For decades, comic books and stories featuring superheroes were widely considered a mindless pastime for children. They were simple tales about do-gooders who always fought for what was morally right. Superheroes were there to help those in danger and to put bad guys where they belonged. The genre has a long and varied history, and the prevailing stereotype has been the righteous costumed avenger who fights crime. That positive characterization has been subverted many times—perhaps most notably in The Watchmen graphic novel by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons. And some new superhero stories are helping to shed that good boy image even faster.
I was reminded of this when I watched the The Boys on Amazon Prime, a television series adapted from the Garth Ennis and Darick Robertson comic book of the same name. The Boys takes place in a world where superheroes are owned by Vought International, a powerful company that monetizes their heroic deeds and handles their publicity. Vought, headed by the scheming Madelyn Stillwell (Elisabeth Shue), oversees the actions of the Seven, its leading superhero team led by Homelander (Antony Starr), an all-powerful Superman-like character. New to the Seven is young hopeful Annie January (Erin Moriarty), aka Starlight, whose induction into the group gives the audience a ringside seat to the deconstruction of the superhero stereotype. Because here’s the secret that the public doesn’t know about the Seven: at best, they’re terrible human beings. At their worst, they’re murderers.
The true nature of the Seven does not go unnoticed by everyone. The “Boys” of the title are a group of vigilantes who seek to take down the Seven and expose them for what they are. The Boys are led by Billy Butcher (Karl Urban), a mysterious individual with an intense hatred for all superheroes. Billy enlists the help of Hughie Campbell (Jack Quaid), who had a devastating run-in with the super speedster A-Train (Jessie T. Usher). The Boys is not so much about heroic deeds as it is about the conflict between the Seven and the vigilantes who want to take them down.
That premise is a rich platform for telling serious stories that blowup the traditional depiction of superheroes. First, it presents us with what could really happen when a human receives godlike powers: not surprisingly, they think of themselves as gods. For them, other humans are lesser life forms, insects to be crushed under their boots out of necessity, convenience, or entertainment. It also sets up a moral dilemma for those, such as Hughie, who find out the truth. What do you do when you realize these superpowered beings are morally bankrupt? Do you fight in whatever way you can, or do you just accept what seemingly cannot be changed and take the path of least resistance? The Boys has much more to offer—intrigue, plot twists, and dark action that leans heavily into gore. But along the way, it gives viewers plenty of thought-provoking issues to consider. This isn’t your kids’ superhero show.
The Boys was such an excellent treatment of superheroes that it got me thinking about similar books. It inspired me to immediately read Bob Proehl’s recent novel, The Nobody People (Del Rey), which blew me away with the power of its storytelling. In The Nobody People, there are humans with superpowers, but they live under the radar and go largely unnoticed by the public. Emmaline is the 10-year-old daughter of Avi, a journalist. Avi knows there is something special about Emmaline; she seems to have the ability to foresee future events, among other traits. Avi is approached by a group of superpowered individuals who wish to teach Emmaline how to use her gift at a school for Resonants, other people like her. We see how the Resonants are preparing for the impending revelation of their existence. Hurrying that revelation along is Owen Curry, a deeply disturbed individual whose power is calling forth a void that erases from existence anything it touches. Power such as that in the hands of a good person is cool. In the hands of someone such as Owen, it’s downright scary.
Science fiction often employs unearthly aliens as stand-ins for “The Other” to examine how society accepts—or doesn’t—those who are different. Proehl uses the Resonants for that purpose. Kevin Bishop, leader of the school for the gifted, wants peaceful integration of the Resonants into society. Owen Curry wants to nullify all normal people (called “Damps”). Evangelical leader Jefferson Hargrave thinks all Resonants should be legally segregated, tracked, and controlled, if not outright eliminated. Proehl’s treatment of the issues between Resonants and Damps has parallels to immigration problems currently in the news, but it really applies to any group some in society see as “different.” This elevates Proehl’s story into something more than just a crimefighting superhero fantasy. It becomes a mirror we can hold up to ourselves and ask: What kind of world do we want to live in? How can we be more accepting of people who may be different? Do human rights exist for everyone, or just people who are like us?
Stories about superheroes have come a long way since the days of costumed do-gooders running faster than speeding bullets. I think it’s a change for the better.