I think it’s safe to say that those of us who picked up that first issue of The Boys back in October 2006 could have never really imagined a world where the adventures of Butcher, Mother’s Milk, the Frenchman, the Female, and “Wee” Hughie Campbell would be adapted into live-action. This was, after all, the series that writer Garth Ennis said was going to “out-Preacher Preacher.”

Of course, we also never imagined Preacher would be adapted either.

Which isn’t to say there wasn’t hope, but the film and television landscape was very different then. In 2006 The Sopranos was wrapping up, Dexter was kicking off, Mad Men and Breaking Bad hadn’t even started yet and when it came to comic book adaptations, Batman Begins was huge, but Spider-Man and X-Men were about to self-destruct. And comics on television? Well, let’s just say it wasn’t really an option.

Hell, comic adaptations, and The Boys in particular, weren’t even really an option until maybe when with the Game of Thrones era of HBO coinciding with the zombie powerhouse Walking Dead on AMC, geekdom finally got to represent on a large scale. With gore and boobs, too. Still, live-action adaptations of Preacher and The Boys, while optioned for feature films, weren’t coming to pass.

It wasn’t until 2013 that Seth Rogan and Evan Goldberg were able to make Preacher a reality on AMC. Yes, the guys responsible for the lowbrow comedy of Superbad, Pineapple Express, and This is the End finally brought Preacher to life. While it wasn’t able to capture the true anarchic sex, violence, and blasphemy of the comic, the series – which is about to kick off its fourth and final season – did the best it could for AMC.

And in the meantime, comic book adaptations on TV took off while censorship restrictions began falling by the wayside (see Happy! and Deadly Class on Syfy, for example). Then, in October 2015 it was announced that Rogan and Goldberg, along with the creator of Supernatural, Eric Kripke, were working on adapting The Boys for Cinemax. A year later though, the venue changed to Amazon Studios and on July 26 of 2019, Butcher and the gang debuted in an explosion of over-the-top live-action adventure that doesn’t skimp on the adult language, sexual situations, and bloody violence.

But back to 2006…

Garth Ennis and Darick Robertson’s The Boys debuted on the DC Comics imprint Wildstorm and immediately caused controversy telling the story of a black-ops CIA group tasked with policing, and when necessary, spanking-with-extreme-prejudice the overwhelmingly immoral, hedonistic, or just plain evil Superheroes that populate the narrative, all against a backdrop of government conspiracy, extreme hedonism, and casual over-the-top violence. The series was sold as a book that was going to push all of the limits of storytelling and good taste.

As one might assume, it didn’t last long at DC. The graphic content and subject matter rubbed the suits at DC the wrong way. I mean, when Ennis’ versions of Superman (The Homelander), Batman (Black Noir), and Flash (A-Train) all demand blowjobs before a hot new Evangelical Christian recruit, Starlight, can join this version of The Justice League (The Seven), it can hardly be surprising that the plug was pulled with issue 6 and the first trade was cancelled.

Being there at the time, reading it monthly, I can verify that it wasn’t just DC that was offended by The Boys. A lot of comics readers found the book to be overly cynical and just another example of Garth Ennis hating on superheroes.

I fucking loved it.

Luckily, DC, Ennis, and Robertson made a deal (Robertson was under exclusive contract to DC but was given special dispensation to stay on the title) and they took the creator-owned comic to Dynamite Comics – who were willing to give the creators free rein to go as gonzo as they wanted – and gonzo they went, diving immediately into “Get Some” featuring a Batman/Iron Man-analog, Tek Knight, his former ward Swingwing, and the murder of a young gay man that one of them may or may not have committed. Ultimately, Tek Knight – who has developed an uncontrollable urge to fuck random objects and people – saves the world in a coda by fucking a world-killing asteroid to pieces, sacrificing his life in the process. Or that could have been a hallucination caused by a massive brain tumor and he was killed by a falling wheelbarrow.

Yeah, that’s probably what actually happened.

From there we move to an adventure in Russia where The Boys team up with retired Russian superhero Love Sausage to stop an attempted government coup by underworld boss Little Nina and an army of 150 superheroes and villains who, without their knowledge, have been weaponized even further, being turned into living bombs.

The comic follows two main narratives that soon converge: The induction of “Wee” Hughie into the Boys, and the induction of Starlight into The Seven. Weaving between the two, we learn the secret history of this world and how the corporation Vought-American created superheroes using the mysterious Compound V – which The Boys are also injected with in order to even the playing field. We also see how both sides are morally compromised in more ways than one.

Along the way, Hughie meets Starlight’s alter ego, Annie January and the two fall in love, neither knowing about the other’s secret lives.

One of the most interesting aspects of the story is how tentative the peace is between the Boys and The Seven (and by extension their handlers at Vought-American). Butcher has dirty secrets on the Supes that will be exposed if he dies and the Supes hold back from straight-up murdering the Boys in order to maintain their superstar lifestyles of sex, drugs, money and even more sex, drugs, and money.

As the series goes on, Ennis and Robertson (with occasional help on art chores by John McCrea, Keith Burns, Carlos Ezquerra, Russ Braun, and others) create a fully realized world that critiques the military-industrial complex, mocks the clichés of superhero comics as well as the comic industry itself, pisses all over religion and politics, while telling a realistically complex and emotionally powerful love story all at the same time.

Oh, and there’s a massive, six-issue orgy called Herogasm that takes the piss out of the idea of massive company-wide crossover special events.

And did I mention baby-eating?

The series ran for seventy-two issues, with three 6-issue mini-series: the aforementioned Herogasm, Highland Laddie where Hughie goes back to Scotland to decide whether or not to quit the Boys after a particularly grueling plot development, and Butcher, Baker, Candlestick Maker where Butcher goes back to London to attend his father’s funeral and give readers the “secret origin” of the Billy Butcher.

That’s ninety issues dedicated to telling a complete story with surprisingly few digressions along the way. Those readers who bailed early or were offended and quit reading ended up missing one of Ennis’ best works, ranking up there with his run on Hellblazer, Punisher MAX, and of course, Preacher. So, the question becomes, were Rogan, Goldberg, and Kripke able to successfully adapt all of this to the small screen?

Yes and no.

Given the inherent limitations of an eight-episode season, especially with the initial uncertainty regarding whether or not they’ll get the opportunity to continue on for more seasons, The Boys hits the ground running. This is the exact opposite of the approach that was taken with Preacher, where the first season meandered around establishing the characters before finally really starting to dig into the meat of the comic in the first-season finale.

The show maintains the initial parallel narratives of the comic, focusing on Hughie and Annie, but there are significant alterations to each that change the nature of the story being told. For Hughie, the collateral damage death of his girlfriend Robin is essentially the same, but instead of being the result of a superhero/villain rumble, she is instead pulverized by a drugged-out A-Train who barely remembers killing her. This sets up one of the shows major plots – which isn’t really a part of the comic at all: Compound V as a secret that is abused by Supes like any mainstream drug. The Boys don’t even know it exists as the television show begins.

This change isn’t as insignificant as it might seem. In the comic, all of the Boys are jacked up on Compound V in order to allow them to fight superheroes hand to hand. There’s an element of hypocrisy to Butcher’s loathing of all things Supes-related but it also ties into the comics’ final closing storyline in a way that helps to paint Butcher in a somewhat different light than we’d seen before. He is a true zealot in the end. For the most part.

As for Annie’s story, she also is humiliated before being allowed to join The Seven, but instead of it being a sexual assault by the entire team, it’s limited to just one member, The Deep. Again, this could be a minor change, but it also alters the narrative approach. In the comics, Ennis paints the Supes with broad strokes, but a narrow brush. They are all rapists and murderers. They are all scum. The adaptation, while casting The Deep as a casual sexual predator, doesn’t indict each character just because they have powers. The Deep is also very self-conscious about his position on the team, cares passionately about the environment and sea life in particular (he can talk to fish), and ultimately suffers both in his career and his psyche by the season’s end.

In fact, all of the superheroes are treated as three-dimensional characters to an extent not really seen in the comics at all. They’re horrible and megalomaniacal but they have fears and personalities, too. At the same time, the hedonism and violence that they get up to doesn’t come close to the extremes of the source material.

Yet.

It may in future seasons. If they continue to adapt storylines from the comics, it seems like they’ll have to touch on some disturbing events.

Did I mention baby-eating?

The future of the adaptation is in a sort of flux, though, since the main storyline involves getting the Supes approved for military action thanks Homelander’s experiments with Compound V leading to the creation of Super Terrorists. This is a storyline that lurks around in the background of the comic, but never comes to fruition. The concept of a Super Terrorist is almost entirely alien to the way the comic represents people with powers. It’s an interesting angle to take but moves away from the narrative goals of the original work, reframing it as a more traditional – and socially acceptable – story.

It’s not worse or better. It’s just different.

The translation of characters from page to screen can be described the same way. Removing their super strength, virtual invulnerability, and enhanced healing immediately raises the stakes and puts Butcher (Karl Urban), Hughie (Jack Quaid), Mother’s Milk (Laz Alonso), and Frenchie (Tomer Capon) in harm’s way with every move. The Female (Karen Fukuhara) is the only member of the team with powers – thanks to being tortured and drugged and having a radically different origin than the comics.

All the characters are actually given more depth than the comics, except for Hughie, Butcher, and ultimately Annie. Ennis spends a lot of time building these three up, while relegating the rest of the teams to the background most of the time. The others are still interesting and more than just caricatures, but they’re not really developed into real characters.

So while changing the narrative from a less-sprawling exploration of the world to a linear conspiracy story is a bit of a disappointment, all of the characters benefit from the shift and in a way, it is a more immediately satisfying work than the comic series, but I don’t know that it will be able to really build up the emotional resonance that the comic was able to achieve over time.

The Boys Season One isn’t better or worse than the comic from which it spawned. It’s just a very different, very enjoyable, beast with a ton of potential.

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