“Graphic Format” — not really a novel, but no comic, that’s for sure. “Graphic” is a good way to put it.
Although, the creator calls it a comic, so we might as well roll with that term.
All the cool cats have long known “The Boys” long before they were adapted to the screen with Carl Urban as Billy Butcher on his collision course with the Homelander. I am not a cool cat, so I had to dig up the reading material after consuming the streaming show on Amazon.
No spoilers, but hints
I want to keep this spoiler free, so I will be obnoxiously vague.
The film adaption is often considered harsh and brutal, and not for the faint of heart. Violence, sex, bad language, alcohol, drugs: those are generally the trigger warnings a.k.a. selling points on each episode. And it is true: People get hurt a lot, and a number of characters don’t hold back with the language.
Or do they?
The fact of the matter is, the filmed version is rather tame in comparison with the printed work of Garth Ennis. Someone who is troubled by the film adaption will be disgusted by the original comic series. While the film goes beyond the usual borders of what is shown on screen in matters of violence, the comic goes over the top, faster and farther.
Film versus Comic
Both versions start with the same setup: Wee Hughie getting to know the superhero world in a fast and tragic way that makes him — a person who starts out as a bit of an uninformed outsider, slightly in the know, but not invested in the whole topic [the ideal self-insert for readers/viewers!] — hostile to unchecked power. In the comics, the inciting event happens on a public fair.
Throughout the story, there are changes that the film has made, and it has been modernised. Several characters have been genderswapped, and the timeline has been forwarded to account for the real world timeline. I.e., something from World War II in the comic is now in Central American shadow wars, and 9/11 is replaced by something Syria-ish, in the same way as landlines must be replaced by mobiles in movie reshoots.
Still, a number of the scenes or facts that were dropped for the more audience-friendly variant get a nod, a wink or a passing mention in the film. For example, a grisly end of a human life that actually happened in the comics is used in the show twice. Part one of it as a lie to cover up an actual secret, then part two as inspiration for a different, “diabolical” scene in a laboratory.
Tamed = believable
The comic goes for shock value in many cases, and shows multiple superhero teams engaging in all kinds of reckless, brutal, and sexually uninhibited activities. The film keeps it to a more pedestrian level. Fewer heroes, even if they they mention that there are other superheroes active: we don’t see them, so they remain background noise. The more extreme activities are rarer, and happen more behind closed doors or at night. And so we can actually believe that such a world is possible.
Not so in the comics.
Superheroes are flashy and visible [with rare exceptions, *coughblacknoircough*] , and so are their deeds, heroic and questionable just as much as the abhorrent. It is not very likely that superhero gatherings like a yearly mega-con in Florida would remain unobserved. The comics do stretch disbelief in that regard. I am a bit on the fence about the behaviour patterns of politicians and high level public servants as depicted in the comics, so I will withhold judgement there.
Either way, the story had to be tamed down, everyone who reads the comics will understand that: It could never be broadcast to a wide audience in a version that was to stay true to the source material. Therefore, what is usually a reason to criticise is, in this case, a necessity.
Billy Butcher and the Boys
The Billy Butcher of the film version is a lovable rogue. The Billy Butcher of the comics is rather more unsettling: His abrasive personal conduct and his habits and even cruelty do not recommend him as the type of person one would care to count among personal acquaintances. Similarly, each of the team members are unsettling in the comics. Unstable, all of them, unsettling in many ways, crossing boundaries, and it is hard to imagine how these characters should function in a civilised society.
There is also a strong element of hypocrisy involved, as the Boys claim to protect humankind from the excesses of superhumans; and yet, they themselves show little restraint and use every means possible to power up and be larger than life when compared to “normal people”.
Where is the line, when power becomes too great and needs to be controlled?
That is the big question, and the characters are aware of it, but slow to answer. A very human characteristic, and that is one of great strength of this story: The characters are mostly, if not relatable, then at least understandable. None do what they do just like that, each of them has a motivation and a way to look at the world, and so they clash and collide, argue and make up, like humans do … only in a harsher and more unforgivable setting. Billy Butcher is mean and cruel, but he knows it, and in classic human fashion he is trying to introduce elements to control himself, namely by recruiting people who will second-guess his decisions.
But will he listen?
Story & Consistency
Stories that go on over time generally tend to struggle with canon and consistency. The Boys does not suffer strongly from this problem, as it is one continuous story over a limited time span. There is not enough time to muddle the internal logic. Still, there are some slight hitches that are not exactly plot-holes in the narrower sense, but at least minor plot-slipups. They are slight enough to be overlooked.
The storyline is quite gripping and it never once fails at staying interesting: How will it turn out? There is no lull in the suspense, as the threat and its inevitable conclusion remain ever present.
Suspense needs room to breathe. To shake things up, there is not the usual, trendy humor. Instead, there are deep dives into the past, showing who the people were before present events, exploring family connections and psychological issues.
Humor is still present, of course, but it is not used in any formulaic manner. It is sprinkled into the mix in a natural way … like, when the comic publisher Victory comics gets a call from one Garth Ennis (the creator of The Boys) who tries to sell them an idea, and gets immediately rejected – because Victory comics has no room for Brits. And that with Billy Butcher, a Brit, right there in the room.
The story also has messages, some of them lathered on a bit thicker, some a bit more subtle, but none of them taking over the whole show and bending the story to be its slave, like it is customary with some *coughDisneycough* companies nowadays. The political leaning of the author remains no mystery, but it does not dominate.
So, we see: I can recommend it.
- for the faint of heart,
- or for children,
- for the peaceful,
- or for friendly elderly people,
Quasi-realistic style. I will let some pictures speak for themselves.
I promised spoiler free, so this is where I stop.