Since Superman first lifted a car on the cover of Action Comics, comic books have mostly been about men in spandex punching each other. Since before Watchmen was published in the 80s, some comics have examined the genre and tried to deconstruct the idea of super-empowered human beings. This sub-genre is nothing new.
These comics have been published continuously over the past year. Among the current titles are Irredeemable and The Boys. Irredeemable is a character study about a Superman-like character called The Plutonian who decided to start killing people. The Boys is a vulgar satire on the genre, complete with oversexed analogues of popular superheroes. These ideas have both already been done before, so the difference is in the execution.
Of the two, The Boys is probably better because it has characters. The only interesting character in Irredeemable is the Plutonian, and since the story is partially a mystery about why he turned into an asshole, it’s hard to understand what motivates him. Writer Mark Waid tries to balance the cheeky style of comics from the 70s with psychological nuance. It doesn’t work, and most of his characters are boring.
On the other hand, The Boys has plenty of characters. Garth Ennis may enjoy writing vulgar scenes, but he at least understand how to write complex characters and get them to interact. There’s Wee Hughie, the character you’re supposed to identify with, who is drafted into becoming one of the Boys after his wife got splattered by a superhero running at top speed. He’s recruited by Butcher, who is so tough he has sex with the director of the CIA. When they talk, it’s usually a riot.
Another difference is the art. Peter Krause, who pencils Irredeemable, draws in a mock style of the worst kind of superhero art. His pages are boring, uninteresting, and do a terrible job of telling the story. On The Boys, Darick Robertson emphasizes Ennis’s cartoonishly vulgar stories, and emphasizes the humor. His art is detailed, and he excels at making characters act. He is exactly the kind of artist The Boys deserves to have.
Superhero comics about superhero comics have been around for a while. Some books in this genre are worth reading. The Boys is one of these. It’s a clever, self referential satire. It’s smart, and it has things to say about comic books, corporate greed, politics, and the world at large.
Irredeemable is just a waste of time.