Feminists get Garth Ennis’ The Boys all wrong, argues Francesca Lewis. The sexual violence and objectification of women are satirical tools highlighting the emptiness of the superhero genre, rather than misogynist wish fulfilment
Many readers, especially feminists, miss the point of Garth Ennis’ ongoing comic series The Boys when they first pick it up. They see female characters murdered and abused, they see violent men and offensive language, and conclude, “This is not for me. This is anti-feminist.”
When I started reading the first collected volume, The Name of The Game, I was one such reader. The story begins with a young Scottish lad and his girlfriend being rudely interrupted mid-romantic moment by a superhero crashing into the woman so hard that he crushes her to death. The lad, Wee Hughie, is left holding her severed hands as the hero flies off without so much as a pardon me. This opening scene exemplifies the problem with this comic. It is not aimed at the casual reader or the reader of graphic novels.
Ennis aims The Boys squarely, and aggressively, at the superhero genre. His frame of reference is the DC and Marvel universes many comic lovers grew up on. The events in these books are not taking place in our world and should not be viewed through our lens or judged by our values. This is all happening in Comic Land and when a female superhero-in-training is forced to perform sexual acts in return for joining prestigious Justice League clone The Seven, it is more a commentary on the squeaky clean, unrealistic moral climate of the worlds that Superman and The Flash inhabit, than the misogynistic wish fulfilment many mistake it for. In an interview for The Comic Collective, Ennis calls The Seven “absolute scum”. We are not supposed to be rooting for them. Superheroes are the bad guys here.
The eponymous ‘Boys’ are a group of vigilantes, all with special talents, who work for the CIA to keep the superheroes, or “supes” in check. Lead by the seemingly morally bankrupt Billy Butcher, described by Ennis himself as “a piece of work”, they are an interesting bunch.
Butcher’s opening line is, “Wait’ll you see where I wipe me dick, luv…” while screwing Susan L. Rayner, director of the CIA, over her desk.
The group’s muscle consists of The Frenchman, a mad, romantic maniac, and The Female (of the Species), a silent Japanese psychopath who, according to Ennis, is “the most dangerous person on the team”.
The voice of reason in the group is Mother’s Milk, an African American single father with refined tastes.
When the series begins, the group have been disbanded and asked to reform by a US government increasingly fearful of the damage the supes are doing. Butcher recruits Wee Hughie, sensing that his anger and pain over the senseless killing of his sweetheart will make him a positive addition to the group, perhaps serving as a reminder of what the supes are capable of.
The world of The Boys is overflowing with superheroes, as though all of the DC and Marvel franchises had been combined.
Ennis has said his approach was to “attempt to look at what [superheroes] would be like in the real world – a cross between politicians and pop culture celebrities.” He uses this to both critique celebrity culture and the paper-thin characterisation in many classic comic series. When a shocked Wee Hughie on surveillance duty watches in disbelief as the young supe group Teenage Kix indulges in orgies, sadomasochism, drug use and self-harm, Ennis is shining the light of realism on the comic book world.
The extremity and excess for which he is often criticised is a direct contrast to the empty, one dimensional world of comics. He includes every violent, sexual and controversial subject that is present in the real world and conspicuously not present in classic comics. He takes the realism a step further by making the consequences of the superheroes’ actions reflect their power. Sex plus super-strength equals severe vaginal injury. This is not the misogynistic fantasy of a pervert but the satirical commentary of a writer familiar with and frustrated by classic comics.
This attitude is reflected in the role of comics within the universe of The Boys. They are propaganda for the supes, a way to make sure everyone sees them in exactly the light they want, and not in the harsh light of reality. Ennis says, “I don’t hate superheroes, I just think they’re kinda silly.”
Viewed in the vacuum in which some literary and feminist critics place their subjects, The Boys is unforgivable. Without the context of comic book history, the characters and events are amusing and titillating, but also offensive. The art style of the book reflects the gritty take on the world, allowing us to see one supe with an unflatteringly mascara-covered face after she has been crying, but there is enough direct referencing of the genre to mean that all of the women conform to the beauty standard and are often naked.
This is essential to Ennis’ satirical style as it is difficult to parody something if you change it beyond all recognition. Characters existing outside of the superhero world, such as The Female and Susan Rayner, are drawn in more real and much less sexualised ways. Men, also, are frequently seen nude, in sexualised clothing and even being sexually dominated. It is important to remember that this is a crapsack world. Everything sucks, and not just for women.
I went into this expecting to the hate The Boys. I thought it would be a pornographic, hyper-violent mess of meaningless and shallow events. And while it does feature human rape, animal rape, homophobia, violent sex, sexual violence and a lot of loaded language, it also features human kindness, animal rescue, gay rights, fun sex, justifiable (in universe) violence and a huge amount of good-natured humour.
When I began reading, I did not expect to the find such a colourful book full of diverse, flawed-but-loveable characters and razor sharp, hilarious satire. I was pleasantly surprised and I urge all feminists to remember, context is everything.