Any fan of the pulpy genre publications of the 40s and 50s will tell you that comic-books have always had a love affair with horror. Unfortunately, the eventual rise of the Comics Code Authority meant that publishers could no longer depict mature subject matter in their books, resulting in an industry-wide shift to more accessible stories. This act of politically motivated censorship (which was mostly inspired by the ill-researched work of psychiatrist Fredric Wertham) is partially responsible for family-friendly superheroes dominating the once-diverse world of comics, something that the industry still hasn’t quite recovered from long after the “code” was deemed irrelevant.
However, there were some subversive writers like Alan Moore and Neil Gaiman that managed to spin legitimately chilling comic-book yarns without necessarily escaping the confines of super-hero stories, often exploring the dark side of these popular power fantasies. Stories like watchmen and the miracle man reboot paved the way for other creators to once again explore mature subject matter in mainstream comics, even if they still featured cape-clad strongmen.
Back in 2006, this trend led to the creation of Garth Ennis and Darick Robertson‘s The Boys, an edgy comic meant to satirize Bush-era politics while also poking fun at the ever-ridiculous state of super-hero media. Chronicling the hyper-violent misadventures of the titular group of “supe”-hunting protagonists, the monthly series was criticized for being overly cynical and excessively vulgar, but it ultimately became a cult hit and managed to fully conclude its narrative by 2012.
Of course, The Boys would really become popular in 2019 with the release of Amazon Studios’ eponymous television series, which was greenlit after a decade of ill-fated film adaptations. Produced by the unlikely team of Seth Rogen, Evan Goldberg and supernatural‘s Eric Kripkethe story was updated into a scathing critique of modern-day corporate America and the entertainment industry’s unhealthy fascination with super-people, though the central plot points remained largely the same.
This modernized reimagining doubled down on the horrific elements of the story, with the show boasting scenes of extreme violence and gore and featuring some of the most convincing super-powered dismemberments in television history, making it appeal to audiences that might not necessarily be fans of super hero media. While the program’s visceral brutality is often played for laughs, it also serves to offer a more-or-less realistic look at what classic comic-book powers like eye beams and super strength could do to regular people, turning these once-innocent daydreams into the stuff of nightmares.
Elements of body horror are also frequently used in “The Boys,” from the biological terror of seeing Kimiko’s regenerative abilities in action or even certain characters who survive horrific injuries that would have killed them in a more merciful story. There are also less tasteful powers like the Love Sausage’s giant prehensile penis and Doppelganger’s eerie shapeshifting abilities, with even the drug-induced origins of these so-called heroes being particularly horrific. These disconcerting moments benefit from the show’s impressive effects budget, which incorporates practical elements into scenes whenever possible, with hardly a single episode going by without at least a gallon of fake blood showing up onscreen.
Despite The Boys’ penchant for diabolical carnage, the show’s scares aren’t limited to its exaggerated visuals. There’s an undeniable existential dread that permeates the series as its protagonists are forced to deal with the fact that those with power are not interested in using it for good. The constant reminders that amoral corporations and an uncaring government are either actively funding or at least encouraging the antagonists borders on cosmic horror, with only a select few characters knowing that these malevolent god-like figures are running things behind the scenes and there’s pretty much nothing any mortal can do to stop them.
These elements hit especially hard when it comes to the admittedly hard-to-watch scenes depicting sexual harassment and other kinds of abuse coming from characters in positions of power. In fact, the entire premise of the show is built around the consequences of its antagonists’ lack of accountability, with the corrupt inner workings of Vought International feeling like they were directly inspired by real world headlines. While these are admirable concepts to explore in a superhero show, I still find it more than a little ironic that the series is produced by one of the largest and most controversial multinational corporations in the world.
Nevertheless, the single most interesting aspect of The Boys is Antony Starr‘s career-making performance as the unhinged Homelander, a murderous Superman analogue who’s responsible for many of the story’s most horrific moments. While the character is undeniably a monster, Starr portrays this super-powered fiend as a believable human being driven by relatable emotions, with his plausible psychology making him much scarier than if he were simply a power-hungry god.
Starr has even stated in recent interviews that he refused to use the term “psychopath” when crafting Homelander’s disturbing tapestry of psychological issues, knowing that the character views himself as the protagonist of this story despite his cruel outbursts. This added complexity makes the show’s main villain way more interesting than a psychotic Superman, as his characterization shares an eerie resemblance to real life figures like ex-president/game show host Donald Trump. The latest season actually goes all out with the political angle, having Homelander’s controversial persona inspire far-right rallies and dangerous political opinions in the media.
While he’s definitely the most memorable evil-doer of the bunch, Homelander is far from the only super-powered fiend in The Boys. From The Deep’s narcissistic shenanigans to Translucent’s perverted use of his invisibility powers (which make him a pretty faithful recreation of HG Well’s original The Invisible Man), the show has no shortage of deranged characters who abuse their powers for their own personal gain. In fact, one curious issue with the show is that its antagonists are often more interesting to watch than the main characters, becoming entertaining assholes that we just love to hate.
It may still be a superhero show, but there’s a tangible human horror at the heart of this story that helps to make The Boys such a captivating experience. The absurd levels of violence and satirical approach to sensitive subject matter won’t work for everyone, but I personally think that the show’s brutality is part of its charm, and that’s why I’d recommend it to any fan of depraved fiction even if you ‘re not necessarily into super hero media. In fact, a distaste for the genre might actually help you to get along with Butcher’s Boys…
“The Boys” will return in an upcoming fourth season.