This article is part of The Reading List, a monthly column in which we encourage you to take your enthusiasm for a particularly groovy TV show and direct it into a wide array of extracurricular studies. This entry starts with The Boys source material but quickly descends into equally ghastly and thematically similar comic books.
The Boys is fuckin’ diabolical. The Amazon Prime series lives to jab its two meaty thumbs into your eye sockets and swirl them around for an hour or two. Making your way through an entire episode without flinching can be a challenge. Or, if you’re already a little bent, the method of the show’s madness stirs forth great gobs of laughter. You’re a sicko, and this show loves sickos.
When it comes to superhero entertainment, there is no other slice of primetime like The Boys. Each frame seemingly attempts to celebrate and humiliate the genre. We know we don’t deserve Superman. We deserve Homelander.
If you’re aching to wallow in similar pleasures, this month’s Reading List is designed to help. The Boys is the bastard child of Irish comic writer Garth Ennis. Along with artist Darick Robertson, Ennis crafted a nasty saga of mayhem, murder, and spandex. It’s not for everybody, including fans of the series, but those who connect with it do so with great fervor.
Below, you’ll find a list of comics that could offer insight into where the series is going (with potential SPOILERS), but more than likely they will just keep your blood pumping while you wait for the next episode to drop. When it comes to Ennis, his greatest works are those that reach beyond The Boys. You’ll find several of those here as well.
The Boys: The Name of the Game
You’ll decide pretty quickly whether you want to continue this journey through Garth Ennis’ bibliography by page eight of the first trade paperback collection. You’ll recognize the set-up and a lot of the characters from the Amazon series, but mystifyingly, these brutes plummet even further into deplorable behavior, and the general attitude and tone of the comic books are much more sophomoric. Remember that kid who thought the height of comedy was rubbing a booger on another kid during class? That’s Garth Ennis.
The Name of the Game opens with A-Train propelling his body through Wee Hughie’s girlfriend, and Billy Butcher using the traumatic event as a recruiting tool. As The Boys assemble, Starlight is inducted into the superpowered Seven. There are no revelations here. The first volume exclusively acclimates the reader into the grotesque environment. If you survive the experience, there are currently eleven more collections to plunge into.
The Boys: Over the Hill with the Swords of a Thousand Men
The comic books and the Amazon series don’t track perfectly. The Starlight of the comic is not the Starlight you know, and that’s true of all the characters in some fashion or another. If you’re hoping to gain insight into the show’s future, you’re probably not going to get the result you desire. However, after last week’s episode, which takes its title from this volume of comics, you’re no doubt hungry for more Black Noir.
It’s in this volume, with issue #65, where we learn the true identity of the man in black. Do you not want to know? Do you want to wade through the previous sixty-four bloody issues? Then, stop here. Read no further. Ok, those spoilerphobes are gone. Black Noir is none other than the superpowered, paradoxically charismatic Homelander. Well, kinda, sorta. He’s a clone of Homelander, made in a bottle as a contingency plan against the superman if he should ever turn against his Vought masters.
Again, Over the Hill with the Swords of a Thousand Men does not behave like the episode of the TV series of The Boys. Once revealed, things go south for our protagonists incredibly quickly. Black Noir achieves what his TV counterpart has yet to even attempt. Witnessing his might is a genuine fright.
The Boys: The Bloody Doors Off
Maybe you want to jump to the end. The Bloody Doors Off is the climax of the series (although there is another series that focuses on Hughie’s life after his entanglement with The Boys). How do you top what seemingly can’t be topped in terms of sexual content and violence? The task is impossible, but Ennis and Robertson go for broke in this volume.
Personally, having fallen in love with the performers on the Amazon show and their specific storylines, I do not want to see them mirror the events of this arc. The Bloody Doors Off pits Hughie versus Butcher. Most of The Boys are dead by this point, and where the battle between the two leads is rancid and despicable.
The comic is not something you walk away from feeling happy, or even satisfied. It’s a brutal, painful, and mean-spirited event. Nothing reads like it, but you need to know what you’re getting into before cracking that cover. Once more for those in the back: most won’t be able to stomach the debauchery and will turn away after The Name of the Game.
Preacher: Gone To Texas
Before Ennis’ The Boys went through the adaptation meatgrinder, Preacher found its way onto the boob tube. Of course, the AMC Preacher series does not have the freedom of Amazon, and the result is a far less joyfully offensive and monstrously violent display. Is that a good thing? Depends on who you ask.
Gone To Texas is the first story arc in the comic book series. Here we meet our three leads: the despairing titular preacher, the badass gunslinging heroine, and the bloodthirsty vampire. Jesse, Tulip, and Cassidy are quite the trio of misanthropes. They’re bad people, but they’re not as bad as those who chase them.
When the heavenly force of Genesis escapes Heaven and possesses Jesse, the armies of upstairs, downstairs, and in-between fall into hot pursuit. Genesis grants Jesse the power of God’s Word, and you sure as heck don’t want him to tell you to stick your head up your butt. Yikes.
While many will consider Preacher to be blasphemous and horrendously immoral, it’s more of a Green Lantern comic when placed under the shadow of The Boys. Empowered by his newfound connection to Heaven, Jesse realigns a sense of right and wrong. He means to help the world, and His Word will get the job done. Preacher is a powerfully provocative story, and I doubt anyone who makes it through Gone To Texas will stop reading until they’re done with all nine volumes.
Hellblazer: Dangerous Habits
This volume of comics serves as the basis for the 2006 film Constantine starring Keanu Reeves. While that film has its moments, it barely scratches the surface of self-loathing and dread found within this source material. The Vertigo label was DC Comics’ attempt to tell more adult stories, but during this era, Ennis was far more reserved. There are plenty of “Oh Damn!” moments to be found, but Hellblazer certainly does not require a puke bucket next to the nightstand the way The Boys might.
After years and years of smoking, John Constantine contracts lung cancer. What’s he going to do? Sit back and wait for the end? No way. It’s time to tack down Satan or whatever demon will hear him out. Constantine is a lot like Billy Butcher. He’s a right ol’ bastard, but the confidence behind his actions makes him incredibly appealing. Both Constantine and Butcher operate in the gray, but they’ll never side with the devil even when dealing with him.
The Punisher MAX: In the Beginning
In the early aughts, Marvel desperately wanted in on the adult comic market. They were tired of Vertigo and DC getting all the accolades. The “adults only” MAX line was the answer to their woes, and the Punisher was about as perfect a fit for these gnarly stories as they could muster.
Under their semi-mature Marvel Knights brand, Ennis crafted a batch of brutally weird Punisher comics (several of which would be the inspiration behind the Thomas Jane 2004 film adaptation). The MAX brand took Ennis off the leash, and the resulting Punisher comics were violent in a way that haunted the reader long after they put the book down.
In the Beginning finds the vigilante Frank Castle decades into his war on crime. What effect is he having on society? For every criminal he removes off the chessboard, three more pop up in their place. He’s exhausted. The Punisher needs new purpose.
Enter CIA operative Robert Bethell. He’s putting together a new organization designed to work outside the law. A partnership with Bethell means a level of violent reach the Punisher has never had before. Of course, Frank ain’t no one’s dog. The Punisher may not be making any headway on crime, but he won’t quit, and he won’t change. It’s his way or the highway. It’s a hard lesson for Bethell.
Hitman: A Rage in Arkham
If you read only one comic book from this list, read Hitman: A Rage in Arkham. It’s absurd, trashy, funny, weird, and violent. All the things you love about The Boys, but free from the expectation and your TV-born love. Hitman has the best chance of winning you over to another medium of entertainment.
Tommy Monaghan is a gruff, mean hired killer. He enjoys his work about as much as the next plumber or electrician. It’s a job.
One day, he’s bitten by an alien and infected with superhuman abilities, including x-ray vision and so-so telepathy. Suddenly, Tommy has a newfound passion for the job. His dander is up.
Pressured by a demon, Tommy takes a gig that forces him into the dark dungeons of Gotham’s Arkham Asylum. There he encounters the likes of Batman and the Joker. Neither of these more popular costumed types can make heads or tales of this new vigilante player. Their interactions go about as well as you would expect, but Ennis uses Tommy as the ultimate jab against spandex heroes and their rogues. Many of these ideas would eventually make their way into The Boys, but sometimes the first draft is the best draft.