It’s both a good and bad time to be Garth Ennis. His comic strip series The Boys is being adapted to a TV series on Amazon. That hopefully means money for him and co-creator Darick Robertson. On the other hand, most people who first knew it as a comic agree it’s watered down. I haven’t seen it yet, but given the content of the comic series (including the rape and cannibalization of infants), how could it not be? This recently caused people on my Twitter feed to revisit the original stories, and they weren’t being remembered fondly. On top of that, The Boys is published by Dynamite, a comic book company found that got involved with the trolls behind the Comicsgate movement. Now Ennis’ return to the property with the limited series The Boys: Dear Becky is getting panned online. Though it was never going to be a great idea to go back, the anger towards this series may be a little overblown, thought not entirely unfair.
For all the online rage, there isn’t any outright call to cancel Garth Ennis the writer. And, barring any unearthed stories of even the Warren Ellis variety, why would there be? First of all, cancel culture doesn’t really work. In the case of Comicsgate, all it does in inspire people to crowdfund tons of future landfills. Second, and most importantly, Ennis can still turn out decent work. His Punisher: Soviet series with artist Jacen Burrows was a great revisit of his original run on Marvel’s Max series, and for all of the Preacher’s scatological indulgence, Ennis deserves credit for his series-long dissection of supporting character Cassidy, a quintessential toxic male laid bare before the term was in wide public discourse.
The original comic The Boys, first and foremost, satirized the superhero industry more than superheroes themselves. Ennis, through his rare moments writing the Superman character, makes it clear that he can respect the ideas behind certain characters while attacking how those same characters become corrupted from overuse and abuse from their handlers. Ennis is also rightly suspicious of the power of superheroes as propaganda tools. Even if he isn’t the most articulate, he drew connections between the patriotic superhero image and the type of propaganda heavy politics in America well before the mess we are in today. Additionally, with all the stories of abuse emerging from comic companies, comic professions and comic fandom, The Boys could be seen as the “Family Guy” of comics, using exaggerated — sometimes easy and sophomoric — satire to lay the comics industry bare for people to revisit as more ugly truths come out.
But if you have none of this background knowledge of the industry (which took me decades to accumulate), and you picked up this comic only to be exposed to a young child having his tongue torn out trying to say “Shazam,” then I can’t blame you for putting it down.
For all those pluses I mentioned, they also help to show the biggest problem with this new comic. It’s twelve years later in both Boys universe and ours. In today’s mass media (excluding comics, of course) Marvel and DC dominate most media through their parent companies. It’s a different world than when Ennis and Robertson started their story (which later artist Russ Braun picks up again here without missing a beat). This hurts any accessibility the Boys comic might have had if readers are looking to anything beyond the gross-out humor.
Sadly, this extends to Dear Becky, in which the last surviving Boys member Hughie is retired from CIA work and living with his former superhero girlfriend Annie in Scotland since their adventures ended over a decade ago. He mysteriously receives the diary of Becky, the wife of now-deceased Boys leader Butcher, who wrote in it himself after her death. The reader is subjected to flashbacks of Butcher and the superhero deterrent team (before he took over and Hughie joined) mutilating various stand-ins from recent Marvel and DC cinematic successes. This makes the humor appear incredibly dated and predictable, even when they’re purposely trying to go overboard with characters more ridiculous than usual.
Superheroes were never the sole focus in the comic of The Boys. In fact, they were often window dressing cast aside whenever Ennis wanted to focus on the main characters (particularly Hughie and Annie’s relationship). but now the returning main characters feel like a backdrop amidst the flashbacks, waiting for something to happen. While it’s probably meant to be suspenseful as we wait to find out exactly when Butcher was able to cast his wife from his thoughts and focus on his terrible self-appointed goals, it means nothing when we know that he did do exactly that before the original series even started. Finding out the exact where and when feels as pointless as a Before Watchmen story.
Critics of Ennis will likely be angry at what I’m about to write (or take it as a sign that the series is not worth touching), but the most well-rounded character in this new story so far is Bobbi, Hughie’s trans woman friend who was “helped” to transition more…fully?…through more Ennis-style antics in the limited series Highland Hughie. At least Ennis has room to build Bobbi as a character to debatable success so far. She‘s also the one calling out Hughie as being (or trying to be) no more than a jaded and indecisive jerk. Without his innocence that drove him through his original adventures, he comes off as a less likable character, his cluelessness and indecisiveness much less charming than before.
This may or may not be an intentional move on Ennis’ part as Hughie strives to live with his secrets. I’m reminded of Lieutenant-Colonel Grace Mallory’s description of Butcher:
“…[H]is greatest and most enviable skill is keeping his mouth shut…which is something of a lost art. But the commonly held belief that getting everything off your chest is good for your spiritual health — or that telling everyone all there is to know about yourself is both positive and harmless — notions like that have passed him by.”
This is a staple of many heroes Ennis writes. In so many of his stories (Preacher, The Boys, The Punisher, War is Hell: The First Flight of the Phantom Eagle just to name a few), the main characters are strongly dependent on keeping secrets, whether it’s to save themselves from perceived or real humiliation or to protect their lives. At the end of Hughie’s original arc, after fumbling his way to survival, readers could infer that he is still keeping the entire truth from Annie and others, if only for the sake of his relationship and personal dignity. With Dear Becky, Hughie clearly struggles with everything he continues to live with as old wounds are opened with the revealed diary.
Though Hughie was never a soldier, he could be seen as suffering from some kind of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder from his time working with the CIA. Given that many of Ennis’ stories seem also to rail against the field of psychology or any kind of mental health, one wonders how Hughie will credibly resolve his issues. Could Ennis truly mean to work against one or more of his own personal story tropes in order to put one of his most popular characters to bed (again)? It seems a little unlikely given Ennis’ storytelling patterns throughout the decades, but we have three more issues to go (a good move to not limit the story to four issues, or even six). Diehard fans can only wait and see, and if you aren’t one of those fans, I don’t blame you if you stopped after seeing faux Thor’s face getting melted off (if you make it to issue #2).