Alan Moore's Watchmen is revolutionary for its "real world" conceit, and Garth Ennis' and Darick Robertson'sThe Boys uses a similar conceit, but with a twist - what if the superheroes were a bunch of assholes? Minor spoilers below.
Ennis has always had a tendency towards extreme violence and the occasional dick joke, and The Boys offers a perfect forum for it- it's world is one where superheroes are the same as celebrities, where Jennifer Aniston and Jake Gyllenhall share tabloid headlines with The Homelander and Queen Maeve, Empress of the Underworld. Comic books have a kind of Jon and Kate thing going on, supposedly documenting the real-life heroics of groups such as The Seven and Teenage Kix.
The thing is, it's all bullshit. The superheroes are drugged-up egomaniacs, too busy screwing whores and doing coke to actually help anybody. Sure, they do have actual powers- the Homelander can fly and shoot lasers out of his eyes- but they don't come from radioactive dump trucks or the sun's effect on their alien skin. Rather, all powers come from a much more corporate source. The superheroes of The Boys take advantage of the system in ways Batman always could, but never will- complete and total debauchery in exchange for a few appearances on TV.
And that's where The Boys come in. A black-ops CIA groups created to monitor superheroes, they hate everything related to the "supes". They've all got super-strength, and aren't afraid to knock the head off a superhero who pisses them off.Ennis' story focuses on The Boys' newest recruit, Simon Pegg-lookalike Wee Hughie, who goes from being a UFO conspiracy theorist to having the ability to punch through a man's stomach overnight. The Boys is Hughie's story, coming to terms with an essentially broken world and determining how much someone with no limits or consequences can change that.
Like Watchmen, Boys works best if you've already read a lot of superhero comics. The heroes are parodies of Superman, Batman, the Martian Manhunter (Jack from Jupiter, anyone?). Artist Darick Robertson is able to bring to mind countless heroes without ever ripping them off. Robertson and Ennis don't just use costumes to take on nostalgic memories, either. A female superhero is told by two male marketing researchers that to make her seem edgier, she must now discuss being raped and how the act made her bring out her in sexuality via a barely-there costume. The first issue of Herogasm are as good a parody of summer "mega-events" as has ever been written.
Ennis famously proclaimed that The Boys would "out-Preacher Preacher", his last major work. It's a bold statement-you could make the case that Preacher is one of the greatest comics of all time. Ennis loves gory violence and lots of sex, and both are on display in just about every issue of Boys (Tthere is a spin-off named Herogasm. That should tell you all you need to know about that). While sex and poop jokes wear thin after a bit- a superhero having sex with a meteor to stop it from annihilating Earth sounds funny written then acted- it's worth sticking through some rough early arcs for Ennis' writing. He's mastered the art of small talk like few writers of any medium- between a boss and a worker, a man describing his dead daughter, a couple grabbing a few minutes to chat on the phone- he can make it all seem utterly believable, which makes the ridiculous scenarios of Boys that much easier to swallow.
The Boys functions on several levels- its a violent satire of mainstream comics and superhero conventions, to be sure. Superheroes get their eyes gouged out, jokes about Wolverine masturbating are made. But it's also an Ennis story, which means that although you don't see it in every panel or page, a dissection of the American experience is taking place. It's no coincidence that the main characters of The Boys are foreigners working in a distinctly American environment, something Ennis must be familiar with. As the story progresses, Ennis seems to become less concerned bizarre sex parties and debauchery as he is with the corporate structure that allows excess to take place. "Americans are so busy watching over their shoulders", Boys leader Billy Butcher says, "they don't bother looking in front of their noses. You can do anything." Ennis is mocking the same methods he uses in Boys, this self-awareness makes for a fantastic read. It helps if you like dick jokes, though.
The series is a little over halfway done, Ennis expects it to last around seventy issues. Paperback trades are out and worth picking up, if you haven't already.
*edited to include Darick Robertson, who did all the art here. Sorry Darick!