All but four pages of “The Boys” #71 occurs within the same few feet of Empire State Building rooftop between two badly-injured, barely moving characters. There’s a lot of talk, but every sentence in this penultimate issue by Garth Ennis and Russ Braun draws on a seventy-issue-rich history, and every scene has the resonance and momentum of a confession. It’s always a pleasure when creators can wrap up projects in a way and time of their own choosing, and “The Boys” #71 builds inexorably towards its cliffhanger ending with a controlled cascade of emotional force. “The Boys” #71 is one last aria before the curtain with its outsize pathos, dramatic crescendo and its familiar (yet still shocking) plot twists.
Russ Braun does a masterful job with the facial expressions and body language in this issue, and since “The Boys” is all emotional fallout, Braun’s share of the storytelling is enormous. Ennis may write the score, but Braun’s drawing sings the notes.
If Ennis is a musician, he is drawn to tried and true standards, but he can make worn, easily trite phrases like “a good bloke” or “look me in the bloody eye” come off with his sincerity. Sometimes, he throws in sharp notes of his own like “seventies wallpaper” and “like a f—ing raspberry ripple.” Ennis is also clever with counterpoint as he throws in four pages on Jessica Bradley and James Stillwell. Braun draws painfully good reaction shots as the TV news and Bradley’s memory work in tandem to mercilessly drive home a terrible, if unsurprising, revelation. This interlude is effective on its own, but as a contrast to Butcher and Hughie, it’s a brilliant comparison of one long con to another. Of course, antihero Butcher comes off better than villain Stillwell. It’s always better to break up in person, they say.
“The Boys” has an international cast, and its setting has revolved between gritty cityscapes filled with Tarantino-level violence, dirty orgies and even dirtier deals within the coiffed, airless offices of corporations and politicians. Ennis has used “The Boys” to satirize All-American, clean-as-candy comics with bulldog tenacity, as if he was a bounty hunter being paid per hit by poison pen. For all that, “The Boys” is relentlessly American Western in its themes and archetypes and “The Boys” #71 returns to these roots. Questions of philosophy and right and wrong are simplified, but the characters and their deaths are writ large and linger on. Westerns turn on the large, bloody stuff of Shakespearean tragedies: a man’s duty, revenge, family, betrayal and loyalty. Ennis is also attached to the theme of women as men’s salvations and keepers of civilized behavior, and this, too, is in the mold of the Western.
As the story of “The Boys” #71 spins, it zeroes in a friendship and the old relationship between a con man and his mark. Enter Billy Butcher and Wee Hughie. Butcher is a liar, a user and a murderer, but a man must have a code, and Butcher has never lost sight of right and wrong even as he is unable to turn away from his self-appointed mission. Butcher has enormous charm, and his charisma is partially due to his success in going against the odds and in the epic scale of his savagery and ruthlessness. Despite his sociopathic actions, in “The Boys” #71, Butcher seems once again human, showing regret and regard for the friends and teammates that he was so willing to damage or discard.
Wee Hughie is Everyman, Butcher’s conscience. Despite being molded in the same crucible of injustice and rage, despite being overshadowed and played by Butcher at every turn, Hughie is a rock-solid good guy. Hughie remains likable for his opposite (from Butcher) traits of openness, honesty and self-doubt, and in the end, Hughie has more influence on Butcher than Butcher has on him.
“The Boys” #71 is Billy Butcher’s last stand and last con, his last clash and heart-to-heart with Hughie, one final all-out reckoning courtesy of Ennis and Braun, and it’s a good one.