We’re going to try our best to avoid spoilers here, but the first episode of new Amazon Prime series The Boys kicks off with the character Hughie Campbell (played by Jack Quaid) going through some fairly conventional relationship day-to-day events and conversations with his girlfriend. It couldn’t be more normal — when will they move in together, where are their careers going, yada, yada. Then, without warning, a superhero moving at superspeed literally runs through the woman leaving Campbell covered in blood and holding a pair of severed arms.
As introductions to a new show go, it’s pretty shocking. The viewer is left with their jaw on the floor, much like Hughie’s girlfriend. It’s beautifully paced and shot, and we’re left in no doubt that this is a show that won’t be pulling any punches.
That’s important, because The Boys is based on a Garth Ennis comic book, a title that is beloved by fans of the medium. Ennis is known to be a writer who will gleefully push boundaries and leap over the line of good taste. When taking on the task of adapting one of Ennis’ properties, as fans of the book and show Preacher already know, a studio has to be ready to tackle extreme subject matter and graphic imagery. Otherwise, fans will be displeased. The great news is, Amazon has done a grand job with The Boys.
The story takes place in a world where superheroes exist, but they are not the idealistic characters that Marvel, and especially DC, have given us. The Homelander, for example, is a twisted parody of Superman — a guy with a similar backstory and uber-patriotic costume, but none of the morals and innate goodness. Similarly, Queen Maeve is a troubled version of Wonder Woman, A-Train (he of that opening scene) a deeply flawed Flash, The Deep a particularly awful Aquaman, and so it goes on.
They’re grouped together as a team called The Seven (there are other teams, such as the G-Men, but The Seven are the most powerful), controlled by a massive corporation called Vought-American. Making money and saving face is more important to the Seven and Vought than actually doing good. Superheroing is a capitalist endeavor, and the people doing it are generally rotten to the core. For that reason, a small group of operatives called The Boys, led by Billy Butcher, are formed in an attempt to keep the superheroes in check. That’s the basic story. A rag-tag gang against rich superheroes. Chaos ensues.
The book is fairly extreme. Not quite as gnarly as another Ennis title, Crossed, but hardcore nonetheless. Themes of torture and sexual violence are explored unflinchingly. This isn’t a kid’s comic. But it’s all there for a reason. As with a lot of Ennis’ work, he’s holding up a mirror to society, offering warnings and allegories. That’s why The Boys would have been such a challenge to take on, though having seen the first three episodes, we can confirm that Amazon have done an admirable job. Eric Kripke, creator of Supernatural, is the guy who took on the task of adapting the comic book, alongside co-creators Evan Goldberg and Seth Rogen.
“When it was announced that Preacher was going to be made into a TV show, I was friendly with one of the producers and I started meeting with him, for no other reason than to say ‘Fuck you for giving Preacher to somebody else, because I’m the world’s biggest fan of Preacher’,” Kripke says. “So I went into the meeting and sat down, and he said ‘What’s up?’ And I said, ‘Oh I just wanted to say fuck you for giving Preacher to somebody else.’ And he said, ‘Oh, we have The Boys — do you want that?’ And I said, ‘Totally.’ Seth and Evan were getting involved with it too, because they were also producing Preacher, then we all just sort of got together and started kicking around ideas, and took it from there.”
Because he was a fan of the book before getting to work on the series, Kripke had a strong understanding of the source material — and what could and couldn’t be changed while retaining the spirit created by Ennis and artist Darick Robertson.
“It was certainly important not to water it down and to capture the tone of what Garth did,” Kripke says. “That tone can be really shocking and insane. But I think the best way to do it so you can have a show that is edgy and takes a lot of risks but also isn’t just gratuitous or shock for shock’s sake, which I think is another danger, I think you have to be very careful about making sure all the insane moments really further the story and the character. So there are certain moments in the books that we are doing, and there are certain moments in the books that we’re not. It’s not really because they’re too far — I don’t think anything’s too far. It’s just a question of whether it’s the best thing for the characters or does it advance the story.”
Artist Darick Robertson, who co-created The Boys with Ennis, says that he was more worried about it being watered down 10 years ago when it was being optioned for a movie. His big fear then was that The Boys would be treated like Mystery Men, a Bob Burden-created team of blue collar z-list superheroes — the comic book was sardonic and cynical, the Ben Stiller movie goofy and zany. But the feeling now is that a streaming service such as Amazon is much better suited to do a property like The Boys justice.
“I think with The Boys, that edge needed to be sharp, and that was the biggest concern of the fans especially — that if they took it and watered it down, it just wouldn’t feel like the same thing,” Robertson says. “What I really like, and especially because it was on Amazon with the streaming thing, they were really able to pull the gloves off and it’s a hard-hitting show.”
Despite all of the carnage we witness in the pages and on the screen, Kripke is convinced that the story Ennis wrote is a very sweet one that hinges on relationships, either romantic or close friendships, working, or even adversarial.
“I think the relationship between Butcher and Hughie is really interesting and sweet, I think Frenchie and Female [two more of The Boys] have a really interesting relationship, Hughie and Starlight [a new, female member of The Seven who has a terrible time trying to fit in] have a sweet relationship — I really like that kind of storytelling, that’s right up my alley. Having something that has a lot of heart and emotion, and then you just hang all sorts of blood and violence and perversity on top of it. But I think the core is really solid, and I think that’s in the books. I think Garth wrote a really sweet story in a weird way, and just wallpapered a lot of perversity on top. I think we’re capturing that.”
Wallpapering perversity on top of sweetness — that’s a great way to describe Ennis and Robertson’s world. Aesthetically, Robertson believes that Kripke and the team at Amazon have done a great job of retaining that vibe.
“They’ve done their own thing for the most part, but you can really see my costume designs being respected and brought to screen, especially when it comes to the Seven,” Robertson says. “At the same time, with The Boys, the aesthetics are there. It’s funny because Jack Quaid, who’s terrific as Hughie, is definitely not ‘wee.’ He’s well over 6 foot. What makes him work is all there — the T-shirts they put on him, and his personality really comes through.”
When Robertson originally drew the character of Wee Hughie Campbell back in 2006, he based his appearance directly off of the actor Simon Pegg, so much so that fans had pretty much cast Pegg as Campbell before the show had been given a green light. Unfortunately, Pegg had gotten too old to play the character, so Amazon brought him in to play Hughie’s dad. It’s a rare case of a studio really paying attention to what the fans want.
“Simon’s never played Hughie before, but everyone just assumes that Simon Pegg is Hughie because for so many years he was drawn as that part,” Kripke says. “I had read an interview, and Simon said that he’s starting to get too old to play Hughie but he’d love to play his dad. So when the show was greenlit, I had my casting director reach out to Simon Pegg and say, ‘If you were serious about that, there is the role of Hughie’s dad and it’s yours if you want it.’ To his incredible credit, he took it. He was super busy — he was touring the world doing press for Mission Impossible, he had a lot going on. It’s more than a cameo — it’s a real character. It was really good of him, it really shows how much he cares about the fans.”
Casting the show would have been no easy task. The producers had to cast the superheroes months before The Boys, because their costumes had to be specially made and it takes forever. So Erin Moriarty as Annie January/Starlight was first, then Antony Starr as Homelander. Once The Seven was assembled, Karl Urban (known to comic book fans as the star of Dredd) was quickly cast as Billy Butcher.
“The producer of the show reached out and asked me if it was something that I would be interested in,” Urban says. “I said I was interested, so they sent me the pilot. I read it and immediately responded, not only to the character of Billy Butcher who is this wonderfully roguish, Machiavellian scoundrel, but then also to the story at large. I felt that it was wonderful storytelling, great characters, and it felt like the show operates on a multitude of different levels. It’s fun, exciting, shocking, entertaining, but it also makes a poignant comment on a lot of social, societal and political issues.”
Slightly dodgy cockney accent aside, New Zealander Urban is great as Butcher, but then the entire show is beautifully cast. Elisabeth Shue, for example, is tremendous as the delightfully evil Vought boss Madelyn Stillwell (a gender-swap from the book, where the character is called James Stillwell). Interestingly, there are characters in the book that didn’t make the series, such as the alien Jack from Jupiter, an obvious twist on DC’s Martian Manhunter.
“He’s not there, but I actually see what they did with the show,” Robertson says. “They combined his character with The Deep, who was never that interesting in the comics — we kind of had him there as a joke. The Deep in the TV show seems to have a lot more of Jack from Jupiter’s personality. Everything they’ve done, everything they’ve tweaked, I feel is very respectful, and at the same time, I recognize that they’re doing their own show. You have to accept the fact that it’s an adaptation. It’s not going to be verbatim your comic book brought to screen — that just wouldn’t work.”
Ennis agrees, telling us by email that, “I think they’ve more or less gotten the spirit right, and from that all else flows… I’m content to let the book be the book and the show the show. There’ll always be things you just can’t put on TV.”
Urban believes that much of what Ennis and Robertson put in the comics wouldn’t be appropriate for a TV show, any TV show.
“The comic books are the starting point,” the actor says. “But there are many subtle differences. For example, in the comic books The Boys have some sort of super abilities themselves because they’ve ingested Compound V. Well, in the show we don’t because Eric Kripke was adamant that what really interested him was presenting a vision of the absolute powerless taking on the most powerful. So you’ve got these blue collar working criminals, subculture fringe of society types, taking on the most elite group, the 1 percent of the 1 percent corporate wealthiest superpowered people in the world. To me, that’s a fascinating challenge.”
Urban is right. And in 2019, The Boys is as topical and “current” as it was when it was written. Perhaps more so. It benefits from the fact that it wasn’t adapted into a movie a decade ago for a number of reasons: 1) Superhero movies and TV shows are all over the place now, and the non-comic reading audience has more points of reference, and 2) in the light of the Trump presidency, the #MeToo movement and other social and political events, the narrative makes more sense. It’s almost prophetic.
“Garth Ennis and I had a very different approach to superheroes, and different feelings towards them when we came together to work,” Robertson says. “His comics were like war comics, Beano and 2000 AD. That shaped his love of comics, so the Marvel and DC superheroes seem kind of silly to him. When it came time to do The Boys, I didn’t have any problem parodying them because what I saw very clearly is how the Homelander isn’t Superman. How Queen Maeve isn’t Wonder Woman. What’s really important to me is that, anybody can put on a superhero costume, but that doesn’t make you Superman. Superman is about the man inside — his character. When you see Homelander, and he has no moral center, it makes it very clear that you’re not watching the DC universe.”
As Amazon prepares to drop The Boys on July 26, it remains to be seen how well it will be received. Ennis’ Preacher did fairly well, and The Boys does have a fairly rabid fanbase. Whether that all turns into a sizable TV audience — that’s the big question.
“How do you cut through the clutter of 10,000 really good shows,” says Kripke. “Amazon’s done a hell of a job marketing it, and I’m hopeful that the concept is something that the world is ready for after so many years of superhero dominance — to see a show that flips that on its head and takes the piss out of superheroes. I think that’ll be interesting, and get people’s attention. At the end of the day, every new show I watch, I watch because 20 people tell me that I’m crazy for missing it, that it’s brilliant and I have to see it. So my guess is our best advertiser will be word of mouth. Hopefully they’ll see what a good show we’re making and how much we care about it, and all the different layers that it works on. They’ll start telling their friends and word will spread.”
Ultimately, everyone involved seems to be delighted with the finished product. The streaming series format is the best vehicle for the story, and we can confirm that this is a show you’ll want to binge.
“I think it’s remarkable the way the world has changed in that short time,” Robertson says. “The world of media has really opened up for the kind of thing they can do on a streaming service and a series, it’s so much more suited to something like The Boys than a movie franchise even could be because you’ve got to consolidate so much into a two hour story, whereas this is a very rich world that Garth Ennis and I created and you can really explore individual characters. There are so many ways you can go, now that it’s got room to open up and breathe, and break down into hour long episodes.”