by Bevan Thomas
June 19th, 2011
The comic series The Boys, by Garth Ennis and Darick Robertson, brings us numerous superhero teams with strangely familiar names: Fantastico, G-Men, Payback, and above them all is the Seven orbiting in their satellite headquarters: Homelander, world’s greatest hero, Queen Maeve, mightiest of heroines, Black Noir, the dark detective, the Deep, lord of the watery depths, Jack from Jupiter, alienesque crime-fighter, A-Train, fastest man alive, and Lamplighter with his magic lamp. The champions of that world, beings whose natures are strangely reminiscent of the superheroes who have defined our last century’s popular iconography, and as the series reveals, a more corrupt bunch of beings could hardly be imagined. The superheroes of The Boys embody the worse stereotypes of celebrities who crash-and-burn in orgies of unrestrained decadence the moments the cameras are off them, and many even cross-over from depravity to out-and-out villainy: committing assault and even murder.
A forerunner to The Boys was Pat Mills and Kevin O’Neil’s Marshal Law, in which a government sanctioned “superhero hunter” eliminates rogue heroes in a distopian future, especially targeting the Public Spirit, a being of vast power seen as the world’s greatest hero, but who hides a very dark secret, and similar story elements have appeared in Alan Moore’s Top Ten, Mark Waid’s Irredeemable, and numerous other comics. Stories such as these keep turning up in comics. Why do comic fans enjoy seeing versions of Superman, Batman, or other iconic heroes being reinterpret as grotesque hypocrites or insane monsters?
A few years back, Grant Morrison uncovered a disturbing trend of Internet fan fiction in which popular heroines such as Wonder Woman, Invisible Woman, and Batgirl become enslaved by villains or civilians, forced to perform their every desire. Morrison felt that this pointed to a repressed or not-so-repressed rage felt by many people towards said characters, that they feel betrayed or frustrated and so tell stories that use these characters as proxies for revenge. In some cases, that is almost certainly true. Garth Ennis has said that one of the reasons why he created The Boys is because he is disgusted with how much superheroes dominate the comic book medium. Similarly, Alan Moore’s presentation of a thinly-veiled Justice League parody as egotistical snobs and sex offenders in his Top Ten stories was no doubt at least partly motivated by Moore’s anger and resentment towards DC Comics and how they treated him in the past. There is rage from these authors, and there is likely rage from some the fans, fueled by their disappointment when they discovered that the heroes and the ideals they represent are not all that they hoped they would be.
However, as much as these stories seem to be directing frustration at the superheroes, they often as much seem to be about using the heroes as metaphors to express frustration towards other things. The central theme in these fallen superhero stories is that those we idolize, the celebrities, are often undeserving of our praise and have been corrupted by their celebrityhood; the Public Spirit of Marshal Law, Atoman of Top Ten, the Plutonian of Irredeemable, and the Homelander of The Boys are all variations of Superman and all present themselves as upstanding moral characters, as the World’s Greatest Superhero, but all fall disastrously short of this ideal
One lesson that can be taken from this is that no one is perfect and often those who appear the brightest have the darkest secrets, another is that those who desire fame and power are often psychologically imbalanced, and that once they achieve the power, it corrupts them. These are certainly lessons that the world continues to teach us and our heroes so often turn out to be too good to be true. But the fascination with the degraded superhero seems to be deeper than simply a fallen celebrity story in fancy dress because the superheroes archetype runs so much deeper than that.
It is so often the symbols that people develop in childhood that remain the strongest for the rest of their lives, whether they use the symbols in their conventional fashion or deconstruct them for ironic purposes. For so many people, especially many boys growing-up in North America, their first and most powerful role models were superheroes and it is these superheroes that embody such traits as strength, discipline, celebrityhood, and ideals of power and moral superiority. They were the saints and gods of his childhood, weaving stories as potent as that of St. George or Heracles. When the boys get older, and they became disillusioned or frustrated with these traits, than this disillusionment can be shown by tarnished or fallen superheroes. In their youthful innocence, the people admired Superman and wanted to be like him. If now they are no longer innocent, then neither is he.
A child’s understanding of the world is much cleaner; heroes are good because they are heroes, without ulterior reasoning. A child doesn’t question why Superman or Spider-Man does what he does or that all that would be required to right the world’s wrongs would be superstrength or a plasma cannon. But as the world expands with age, things become more complex. Solutions stop becoming so simple and people realize just how hard it is to create change. Those who create the largest changes in the world are often the tyrants and plutocrats who are motivated by their own selfish gain. In such a world, Superman would either be impotent or become corrupt himself, either futilely try to fight the system or become part of the establishment.
It is important to note that enjoying the fallen hero does not necessarily mean a disdain for the original version. Many comic fans adore the superhero archetype but also find the fallen one compelling. They love All-Star Superman while at the same time enjoying The Boys; laugh with Marshal Law while warming their hearts with Zot! For some people, the tarnished hero gives them license to express their frustration against the genre, for others it shows that their enjoyment of the genre is so all encompassing that it can be savoured from opposing directions. Maybe it’s because that dichotomy allows us to wrestle with certain issues we have about disillusioned but still treasured ideals, or maybe we’re just grown-up kids taking a sadistic fascination in bashing the hell out of our favourite toys.