How The Boys Went from Nihilistic Comic to Humane TV Series
This article contains The Boys Season 3 spoilers
Literally speaking, Jamie is hardly the biggest part of The Boys, in comics or live-action. After all, he’s just a hamster, a furry little fuzzball that most people met in the season three episode “Glorious Five-Year Plan.” But this insignificant rodent, and the way he’s used in both versions of the story, illustrate the cruel humor of the source material and the surprisingly humane story Eric Kripke and his collaborators are telling on television.
On the show, Jamie appears in a Russian lab, where Butcher (Karl Urban) and the Boys are searching for a weapon to kill Homelander (Antony Starr). Frenchie (Tomer Kapon) and M.M. (Laz Alonso) quickly learn that the cute hamster locked in a cage is actually full of Compound V, which grants it the abilities of flight, superstrength, and superspeed. When an attack by Russian soldiers sets him free, Jamie burrows into the face of an attacker, leaving behind a pulpy, bloody mess.
Jamie appears much earlier in the comics, in The Boys #6 (2007), written and drawn by series creators Garth Ennis and Darick Robinson. In the middle of his first fight with the Boys against a superhero team, the Teen Titans riff Teenage Kix, Hughie freaks out. As Teenage Kix member Blarney Cock threatens to poke out his eyes, Hughie desperately throws a punch. Not realizing how his strength had increased by the Compound V he’d been given, Hughie’s fist goes right through Blarney Cock, killing him immediately. As the Boys try to calm down the clearly traumatized Hughie, they notice something crawling from the seat of Blarney Cock’s pants. It’s Jamie, who had presumably been living inside the hero’s cavity.
Without question, both scenes go far past the boundaries of taste. In the comic, Jamie distracts from Hughie’s moment of crisis to laugh at the guy who just got a hole punched in his chest. In the show, Jamie destroys a guy’s head, but his initial appearance reveals sweetness in three of the Boys. Frenchie and Kimiko coo at him, as any decent person would at the sight of a cute little thing. Even the always reserved M.M. breaks his wariness for a moment to take in the sight and recall his daughter’s love of pets. Simply put, where the comic uses Jamie to undercut empathy and bring out our disgust for people, the show uses Jamie to let us glimpse the characters’ humanity.
The approach of the comic is not unusual for Ennis, whose series Preacher, Crossed, and Punisher are filled with humans doing horrible things to one another. Created in the middle of the American War on Terror – in which the United States saw itself as an unimpeachable force for good, even as it attacked other countries and tortured its captives – The Boys created a “might makes right world” that even Nietzsche failed to imagine. With the possible exception of Wee Hughie (drawn to resemble the relatively short Simon Pegg, not the quite tall Jack Quaid), nobody in the comic exhibits empathy or even a recognizable human emotion. Instead, Ennis and Robertson seem to revel in following one disgusting image with another.
To someone only familiar with the television series, that description may fall flat. After all, both versions of the story follow the same broad outlines. Both follow Hughie’s induction into the Boys after the speedster A-Train obliterates his girlfriend Robin (portrayed in the show by Jess Salgueiro). Under the direction of the immoral Billy Butcher, the Boys wage war against superheroes, ultimately setting their sights on Homelander, the all-powerful leader of the Seven, violating a cease-fire agreement the two teams accepted after Supe Lamplighter murdered the grandchildren of former Boys leader Mallory. Along the way, Hughie begins to date Starlight, an innocent young Supe who becomes the Seven’s newest member.
More importantly, both versions of the story take joy in pushing boundaries. In the show, that includes the now-infamous opening of season three, in which size-changing Super Termite (Brett Geddes) enters his lover’s urethra and accidentally returns to normal height, causing the man to explode. To be sure, the scene is played for laughs, inviting us to giggle at the couple’s sex play and cover our mouths in shock when the lover explodes. Never once in the scene are we asked to consider the fact that a human being died.
But that moment is an outlier on The Boys, which shows a surprisingly deep concern for its characters’ humanity.
Where the Kimiko of the comics is a mute killing machine known only as The Female, she’s a person working through years of abuse, someone who longs to be a person, not just a weapon. Even in a silent performance, Karen Fukuhara finds complex notes to play varying, even clashing, emotions as she tries to reclaim her identity. Becca (Shantel VanSanten) isn’t just the fridged wife of the comics, but a person with agency and values, making her more than a proxy in the grudge match between Homelander and Butcher. The victims of Flight 37 aren’t mere fodder to remind us of Supe’s immorality, but people whose death mattered, even as they haunt Queen Maeve (Dominique McElligott). Starlight (Erin Moriarty) isn’t just a debased bastion of innocence or a reflection of Wee Hughie’s virtue, as she is in the comics, but a person with her own motivations, given to making mistakes and selfish decisions as much as she is moments of heroism.
Even more surprising is the degree to which the show builds empathy for the Supes. Where post-9/11 politics and Ennis’s general distaste for superheroes led to their portrayal as inhuman and unstoppable forces, the show wants us to see them as people who have been harmed by the immeasurable power given to them. The series never asks us to excuse The Deep’s (Chace Crawford) sexual assault on Starlight, but it has devoted several episodes to exploring his insecurity and lack of connection with other people. A-Train (Jessie Usher) is Robin’s killer, but his recklessness comes from a need to be recognized for his quickly fading abilities.
Perhaps the most important humanization comes in the form of Homelander, the series’ primary villain. As in the comics, Homelander is Frank Miller’s Superman at its worst, an invulnerable jingoist who justifies his atrocities with Evangelical Christian language and wraps them in the American flag. The comic book version is a prophecy of what America wanted to become under the Bush administration. But the TV version is a study of the most toxic masculinity. It asks what would happen if we gave one person immeasurable power. The answer is, of course, that the person would abuse that power to murder hundreds. But thanks to Starr’s incredible performance, the answer is also that the person would be irrevocably broken, filled with longing for approval and comfort that he can never have.
Where The Boys comic simply critiques power by showing how human bodies can be torn, abused, squished, and smashed, The Boys television series critiques power by showing its cost on the hearts and minds of all involved, even the powerful. As the power fantasies told in superhero stories continue to take up more and more space in the cultural imagination, such critiques grow only more necessary. So, while The Boys television series isn’t afraid to have a little fun with its excesses, making its audience squirm with an icky sight gag, it haunts its viewers with a nuanced take on the cost of power and how it can harm everyone, from the most vaunted superhero to the tiniest hamster.