‘Who was the first superhero?’ It isn’t a question with a definitive answer. The late comics historian Don Markstein once proposed Mandrake The Magician as a contender. Mandrake debuted on June 11, 1934, four-years before Superman and with abilities including invisibility, teleportation, levitation and the ability to make his enemies see illusions, the top-hatted magic man’s skillset certainly fits the bill. And yet, don’t The Scarlet Pimpernel (1904), Zorro (1919), Popeye (1929) and even Robin Hood (1370, there-or-thereabouts) also deserve consideration? And really, what’s Jesus if he wasn’t a superhero? What were Greek gods like Zeus and Athena?
It’s no coincidence that the superhero who came to define the genre as we know it was created during America’s Great Depression, on the eve of a war against fascism. Created by writer Jerry Siegel and artist Joe Shuster, two sons of Jewish immigrants who’d meet at school in Ohio, Superman was the hero America needed in these dark times. The importance of Jewish creators seeking refuge from a Europe engulfed by hatred for their kind can’t be underestimated. The creators of Batman, Spider-Man and Captain America – who debuted in 1941 with an image of him punching a Nazi in the face – were all Jewish. Maybe these were heroes their creators needed.
But what about now? What kinds of heroes do we need? Perhaps more importantly, what kind of heroes do we deserve? The answer might lie in new Amazon Prime exclusive The Boys, an adaptation of writer Garth Ennis (Preacher) and artist Darick Robertson’s (Transmetropolitan) 2006 series, in which the superheroes that society reveres are in fact the enemy of all that’s good and true in the world, where actual heroism is earned by the mortals who strive to expose the corruption of those who are supposed to protect us. Both the comic, and the subsequent TV series, are so critical of superheroes in fact, that publisher Wildstorm cancelled the comic after just six issues, forcing Ennis and Robertson to find a new publisher (Dynamite Entertainment). Wildstorm was a DC Comics imprint; they considered The Boys to be too critical of the superhero genre.
Much like Gerard Way and Gabriel Bá’s The Umbrella Academy (another askew take on the superhero genre, which was also converted into a TV property earlier this year), the world in which The Boys inhabits could only exist post-Watchmen, the pioneering 1986 maxiseries by the British unit of writer Alan Moore, artist Dave Gibbons and colourist John Higgins, which not only played with the Cold War paranoia of the 1980’s but asked the question, ‘Who watches the Watchmen?’ The idea that series proposed was that with great power comes the potential for great irresponsibility. How does society regulate individuals with powers so much greater than their own? It’s a theme that runs through much of today’s superhero landscape, from Batman v Superman to Captain America: Civil War.
The Boys walks a similar path. The big bad is a superhero called Homelander; imagine Donald Trump redesigning Superman. Homelander leads The Seven, a unit of superheroes assembled by the conglomerate Vought International. Homelander and the rest of The Seven are employed by Vought. They hold Voice-style auditions for new members. It’s hard not to see them as a comment on the corporate structures that tell us we should aspire to be more like Cristiano Ronaldo or Kylie Jenner. Vought care more about public approval ratings and keeping the sins The Seven commit while wired on drugs hush hush than they do actually saving people. The real heroes are The Boys; mere mortals on a mission to expose the corruption.
Much like Amazon’s last Ennis adaptation – the underrated but meandering Preacher – the TV show goes in directions the comic does not. There are highlights of the comic you won’t see in this eight episode run, that are presumably being saved for series two. It also takes at least three episodes for New Zealand born Karl Urban – who plays The Boys leader, Billy Butcher – to work out what the fuck he’s doing with his British accent. But these are mere quibbles; this is brilliant TV. Supernatural creator Eric Kripke’s script sizzles. The cast – Jack Quaid as Hughie Campbell, a broken young man with a personal vendetta against The Seven, Erin Moriarty as Starlight, an idealistic new recruit to The Seven that Hughie falls for, especially so – perform at the top of their game. There’s even a cool, knowing cameo by Simon Pegg as Hughies father. In The Boys comic, Robertson chose to model Hughie on the Spaced actor, which makes for pretty surreal reading.
The Boys was written in brighter times. There was even a film optioned, then cancelled, by Columbia in 2008. And yet it arrives on our televisions at the perfect time. These superheroes – these utter fucking bastards – are the heroes this era deserves. The Boys is a damming indictment on how power corrupts; on the alleged crimes of Harvey Weinstein, on billionaire prophets like Richard Branson who smile to the camera and then sue the NHS in private, on people of mere flesh and blood like Michael Jackson who reposition themselves as deities to disguise their wrongdoing. This is a world in which trust is largely spent. Who are our heroes? The politicians? Too many racists, too many opportunists. The church? Too many abuse claims waiting to come to trial. The military? Too much bloodshed, too many wars we no longer believe in.
Like Mandrake and Superman in the uncertain 1930’s, the superheroes we create are the heroes we need at any particular time. In an era when there are seemingly no heroes left, we get The Boys.