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." To celebrate the impressive and somewhat improbable 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 -- the first of which you can find after this interview -- and a look behind the scenes of what made the best series about the worst of superheroes tick.
Today, we start off with the man with the "Glorious Five Year Plan" himself: Garth Ennis. In part one of a wide-ranging two-part interview, the writer reflects on what the early dismissal by WildStorm and DC meant for him and the series, how Dynamite's involvement changed the book and his career for the better, what it is that makes superheroes a powerful candidate for satire while remaining his least favorite genre and how the leads of the series -- particularly Wee Hughie and Butcher, who find themselves at a literal cliffhanger with two issues to go -- have changed over the past six years. Check out Ennis' thoughts and the complete "The Boys" #1 below!
CBR News: Garth, thinking back today on "The Boys'" WildStorm cancellation after six issues, how do you view the whole process of getting that "controversial" publicity push, fielding offers from publishers, transferring things over, all of it?
Garth Ennis: While there's no doubt that we benefitted from it, nowadays the very notion of controversy has become almost a cure for insomnia -- the claim is made so often and by so many people that the concept nearly loses all meaning. So while there were moments when I was worried, and others when I was amused, really I just found that period irritating. "Come on," I thought. "Let's get this over with and get back to work. Let's get on with the story."
Readers -- and Wee Hughie -- were introduced to Mothers Milk's mother in "The Boys" #70
The positive side, of course, was that it got the book away from DC and me into independent comics, where I've never felt happier. And it got me working with Nicky Barrucci and Joe Rybandt, two good friends, one of the most creatively-rewarding relationships of my career.
It's a bit ironic that at the time you went with Dynamite, one reason you stated for the move was that you knew it'd be around when the book finished -- and now, WildStorm isn't. Has the experience of doing this book and watching publishing over the past five years change at all your own opinions on where you'll take long-form series like this?
It's certainly made me breathe a sigh of relief. Attempting to carry on at WildStorm, or at DC in some neutered form, would have been disastrous. And it's confirmed the idea for me that all creator-owned properties, long or short, belong outside the publishing mainstream.
Creatively, how much would you say you've been able to do with the series that could not have happened if you'd stayed at DC?
We'd have died on the vine. The book would have been chipped and chipped away at until writing it was pure frustration.
At its elevator pitch core, "The Boys" is about a world where people with superpowers are total shits. You've skewered quite a few different subjects over the years -- the government, religion, the military -- and somehow the capes-and-tights stuff allowed you to put all that under one story idea. What is it about superheroes that inspires satire that's both broad and wide-reaching?
They're essentially a ludicrous crowd-pleaser -- a kind of giant, living distraction. The perfect cover-up for a century of dirty dealings. Perfect fodder for the James Ellroy notion that everyone's up to something, the "Hollywood Babylon" model where everything's a facade.
For a long while in the series, no matter what continued intrigue was happening with the Boys themselves, you'd find a way to work in a new, sick twist on another very obviously superhero franchise. Did those twists come more freely to you the more you dug into the world, or was it a challenge to continually tweak and drag those icons into the toilet each month?
It all seemed pretty obvious to me after 20 years of working in the industry: the Avengers are the resentful also-rans to the JLA, Captain America's blowing Superman to try to switch teams (and failing), the X-Men are getting touched up by Professor Xavier, the Legion of Superheroes are retards. And so on.
I believe DC will soon be reprinting Pat Mills' and Kev O'Neill's magnificent "Marshall Law" series, and you'll see a similar approach there: If you don't have any natural affection for these characters, there are a number of pretty obvious first places your mind goes.
Well, I was surprised as things went on how far afield your "homages" ended up being. Is a deep knowledge of superheroes an unfortunate side effect of being a comics writer for you?
I spent twenty years on the DC comps' list. No more, though -- somebody finally noticed. You just can't work in the business -- and have friends in it -- and not pick up on this stuff to some extent.
One way in which the "in-story" satire crosses over a bit with our real world is the character of The Legend, though comic makers over history have been known for quite a bit of self-mythologizing. Is there something particularly funny or true to you in the image of comics maker as propagandist?
As an outsider, the myths and legends of the mainstream U.S. comic book industry have always been interesting to me. With no affection for their work, I've always been able to look at creators' behavior towards each other -- and their supporters' responses to/excuses for it -- with a certain degree of wry amusement. The Legend had the final word on the subject a few issues back.
Let's take a look at the Boys themselves. Hughie really stepped into the series as the consummate everyman -- just a normal guy in a horrible situation. Yet over the course of the series, he's forced to be a lot more than a victim of circumstance. What do you think is the most important thing Hughie's learned about himself through all of this?
That he'll never change, never become a tough guy, never have one of those "no more" moments that fictional characters have when they stop taking shit and go out to do what a man's got to do. In other words, he'll be like most people in real life and remain resolutely who he is, no matter how hard he yearns to be someone different. This was something I began to realize about Hughie early on, and became more convinced of the further I went with him. Towards the end he does manage to at least act like he's changed, but as we'll see at the true climax of the story in #71, it's his (largely unwitting) adherence to his true nature that does him the most good.
On the opposite side of the equation, there's Butcher. At this point, we know all the details, gruesome as they may be, for his hatred of the supes. But the book does ask whether Butcher truly approaches this world in a more overtly nihilistic way rather than as personal vendetta. How do you view his story in the book now that you've reached the end?
By now it's clear that Butcher had his eye on the bigger picture all along. There was always that one guy he wanted to deal with personally, of course, but the accidental case of mistaken identity there has only fueled his commitment to the larger mission, to sorting out the core problem.
The trio of Mother's Milk, The Female and The Frenchman all had their own unique stories in the series, but they also seemed to fall to tragic ends for ceding so much authority to Butcher for so long. In your eyes, does the experience of being a member of The Boys come with a guarantee of sorts of a tragic end?
Theirs was a violent world and they entered it no doubt anticipating that their lives would have violent ends -- albeit, of course, with doom arriving from a rather different direction. There's a certain expectation of this kind of catastrophe for anyone involving themselves in the dangerous end of things; the patrolling Marine who realizes he's essentially a human IED detector, the black ops spy who suspects the last thing he'll feel will be a gun muzzle against his neck some day. They don't fool themselves about it, and live with some degree of melancholy as a result.
Stay tuned for part two of CBR's farewell interview with Garth Ennis where the "Boys" writer goes deeper into the biggest story threads of the series and teases its grand finale. In the meantime, check out the first issue in it's entirety, below!