Unmasking Mental Health & Masculinity in The Boys: Season Two
Words By Dominic Loise
Several years before my Bipolar Depression was officially diagnosed, I remember my mother ending a letter with the lyrics to “Only the Good Die Young” in an effort to cheer me up. So, the second season of Prime Video TV Series The Boys quickly won me over when the main character, Hughie Campbell, connects to Billy Joel’s music as a way of coping with the traumatic events of the previous season. If you haven’t watched it, The Boys offers an alternative, adrenaline-fueled version of our real-world issues. Throughout both seasons, we watch a group of human beings trying to unravel the conspiracy around the illicit activities of a celebrity superhero team called The Seven and Vought, the corporation they work for. When we first see Hughie Campbell hiding underground after the events of last season, Billy Joel’s “Pressure” is playing as Hughie struggles to get out of bed under the hum of fluorescent lights. Hughie is doing all he can to hold it together.
I can relate to this scene. As someone who lives with Bipolar Depression, I have made deals with myself to just get my feet on the bedroom floor and have known days when stepping outside is a major achievement. The fact that the season premiered in September—Suicide Prevention Month—wasn’t lost on me. I appreciated this small, genuine depiction of mental health in the superhero genre, a genre known for its asylums for the criminally insane, traumatic orphan origin stories, and manically laughing homicidal villains. In the past, I would often turn to superhero comics for escapism, to cope with what I was dealing with when it came to mental health awareness. Recently, this has made me reflect about how mental health appears in the superhero genre. Does it raise awareness and enhance discussion if chiseled deities are being given feet of clay, or is it propped up on 2D character sketches?
Before I continue, I do want to mention a couple of triggers. Watching characters in hiding, unable to go outside for fear of being detected by omnipotent superheroes, felt tough during a pandemic when we have to limit our own time outside. I found that switching the time I viewed the show to the daytime instead of when each new episode dropped weekly helped to minimize this anxiety. Also, for those interested in watching, it’s worth noting that the show has ultra-violent moments, extreme sexual situations, and mentions of suicide.
The characters are also being triggered. We watch as Mother’s Milk, a fortysomething man built like a linebacker, experiences an intensification of his Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD) during his time in hiding. We see him building a fully furnished, to-scale Victorian dollhouse to cope. The show does not present this as a laughable image of a muscular gunman in this situation, but instead uses it as foreshadowing. As the season progresses, we as viewers, along with other characters in the show, slowly realize that he needs to tap the steering wheel before changing lanes, or stir his coffee three times in a certain way. Eventually, Mother’s Milk opens up to Annie January, a celebrity superhero, about how his OCD is inherited from his father. It is an open and frank conversation about mental health and heredity. As someone who comes from a family where we all needed to give ourselves an extra fifteen minutes before leaving the house to check the door multiple times, I appreciated this scene. Before I checked myself into the hospital for the first time in 2013, one of the warning signs was getting to the point where it took an hour to check everything in the office before I left for home. And a small but relevant note: Billy Joel’s “We Didn’t Start the Fire” plays in the episode in which Mother’s Milk’s OCD is revealed.
In the second episode of Season 2, Hughie plays the “You’re Only Human (Second Wind)” music video on repeat, watching as it opens with a young man on a city bridge and Billy Joel as a Clarence Odbody type figure from It’s A Wonderful Life. I’ve been there myself, playing Doctor Who speeches and David Bowie’s “Life on Mars” on loop till the dark tide rights itself and I can face the day. The Boys deals with coping mechanisms to help you hold on till your “Second Wind,” including how to reach out and see the warning signs in others. It works hard to help break the stigma of masculine men talking about mental health, particularly in the scene where team members confront Billy Butcher, the foul-mouthed leader of the team, after seeing suicidal warning signs. When I was demoted at my job due to the pandemic, I took it really hard and had to reach for the building blocks of my mental health toolbelt in order to build myself back up. The organization I worked for was a complete one-eighty compared to where I was working before I went into the hospital, which also helped: an attentive coworker noticed and went to Human Resources, and we ended up having a dialogue about how I was coping. So, I definitely appreciate additions to the superhero genre, such as The Boys, that help to open up the discussion of mental health awareness.
Not that there aren’t missteps along the way. Episode 6 of the second season reveals that the megacorporation Vought is experimenting on inpatients at the Sage Grove Center to stabilize the effects of Compound V on adults. The treatment of mental health in the superhero genre in this episode felt more similar in tone to DC’s Heroes in Crisis miniseries (written by Tom King, art by Clay Mann). Heroes in Crisis is a murder mystery set around Sanctuary, a hospital for superheroes dealing with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). In the first issue, everyone at Sanctuary has been murdered except for the suspects on the run, and we follow the “whodunnit” for the remaining nine issues. I found this first issue of Heroes in Crisis triggering. I knew how many years it took me to check into the hospital for help. And when I finally did check into the hospital, I walked past others pacing outside, wondering if they should turn back or walk inside. Once inside, it took a while to become comfortable around my other floormates and to sleep soundly at night. Quickly, I saw that we were all in this together and would rally everyone for group sessions. New patients thought I was a counselor until they saw that I wasn’t wearing shoes but traction socks. These fellow patients saved my life. I built a survivor’s bond by being vulnerable with all of these people. So a comic book that shows that letting your guard down, checking yourself in for help, and sharing your story can get a person killed felt ironically tone-deaf. And this from the company that publishes Superman—a symbol of hope with super hearing—as one of their biggest icons.
If we learn anything from The Boys, it’s that the average person can stand up to superheroes and the corporations they represent. We can shine a light on what needs correcting in the overarching message of mental health in the comic book genre. The Boys made some steps in the right direction, but from where I’m sitting, I see the fan community—not the industry—taking the lead on mental health awareness. Librarian and teacher resource groups have lists available for biographical comic books for all ages that center around mental health. I am happy to say that these lists are growing and that those works are not only winning awards—like Hey, Kiddo by Jarret J. Krosoczka and New Kid by Jerry Craft—but are also being adapted into movies like I Kill Giants by Joe Kelly & Ken Niimura, and musicals like Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic by Alison Bechdel. As we open up the conversation about mental health awareness, I feel comics and graphic novels are a great tool to convey and connect about the daily challenges and victories achieved not by saving the world but by choosing to face the world. San Diego Comic Con (SDCC) had multiple mental health awareness panels this past summer, and I encourage more conventions to offer similar mental health panels.
But more importantly, I encourage fans to share their stories and help decrease the stigma of mental health. I suffered for as long as I did because I grew up thinking it was stronger to hold it all in like a secret identity. I had a plan to take my life by suicide. But I got help. I found a name for what I had been both silently and publicly struggling with. Bipolar Depression is a part of me and I work on managing it every day, but it does not define me. It is a part of my story, but not the whole story. After all, as a wise man once sang (probably at nine o’clock on a Saturday), “I’m Only Human.”