Good for the Soul: How The Boys Uses Its Characters’ Trauma to Explore Their Humanity

I still can’t believe we live in a universe where someone decided to put The Boys on television. The Boys was on a shortlist of comics that I’d long considered unadaptable, mostly because of the content of those books. You can’t film The Boys as written. Networks simply wouldn’t be able to, and even if someone like HBO picked it up, they probably wouldn’t. The Boys was always a great idea – a bunch of regular guys are tasked with hunting down superheroes, who, in true late-capitalism fashion, are owned lock, stock, and barrel by a corporation whose sole goal is making a profit – but its desire to be edgy and controversial hurt it as much as it helped. Adapting its more problematic elements would have been difficult when it came out in 2006, never mind now.

The Boys. Amazon.

To Amazon’s credit, they didn’t even try. Showrunner Eric Kripke and his writers knew what made The Boys good was less the content of the series and more the ideas that powered it. They took the comics’ best parts – the conceit and characters – and went from there.

The result is a show that is significantly better than the series that inspired it. As edgy as the show is, the comics make it look tame. Case in point: DC originally published the series under its Wildstorm imprint, but they were so concerned about the series’ content that they canceled it six issues in and allowed Garth Ennis and Darrick Robertson to take it to Dynamite, where it would finish out the rest of its run.  But Kripke and company’s decision to remove a lot of the comics’ problematic parts came with a bonus: it made its characters more human. In the comics, the tragedy that drives most of the major characters is used merely to set up the characters and explain why they do what they do. The show, however, uses that trauma to explore the characters’ humanity in ways the comics never even attempt. Spoilers for both The Boys comic series and Amazon’s television adaptation follow.

Perhaps no character more readily embodies this change than Billy Butcher.  While the first season of the TV show makes some changes to the overall plot, Billy’s setup is largely the same. The reason he goes after superheroes is because Homelander rapes his wife, Becca, and she goes missing shortly afterward. Billy naturally assumes that Homelander killed her, and dedicates his life to getting revenge. We seem to get confirmation of Becca’s death when Dr. Vogelbaum tells Homelander that she was pregnant. We learn that she came to him for help with her pregnancy and died in childbirth as the baby clawed its way out of her and then died. This mirrors what happens to the comics: Billy wakes up to find that Homelander’s superpowered child has killed Becca by tearing its way out of her before Billy beats it to death with a lamp.

In both the show and the comics, it’s Becca’s death that drives Billy’s hatred of superheroes. In the comics, Becca is just another in a long line of women who are murdered or “fridged” — a reference to Green Lantern #54, where Kyle Raynor comes home to find his girlfriend murdered and stuffed into a refrigerator by villain Major Force (yes, that’s really his name) — to move a male character’s story arc forward. The Boys comic series does the same to Becca. She exists as a plot device to provide motivation for Billy rather than an actual character.

The Boys. Amazon.

At first, it seems that the show will use this setup, with Vogelbaum’s story making minor changes here and there. When Madeline Stillwell, a Vought executive, tells Homelander that both Becca and the child died due to a miscarriage, however, we start to question the story. Becca, of course, isn’t actually dead. She’s alive and raising her son, Ryan, in secret, in the hopes that having a loving family and a normal childhood will prevent him from turning out like Homelander. More crucially, Billy sees that she’s still alive because Homelander brings him to see her. From that point on, his sole goal is to find her.

This is an enormous departure from the comics and one that drastically alters Billy’s character arc. There’s no getting around it: it’s in the comics, Billy Butcher is a monster. His obsession with ridding the world of superheroes progresses to the point that he helps create a bioweapon that will kill anyone who has been exposed to Compound V (the chemical cocktail that Vought injects into babies to make them super), including millions of non-supes. He also murders Frenchie, Mother’s Milk, and The Female before Hughie finally stops him.

The fact that Becca is alive, however, changes Billy’s character arc significantly. He becomes more tolerant of supes in general in the show, mostly thanks to the time he spends with Starlight and Kimiko, but when he finds Becca, she refuses to escape with him because she knows that Billy will try to get rid of Ryan as soon as he can. She’s right; when the chips are down, he opts to give Ryan to Vought if it means saving Becca. When the time comes, however, he realizes he can’t do it. He confesses that Becca was right about him, and that he could have done anything to Ryan if it meant being with her. Knowing that he might make that choice again, and that both Ryan and Becca would always be in danger with him around, he tells Becca to leave him. This moment works because we’ve seen Billy grow beyond his prejudices – he respects both Kimiko and Annie, and knows that both women are an essential part of the team – and because he’s recently had to come to terms with how his father shaped who he is. He knows he’s a bad role model for Ryan, and he doesn’t want to hurt Becca. Billy’s afraid of what he might do, a far cry from the guy in the comics.

It all comes to a head when Ryan, trying to save his mother from Stormfront, ends up mortally wounding Becca because he can’t control his powers. Before she dies, Becca makes Billy promise to take care of Ryan. “It’s not his fault,” she says. “He’s good.” After she dies, an enraged Billy picks up a crowbar. It looks like he might go after Ryan until Homelander shows up, and Billy puts himself between the most powerful man on the planet and his wife’s son. When Homelander asks him why he would protect the person who killed his wife, Billy’s answer is simple: “I promised.”  It’s a remarkable moment for the guy who starts the show convinced that all supes are evil and one that’s made all the more powerful because Billy knows it’s a fight he can’t win. It would be easy to stand aside and let Homelander take the boy away.  But that’s not who this version of Billy Butcher is.

The Boys. Amazon.

Better, perhaps, is the scene where Billy gives Ryan the Saint Christopher necklace Becca gave him for protection. This, more than any other scene, illustrates the difference between the two versions of the character. The comics’ version of Billy would have never done that because he would have tried to kill Ryan immediately after Becca’s death. But Karl Urban’s Butcher is a far more complicated character. He doesn’t have to show Ryan kindness; he never promised that. He certainly doesn’t have to give him something Becca gave him. He chooses to. And all of this happens because the writers made the decision to keep Becca alive, and user her to challenge Billy’s beliefs. It’s easy to write a character consumed by anger and hatred; it’s far harder to make that character confront who they are, and whether the things they’ve done in the name of revenge are right.

But it’s not just Billy. Almost every other character in the show receives similar treatment. While Annie “Starlight” January is a relatively minor character in the comics, she’s front and center in the show. Like Billy, her arc starts similarly: she’s chosen to join The Seven only to realize it isn’t what she thought it would be. In the comics, she’s forced to perform sex acts on several members of The Seven to prove she’s a “team player.” If she refuses, they threaten to kick her off the team.

The show features a similar scene, but only with The Deep. The shock of the sequence remains, but Annie isn’t defined by this in the same way she is in the comics. There, Annie drinks to dull her pain and unhappiness, and while there are moments when she does this in the show, this scene doesn’t define her character arc to the same extent. Instead, it’s just one part of her story. Several things influence who she is: her disillusionment with Vought’s staged crimefighting and sexually charged marketing, the revelation that her parents allowed Vought to give her Compound V as a baby and lied to her about it, and her discovery of the bigotry that she never used to see in her faith causes her to question who she is and what she believes.

When she decides to save Hughie’s life, and later, join up with The Boys, it’s because she’s figured out what she wants to fight for, not because she’s defined by her sexual assault. While it’s still a problematic sequence – Annie probably didn’t need to be assaulted at all – she’s a much deeper character in the show because of the agency she has. Like almost everyone in The Boys, Annie is defined by her damage. Here, however, that damage is multi-faceted, challenging her beliefs and identity in ways that go far beyond the trauma of that single event. She’s in control of her story, and her decisions drive a lot of the show’s plot, something that simply isn’t true in the comics.

The Boys. Amazon.

Hughie’s plot is tweaked in similar ways. While the death of his girlfriend, Robin, is still what gets his story started, the writers use his trauma to explore who he is, not simply explain what he does. Hughie deals with PTSD, hopelessness, and fear, and he often questions the people around him, especially Billy. His relationship with Starlight, which is developed far earlier in the show and given more depth, helps him realize that not all supes are bad people. This leads to conflicts with the group, as Hughie challenges both their methods – they have him spy on Annie – and the beliefs that drive them.

But as much as Hughie’s actions drive wedges between him, Annie, and the members of The Boys, he can never quite give up on the people around them. In season 2, we learn this is because his mom left when he was young, and he tends to cling tightly to the people in his life as a result. He refuses to give up on the people he cares about because if he did, he’d be just like her. Hughie wants to do things the right way, something he all but gives up on until Annie shows him it’s still possible. By the end of the second season, we’ve seen him admit and confront his trauma, and he tries to strike out on his own. He still wants to fight, but he wants to do it differently. It’s a far cry from the kid at the beginning of season 1.

Frenchie gets similar treatment. We learn that his drug use and desire to help Kimiko are largely because of the guilt he feels over the deaths of Mallory’s grandchildren. M.M. often brings up his failure to keep an eye on Lamplighter as a reason that Frenchie is unfit for the job, but the truth is that he was in an impossible situation: stay at his post and let Jay, one of his best friends, die of an overdose, or leave to save him and risk Lamplighter doing something while he’s away. He manages to save Jay’s life, but has to leave immediately afterward, prompting Cherie to accuse him of throwing them aside. This is especially ironic because the reason he joined The Boys in the first place was to keep Jay and Cherie out of prison. Frenchie isn’t responsible for the deaths of Mallory’s grandchildren, but he blames himself for not being there to do something about it, a pain that’s only deepened by his feeling that what he did ultimately didn’t matter; Jay died of an overdose a few months later.

Frenchie doesn’t tell anyone why he did what he did because he thinks he deserves to suffer. This trauma drives him to help Kimiko. He tells her that he thought if he could help save her, it would help make up for the other things he’s done. It’s only after saying these things out loud -and admitting that Kimiko doesn’t need him to save her – that he begins to find peace. Everything Frenchie does is driven by his love of the people around him, a far cry from the violent and often unstable, if also kind, character in the comics.

The Boys. Amazon.

Perhaps nobody benefits from this more than Kimiko Miyashiro, known only as “The Female” in the comics. Again, the broad strokes are the same: she’s been exposed to Compound V, which made her extremely strong and nearly impossible to kill, and doesn’t speak. The show, however, gives her a name and a backstory, something that never happens in the comics. Like everyone else, Kimiko is defined by tragedy. She and her brother were kidnapped by a liberation army who killed parents. Kimiko stops speaking as a result, and later finds herself captured and used to test Compound V. As the series goes on, she becomes especially close with Frenchie and teaches him her unique version of sign language. We watch her re-learn how to be a person, evolving from a ruthless killer to someone trying to find their place in the world. Her story is as much about finding a family and choosing to stick with them as it is her silence and her mystery, and the show manages to make her a character without changing what made her compelling.

Even Homelander, who Ennis describes as “an almost entirely negative character,” benefits from the increased focus on understanding how people’s damage shapes who they are. In the comics, he’s little more than an unhinged megalomaniac who thinks he can do whatever he wants because of who he is, and often rapes and murders people simply because he can. While he still does these things in the show, he’s a far more conniving character that’s driven, above all else, by a need to be loved. The show emphasizes that the decision to raise him in a laboratory with little human contact made him who he is, making him a far more interesting and occasionally pitiable (if still awful) character.

I don’t know how The Boys will end. By the time the credits rolled on the first season, I knew I was watching something that would end up being far different than the comic books that inspired it. In many ways, it’s a better story, but it’s almost certainly better at developing its characters. The Boys took an excellent idea and distilled it into something that feels both remarkably relevant and extremely risky. Few adaptations are brave enough to play so fast and loose with the source material, and fewer still manage to get it right when they do. The Boys is walking a tightrope, and we won’t know how well it’s doing until the curtain falls. It had the guts to take a bunch of superheroes and killers and make them human beings, to look hard at what drives us and what hurts us, and use those things to make its characters more interesting people. And in a genre that’s played it safe for far too long, that’s a welcome change indeed.

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