Content warning: References to sexual violence and rape.
I’ve known about Garth Ennis and Darick Robertson’s The Boys from Wildstorm and Dynamite Entertainment for several years now. A good friend slogged through the racist, sexist, misogynistic, homophobic, irreverent comic some time ago, and shared with me many details. Of course the comic is intentionally controversial. It’s meant to be a dark, satirical commentary about the fictional superheroes — and, to an extent, the real life celebrities — we idolize, and how easily people with such power can abuse their responsibility. But The Boys delves so deeply into its efforts to be controversial that it quickly and unsurprisingly becomes offensive, to the point where the intentionally satirical nature of it all just isn’t enough to make the offenses explainable, much less forgivable.
Knowing this, I’ve owned the first volume for years, intent on at least checking it out to appreciate the controversy and see it all for myself, first hand. Hard to critique something if you don’t put in that effort. But I didn’t get around to it until the series aired this past weekend.
Knowing what I did about the comic, I was extremely hesitant to watch Eric Kripke’s TV adaptation, much less even consider suggesting it to friends and family. Yet I was also extremely, perhaps morbidly, curious. Up to its release, I carefully refused to review any of the articles or trailers about it. If I was going to watch it, I was going to come in clean — other than my preconceptions based on what I’d heard about the source material, of course.
Imagine my surprise to be, well, surprised by the first episode. “Name of the Game” is quick to establish the motives that tie two of the main characters together: Hughie Campbell (Jack Quaid) loses his girlfriend in a violent accident involving a supe, and Starlight (Erin Moriarty), whose been dreaming of being part of the Justice League-like group of superheroes known as the Seven since she was a child, discovers that being on the team comes with an awful initiation involving sexual assault, threats, and coercion.
The show has no interest in censoring the levels of violence depicted. People die in brutal, pulpy messes. The gore isn’t dwelt on for longer than necessary, but it’s definitely there, so if that’s not your bag, then don’t bother watching the series at all. But if you’ve heard about the sexual content of the comic, and, in particular, what Starlight faces in her initiation, then I am honestly surprised to be able to assure you that the TV series manages to handle the sex scenes, and even the sexual violence, in an appropriate manner. In a world that justifies the abuse of women in Game of Thrones, it’s almost unbelievable to find a show that manages to depict sex and sexual violence with sensitivity.
After the first episode, I paused, making the decision to finally take a look at the comic for reference. It opens with the character of Butcher referring to someone as a “cunt,” then a page later, shifts to Hughie with homophobia on full display. Following his girlfriend’s abrupt departure, the comic flips back to Butcher and his shit-eating grin as he has filthy, angry, explicit sex with a woman who hates him.
I stopped reading there.
(I went back later to flip through some of the other controversial scenes, including the assault on Starlight. The comic plays the assault for laughs, ups the ante by involving three supes instead of one, and later references back to it even as the story moves on. The scene of the illicit superhero club is also much more violent in the comics, featuring several supes raping women in a brothel.)
Referring specifically to Starlight’s ordeal, writer and producer Eric Kripke — who is a huge fan of the comics — had this to say to Rosie Knight at The Hollywood Reporter:
“So it was an incredible amount of conversation with a lot of the women on my writing staff and the women who are producers on the show. Making sure to really hear everyone’s personal experiences, hearing their diverse points of view, discussing whether we should we put something like this in what is a superhero show, and thinking whether we were we going to inadvertently make light of it.
“I agree that in Garth’s original work it was put in for shock value, but in this day and age, and it being part of the Me Too movement and conversation, it’s not funny. It’s a horrific experience that has been revealed as something that far, far too many women have gone through. So you can’t make light of it. It’s really horrific.”
Imagine that: actually talking to and working with women, and realizing that criticizing the way sexual violence is portrayed in media is not the same as asking that it be entirely banned. Instead, it’s about understanding that sexual assault and rape have serious, real-world consequences for far too many people, and, if it must be included in the story, that approaching it with empathy and sensitivity is paramount, as is addressing the consequences.
Continuing on with the TV series, I got to the scene where Butcher (played by Karl Urban with a lot less shit-eating grin and a whole lot more nuance) meets with Raynor (Jennifer Esposito). The filthy, angry sex scene from the comic is instead ironically replaced with a welcome “fuck you” from Raynor to Butcher, as the two express their opposition through more sophisticated communication.
I continued to be impressed with, of all things, the sex — or lack there of — in the show. I mean, the story and characters are great, too. But the sex scenes stand out because they rarely involve nudity unless they are purely and clearly consensual — and yet, they are still sexy. More violent scenes don’t slip into gratuity and shock value, and in some cases, aren’t even on screen. And, most surprisingly of all, even with their skimpy outfits, the female characters aren’t subjected to objectification.
Imagine that. It really is possible to tell a story — even one that involves sexual violence — without making it gross.
But like I said, if violence isn’t your thing at all, then The Boys might still not be okay for you. And the series certainly has other problems. Most notably, several plot elements involving people of colour are problematically stereotypical, like casting Karen Fukuhara as the silent Asian fighter (which we’ve seen her do before in Suicide Squad) and using Arab-coded terrorists simply as plot devices. These, like everything else in the show, may well be a commentary on both fictional tropes and the reality of our times. It’s only the first season, so perhaps the next season will address these elements, giving them the depth and investigation they require. The show already does a competent job with its satirization of capitalism, nationalism, religious fanaticism, and more, so it’s clear Kripke knows how to delve deep into important issues.
Whether or not the comic ever does so, I’ll never know, as I have no interest in reading on to find out just how far into irreverence it goes. However, I’m happy to recommend the TV series in its entirety to both comic-readers and non-comic readers alike. Just don’t bother with the source material.