabused of the notion that “supes” are anything but super, except in the strength of their powers, and nothing like heroes.
The Boys’s world owes something to Moore’s post-supes messy cosmology, but don’t let that fool you. Its moral desires are straight out of Superman. This time, however, the degenerates wear tights. Its morality tales are easily cobbled together Intro to Freud. With great power comes great id, and Superman has no superego. The supes rape and murder, do good only as a means to their next photo-op; they have a rolling, continuous orgy, punctuated by rape, broken up by occasional crime fighting; they back-bite and lear; they discard and destroy the weak, and prey on the emotionally vulnerable. Sexual assault as hazing is part of the mix. They fuck and fight: the penises, pussies, and pectorals of the supes are lovingly, humorously, and enticingly drawn by Keith Burns and John McCrea for Herogasm and by Darick Robertson for The Boys. For both titles, colorist Tony Aviña fills out the landscape with a palette that makes the supes feel like they live in a plasticine shell. At times the characters feel as hollow as their character. The paper is slick and heavy, like most contemporary productions coming out of the big houses, which adds to the slick feel of its characters. Homelander, the Superman stand-in, is broad smiling, Chelsea-boy body with shiny-hard, Ken-and-Barbie hair. He is also gay, not to mention smarmy, and a predatory, smarmy bully at that. The series’ politics are paranoid, its cultural politics are misogynist and homophobic, and its villains are satisfyingly flat. Evil men do evil deeds, and the Company that controls the lot wears black. With mirrored shades.
Ennis, McCrea, and Burns’s Herogasm is a parallel series, a parallel story-line of the main Boys world. It details a sub-plot about the Company’s attempt to empty out US democracy by taking over the Presidency. (Yes, Halliburton's name appears once or twice.) But for all of that, it’s not really the point of the sub-series. Like me, you’ve been asking yourselves, at least since hormones started to structure your brain, if not before: what does Superman’s penis look like, and how big is it exactly? If Lee and Kriby wrote porn, what would The Thing have a rock-dick? The Fantastic Four: just how stretchy is Reed Richard’s cock? The Scarlet Witch--what hair! And those tits! Wanda Maximoff could really getcha off. To my mind, Lee and Kirby did write porn. There is little critical and cultural daylight between superheroes and porn hardbodies. If it walks like a duck, it fucks like a duck. (I’m pretty sure that Howard the Duck is caricatured in Herogasm’s pages somewhere.) Herogasm is just that: a chance to draw every superhero there is (or, rather, their caricature) nude, tumescent, and in flagrente delicto. And let me say: it’s fascinating and utterly predictable at the same time.
In this, Herogasm, like The Boys proper, is a type of logical endpoint of post-’70s/’80s story-making. The 1980s turn away from the story lines of high modernism’s low art is a permanent part of comics’ landscape. (Arguably, Thatcherism killed modernism in a way that that the decadents only dreamed of.) But the best of comics, like all great art, often appeals to our basest instincts and bodily realities. The funny and touching is also already comic, abject, and just gross. My favorite cover from the run so far? The bloody valentine cover of The Boys #17. The blood drips from the heart that surrounds Hughie and his girlfriend, Annie, shown in a tender kiss. The panel that lends the cover its punch line features the goatee of the reader’s stand-in, Hughie. He answers the door after having just eaten-out his super-girl girlfriend, Annie. Annie’s period started during sex. Horrifying in its way, I guess, but only in the way that other people’s sex lives are horrifying; touching, actually, because every sexual encounter between Hughie and Annie is portrayed as two beings who long for each other and give each other deep pleasure. It’s one of the draws of the series. That is not, however, a story about social justice. It isn’t a black-helicopter tale about the shadow government that rules these United States. It is a story about the human desires at the core of the controlled chaos of the world, and how those desires are often thwarted though more often than not fulfilled. It drips in blood, in violence and in love. I love the cocks and cunts, tits and balls, attitude and violence of Herogasm. I love the perversity ofThe Boys. It’s perverse, it delivers pleasures, and in its own way it delivers small and important truths alongside a paranoia that seems necessary to stay alive.