In Highland Laddieour hero, Wee Hughie, discontented with his apparent role as stooge and fall guy to Butcher and the other members of the Boys, went off home to have a bit of a pout about his life and future.

On his return to the CIA-funded team of operatives who keep ‘The Supes’ in line, Hughie’s immediately plunged into a long digression in ‘Barbary Coast’, when he confronts Greg Mallory, the Boys’ former commander. Mallory relates a lot of the hitherto untold history of the development of the series’ resident evil corporation, Vought-American, and… bloody hell, it’s dull. Guest-artist John McCrea does his best, but even his considerable skills aren’t inspired by a narrative that basically reads;

Mallory: “Blablablablablablablablablablablablablablablablablablablablabla”

Hughie: “Oh aye?”

Mallory: “Blablablablablablablablablablablablablablablablablablablablabla…”

For roughly Fifteen. Hundred. Pages.

Fortunately, as if apologising to the readers, this extra-thick volume gives us three story arcs rather than the usual two, and ‘Barbary Coast’ is the info-dump filler in a sandwich with two lively outer ‘slices’: ‘Proper Preparation and Planning’ provides some insight into what the Boys are doing during Hughie’s absence, with the ever more heinous actions of the Homelander causing greater concern, especially to new Vought-American appointee Jess Bradley, whose introduction to the Seven causes even her diamond-hard ambition to momentarily waver. Well, ending up on the floor of a hangar draped in someone else’s intestines will give a girl pause for thought…

Beyond ‘Barbary Coast’, and closing up the volume, the eponymous Big Ride celebrates – if that’s the word – Hughie’s return to the team, and his at least partial reconciliation with Annie, his estranged super ex-girlfriend. It’s a rip-roaring return to form, with a procurer for the superhuman community, bright green AIDS monkeys, transsexual hookers, shocks and revelations – and it’s a tribute to Garth Ennis’ imagination than one can still be shocked, at this stage of the series – and both the Boys and the Seven face the first fatalities in their long-deferred war of attrition. Russ Braun’s bravura art style is at its best in the opening and closing segments, with the escalating insanity of both ‘good guys’ and ‘bad guys’ – and in this series, it’s a moveable definition – gloriously embraced.

The strength and energy, the gore, pathos and comedy of ‘Proper Preparation and Planning’ and ‘The Big Ride’ would have made this one of the best volumes to  date, but sadly the huge sucking void that is ‘Barbary Coast’ saps the energy of the book. Never mind; a spectacular recovery would be had in the next volume, Butcher, Baker, Candlestickmaker.