The Subversiveness Of Superheroes

Christopher Fowler
As a writer of popular fiction (as opposed to literature) I keep myself familiar with other popular forms of entertainment. For this reason alone I sat through most of Netflix's most expensive film, 'The Gray (sic) Man', which comprised a parade of postcard European locations, firepower and exploding vehicles destroyed by cut-out characters in search of anything resembling a story. Apparently all that violence-without-pain plays well with children. If you're an adult, you'll see that the action film has definitely hit a dead end - so what about the superhero genre? 'The Boys' was a crude, vulgar and rudimentary comic full of smart ideas. It was written by Garth Ennis, fell fell through as a movie and was turned into a TV series for Amazon Prime. In the hands of the team that remodelled it, it became an outrageously transgressive show, but if you have an antipathy to the superhero genre the synopsis won't sound encouraging. The blackly comic satire imagines a world where corporatised superheroes with ridiculous names and sexualised costumes (The 7') thrill the masses by giving them what they want, namely scripted patriotism, sentiment, violence and soap opera, in order to make them overlook the theft of democracy. You know, like the British government. The 'supes' are run by pharmaceutical companies for profit and control. For those superheroes who are recruited into their ranks it's a poisoned deal; stick to the script and become a role model for the world - although there's no sign of the world here of course, because to America the whole world is American, even though the US only makes up 4.25 of the world's population. Fighting back against corporatised role models means taking on the force of public opinion and the wealth of the puppet-masters, but a handful of individuals are prepared to do so covertly. The situation is complicated by good, bad and mad hiding in both sides, causing chaos from within. For a story with so many characters it's strangely easy to keep track of, as we pull focus around the jaw-muscle-flexing Homelander (Antony Starr), the red, gold and blue crusader that the American extreme right would wish into existence if it could, although possibly without the Oedipal issues. Cleverly, at first we too are taken in by Homelander's homespun schtick, but as the smile slips we see the nightmarish future that lies behind his dead blue eyes. Opposing him is swaggering, ridiculous Billy Butcher (Karl Urban), sporting the worst Cockney/Tasmanian accent since Don Cheadle's in 'Ocean's Eleven'. It's a cracking performance, swinging his shoulders about and staring everyone down, and a lot more fun that the nominal leading man Hughie, who simply scowls and has multiple breakdowns. There's a blonde of course, the whispery 'Starlight', forced by corporate demand into a sexist outfit (which the show's cameraman still manages to linger over) and a motley gang of misfits including an incomprehensible Frenchman who doesn't seem to do anything. The script is an exercise in having your cake and ironically eating it. The product placement in the series mirrors the parody product placement in the show. It's all terribly knowing, but satire has to be that way. Decades of willingly feeding from the superhero swill bucket has led to this, the sight of a hand being simultaneously bitten and fed. The stakes are raised from financial power to political absolutism and the ghost of Trump inexorably rises, yet there's still plenty of time for very weird sex and jaw-dropping ultra-violence. Faces get ripped off and eye sockets emptied but this is nothing new - hell, Gilbert Shelton's marvellous 'Wonder Wart Hog' was tearing evildoers' spines out back in the seventies. For a show called 'The Boys' it's the women who call the shots. It scores highest in two areas, the sheer switchback-unexpectedness of the situations (the whale/speedboat contest lingers in the mind) and the thoughtful moments that suggest this may be all that's left of America; flash, smash, shoot, pray and run like hell from the next rising power. I do hope it doesn't end well. 'The Boys' continues on Amazon Prime.  


Stu-I-Am (not verified) Sat, 30/07/2022 - 13:53

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

Yes, what about the superhero genre and 'greatness ?' I gather now that Marvel's comic books, 'Black Panther,' 'Captain America,' and 'The Amazing Spider-Man' are now 'greats' under the Penguin Classics definition since they joined the 'black-spined' (there's also a collectible hardcover) iconic collection in June as the first titles in the Penguin Classics Marvel Collection, as anthologies of original stories and seminal exploits of the superheros. They also have, as might be expected, scholarly introductions. No 'Modern Classics' for this lot.

Are they as Penguin Classics 'great' as Morrissey's 2013 memoir (he asked facetiously) or 'The Odyssey'' .(he asked earnestly) ? Is this elevation to the pantheon containing some 2,000 of the world's greatest literary efforts warranted (the lad does have a lot of questions) or is it perhaps a marketing ploy to attract younger readers ? Or (next to the last question) is it another academic attempt to 'put lipstick' on yet one more element of popular culture ? (Final question) Or does it matter ?

E Bush (not verified) Sat, 30/07/2022 - 16:05

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

I don't get into superheros. Surprised to hear Penguin Classics has published them. Maybe it's the quest for younger readers and their money, maybe just a swipe of lipstick? Good questions. Maybe it doesn't matter.

Helen+Martin (not verified) Sat, 30/07/2022 - 19:15

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

Penguin would like people to think of their publications as something you want to read as opposed to things you have to read. I don't think publishing Marvel comics - they're just comics, even if they do have an evil Trumpian style influence with some readers - is going to improve their overall image.

Joan (not verified) Sat, 30/07/2022 - 21:15

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

I am in the minority I’m sure but I liked The Gray Man, it is what it is, launched on the popularity of it’s stars with some Euro eye candy. It was a massive hit for N and now has a sequel in the works. The Boys I didn’t like at all, violent and quite nasty, not for me. Summer is always a time for kicking back and enjoying implacable plots and lots of nonsense!

Was very disappointed in the new Persuasion, too silly a take by far! Poor Jane Austen, she must be turning in the grave! Did catch Prizefighter: the Jem Belcher story (about early boxing) on Prime, and enjoyed it. Russell Crowe was a very believable as a bare knuckle bruiser, playing the part of his grand father.

Alan R (not verified) Sun, 31/07/2022 - 01:44

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

I want to give a shout-out to the real Superhero Villains of our generation Blackstone and Vanguard. Names that reflect power and strength. Brother Villains who really control our world. Shareholders and heavy influencers in every major corporation on our planet. All 5 US banks, big pharm, most media companies, arms companies, aviation, tech ..wow ...everything. Can we expect these villains to be taken down by one of our favourite Supes?

Netflix will not be making this series - check who has a large shareholding in Netflix.

Now that's one fantasy that I would pay good money to see but I am not too hopeful. Maybe a plot for a novel?

Alan R (not verified) Sun, 31/07/2022 - 01:46

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

Add another Super Villain to our list. Blackrock.

Stu-I-Am (not verified) Sun, 31/07/2022 - 18:55

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

@admin As an aside --- since you (Arthur) takes on the Barbican in 'Peculiar London,' you (he) will be delighted to know (if you don't already) that plans are afoot to disassemble and relocate Cumbernauld Centre, a 1960s concrete block shopping centre outside Glasgow to the estate. It has been dubbed 'Britain's most-hated building,' and in keeping with the neighbourhood's Brutalist architecture, the plans call for the building to be appropriately renamed, 'Massive Concrete.' Perhaps, the 'last straw.'so to speak, for the many who view the Barbican as a concrete monstrosity or, put another way, a two-finger salute to London from Glasgow.

Tim Lees (not verified) Mon, 01/08/2022 - 16:55

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

Garth Ennis can be an astonishingly good writer (some of his war and crime comics are very well done indeed), but as a comic, I thought the boys was fairly trivial -- fun, but essentially throw-away. I'm intrigued that it's made such a good TV series, where I found the same team's adaptation of the far superior (to my mind) Preacher disappointing -- it had its moments, but didn't capture the headlong spirit of the original. The Boys, of course, has gained urgency from the real-life political situation it's wound up mirroring, in both the US and the UK -- sadly.

Stu-I-Am (not verified) Tue, 02/08/2022 - 13:05

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

@admin Best of luck on the Golden Hinde tomorrow. You may want to brush up on your 'Jack Speak' naval slang to further astound your audience with your all-encompassing knowledge: phrases now in common usage like 'letting the cat out of the bag' and 'on the fiddle.' Also, a word of caution --- blasphemy was considered a major crime about the Golden Hinde and dealt with accordingly. And do put on that personal flotation device. With Christopher Fowler on board anything can happen.

Joel (not verified) Tue, 02/08/2022 - 18:10

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

thoroughly enjoyed the first season. was shocked within the first couple minutes. and what with the exploding penis at the beginning of the third season, not sure how the fourth season will go...there seem to be a lot of uncomfortable similarities with the us's current political/celebrity landscape

H (not verified) Wed, 03/08/2022 - 14:43

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

Shine like the star you are at tonight’s reception at the Golden Hinde. With you in spirit.

Helen+Martin (not verified) Wed, 03/08/2022 - 17:06

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

Remembering walking around the Golden Hinde when we were in London & wishing we could be there tonight. All the best for the event.