Trading Up: The Boys Volume 8: Highland Laddie
Lowdown - Article
Posted by Andy Oliver on May 18, 2011
Highland Laddie, the eighth trade paperback in The Boys series, collects the eponymous six-part miniseries that shines a spotlight on the heart of the team, Hughie Campbell. This arc focuses on Hughie’s visit to his Scottish village home of Auchterladle following the devastating events of the “Believe” storyline, and his break-up with Annie January/Starlight. But on his return to his childhood haunts, Hughie quickly realises that the bosom of the family is not so much welcoming, as stifling. And once fondly-remembered friendships are now tolerated, rather than treasured. Finding himself embroiled in a local smuggling mystery, events are complicated for Hughie when faces from both The Boys’ past, and his own recent history, turn up to put paid to his attempts to come to terms with the last few months.
Highland Laddie once more underlines that the true strength of Ennis’s writing is not in the moments of extreme gross-out that he is so renowned for but, rather, those acute observations he makes about the nature of friendship and human relationships. Ennis’s best work, in books like Hitman, is always full of these understated, and nuanced, insights. His approach to this in Highland Laddie comes from the slightly different angle of examining friendship from the perspective of being reunited with childhood chums we have long since moved on from; the awkwardness of that shared history that is so intimate between old pals and, yet, thanks to the passage of time also somehow seems to belong to someone else.
Det and Big Bobby, the childhood friends in question in the pages of Highland Laddie, are typical Ennis grotesques; the olfactory challenging Det lives his life from behind a gas mask to protect himself from his own malignant odour and Bobby is as an unashamedly non-PC representation of cross-dressing as one would expect in an issue of The Boys. Hughie’s attempts to simultaneously rekindle that camaraderie, while also remaining detached from it, drives a good proportion of the book’s narrative. His strained relationship with his adopted parents, whose smothering love and kindness uncomfortably irks him, provides a parallel thematic link and a fascinating role reversal for Hughie. Normally The Boys’ most sympathetic character, he becomes its least likeable for much of this arc, thanks to his irrational and selfish resentment towards those loved ones he feels he has moved on from.
Readers on the UK side of the pond will find that plenty of knowing references to British weekly comics or, as we are obliged to term them in the current vernacular, “Easter Eggs”, abound throughout. Quite what American readers will make of the more intrusive in-jokes like the Reverend Dandy, not to mention the The Broons/Oor Wullie-style dialogue from every character rather than just Hughie, is anybody’s guess. They will, no doubt, find Hughie’s childhood cast in a Scooby-Doo light, a parody much easier to comprehend.
As ever, Ennis’s dark sense of humour provides the more superficially memorable moments. The violent slapstick runs the usual gamut from carefully, and cleverly, set up gags that reward the patient reader, through to the more facile and bloody obvious grossness for grossness’s sake. From the moment a criminal enforcer with a huge pair of garden shears, for example, turns up in the same Ennis story as a burly transvestite then there can only ever be one inevitable payoff…
McCrea’s visuals are a perfect fit for the beauty of smalltown Auchterladle and the air of rural cosiness is an apt counterpoint to the usual world of super-heroic excess that The Boys embodies. Evocatively catching the essence of Ennis’s take on the ideas of childhood malice and long-lost summer days that never end, McCrea is as adept at portraying the quieter, introspective moments that Highland Laddie demands as he is those over-the-top, trademark The Boys set pieces.
Highland Laddie is most certainly not, as its separate miniseries status may have implied, a mere adjunct to the main series; it advances one important subplot from The Boys and provides the next crucial chapter in the (surely) ill-fated romance between Hughie and Annie January. It’s also a story of surprisingly astute observations about growing up, moving on and the way we visualise our own personal histories. Highland Laddie ably mixes in-yer-face ultra-violence with themes of almost painful poignancy to provide the most memorable The Boys story arc yet.
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