Ruby Nation

Ruby Nation
Ruby Nation: The Webcomic

Sunday, February 28, 2010

Kick-Ass Graphic Novel Review: Itching and Scratching

The Jist:Dave Lizewski is your typical American teenaged boy, from a very pessimistic perspective. His hobbies include reading comic books, playing video games, furtively masturbating, and pretending to be gay to attract girls. In order to give his life some meaning, he decides to take a page from his favorite comics and become a costumed vigilante in his New York City neighborhood. Since he has no super-powers, this doesn't go well for him-- but once footage of him goes online, it starts a trend...

The Crew:Mark Millar ( writer ), John Romita Jr. ( penciller ), Tom Palmer ( inker ), Dean White ( colorist )

The Details:Since Mark Millar's name is on the credits, it's very much a Mark Millar story. Fortunately, it's one of the best ones he's done.

Part of the reason I like Kick-Ass so much is because it's much more humanized than other Mark Millar stories. The fact that it's set in the real world instead of a superhero universe helps this, thought that isn't to say it's realistic-- this is a universe where a ten-year-old girl has the physical strength to slice through a grown man's skull with a katana with one swing, after all. It's about as realistic as an Itchy and Scratchy short on the Simpsons, but without the science-fiction genre tropes offering convenient deus ex machinas, the focus is more on the characters-- and they're well-realized, if thoroughly unlikable.

People have compared the original Peter Parker to J.D. Salinger's Catcher in the Rye, but Dave ( Kick-Ass ) is much more of a Holden Caulfield than Spidey-- which is to say that he's a whiny, selfish prick who comes across as pathetic to anyone over the age of 17. He's not a costumed vigilante because he wants to help people and stop crime; he never even had any contact with crime prior to putting on his costume. Kick-Ass is him taking his adolescent power fantasy way too far, putting himself at risk and worrying his widowed father needlessly. And it doesn't make him reform from the little weasel he is in his " civilian " identity, who will claim that he's slightly autistic to avoid getting a richly-deserved punch in the face*. At the same time, he does show rare displays of genuine courage and selflessness when caught up in the moment, running into a burning building to save a woman's " child "**. One thing that's common in Millar's comic is the notion that even good people can do horrible things; it's nice to see the reverse here.

The other characters, as a pleasant surprise, are equally interesting. Shortly after becoming Kick-Ass, Dave is joined by other costumed vigilantes-- and they're all as messed-up as him. They come across as messed-up in different ways, though, and offer a pretty diverse cast based on the notion of the adolescent power fantasy gone awry. Hit-Girl, the ten year old swordsmaster ( and the most surreal character in the comic ), doesn't know anything other than a power fantasy. Big Daddy, her costumed partner/father, enforces his power fantasies upon his daughter, and tries to convince himself that he's doing her a favor. And the villain is a perfect " dark reflection " of Dave-- and since Dave's not a nice guy to begin with, he's entertainingly pathetic in his deviance.

It's still very much a Mark Millar story, with profanity and violence and cynicism everywhere, but it's a very good one. John Romita Jr. deserves a lot of credit for that; his cartoony, sketchy style suits the story perfectly, and goes to exaggerate the violence and the humiliation instead of try to humanize it. Millar's more recent collaborators have tended to be hyper-detailed realists like Bryan Hitch and Steve McNiven, and the results for those stories haven't worked for me because they've just illuminated the ridiculousness. But Romita Jr. makes the teenagers look awkward and goofy, the costumes look ridiculous and home-made, and the violence look like-- well, Itchy and Scratchy. The result is a collaboration that won't change anyone's mind about Mark Millar, but it's one of his best, and strongly recommended for fans of dark humor.

* ( I had a real problem with this scene, because even though it was meant to show that Dave is a coward, it's going to be taken out of context. To too many people, Asperger's is a self-diagnosis people use to excuse their failings. In reality, the people who would actually diagnose themselves with it would either have the condition, or have enough mental problems that a label is appropriate, even if not one on the autism spectrum. Autism is NOT a label that makes life easy; often, it makes life even harder for the stigma. And lines like this make the problem worse, with the comedic tone obscuring the problem. )

** ( He saves the woman's cat, and is frustrated that he's risking his life for a cat. I'd personally be happier with saving a cat than a baby... )

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Red Hulk Volumes 1-3 Review: Gar for Rulk

The Concept: A new Hulk has emerged, one who is red-skinned, brutally intelligent, cheerfully merciless, and just as tough as his predecessor ( if not tougher ). Little is known about him, but he utterly hates the original Hulk and will stop at nothing to get revenge. If you thought that Bruce Banner's life was just one endless conga line of tragedy and degradation, this confirms it.

The Authors: Jeph Loeb ( writer ), Ed McGuiness ( main penciller ), Dexter Vines ( main inker ), with guest art by Arthur Adams, Frank Cho, and seasoned Hulk veteran Herb Trimpe.

The Assessment: The internet has recently spawned the word " gar ", which describes a character of such overwhelming masculinity that even the most culturally respectable of heterosexual men fall for them, a giggling schoolgirl by contrast. Urban Dictionary gives us a better definition, and the Red Hulk gives us a good example.

" Rulk " ( as he's more commonly called ) is gar incarnate. Every act he makes is a feat of ridiculously over-the-top masculinity. In his very first appearance, he kills the original Abomination with a handgun sized proportionally to massive Hulk hands. And that's just the start of his frenzy of hilarious beatdowns upon hero and villain alike. When he fights the Silver Surfer in an alternate universe, he drains the guy of his cosmic power, breaks his neck Steven Seagal-style, and flies away on his surfboard. And when the omniscient cosmic being known as the Watcher is drawn to observe Rulk's actions, Rulk punches the guy out to spare us his hypocritical speech about never interfering with the events around him.

If that paragraph has not convinced you that this makes for an entertaining story, there's nothing else I can say.

Characteristic to contemporary comics written by Jeph Loeb, the plot to Red Hulk is either thin or outright absent. If the rule of drama contradicts the rule of cool, the rule of cool wins. Why does Thor appear to battle Rulk? So Rulk can pull him into outer space and beat the shit out of him with his own magic hammer. Why does She-Hulk form a new " Lady Liberators " of superheroines to take down Rulk, when a unisex team would do just as well? So we can get Rulk battling a bunch of women in colorful tights ( though to Loeb's credit, this is not played for T&A, but as an opportunity for uncommonly-seen superheroine girl talk ). And why is there a story arc where cosmic gamesmasters reunite the original Hulk's old team of misfits, the Defenders? So Rulk can form his own team of villains, predictably called the Offenders. There's an ongoing plot about where the Rulk comes from and the larger gamma-science conspiracy behind him, but that's just window dressing for seeing a big red jerk beat up guys in tights while offering goofy banter.

There's little to nothing in the way of intellectual stimulation here. Fortunately, the series compensates in many other realms. It's got very funny dialogue, especially when the Green Hulk appears to offer his third-person sentence-fragment wisdom; you feel like the various Marvel guest stars are subconsciously aware of the absurdity this story has, and are acting accordingly. It has slapstick violence to the point of resembling an old Tom and Jerry cartoon, in an era where most superhero comics favor horror-movie levels of blood and guts. And it's got the perfect art; Ed McGuiness already skews entertainingly towards the cartoony, and the adventures of irradiated steroid freaks fit right into that category. Guest artists in Volume 2 Adams and Cho also get the memo to go as ridiculous as they can.

There's not much in the way of drama to Rulk-- which isn't to say that there aren't poignant moments ( the Green Hulk especially is portrayed in a sympathetic light, since while he's not much for brain power, he is treated as a genuinely good-hearted monster ), but that it's used as an inverse of comic relief ( since this is such a ridiculous story to begin with ). But if you want something that's silly-- and that's something that everyone needs sometimes--you can hardly do better. And for the heterosexual males who enjoy the Rulk's escapades-- he proves that male sexuality is a moving target, and that's okay.

Strongly recommended if you're reading with a sense of irony, mildly recommended if you're not.