Six years ago, Garth Ennis and Darick Robertson launched their creator-owned ongoing series “The Boys” through DC Comics’ WildStorm imprint to much fanfare and a high expectation for violence, vulgarity, superheroes and satire. Six months later, the book was cancelled.
It was the best thing that could have happened.
Readers familiar with the over-the-top tale of a black ops team tasked with keeping the vilest “supes” on the planet from spiraling into an apocalyptic level of hedonism, murder and snuff films know that since issue #7, “The Boys” has been published by Dynamite Entertainment, where it has thrived, having been freed from the nervous oversight of a corporate publisher. Over the past six years, the book has launched 70 issues, three miniseries and countless graphic images involving everything from heads being punched off to hamsters being…well, you get the idea.
Unfortunately for its fanbase, that debauchery comes to an end this fall as Dynamite publishes the final two issues of “The Boys” with the upcoming #70 and 71. To celebrate the impressive and somewhat improbably achievement, CBR News is saying goodbye in style over the coming weeks with full interviews with the creators of the book, five full issues of the series being released for free and a look behind the scenes of what made the best series about the worst of superheroes tick.
Today, we complete our extensive look inside the series with writer Garth Ennis (and you can catch up with part one of the interview here as well as the complete first issue). Below, Ennis looks at many of the biggest pieces of the superhero satire from surprising human elements like Annie January’s change over the series to Mallory’s experiences in World War II. He also reflects on the impact September 11 had on the series both in terms of the specifics of the story and more abstract effects on how he views the CIA, military culture and more. Plus, a look back at series artists from Darick Robertson to Russ Braun, and some teases about where Ennis’ work will take him once “The Boys” has wrapped.
CBR News: Over the course of “The Boys,” there have been a number of real cornerstone arcs and relationships that have helped tie the series together as a whole. One of the most prominent aspects of the book has been the relationship between Hughie and Annie, which started very innocent and gets much more complicated as the book went along. What drew you to this thread of the series in terms of a “Will they/won’t they” kind of happy ending question mark tension and in terms of the more real relationship drama that grew out of it?
Garth Ennis: That one happened almost by accident and grew into something I’d not anticipated at all. Annie started out as a joke, and was actually going to degenerate further in terms of the shit she’d put up with, the degradations she’d suffer just to be in the world’s premier superteam. But I found myself writing Hughie moping in Central Park, and then to my great surprise I saw Annie coming walking down the path. That was when I realized I wanted to take her in a different direction, make her stronger and more rounded, and at the same time give Hughie a whole other set of problems to deal with. In the end, I probably felt a bit guilty about Annie and ended up treating her a bit more responsibly as a result. Same thing happened with Hughie’s hamster.
A major fulcrum for the series was the revelation of what happened on September 11. As much shock and attention as some of the satirical sexual elements of the book early on, I feel like this had to be one of the harder elements of the story to write in a way that was respectful of history while commenting on all the issues surrounding the attacks. Was it hard for you to write about that day?
I knew I wanted to say something about it, and the way people remember and talk about it. The Legend has the key line in that regard, when he refers to the shot they love showing, but no New Yorker ever wants to see again. I still look away anytime some news show trots out the footage of the plane hitting the second tower.
That said, the nature of the Seven and the world they created allowed you to deal a bit with the military industrial complex’s connection to terrorism in a way that was some conspiracy theory “9/11 was an inside job” kind of thing. Again, what about superheroes seemed best suited to engaging these kinds of questions?
The superheroes’ involvement was always going to be a disaster, not just in the sense of untrained operatives wielding vast power incompetently in a real world situation, but also as a reference to untried weapons systems being employed prematurely and causing instant chaos — in this case, a weapons system that should never have been a weapons system. I wanted to avoid any 9/11 conspiracy stuff (except the simple cover-up after the event) simply because I believe it’s all a lot of balls — it’s made clear in the “Herogasm” sequence with the Secret Service agent that there was no government involvement with the terrorists, and that any forewarning came from nothing more sinister than the President paying attention to intelligence briefings.
They knew something was coming, but had no details — so they got as ready as possible and did the best they could think of. Which meant Special Forces units storming planes and USAAF fighters shooting them down, saving the day at the expense of heavy civilian casualties. I’d say that if things had functioned properly once the hijackings went ahead in real life, that would have been about the most we could have hoped for. As it is, I believe a couple of F-16s were scrambled with orders to ram the airliners if they found them — there having been no time to arm their guns or load missiles.
That theme of militarization — of the lengths men and governments will go to in order to create more powerful weapons — seemed to become a much bigger, more terrifyingly real part of the series as we went through to Hughie’s discovery of Mallory. Is this maybe the area of “The Boys” that you feel is most true to real life, or does the satirical nature of the book create a little bit of distance from what you feel actually happens in the real world?
Mallory’s world — without the supes — is one I believe exists. Many American officers came out of WW2 with his sense of purpose and mission. Read any history of the CIA or the Cold War to see the results. Both superpowers got dragged into all manner of third world conflicts, too distracted to see where their ideological convictions were leading them. Mallory is one of these guys until he identifies a different kind of superpower as the real threat.
His key line, I think, regarding the reality of espionage at ground level, has to do with seedy little men acting on their own sense of frustration and betrayal — and the equally seedy little men who are sent to take them out. Once he enters the world of the supes, of course, he needs rather more formidable characters to do his bidding. That’s how people like Butcher get into the world.
At the same time, you take pains in the story to describe the effects of that militarization in more human terms than most comics of any genre engage in, from nods to everyday soldiers on the battlefield to the many, many emotional impacts we see in the victims of supes activity. This seems a continued theme for you. What’s important about returning to these stories in fiction, and how does “The Boys” help illuminate that in a new way for you as a writer?
I imagine my fascination with military history and war stories will always lead me down that particular path. Half of any war, it’s been said, is a waste of time — inadequate weapons, bad planning, inappropriate tactics. But that’s with hindsight, and the trouble is that you have to fight the whole war to work out which half was wasted. (Then you draw the lessons and implement the changes just in time for the next war, which is almost always completely different and renders your lessons from the old one irrelevant — but that’s another story.) I’m always going to have a certain sympathy for the guys whose lives end as part of the waste, whose deaths mean nothing. Bad enough to die in war, worse still for it to achieve nothing at all.
All of this begged one question for me about the point at which the world of the Boys launched off from our real world. To a certain extent, you stick fairly close to real history and politics, but as the story grew, we got more folks like Dakota Bob and Vic the Veep rather than the real life public figures of our time. Was that change a necessity of the nuts and bolts story being told, or was there another reason you felt compelled to let things diverge in the present?
I needed an intelligent President in the White House for the events of and leading up to 9/11, so that the precautions and response regarding same would be intelligent. As for the two characters, Vic the Veep was meant to be the most grotesque parody of Bush, Jr. imaginable — completely disengaged, mentally not quite there, the word “furdom” as a reflexive response, etc. The problem was that there would be people quite happy to put such a moron in the Oval Office to further their own agenda. Dakota Bob, on the other hand, was supposed to be the smart neocon — the guy who would quite happily sell off every public service he could, but who believed in very strong national security. Who would start a war, but the right war — going for the real home of the insurgency (this would of course create all manner of new problems, but that would be his starting point). I felt that taking this dual approach with the two characters was more or less fair.
I’m also interested in your impression on how “The Boys” developed visually over the course of the series. From Darick’s setting the stage through to the way that Russ [Braun], John [McCrea] and company have continued those designs and ideas, what’s surprised you the most about how your ideas have taken their final form on the page? What’s your favorite visual in the history of the book?
I think I’ve been very lucky on “The Boys.” Bringing new artists to an original vision as strong as Darick’s is always chancy, but I was delighted at the standard we were able to maintain. Guys like John Higgins, Peter Snejbjerg and Carlos Ezquerra are all old friends, all guys I’m always delighted to collaborate with. John McCrea — as he himself says, we’ll probably still be working together when we’re 90, and the military tech stuff he was able to do with Keith Burns was crucial to the WW2 and White House battle sequences.
But it was Russ Braun who brought us the consistency we needed, in terms of characterization, intelligent storytelling, the capability to handle absolutely anything — he’s done the guts of the last two years of the book, and he’s made it sing. I’ve said before that the best artists know how to think their way into the script and make the story flow, and Russ has that quality in spades.
My favorite would be one of his Butcher shots — I probably couldn’t pick one out overall, I’m thinking more of the way he caught the character so perfectly.
Looking at the last two issues, it seems as though a number of long-running plot threads have wrapped up outside the conflict between Hughie and Butcher. In their points of view, I sense a strong feeling of humanism and nihilism for lack of better terms. Is that what the series comes down to for you?
#71 will answer that much better than I can here.
Of course, this being “The Boys” I’m sure there’s one last middle finger to the capes and tights crowd coming (aside from #72’s cover, obviously). In what ways will the last issue of the series serve as your final world on superheroes in general?
Hopefully, it’ll be the last time I ever have to write them, satirically or not. But that’s a big “hopefully.” The industry seems to me to be becoming less creator-friendly, less inclined towards creator-owned projects — page rates are being reduced, contracts are being cut, and I personally see things like “Before Watchmen” as a none-too-subtle message about how DC in particular regards talent, properties and so on. So I’m going to carry on focussing on creator-owned original properties and hoping for the best.
At the end of the day, you have to be realistic — it’s all well and good to talk about the capes and tights crowd, but what that actually translates as is roughly 97% of the industry and its readership. All I can do is cross my fingers and carry on doing what I do.
We know that you’ve got more “Battlefields” coming soon and more “Fury MAX” at the very least, but now that you’ve wrapped your latest grand, multi-year epic in comics, are you thinking of any other long form projects for yourself in the immediate future, or will you stick to miniseries for a while for now?
I’m trying to do as much new material as possible: coming up I’ve got a crime book, a sci-fi book, another thing I can’t really talk about (but you’ll know it when you see it) and a new war series from Avatar, in the same format as “Battlefields” for Dynamite. Generally speaking, you’ll see my output split between those two publishers for the foreseeable future. There’ll also be more “Crossed”; I’m going to pop back to the ongoing series and do about three to four issues a year. But longer stuff — probably not for a while.
Stay tuned to CBR News for more on the end of “The Boys!”