At this point in his career, any comics Garth Ennis is involved in will generate certain set of expectations and downright assumptions from his readership. A "Garth Ennis comic" is one that's meant to be vulgar and violent, pushing all sorts of hot button issues from both inside and outside the comics industry while keeping a gleeful tongue in its sardonic cheek. And though the writer's current ongoing series "The Boys" from Dynamite Entertainment has done all that and more in its four years and counting, the further the story of a band of superpowered agents sent to take the piss out of the selfish and sadistic superheroes of the world goes, the more it chips away at those surface features to reveal a tight focus on human relationships lurking underneath.
Take the current arc - "Believe" - which wraps with this week's issue #47. Built upon a premise which involves a mega church-style revival where superheroes profess their (dubiously inspired) Christian love to throngs of sycophantic followers, the storyline seems at face value to be another opportunity for Ennis to tweak the routines and contradictions he sees in organized religion, much like he did in his classic series "Preacher." But over the course of its six issue arc, "Believe" has revealed itself to be less about joke making and more about heart breaking as the drama around main character Wee Hughie and his recently unmasked lady love Annie "Starlight" January ramps up.
"The religious element in the 'Believe' arc quickly took a back seat to the more vital human relationships, which is as it should be," Ennis explained to CBR News. "I'm not sure I have much left to say on the subject of organized religion; lines appear to have been drawn and almost everyone knows where they stand. When the biggest Christian church in the world can survive the scandal of its priests raping children - and escaping justice for their crimes - you've gone somewhere far beyond satire, anyway."
What is left to explore are new twists on familiar "Boys" characters, including cynical interactions between Annie and the abusive hero Homelander, which seemed, if only for for a moment, to break out of their antagonistic back-and-forth. "I think the connection between the Homelander and Annie was entirely artificial, little more than a move he made to try and get her out of the way for his big meeting. Annie's smart enough to be suspicious of him to begin with, and, sure enough, it doesn't take him long to show his true colors," Ennis explained of the final state of that false connection.
The writer has also been playing with the Hughie and Annie side of the equation in the ongoing "Highland Laddie" miniseries, which sees its third issue ship this month. "The rest of 'Highland Laddie' will see Hughie delving into Annie's background in a manner he never expected to. As for The Boys, Hughie's going to come out of his miniseries having learned some important lessons both about the team and himself. How he applies those lessons, we'll see as things develop next year."
Also on Ennis' developmental plate is an in-depth exploration of Boys leader Butcher, particularly as the rift between him and Hughie heals even as "Believe" wraps. "Hughie automatically sees Butcher as a big brother figure; he's been listening to his advice on the job they're doing for nearly 50 issues now, and Butcher is hugely relieved that his suspicions about Hughie proved false. As he said to the Legend, he just didn't want it to be true. All Butcher has to do now is help Hughie get through the business with Annie, and then the lad'll be in good shape for whatever his boss has planned for him next...which I'm beginning to explore now, some ways down the road from the current issues."
On the art side of the "Boys" equation, Ennis' frequent collaborator Russ Braun has stepped up to take over art duties from series co-creator Darick Robertson for the current and next arc, and the penciler told CBR how he's been trying to ably live up to the character work standard set so far. "I really like to focus on the expressions and acting of the characters I draw. I like to convey the emotions they're feeling and make them as believable as possible, mostly because that's what draws me into a story; identifying with the characters. Garth's descriptions are concise and pretty specific, so it's not a whole lot of interpretation on my part. There's some really subtle, complex stuff he wants, especially with Butcher. Things like, 'Butcher's smile becomes humorless and weary' or trying to show the layers of insincerity while he's manipulating Hughie into watching the Seven tapes at the end of #47. When he's saying 'cruel to be kind,' there's a hint of real sadness in that smile. Butcher's got a lotta smiles," Braun said.
The artist admitted, "I didn't know if I'd be the best fit [at first]. I mean, any book you do, unless you're the original creator, you're giving your interpretation of someone else's creation, and I've done that on everything from Batman to the Son of Satan, but 'The Boys' has a pretty unique look and tone that's crucial to the storytelling. It's gritty, dark and pretty realistic. Lots of shadows, lots of characters, all in a real world setting, and that's a time intensive style to draw. Plus, 'The Boys' is pretty high profile, which means a little extra pressure. On top of that, I was in the middle of drawing the follow-up to ['Battlefields mini] 'The Night Witches,' 'Motherland,' when they needed me to start. I started working on my first issue of 'The Boys' while I was trying to finish 'Motherland' and the deadlines began to intersect and get a bit tight. But here we are, on time (knock wood). So far, so good."
Braun continued, explaining a big part of nailing the feel of a series like "The Boys" comes down to the often under-credited continuing members of the art team. "I do have to mention two other people who've been nothing but helpful to my efforts on the book: [letterer] Simon Bowland and [colorist] Tony Avina. They make 'The Boys' look like 'The Boys' and don't seem to get enough credit.Tony's colors not only enhance the mood and tone of the book, they just about define the look of 'The Boys.' Simon and Tony keep the quality and consistency of the book up, no matter which one of us trained monkeys is scribbling it out."
Next up for the series is the six-part "Proper Preparation and Planning" storyline kicking off in November's #48, of which Ennis said, "This is a reference to Butcher's 'Seven P's' that he mentioned way back at the beginning: 'Proper preparation and planning prevents piss poor performance.' Words to live by, although the first time around several people actually died by them."
The arc will turn back the clock a bit to look at the first meeting of The Boys and The Seven. "You'll see the whole grim business, from start to finish. Long time readers may remember a scene from the 'I Tell You No Lie, G.I.' arc, in which the two teams were apparently confronting each other in a blood-soaked aircraft hangar. Everything really revolves around that," Ennis explained. "I'm particularly keen on developing the political and historical background of the book, interweaving actual American history with fictional events, such as the Seven's disastrous attack on the hijacked aircraft and the Legend's account of Vought American's corporate influence over the past seventy years. There'll be more of that next year, when we finally meet Colonel Greg Mallory, who'll be revealing the secret history of the Boys themselves - beginning with his own background in military intelligence and the events that led him to form the team. I enjoyed writing Mallory's story a good deal."
As for the core characters who will step into the spotlight, both writer and artist gave hints of what's to come in "Proper Preparation." "Hughie and Annie were my first favorites [last arc], mostly for the extremes of raw emotion they've gone through," Braun said. I also liked creating Oh Father and Sidekick Twelve for their Last Supper Homage. But right now, I'm getting into Frenchie and the Female. There's a moment they have coming up, just a quiet moment that's just my favorite right now. It's one of those little Garth Ennis gems in the middle of all the chaos. The Frenchie and the Female scene at 'Believe,' when she has her revenge dream sequence, was definitely the most fun. But the final scene of the arc, between Hughie and Anna, was the most powerful for me.
"Not to give anything away [for the upcoming storyline] (they're all Skrulls! Butcher splits into four separate people with four different colored coats! Homelander's a dick! well that one's true, but not literally). Garth is peeling away more layers of the onion, revealing more and more, and my approach remains the same; help him tell the story."
Ennis concluded, "Everyone gets a turn in the spotlight. Black Noir kicks things off with a rather messy and embarrassing accident, then the Homelander briefly takes center stage. Moving further ahead, we focus on Maeve for a while, and then Jack From Jupiter finds himself in the spotlight in pretty much the worst way possible."
"The Boys" #37 - the final chapter of "Believe" - is in stores this week from Dynamite Entertainment, to soon be followed by "Highland Laddie" #3.