The Boys Volume 1: The Name of the Game: written by Garth Ennis; illustrated by Darick Robertson (2006-2007): Even though Irish comic-book writer Garth Ennis has done a lot of work for Marvel and DC over the last 20 years, he hates superheroes. Boy, does he hate superheroes. Well, except for Superman.
The Boys is Ennis’s superhero hate made manifest, a scabrous series about superpowered beings and the people who hate them and the people who want to be them and the people who try to control them. The Boys bears a thematic resemblance to the great Marshal Law series by Pat Mills and Kevin O’Neill, another world of superheroes gone terribly wrong. Ennis’s superheroes may sometimes superficially appear to be like the beloved characters of pop culture (indeed, they often do in both costume and name, anyway). But for the most part, his superheroes are corrupted by fame and power, nearly as bad as the supervillains they have violent, super-destructive public battles with. Sometimes worse.
And so a mysterious former CIA operative puts together a team to monitor superheroes and, when necessary, destroy either their public image or, if possible, their existence. Collectively, these are the Boys (though one is a woman). They have super-powers because that’s pretty much necessary to survive conflicts with super-powered beings. And their leader, Butcher, really hates superpowers. And he’s got an agenda of his own.
This first volume introduces the Boys and sets them on their first case, an investigation of a teen superhero group (think Teen Titans or Young Justice). The horrible world just beneath the surface of jaunty, colourful superheroing fairly firmly puts one on the side of the Boys, even if they’re no angels. Darick Robertson’s clean, straightforward art lays everything out in almost clinical detail — he’s about as normative as a modern-day (mostly) superhero artist can be. That the most sympathetic member of the Boys, Little Hughie, has been drawn to look almost exactly like Simon Pegg adds a whole other layer of sympathy. Well, as does the origin of Little Hughie’s antipathy towards superheroes, an event that brings him to the attention of Butcher.
Terrible things happen. So do funny things. Sometimes they’re the same thing. Ennis’s satiric vision is as sharp as ever, the character names often sadly appropriate (in this world, the Superman stand-in is named The Homelander. And boy, is he a prick). Early throwaways seem to promise later development (the existence of fundamentalist Christian superhero groups seems somehow logical and creepy, though no creepier than the ‘Extreme’ super-teens the Boys try to take down).
The deforming capability of power (and the will-to-power) seems to be Ennis’s main target here, as torture and sexual cruelty come esaily to most super-beings. And they’re never punished for their cruelties and murders because, hey, they’re part of the Establishment. People like them. They’re cool. They’ve got power. Well, here comes the Butcher. Recommended, but not for the squeamish.