When we read stories of good vs. evil, we often see a clear demarcation between heroes and villains. One aspires to protect and save, the other to destroy and waste.
Then there’s stories like The Boys that come along and shatter that demarcation into nothing.
Now I’ve discussed this series in a few other posts about character: about inserting trauma into backstory, providing a moment of vulnerability so readers see layers, and making characters face Monsters readers know all too well.
But now it’s time to define the, well, indefinable. The hero who’s beyond all redemption.
Billy Butcher is the leader of The Boys, a government-backed group created to keep the corporate-backed super-heroes from taking over the world. Butcher meets all the marks of a tragic hero. His wife Becky was raped by Homelander, the most powerful of all the superheroes (aka “supes”), and died when his unborn baby tore its way out of her stomach. The baby nearly killed Butcher with laser vision, forcing Butcher to beat this baby to death while his wife bleeds out in front of him.
Tragic backstory doesn’t get much darker than that.
From a writer’s standpoint, it’s shocking that we learn this much about Butcher by the sixth issue of the series–six out of seventy-two.
Why do we get this monumental information so early? Isn’t this the sort of thing that’s dropped further on down the plot, when reader engagement is high and they want to know more about where the characters come from? After all, we don’t get the backstories of M.M., Frenchie, or The Female until Issue 35.
First, Butcher’s using the information to motivate Hughie, the protagonist readers follow through this series, to join The Boys. Hughie himself lost his girlfriend when the hero A-Train crushed her against a wall during his fight with a villain. Mutual loss bonds the two characters.
Loss isn’t all that drives Butcher. There’s a reasoning–a philosophy, if you will, or a code. It takes me back back to the stories of the “lawless” West, or even the classic Robin Hood; just because a man is lawless doesn’t mean he’s rule-less. It only means his rules and society’s laws don’t sync up. Now whether his rules benefit others outside himself could be up for debate, I’d say–Clint Eastwood’s Man With No Name comes to mind. He’s clearly out for personal gain in For a Fistful of Dollars. Sure, he helps a kidnapped woman and her family escape, but that’s only to screw around with two warring families whom he’s scamming for all they’re worth.
Butcher, too, has his own set of rules, and he doesn’t care if they jive with anyone else. He tells the CIA director in Issue 1:
Superpower’s the most dangerous power on Earth. There’s more an’more of’em all the time, an’ sooner or later they’re gonna wise up. If you can dodge bullets or outrun tachyons or swim across the sun, you’ve better things to do with your life than save the world for the two hundredth time. One day, you might twig what you’re really invulnerable to is your humanity. An’ then God help us all.Butcher to Dir. Rayner, “The Name of the Game” Part 1
A lot happens to prove Butcher right. The Boys fight a huge number of supes who rape and kill for fun, their atrocities almost always covered up by the Vought Corporation. The public goes right on devouring the stories told in Vought’s comic books like they’re the truth of the world. One by one, Butcher marks The Boys’ targets and plans how to take that team of supes down.
Everything he does or says serves whatever it is he got planned. He don’t waste nothing’–not time, not words, not effort. Not even a goddamn smile, Hughie.Mother’s Milk to Hughie, “Get Some” Part 2
The Boys maim and kill a number of supes, be they street teams or a Nazi disguised as a Norse god. So long as they’re just killing bad guys justice won’t touch, then everything’s okay, right?
This is what we tell ourselves. As readers, we escape into stories to see comeuppance served because so often the justice served in reality is unsatisfactory. In fiction, the detectives catch the bad guy. The villain’s plot to take over the world is thwarted. The bad guys, the really bad guys, pay for the crimes.
Characters can be antiheroes who do horrible things because they’re still heroes, if only just. We’re sure there’s something good in them, and we’re willing to wait out the horrible things in order to see that goodness come to light.
And we see Butcher with that goodness, if only just. The miniseries Butcher, Baker, Candlestickmaker takes readers into Billy Butcher’s past. We meet Becky. We see her and Billy Butcher fall in love, get married. We see the charming side of this antihero, and his heart.
We see Becky die, and the aftermath.
Loss rarely breeds good things. Strange, how often we look for tragedy in our heroes–the loss that drives them to fight for justice, for making things right. We forget that revenge and ambition do not always lead to bettering the world. Clint Eastwood comes to mind again, this time as Dirty Harry in the film Dirty Harry: Magnum Force. There’s a crew of cops out to take justice into their own hands, and they want Harry to join them.
It’s the Point of No Return. Harry is invited to cross it, but he refuses.
Butcher, on the other hand…well. He crossed it long, long ago.
Readers get a preview of Butcher’s true nature in Issue 14, when he sets off a genetic detonation device that kills 150 supes who did took money to help start a coup in Russia. In Issue 28 (The G-Men series I’ve written about before) Butcher is fine killing a supe team of teen boys; later, if not for Hughie, Butcher would have killed a team of mentally challenged superheroes simply for cussing in front of him. These two teams weren’t trying to overthrow any government. Heck, some were genuinely trying to help the citizens of their town.
Where is this antihero’s rules, his personal code? Butcher gives one version of his code to Hughie after the G-Men slaughter:
But we ain’t here to make things better, are we, Hughie? We’re here to stop’em from gettin’ worse.Butcher to Hughie, “We Gotta Go Now” Conclusion
Okay, that sounds somewhat justifiable. There are many problems in the world that can’t be eradicated. Sometimes containment’s the best one can hope for.
But a flashback with Butcher’s mentor Col. Mallory sheds a brighter, nastier light on the true rule Butcher lives by no matter what the rest of the world says. When Butcher and Mallory discover a convention of supe children have all been gassed to death, Butcher doesn’t care. To Butcher, the only good supe is a dead supe.
I’ll tell you how you neutralize the potential threats: you f***in’ drop the lot o’ them. Every single arsehole in tights, you do’em…No one should be allowed to walk around with what they’ve got, it’s just too much of a risk.Butcher to Mallory, Issue 55
As far as Butcher’s concerned, any super-human of any kind must die. It doesn’t matter what he/she did or didn’t do. It doesn’t matter who that person is, if they were born with the powers, or if Vought injected them with the DNA-altering chemical Compound V to create those powers. If a person has powers, they deserve to die. Mallory even warns Hughie to watch his back around Butcher, because for Butcher, this personal war with the supes is never going to end.
There is no one on earth who hates like that man does.Mallory to Hughie, Issue 55
I’m not going to tell you how far Butcher will go in his personal war–I’ll let you find out via the comic series or the upcoming TV show.
(Warning: the trailer’s pretty true to form with the comic, so carnage and cussing abound. Only watch if you can handle that sort of thing.)
Antiheroes are compelling because we really, honestly, truly do not know what they’re willing to do in order to fulfill their code. There’s a level of wretchedness we expect heroes will not sink to; there’s a level of goodness we expect villains will not aspire to.
But antiheroes don’t give a shit about reader expectations or presumptions. They will do whatever it takes to reach their goal.
And readers cannot help but follow, compelled to discover what goal could be worth such a path taken through the shattered demarcation between good and evil. With every step taken readers’ feet will bleed upon the shards, and like the antihero, readers will complete the journey…but will never be the same.
~Stay Tuned Next Week!~
More interviews with authors both indie and award-winning are lined up for your enjoyment, as well as a journey with Bo and me into the mysterious North Woods where a ghost stands, lonely and waiting. On top of all that, I’ll be taking you into the Wild West for some fantasy adventure. Bullets and magic will fly…just not to the Will Smith song. Pleeeease not to the Will Smith song…
Oh, and just to toot my own horn for a second, I’ve written my own batch of flawed characters with their own Points of No Return to cross…or not.
You can check out my novel here.
Read on, share on, and write on, my friends!