Graphic Novel Review: Altered Boys Vol. 1: The Book of Billy


The release of Altered Boys Vol. 1: The Book of Billy coincides with the recent Pennsylvania grand jury report exposing the largest documented series of child sex abuse scandals and cover-ups committed by Roman Catholic clergy to date. Indeed, the graphic novel, written by Jon C. Scheide, Michael J. Uhlman, and Brian Wasiak and illustrated by Robert Rath, couldn’t have come at a better time.

Once the dust settles on the court proceedings that exposed over 300 priests in Pennsylvania engaged in abominable acts of sexual abuse—unchecked for over seventy years—the initial moral concerns of incredulity will morph into moral questions of justice and retribution. Who will hold those in robes accountable, and how will they continue to expose what the Roman Catholic hierarchy has obfuscated? These are the central moral questions wrestled with in the first volume of Altered Boys.

Iconoclast narratives that rip open the hallowed conventions of traditional Christianity have become a mainstay of the comic medium. Garth Ennis and the late Steve Dillon created the Preacher series in the mid-1990s (now a television series on the AMC Channel), turning the concept of the local community pastor on its head in a saga of challenged faith, full-fledged ass-kicking, and conspiracy at the highest levels of religious leadership. By the time he’d written another cult classic, The Chronicles of Wormwood, a decade later Ennis had depicted the pope himself as a vulgar, beer-swilling, sodomy enthusiast.


Now comes Altered Boys, the action of which is set in motion in 1984 with mischievous middle school high jinks (which could easily have been deleted scenes from the 2002 film The Dangerous Lives of Alter Boys) that quickly give way to the chilling reality of abuse. One of the young protagonists is groped by the local parish priest under the guise of addressing an untucked shirt. This sets the stage for the present, where three Boston-raised boys—who have become sharply divergent in their faith—mourn the loss of a fourth, their friend Billy, who was the victim of clerical abuse and the namesake of the initial story arc.

“A few monsters hiding behind the cloth did not destroy the church or my faith,” says one of the three. Another, the novel’s anti-hero Michael, implicates the church in their failure to address the latest casualty among so many victims. For him, the demons of his childhood have claimed another life, and no person or institution is held accountable.

As humanists, we wrestle with this crisis of good people who stand by and do nothing while evil people act immorally, and we wonder: To what extent are human beings defined by our actions or lack thereof? Are we morally obligated to prevent evil actions and can we achieve that goal with our conscience (or soul, for those who believe in one) intact?

The graphic novel is a dance of deliberate text and art, and it is well worth noting that the images in Altered Boys are a perfect vehicle for the narrative. Robert Rath’s illustrations bring the initial storyline to life in a play of light and shadow, with thick defining ink lines, unique landscapes, and non-parallel perspectives that make interiors seem both claustrophobic and oddly expansive. The jaundiced yellow of the legal pads Michael uses to capture confessions from sweating priests, the blue-purple of the Boston Harbor water, and the streamlined silver of a corner diner add an ethereal nuance that plays against the straight-forward dialogue.

“Billy had demons,” his friends acknowledge, but who put them there, who must expose them, and for whom is there justice?


These are the central questions asked by the first volume of what is sure to be a riveting serial. And for those of us following the grave chronology of recent Roman Catholic revelations in the United States, Ireland, and elsewhere, Scheide, Uhlman, and Wasiak remind us that abuse isn’t limited to any one tradition. “Every faith, every religion is corrupted by these monsters!” yells Michael, as he mourns the suicide of his childhood friend with his since-grown fellow altar boys. For Michael, like the grim angel of the same name, vengeance in the name of victims of predatory clergy cannot wait for the afterlife.

Altered Boys frames the ongoing ecclesiastical abuse scandals in such a highly personal way that the reader can feel the passions of its characters seeping through the pages. Like the best of the genre, it invites us to question ourselves as moral agents and challenges our notions of justice.