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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... )


  1. >I'd personally be happier with saving a cat than a baby...

    Because you have more confidence in your ability to save a cat, as opposed to a baby?

  2. It was pretty skillful writing on Millar's part that Dave remains such a whiny jerk but we still sympathize with him. Also, his actions still surprise us, in a good way, throughout the story.

    I liked Hit Girl a lot but I think in some ways it's because she's the most "pure," meaning she's the closest in her motivations and reactions to the superheroes we're used to reading about (even though the one she's closest to is Mr. Cuddly himself, The Punisher.)

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  4. The tone of the film, if the preview is any indication, seems to be completely different from the comic. This is probably for the best.

  5. I hadn't heard of this comic book before; it looks like I'd enjoy it. (I am very much a fan of the dark humor and cartoonish violence!)

    ...pretending to be gay to attract girls...

    That can't be very effective.

    Also, I share your feelings on cats vs. babies.

  6. MH, it's because of my preference for cats over babies, probably because kitties are far less likely to grow up to be assholes :P

    Lindsay, I'm glad that I've led you to something you might potentially like. And no, it's not effective for Dave. At all.

  7. That's not a very humanist response Nitz. You call yourself a feminist and an advocate of the disabled, yet you're otherwise apathetic to suffering?

  8. " That's not a very humanist response Nitz. You call yourself a feminist and an advocate of the disabled, yet you're otherwise apathetic to suffering? "

    It wasn't meant as serious commentary, hence the emoticon.

  9. "MH, it's because of my preference for cats over babies, probably because kitties are far less likely to grow up to be assholes :P"

    ...have you *ever* owned a cat? =P