Anniversary issues in comics come with a certain amount of pomp and circumstance. Any time the average superhero serial hits anything resembling a milestone, publishers are quick to promote the event as a major turning point or a series jumping on point or the end of an era or the beginning of a new one. And then there's the Garth Ennis approach to anniversaries: business as usual.
Last week, the 50th issue of Ennis and Darick Robertson's Dynamite Entertainment series "The Boys" hit comic shops. An arguably legitimate milestone for a series that nearly ended after six issues when WildStorm dropped it from their catalogue, and that nice round figure was celebrated by Ennis and guest artist Russ Braun the same way the team would celebrate any issue, by advancing the broader story one step further towards its conclusion.
"Originally it was meant to be 60 issues plus six for the 'Butcher' mini," Ennis told CBR News about how the book has grown over five years. "Now it's 72 plus 18 for the three minis. It grew because more and more stuff kept occurring to me, really. I felt that we needed a good solid base of narrative before the time came to move things up a gear and start peeling away the layers, that the Boys needed to do a few different jobs so that we could establish their world properly. Then it would mean more when it all got torn apart. I've a feeling that'll work out well in the long term, when we've got a twelve-book graphic novel on sale for the foreseeable (a lesson I learned from 'Preacher' and 'Hitman')."
Although "The Boys" #50 wasn't a double-sized event comic doesn't mean it didn't carry some powerful weight to it. The story inside gave further revelations as to how the alternate tragedy of the September 11th attacks in the world of the Boys were complicated by the superhero team The Seven, how the truce between the two organizations turned Butcher against his boss and what exactly the trauma of the attacks meant for the characters across the series. "Once I decided to tackle 9/11 I knew the events of the day would resonate throughout the series, probably right to the end," the writer explained. "I think I've said this before, but I believe if you're going to deal with real-world events as ghastly and tragic as those we're talking about, you can't treat them lightly – you have a responsibility to explore them thoroughly, and to show them affecting your fictional world to the same extent as the real one was affected. I couldn't just have a big slam-bang action issue full of the kind of horror and torment that unfolds on the hijacked airliner, and then never bother discussing what happened again."
Ennis noted that while writing directly about the terrorist attacks has slowed in the pop culture sphere nearly a decade out from that day, the emotions and issues brought up by 9/11 still resonate strongly with readers. "As I see it, what happened on 9/11 has been absorbed into the popular consciousness the way events like that usually are: with no real resolution or understanding, nothing much that can be articulated beyond an awkward sense of dissatisfaction. The perpetrators were incinerated, many of the planners are still at large, and our own government's response remains less than laudable. There's no closure, nor will there ever be. I suppose you might total up the numbers of enemy combatants killed in the Iraqi and Afghan quagmires (once you'd separated them from the thousands upon thousands of civilian dead), and then see how they balance up against the death toll on 9/11 – the only trouble is, you'd have to be a true maniac to think that meant anything at all.
"You'll see some of the establishment's long-term reaction to the day in question in 'The Boys' #51, which echoes some of my thoughts on developments in the real world."
As with all elements of the series, the events on the page have the strongest impact on the Boys themselves with Billy Butcher seeing some wrinkles thrown into his character after the flashbacks of #50 reveal the moment he realized he was being played by his organization as much as he was playing along. "To me, Butcher has really just gotten more like Butcher. He was closer to set in stone than any other character in the book when I started writing it, the one guy whose story I felt I knew inside-out. It's been fun having a few details occur to me as I've gone alone, but really he's walked straight down the path I expected him to from the beginning. In #50 you see him realize he got played, you see his disgust at the way things developed politically rather than how he'd hoped – and you see that he learned a vital lesson from it all, which he points out to Terror as the issue closes."
The future still holds secrets for the team leader – some of which will finally be revealed this year in his long-awaited solo mini. "You'll meet Butcher's wife – along with a number of other people – in his own mini series, which will be appearing some time later this year. I think it's pretty strong stuff, and should stand up to the last 50 or so issues without much trouble."
Before that miniseries kicks off, fans can look forward to the return of series lead Wee Hughie to the Boys team once his own miniseries wraps up its sixth and final issue this week. "The finale of 'Highland Laddie' is very much a personal one for Hughie, in terms of what he learns about himself – it might leave him better able to deal with his feelings for Annie, but things won't be sweetness and light for those two for a good while yet. He also makes another discovery, which sets him off on yet another journey of his own. Whether or not Annie wants to come along for the ride will depend on how patient she's feeling with him."
Once the character returns to the regular title in March's #52, the events of the current 9/11 story and the former Boys team leader Mallory who was instrumental in Butcher's development will be back in the present to teach Hughie and the readers more of the organization's secret history. "Hughie has a good sixty years of secret history to find out about, which you'll see him do in the forthcoming 'Barbary Coast' arc (#52-55). When he returns to the fold he'll be better informed – whether or not he's any better equipped to cope is another matter. The man in charge is still the big bloke with the bulldog, after all."
All of this leads toward the series' final act, which despite growing in size will meet the original expectations the writer set for himself. "As to the final act, there are actually a couple. There's the last big showdown between the Boys and the Seven to take care of, and after that there's something else entirely," Ennis said. "There is indeed at least one big widescreen confrontation coming, but that itself will contain a few surprises for all concerned."
"The Boys" #50 is in stores now and "The Boys: Highland Laddie" #6 arrives in stores today from Dynamite Entertainment. Check out a 5-page preview of Highland Laddie right here on CBR.