Garth Ennis always presents a story that screams for a guiding moral thread to pull the reader through the hideous violence and depraved sex, yet he never provides a definitive one. You’ll keep searching for one though. Only when you’re sure you’ve found the core message does he confound you with a contradiction. I’ve read his run on Punisher and I’m ten volumes deep on The Boys.
Punisher was by far the easier read. Good and Bad guys were abundantly clear. The overarching questioned seemed to be about the validity of vigilantism. I knew where I stood on that. Frank Castle being a war Vet only made the issue simpler. Frank Castle is a gift the world should consider itself lucky to have. Valley Forge, Valley Forge (volume ten), along with Punisher: Born, recast the entire series. Good and Evil were symptoms of the condition of human dignity. Which isn’t to suggest that this was just another battleground with another clear line drawn down the middle. It was more about how corrupt a person was. What things they let slide and what they didn’t, but it was a subjective position challenged by everyone they met and everything they did. What made Frank Castle the hero is difficult to pin down. He kills because he loves it, which doesn’t inspire dignity, he’s only removing the most corrupt people. His heroism is sacrifice, of collecting all the vileness of the world into himself.
The first two volumes of The Boys were really hard for me to read. I dearly love superheroes. I couldn’t stand and didn’t understand why they were shallow jokes, a passing reference to Legends, but with only dirty thoughts on their minds. It took me a while to piece together that they weren’t superheroes. The Boys isn’t a parody or send-up. It took a strong force of will for me to see a man in tights and a cape without thinking of him as a paragon of virtue. I didn’t even realize I had such a strong association between the two. Non-comic readers must be laughing at me but I think the point Garth Ennis is making hits a person like me hardest, but works for everybody, that there are solid and invisible connections joining action or dress to concept or idea that has no business being there. Maybe “speedo” isn’t a synonym for Justice for you, but I bet there’s something else. As well, these “superheroes” in The Boys are supposed to masquerade as the best of humanity while actually being the worst. Every average citizen in that world was just like I was when I started volume one.
For all the excess, Ennis’s stories don’t exploit the sensational but turn on small moments. It’s brilliant because all the excitement comes from the reader. It’ll be the typing together of a subplot spread over volumes that’ll remake a reader’s perception of a character. Or just a subtle touch to explain so much, as when Frank Castle would stare, monstrous frown and eyes super focused straight ahead. Massacres would follow that stare. Torture was a certainty. That look was at once scarier and more thrilling than the violence. It took every preceding, gruesome, act into account, said that wasn’t enough, had Frank promise more.
Evil and corruption can have an agent (or several), but the heroes’ (half-broken, angry men) real battle was against those negative aspects of humanity that gave rise to evil; greed and violence being the chief two. The lines between hero and villain can and often blur, as the hero adopts those same negative aspects to win or pursue their cause. It creates a sense that the world as it is is the problem, with heroes able to be corrupted in an instant. Hughie in The Boys, for example, wants nothing to do with the violence swirling around him, but ends up killing a man by giving into those dark forces for a second. Frank Castle is betrayed by his desire to serve his country and his survival instincts, morphing him into an insatiable killer. Ennis stories don’t end with peace the world over, yet feel satisfying. The hero completes their jouney while we understand the world a bit more, even if it is still as crazy as when the story started. It’s not about defeating evil but understanding and controlling it. Humanity is the villain, not a few bad apples, but a force inside every person that only needs a reason or circumstance to emerge.