New Year, new American President and the edge of a new decade.
Also, birthday greetings to my two favourite recent twenty-one year olds, even if only one of them reads this blog.
The Boys: Volume 1 – The Name of the Game;
Written by Garth Ennis of Preacher fame, and illustrated by the artist of Transmetropolitan, The Boys endeavours to be just as thematically and visually offensive as those two combined, a Herculean task emminently fulfilled.
Essentially, we have the world-of-superheroes theme, and this is a situation with which not all are satisfied.
The eponymous Boys are the CIA’s group of hired thugs to keep the supes in line with a brand of justice that is entirely revenge. Is it justified? Well, of the group of five, the first volume reveals that one of the group’s boys had a love-of-his-life girlfriend inertially liquiefied when the supe ‘A-Train’ knocked an enemy into her at mach 3. Insult to injury, A-Train stretched briefly, regaling the horrified crowd with how he used the old ‘run-on-water’ trick to fox his enemy, before taking off at high speed with a cry of ‘Nobody Can Stop The A-Train!’
This is Wee Hugh who witnesses both the horrific, instantaneous destruction of his girlfriend and the cavalier attitude of the supes to the situation. Visually based on Simon Pegg (and this is in the days before Shaun of the Dead fame), Hugh is approached by Butcher, who is setting up his team again after a time of unspecified activity. Butcher’s reason?
Apparently Butcher’s wife, another of the love-of-your-life variety, was taken in a physical fashion against her will by an unnamed, but hinted-at, supe, she never told him about it, and he only read about it in her diary afterwards. The ‘afterwards’ being after the super-foetus tears its way out of her womb, kills her, burns a few scars into Butcher’s arm with its instinctive laser vision, and is beaten to death by Butcher with the nightstand lamp.
Thankfully, there is no flashback for this sequence.
The hinted at supe? No less than Homelander, the Superman exspy (a tv trope term for alternate world opposite number) of this universe’s Seven, a parody of the Justice League, from the ‘Big Three’ to the Other Four who are a little disgruntled about their smaller cut of the toy sales. The newest of the four is Starlight, the Christian corn-belt addition to the team after the shadowy, as-yet-undeveloped of Lamplighter ( The Green Lantern alternate, apparently). Hugh’s opposite number protaganist in this story, she has a very naive ideal of heroes such as the Seven, which is a graphically ended as Hugh’s was.
Of course, they meet, not knowing who the other is, when both are questioning their new allegiances, and, in giving each other fairly non-descript descriptions of their new jobs, encourage each to continue. But of course.
Much is set up in this volume, from the universe-direct (all superpowers are born from exposure to a drug called the V Compound, developed by Nazi scientists [surprise!], all other backstories are fictional, and all American superheroes seem to be funded by the super-corporation Voight-American), to the universe-implied ( an open shot of New York in this world’s 2006 shows the Twin Towers to be standing and the Brooklyn Bridge to be destroyed), in a a way rich with promise.
I will not say The Boys is not for the faint of heart. It isn’t, of course, but it isn’t for the stout of heart either. The writer and artist to shock your eyes with every splash shot. On a scale of one to horror, its a solid Elfen Lied. And, as my one reader hasn’t seen Elfen Lied, its the assault of Sally Jupiter in Watchmen, in graphic detail, every few pages. The two-parter is not called “The Cherry” for nothing. You can stand this stuff and still feel that Ennis is being perverse for the sake of being perverse and put it aside. This is entirely legitimate. Personally I feel he is not, but seriously, this is not a book to be read without that understanding.
As this extends to the characters: The Heroes aren’t the good guys. The Boys aren’t the good guys. Its a drag-down, bare-knuckle fight in a Saturday night alley in which no side is the plucky underdog facing the Empire. Hughie and Starlight, are the two you might sympathise with at this point, these fish-out-of-water being our eyes, but as Butcher says to the question of ‘maybe there are good supers’, ‘F**k ’em’.
Powers: Volume 1 – Who Killed Retro Girl;
Brian Michael Bendis writes Powers, another city-of-supers, with the additional Watchmen trope of it-all-begins-with-the-murder-of-superhero. This time however, it is actually the cops investigating the crime and catching the criminal. The story plays fairly interestingly with most tropes: the we-can’t-give-superman-CPR becomes we can’t autopsy Retrogirl. Coming the other way are typical cop tropes: imagine a hostage situation with a guy wearing a jet pack. On the other hand, this seemed almost allegorical – for instance, we eventually find out Retrogirl was killed with mortal means while under the influence of a homebuilt power-drainer (of which the cops many in their detention and interview cells), and yet nobody thought to put Retrogirl under one of these while she was under the knife. Similarly, the police seem to get on ok with the superheroes, and yet nobody called them in on the jet pack case.
I wouldn’t nitpick so, nor does it take me out of the story, but these are noticeably constructed situations for plot progress and theme development. Whether it is a worthy mystery drama yet is indeterminate.
The art style nearly turned me off early on also. Essentially, it looks about the same quality at first glance as the comics that accompanied Heroes online – not bad by any means, but not as developed as many of its contemporaries. A seeming explanation comes out of the mouth babes when a young girl, Calista, notes that the backgrounds in cartoons are well drawn, but not the background characters – these are flat. It comes home when you see the first hero arrayed in shadow and light rather beautifully, while detective is illustrated like he’s the guy who is almost, but not quite, looks like Wally in Where’s Wally. These aren’t the heroes – nor the other guys ( the Mystery Men, if you will) – these are the other other guys; the police, whose job it was all along.
As a book, Powers stands a little thick; the comics, the script for the first issue, the character gallery, the character sketch gallery, etc. I’m all in favour for extra features, but it seems a little heavy. The second story, an at-the-end mini-issue seems to draw a line between two points that this is going to be the ‘law and order’ criminal intent kind of show – mostly psych/story backed up backgrounded evidence, with the twist and turns until the villain, in the presence of their lawyer and against his advice confesses to the crime, in detail, with flow charts. I’m not pimping CSI here as the villains of CSI do the same thing, just with forwarded evidence and several backgrounded stories. I’m not-not pimping these shows either, nor am I not pimping Powers, as much as it may seem like that – I love them all, these cops, but these are cop shows with certain conceits of resources, time, coincidence and monologuing.
I am coming down a little on Powers, true. It has the Prophetic Waif-child, the police chief who is Getting Pressure from above, the backstory-through-headlines motif, the New Partner and the Grumpy Old Partner who has hardbitten issues. Particularly, it has the implication of an immortal hero inexplicably losing his powers, who can’t remember anything from the turn of the century. When they did this in act 3 of Hancock, it dropped a brick on my foot for that show and I hope that is not the case for Powers. The superhero with gaps in his memory isn’t the worst trope afterall: Frost in Planetary, or V from V for Vendetta make good use of this – but it can go horribly wrong.
All in all, worth a read at least, but I’ve yet to see if its a sustained by.
Five more graphic novels on order ( substantial book vouchers received)
Kurt Busiek’s Astro City is not, alas, not on the list of the above read or horizon books. Can’t get it here, and it sounds awesome. Must pursue.