Garth Ennis Is A Hack

by Rude Cyrus

Rude Cyrus is deservedly rude about The Boys.
Once upon a time, superheroes were seen as protectors of the innocent, bringers of justice, and saviors of mankind. When I was a kid, there was no greater thrill than watching Superman pummel giant robots or stop a plane from crashing into a city. As time went on, the public began to tire of flawless beings that could do no wrong, so creators began to make the heroes more “realistic”, at least in terms of character. Antiheroes like Wolverine and The Punisher became popular while concepts like vigilantism would be explored in comics like Watchmen.

Unfortunately, the pendulum swung a little too far during the ‘90s, a decade where you couldn’t swing a dead badger without hitting some DARK and GRITTY antihero. This is the same decade that gave birth to Image Comics, a publisher that needs to make an acquaintance with an H-Bomb. All you need to know about Image Comics is that it took over the canceled Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles franchise and turned Donatello into a cyborg. That says it all.

This brings me to the present and The Boys, a comic series written by Garth Ennis and illustrated by Darick Robertson (which I keep pronouncing as “da’ Rick”).

Let me just say that I hate this series. I don’t hate it because it’s ultra-violent and ultra-sexualized. I don’t hate it because it makes superheroes (or “supes” as they’re called here) turn out to be a bunch of amoral douchebags. I don’t hate it because I think Garth Ennis is an overrated hack who’s convinced everyone he’s a genius. No, I hate it because I can’t stand the characters.

Everybody, with few exceptions, is thoroughly repugnant. Just look at the main characters:

Billy Butcher is a sociopath with a neck the size of a ham and a perpetual smirk plastered on his face. He owns a bulldog named Terror that can fuck things on command; seemingly hates supes because one raped his wife, who ended up dying because the fetus ripped through her stomach. Butcher ended up beating said fetus to death with a lamp.

Wee Hughie joined The Boys after his girlfriend was accidentally killed by a supe named A-Train. Much of the series is focused on following Hughie’s thoughts and actions, which is unfortunate because he’s a wet blanket with exactly three facial expressions: anger, incredulity, and shit-eating grin. He’s also a dead ringer for Simon Pegg – I suspect Ennis was sitting around, smoking pot, and said to himself, “Dude, wouldn’t it be cool if Simon Pegg had superpowers?”

Mother’s Milk is a somewhat decent guy, which means he gets shoved into the background more often than not. He seems to derive his powers from an entity he calls “Momma” in a process that makes him vomit. Why does he have to do this? Who cares, let’s watch a midget use a massive vibrator!

The Frenchman and The Female are psychotic killers with the ability to rip people apart with their bare hands. Defining characteristics: one is French, the other lacks a penis. Garth Ennis doesn’t give a shit about them, so why should I?

And what would a team of morally dubious antiheroes be without a team of superheroes to oppose them? Enter the Seven, an analogue of the Justice League, filled with characters that make The Boys look like The Boy Scouts. The only good member of the group is Starlight, and she’s constantly degraded by the other members, whether it’s forced into wearing a more revealing outfit, giving fellatio to the male members of the group as a “test”, or nearly being raped by the aforementioned A-Train. It’s also strongly hinted that Homelander (leader of the Seven and Superman analogue) was the one who raped Butcher’s wife.

What a charming bunch. Thankfully, it’s not all bad, as Starlight later becomes Hughie’s girlfriend. It’s a match made in heaven, as they’re both outstandingly bland.

Other notable characters include a CIA analyst with a fetish for female paraplegic athletes, a CIA director that frequently has humiliating sex with Butcher, and recurring cameos by Stan Lee – okay, he’s called the Legend, but it’s supposed to be Stan Lee. Perhaps “Exposition Man” would be a better name, because all he does is talk and talk and talk and talk and talk and talk and talk and talk and talk and talk and talk and talk and talk and talk and talk and talk and talk and talk and talk and talk and talk and talk and talk and talk and talk and talk and talk and talk and talk and talk and talk and talk and talk and talk and talk and talk and talk and talk and talk and talk and talk and talk and talk and talk and talk and talk and talk and talk and talk and talk and talk and talk and talk and talk and talk and talk and talk and talk and talk and talk and talk and talk and talk and talk and talk and talk and talk and talk and talk and talk and talk and talk and talk and talk and talk and talk talk and talk and talk and talk and talk and talk and talk and talk and talk and talk and talk and talk and talk and talk and talk and talk and talk and talk and talk and talk and talk and talk and talk and talk and talk and talk and talk and talk and talk and talk and talk and talk and talk and talk and talk and talk and talk and talk and talk…

Speaking of stereotypes, there are quite a few on display here. For example, there’s the two fat, hairy, greasy, comic book store-owning Italian brothers who are constantly using variations of “fuck” and threatening their customers with graphic violence; the enormous bearded Russian who talks about communism and the Motherland all the time; the “East Coast vs. West Coast” superhero teams that are always fighting each other, throwing up gang signs and using the n-word. I kept wondering why Garth Ennis was doing this, and I settled on “because he thinks it’s funny.” See, Ennis is pointing out how absurd these stereotypes are, so it’s not really racist, right? Right?

Despite all of this, I forced myself to read all 29 issues, which, at times, felt like I was cutting off my legs with a rusty hacksaw – oh, look, the Russian guy is called “Love Sausage” because he has a fifteen-inch cock! Oh look, Hughie has menstrual blood on his face from oral sex because Starlight was on her period! Oh look, one of the superheroes can vomit acid! Isn’t that a knee-slapper? Worse still was the heavy-handed social and political commentary that Ennis shoehorned in, ranging from how St. Patrick’s Day sucks, to how the military-industrial complex has the United States in a chokehold, to American politics (the President and Vice President being analogues for Dick Cheney and George W. Bush, respectively), to how superheroes are evil. He even uses 9/11 to make his point, for fuck’s sake. Basically, one of the hijacked planes crashed into the Brooklyn Bridge (the World Trade Center and the Pentagon were spared) because the Seven tried to save the day but bungled it due to incompetence and selfishness. Do you see? SUPERHEROES ARE EVIL!

No, that wasn’t what made me stop reading this comic. What made me stop was the latest story arc, called “We Gotta Go Now”. The Boys have to investigate the public suicide of Silver Kincaid, a member of the G-Men (no prizes for guessing who they’re supposed to be an analogue of), for reasons I can’t be bothered to look up. Hughie has to go undercover and infiltrate one of the younger G-teams (as “Bagpipe”, because he’s Scottish, get it?) called G-Wiz. See the subtle pun there?

It’s immediately apparent that something is off with G-Wiz – sure, they might seem to be your average fraternity (i.e. boorish drunks obsessed with bodily functions), but they’re a little too comfortable with each other, if you catch my drift. Couple this with the revelation that G-Men’s leader, John Godolkin (analogue of Charles Xavier – apologies for all the analogues) actually abducted almost all of the G-Men when they were kids and turned them into superheroes, the fact that he refers to the G-Men as his “children”, and all of the dark mutterings of “what we had to deal with” and things start becoming clear.

At this point I thought, “No way. There’s no way Ennis would be so cheap and unoriginal. There has to be more to this.” I read issue 29, and, lo and behold, one of the characters confirmed my worst fears:

John Godolkin is a child molester.

That was the last straw. It wasn’t because one of the villains was a pedophile; rather, it was because Garth Ennis had resorted to such tacky exploitation in order to wring an emotion from his audience. Instead of taking the time to craft something novel, Ennis, out of sheer laziness, decided to go for the biggest heartstring and yank. Why have a complex villain when you can just say, “He’s an evil kid-toucher! BOOGA BOOGA!”

I’m sure Ennis pats himself on the back every day for what he thinks is scathing criticism on the superhero genre and insightful commentary on numerous aspects of life. He isn’t clever, creative, or even likable. He’s just a lazy hack. My smoldering ire also extends to the fans that keep buying this dreck and give it good reviews. What the hell is wrong with these people? My guess is that, in their minds, they equate DARK, GRITTY, and SERIOUS with being good. In my mind, it’s just BULLSHIT, BULLSHIT, and more BULLSHIT.

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Comments (go to latest)
Wardog at 17:17 on 2009-04-10
I don't know what to say ... I am completely flabbergasted by the awfulness of this. Why on earth is it garnering praise?
Arthur B at 17:26 on 2009-04-10
Once upon a time the publishers of 2000 AD thought it would be great to hand over all the writing duties for the comic for a few months to Garth Ennis, Grant Morrison, and various hangers-on. Why they thought this was a good idea was a mystery because Garth had already proven he shouldn't be trusted with other people's properties when in Strontium Dogs (the sequel series to Strontium Dog) he pulled a blatant retcon out of his capacious arse to turn the sweet, gentle comic relief character The Gronk into a psychotic gun-toting protagonist. Nonetheless, the magazine went ahead with the Summer Offensive, as it called the promotion (because, you see, it's Garth Ennis and he likes being offensive, and it happened in the summer), and the general tone of the comic went from "12A bordering on 15" (in movie age rating terms) to "18 certificate and a big argument about violence in the media on the side", which prompted the parents of certain younger subscribers, such as myself, to cancel the magazine.

And that's how Garth Ennis ruined 2000 AD for an 11 year old Arthur.

Seriously, the man is awful. I think the only thing he's done that I've actually liked was Hellblazer: Dangerous Habits. Frustratingly, that was brilliant. He's capable of not being an idiot if he tries, he just doesn't try.
Rude Cyrus at 19:49 on 2009-04-10
This was actually nominated for an Eisner Award for "Best Continuing Series" in 2008. And comic bok fans wonder why so many people don't take comics seriously.

Thanks for the image, by the way.
Wardog at 20:35 on 2009-04-10
For a moment there I was wondering if you meant the image of an 11 year old Arthur but then I realised you meant the literal image that illustrates this article. I hope it's okay - I chose the cover that most annoyed me :)
Sonia Mitchell at 23:23 on 2009-04-10
This series sounds horrific. Thank you for the warning.
(I badly want to google cyborg Donatello. I'd like to think it can't be as disastrous as I'm imaginging, but that would probably be naive. I'm therefore restraining myself...)
Arthur B at 00:46 on 2009-04-11
Oh hey look what else Image have published.

On the other hand, they also put out The Walking Dead, which I really like.
Guy at 03:59 on 2009-04-11
Speaking of Image, this is one of the most funny/disturbing things I've ever read: Rob Liefeld's 40 worst drawings:
Arthur B at 15:04 on 2009-04-11
I'm amazed they were able to find 40 drawings worse than the infamous Captain America one.

Actually, I'm not amazed, Liefeld is terrible. Oh God, the feet... at 06:31 on 2010-07-11
Thread necromancy: After reading this article from the random button, I'm reading The Boys out of morbid curiosity. I've gotten through the first couple of storylines, issues one through ten. It's about as disgusting as Rude Cyrus has said, with everything as juvenile and pointlessly violent and so forth.

One of the annoying things is that there are occasionally glimmers of interest that make me think "You know, if Garth Ennis actually gave a shit, and stopped dropping tons of stupid violence and stupid sex and stupid ham-fisted 'haha the gay activist is violently afraid of actual homosexuals' shit, he might actually be able to make some points about 'how do we make superheroes accountable?'" One advantage of The Boys is that, unlike Civil War, it's just one author, so there aren't a bazillion different axes being ground. And it doesn't seem like it's constrained by being a DC Comics Continuity Event, the way Civil War was a Marvel Comics Continuity Event. And every once in a while, it seems like Ennis might have something to say on the matter.

But it inevitably degenerates into "hurr hurr supes are pervs, butcher punches them." Fuck you, Ennis, for being wasted potential. at 06:32 on 2010-07-11
Aack, unclosed HTML tags. Sorry! (I'm used to a forum that won't let me post if I have unmatched tags, and didn't check.)
Rami at 05:43 on 2010-07-12
@webcomcon: Fixed it for you. I'm afraid FerretBrain doesn't really do warnings -- but we do suggest using the Preview button! at 18:20 on 2010-07-13
Continuing thread necromancy!

I am a comic book artist. I detest The Boys with a deep, abiding disgust. My employer thinks it's brilliant. He is also a big fan of Liefeld (needs more pouches!), so go figure. While The Boys is bad, try having your only income being working on the dream project of someone who likes The Boys, and feel your artistic integrity shrivel.

I actually considered sending in issue one of Polis (what I'm paid to draw) to Ferretbrain for a review; I may yet do that alongside Polis issue two and my own side project for what the great minds here could find a fun comparison. "The world is corrupt and drug-addled, corporations are evil, and our main hero is an amoral Cape [superhero] with few redeeming qualities." versus "A space princess and space pirates act terribly toward one another, but all in good fun." I asked my employer, and he thinks any publicity is good.

Speaking of "Cape" and "Supe", what is this allergic reaction to the word superhero? Yes, superhero is a long word, but so is computer. From my perspective, it would seem more likely that superhero would get shortened to just hero. Then advert campaigns about "The real heroes of X city: our policemen and firefighters" would take on a whole new weight. Plus, I haven't met many people who say 'puter, and compy only caught on after Strongbad popularised it.
Dan H at 19:11 on 2010-07-13
I think the thing about abbreviating "superhero" to something like "cape" or "supe" (did Watchmen use "mask" or am I making that up) is that it highlights the fact that this is an EDGY SERIOUS WORK OF FICTION about EDGY DARK CHARACTERS not some KIDDY THING about SUPERHEROES.

Because as we all know, nothing screams "maturity" like going to great lengths to appear mature. at 21:32 on 2010-07-13
The thing which screams maturity the best is to have everyone swear all the time, and put blood and torture on every page. The ability to engage in traditionally adult themes while employing transgressive story elements such as bodily fluids, misogyny, and rape is the hallmark of an individual whose mind has progressed past puerile adolescent fascination. As you said, superheroes are so childish. We aren't writing stories about superheroes under a different name. These are adult stories about well rounded characters employing serious themes. Just like Terry Goodkind is definitely not a *pfft* fantasy author.

Sarcasm over, I honestly don't remember if Watchmen used "mask." I guess I've just lost some comix-cred.
Hey guys. I'm aware this is a few years old but just discovered the site and enjoying it, even when I disagree.

But this is the only one I think I needed to comment on.

Firstly, Garth Ennis is demonstrably not a hack. That's just incredibly lazy.

Secondly, this review seems to have totally failed to come to terms with the text.

OK. I'm not going to argue against certain points here. There's gross out humor, there's swearing, there's a hamster well-up in a zombie's bum. There's puke and disgusting, disgusting periods that no man should ever have to read about (cos girls, right! ew. The writer of this article agrees!) and there's even some blood and guts and a superhero orgy and someone strangles Scarlet Witch with a belt!

The scene where poor old Annie, Starlight, has to service six members of the Seven to get in? It's awful. And a considerable part of the text is concerned not only with her coming to terms with the assault but (and how often to you see this?) actually come to terms with and starting to heal from the assault.

The two black teams who scream the N word at each other? There's no discussion of the young black man who is going to be forced into one of the teams who sees nothing he recognises of his experiences in tired mainstream hip hop lingo and posing. A man who has begun to understand that to become a superstar, he has to enter into a well-dodgy narrative.

No discussion of the good people warped into being celebrities and what that costs them, which is the central metaphor of the book.

Or the actual honesty when Hughie, who's never met a gay man but has to hang out in a gay club and suddenly finds his liberal sensibilities a bit overwhelmed. A scene that's never, ever played for cheap gay joke laughs.

The point of Hughie going down on a girl with a period is not that it's gross and his mates laugh at him. It's that he refuses to let something as dumb as that get in the way of his relationship with Annie. He cops some jokes and some pisstaking but then will not let the deathly embarrassed girl freak out over what turns out to be ... nothing at all.

In recent years, we've also seen a cheap man-on-man 'Dark Knight Returns' rape joke actually turns out to actually be a proper discussion on the reasons why a chap might not be able to discuss it with his friends. And what that cost him.

St Patrick's Day sucks? Surely an repatriated Northern Irishman who grew up in the Troubles has nothing to say about the immigrant experience to the United States. What a hack!

As for scoring political points off 9/11.... mate. Welcome to the world. I fail to even see an argument here.

I'm not going to say everyone should love The Boys. And sometimes I get a bit weary of schoolboys bleeding out of their arses and all the rest. And I think Ennis has made his point about religion by now. I do. (Spoiler alert: Preacher)

I like the comic but I don't expect everyone to be able to laugh like I do when the mentally ill Batman analogue has sex with a meteor.

So don't like it. That's cool. It's not like I'll gnash teeth if you don't like what I like. But this review has really failed to come to grips with and has actively misrepresented the text.

Arthur B at 13:32 on 2011-10-28
Hi dcc46, welcome to Ferretbrain!

I've not read The Boys but I have read enough Ennis to at least address this point:
Firstly, Garth Ennis is demonstrably not a hack. That's just incredibly lazy.

You know what else is incredibly lazy? Basing your writing career so heavily on cheap shock tactics which come across like a 13 year old trying to be edgy. I couldn't get past the first volume of Preacher because Ennis' obsession with gore, fucking, and other scatological subjects just became intensely monotonous. His contributions to 2000 AD were much the same. His Hellblazer run started out brilliantly - I think Dangerous Habits is both the best thing he's written and the best Hellblazer story that anyone has written - but I couldn't abide the rest of it precisely because he kept falling back into bad habits.

When a man makes a career out of indulging his puerile instincts to an extent where consistently and repeatedly his material degenerates into lame attempts to be shocking for the sake of it, that's pretty hackish.
Well, if that's all you've read of Hellblazer, that's cool. When he was, what, 21, he wrote that. There was a bit of a fall off in quality before he'd come back with stories of Kit and Ric the Vic and end up telling stories of the devil contrasted with the nasty realities of racial politics in early 90s London.

If you passed on Preacher, that's cool. That second story arc is uninspired. But you missed out on a a meditation of faith, friendship, watching a man try to navigate between his old-fashioned 'chivalry' and a woman who refused to be patronised or left behind.

So I honestly don't see shocking for shocking's sake. I see bad taste. But I've never felt there's a kind of splatter punk aesthetic at work.

That's sort of my point.

I see humour that may or may not work for you. But I'm suggesting to you that if you can get past the guts and jizz all over the shop. And if that's really a sticking point for you, then you won't ever get into it.

But I think your wrong if puerility is all you get out of the work.

I know you had issues with his early 2000AD run. I never got that. I'm Australian and 2000AD seemed to ship... on a madman's calendar. So I can't comment on that.

So I tell you what. Try something like his PG Hitman. His war stories, where he reigns himself in. His Punisher MAX, which is humorless as a Derek Raymond novel.

But I'll split you the difference: Jennifer Blood is fucking awful.
Anyways, I'm off.

But, a hack writer is a bad writer. Matt Reiley is a hack writer. He's bad at the English language, his plots are hackneyed, his haircut is stupid.

If you don't like Ennis' work, that's cool. But just because you think he wraps things up in grossness doesn't make him a bad writer -at all-. He's an accomplished writer with themes and metaphors and all that writery stuff.

Nevertheless, good site. Talk later.

valse de la lune at 16:00 on 2011-10-28
So don't like it. That's cool. It's not like I'll gnash teeth if you don't like what I like. But this review has really failed to come to grips with and has actively misrepresented the text.

How quaint; you appear to be gnashing your teeth exactly because Cyrus didn't like the thing. I also agree with Arthur's assessment of Ennis: overrated hack pandering to things teenage boys--usually teenage white boys at that, what with the n-word thing--find oh so edgy and clever. Preacher is absolutely fucking unreadable and I spit in its general direction.

And, while you can certainly use the word "hack" to denote a poor writer--which I'd argue Ennis is, at that--his general attitude and output are pretty hacky too, in the lowest-common-denominator sense.
Rude Cyrus at 20:31 on 2011-10-29
Here's the thing: whatever good points or ideas Ennis may have are ruined by the juvenile shock tactics he wraps them in -- it's one thing to use violence and sex occasionally and for great effect, it's another to use them all the time.

For example, I can agree with Ennis that St. Patrick's Day is an excuse for every American with a drop of Irish blood to wear green and get sick on beer, but when he ends this commentary on a close-up on a hat filled with puke, it makes me roll my eyes.
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