Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Graphic Lit: The Boys & Black Summer

Two weeks ago, I wrote about a handful of superhero books that anyone could go and pick up without needing to dig into 20 pages of backstory or worry about an excess of blood and guts.

They weren’t necessarily the most family-friendly titles out there, mind you, but for those searching for a capes and cowl thrill, they fit the bill nicely.

Now it’s time to look at the flip-side of the coin: books that embody what Comics Journal online editor Dirk Deppey terms “superhero decadence.”

The idea is that under pressure to constantly up the ante, publishers fill their comics with more and more sex and violence in order to cater to an increasingly older and jaded audience, one desperate to have their superhero comics “matter.”

One of the best examples of this growing subgenre may be “The Boys,” a satire by Garth Ennis and Darick Robertson.

Set in a world much like our own (only filled with superheroes), “The Boys” is about a group of government operatives who keep tabs on the various hero elements and make sure they toe the line when necessary. It goes without saying that it’s often necessary and that toeing the line involves beating them to a bloody, mangled pulp.

The moral center of the comic is Simon Pegg-lookalike “Wee Hughie,” who joins the team after his girlfriend is accidentally (but very brutally) killed by the hero A-Train.

The superheroes in this series are far from admirable. Though they maintain a veneer of moral authority, behind the scenes their ranks are filled with rapists, murderers, money-hungry charlatans, drug addicts and sexual deviants.

None of that should surprise those who’ve read Ennis’ other books, like “Preacher.” Many of his recurrent themes, such as the need for personal responsibility and ethics in a corrupt world, surface here, and as always he revels in going as far beyond the pale as possible.

“The Boys” walks a fine line. It veers wildly at time between uber-gross-out satire and serious character study. It’s clear Ennis and Robertson want you to care about their characters, particularly Hughie. When you do, it’s a compelling, if overly coarse series. When you don’t, it’s just coarse.

“Black Summer” by Warren Ellis and Juan Jose Ryp isn’t a satire, but it deals with a number of the same themes as “The Boys,” namely the dark side of the superhero fantasy.

The story begins with a bloody bang as hero John Horus decides he’s had enough of the Bush administration and their “illegal” war and slaughters the president and his cabinet.

That action creates quite a bit of trouble for Horus’ former teammates, known collectively as the Seven Guns, a loose group of genetically and cybernetically enhanced twentysomethings who have since fallen on hard times and, in the case of one member, rendered him a cripple.

As every military and federal agent attempt to take down Horus and, by extension, the other guns, philosophical questions are batted around like, at what point does a personal quest for justice and freedom edge into fascism? When do you stop being a do-gooder and become a dictator?

Of course, those questions take second seat to panels of stuff getting blowed up real good. And I mean real good. Ryp’s art owes a lot to Geof Darrow, of “Hard Boiled” fame. His pages are as overly and expressively rendered as possible, with no negative space to be found and every drop of blood, meat and bone drawn in the sharpest light.

Like “The Boys,” “Black Summer” wants to have it both ways, to shock you with its violence but thrill you at the same time. That’s about as good a definition of “superhero decadence” as I can come up with for now.

Copyright The Patriot-News, 2007

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