Superheroes, they're just like us

Does Amazon's The Boys have anything freshly subversive to say about the comic-book genre?

The Boys.
(Image credit: Illustrated | Jan Thijs, undefined undefined/iStock, -slav-/iStock)

So far, when I've ventured the opinion that Eric Kripke's Amazon Prime adaptation of The Boys is actually a pretty good show, people who know the original source comics have expressed doubt and surprise. They're right to be dubious. If you look back at the comic book run that Garth Ennis and Darick Robertson began in 2006 — about a world where corporate-sponsored superheroes are actually sexually-depraved egomaniacs who have to be exposed and taken down by a specially formulated (and super-powered) CIA squad — it's easy to understand why Kripke had to change so much of it. A more faithful adaptation of the material would probably have been awful. The original comics are peak-2006, not only drenched in pornographic sadism and sexual violence — shocking the audience for the sake of shock itself — but also coasting on what they think is a novel premise: in a world where superheroes are sexually-dissolute hedonists, the good guys are actually — and this will blow your mind, so strap yourself in — bad.

Even then, it was far from the first time that comics had played with the idea of sexually-deviant superheroes expressing their super-fetishes through super-violence. But the "gritty reboot" hadn't yet become such a stale cliché. Christopher Nolan's grimdark Batman had begun to supplant the dayglo cartoonishness of the character's previous film incarnations (going deeper into the Frank Miller and Alan Moore version of the character that Tim Burton had deployed in the 1989 Batman), but the now-hegemonic DC and Marvel cinematic franchises were still just a glint in Hollywood's eye. The prestige "anti-hero" show was also still relatively new: Tony Soprano was still on the air — and a point of reference for the comic, along with other fresh new voices like Quentin Tarantino — but no one had yet heard of Walter White, and Game of Thrones, whose "realistic" depictions of sadistic sexual violence would launch a thousand think-pieces, was still just a series of fantasy novels that the world still believed George R. R. Martin would someday finish.

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Aaron Bady

Aaron Bady is a founding editor at Popula. He was an editor at The New Inquiry and his writing has appeared in The New Yorker, The New Republic, The Nation, Pacific Standard, The Los Angeles Review of Books, and elsewhere. He lives in Oakland, California.