Kick-Ass: The Graphic Novel

Reviewed by
Mark Richards

Turning the archetypal superhero origin story on its head is fast becoming a Mark Millar trait. Whether it’s his landmark work on The Flash, the breathtaking Wanted, or the outstanding Superman: Red Son, it’s clear that comics’ hottest talent is proving himself as something of a virtuoso. With Kick-Ass: Book One, the twice-Eisner nominated and Eagle-award winning Millar does it again; presenting us with another idea so simple you’ll wonder why no-one ever thought of it before. This is the story of Dave Lizewski; average guy, mediocre student, remarkable nobody. A victim of nothing more than a crushingly dull and unfulfilling life, and facing a lacklustre future, he decides to do what no-one’s ever done before and become a real-life, honest-to-goodness superhero. Donning a costume and arming himself with nothing more than a couple of sticks and a stubborn refusal to back down, he becomes the titular vigilante “Kick-Ass”, and nothing will ever be the same again.

If you’ve been breathing and walking upright these past few months, then chances are you’re already aware of this story in some form, but what follows is one of the most anarchic and entertaining musings on the ramifications of vigilantism we at LF have ever read. In lesser hands this might easily be a mishmash of half-baked ideas and fanboy wish-fulfilment, but Millar has clearly done his homework, turning clichés on their head and painting us a brutally convincing world where the guy doesn’t always get the girl, heroes are shamelessly self-absorbed, and exposes us to profound violence and unflinching dialogue. Like the seminal Watchmen before it, but not quite as bleak, Kick-Ass takes the idealistic notion of the superhero and shows us exactly why it doesn’t work in the real world: if you’re going to take on the criminal underbelly with no authority or training you’re going to get hurt; if you’re lurking in an alleyway in spandex you’re going to be branded a pervert; and if you’re going to leap from tall buildings then you are going to die.

In the character of Lizewski/Kick-Ass, Millar is able to sell the idealism without detracting from the realism: Dave is resilient but not tough; resolute but not brave; and smart but not very wise. He even makes some sense, albeit in a naïve and immature way. As a reader, we certainly wouldn’t want to be Dave, but we can’t help being swept up by his honesty and earnestness. What’s most noteworthy is how ordinarily human he is; as equally given to periods of hubris as he is gallantry and is easily susceptible to resentment towards the people he inspires/saves. Quite rightly, he’s also deeply troubled and frightened by the violence he’s exposed to, yet at the same time capable of moments of admirable courage and (near-accidental) heroics in the face of great peril. Physically he’s even less remarkable; skinny, short and unthreatening, artist John Romita Jr’s Kick-Ass looks like the least dynamic version of Spider-Man you’ll ever see in print, but he looks just right. In a genre where most superheroes have bodies like Greek Gods, it’s refreshing to root for someone who looks like he spends more time reading comics than he does down the gym. Romita Jr’s artwork is what possibly grounds this whole story in reality; for the most part it’s not as beautifully detailed as his work on, say, Amazing Spider-Man – but the rough, no-nonsense style he has chosen certainly suits the gritty, visceral subject material. It’s not too realistic for the OTT moments, but not too brilliant that it detracts from the realism. That Romita Jr is able to convey a world of drama in a single frame is what’s most compelling; whether it’s a depiction of Kick-Ass sprinting cheerfully against the city skyline, a hero swan-diving toward the ground, or many a one-page splash dotted throughout this book, the reader feels every stunningly rendered punch, leap, or slash of a samurai sword.

This magnificently dark heart of a story, of course, is the exploration of what happens when Dave tries to do the impossible and he learns just how painfully complicated life can become and that his interference has deadly consequences. That’s not to say we’re not having fun while this happens. Millar wrings the jet-black humour out of the affair; plunging our hero into ever-embarrassing and increasingly violent conflicts until we find ourselves both mocking and empathising with Dave as he finds his double-life spinning out of control. Violence is the key and Millar and Romita Jr lay it on thick in the combined forms of (ingenuous but terrifying) Hit-Girl and (demonstrative and obsessive) Big Daddy, who to a certain degree embody everything our hero aspires to be but can’t. Whereas the mayhem is held back in the face of Dave’s realistic origin, their arrival is where Millar and Romita Jr allow themselves real license to uncork all the pandemonium they’d otherwise bottled up. It’s hard to suspend disbelief that a 16yr old boy can take on street thugs and gangbangers and emerge unscathed, but when you portray horrific violence unleashed against the mob by a little girl armed with an array of gruesome weapons, it’s hard not to believe she’ll come through. Whilst Hit-Girl’s contentious inclusion as a lethal, foul-mouthed moppet surely promises a huge amount of mirth, Big Daddy also provides some pause for thought. In depicting Big Daddy as Hit-Girl’s caring but ultimately exploitative father, you’re forced to marvel at how far someone might be willing to allow their obsession to take them. He also serves as a cautionary tale for Lizewski; being where he could himself end up given the time, inclination and money.

But let’s set aside the analysis and get down to the point. Kick-Ass is a hilarious, engrossing read. We read it in one sitting. Then twice over, it’s that good. So much so in fact that you get the impression that both Millar and Romita Jr had as much fun crafting this story as we did reading it; which, in our opinion, is vital in any creative team. They play with convention with a massive sense of perverse glee that’s evident in both narrative and artwork, with sweetly sly nods to their own work and that of their peers. It’s certainly not for the faint-hearted, but then again if you’re a fan of Millar’s work then you won’t be a stranger to the controversy he occasionally invites. Besides, this isn’t a comic for kids – this is for us. This is for every jerk-off fanboy who ever wanted to put on a cape and kick some ass. Read the novel, watch the movie (different blood-types, same maniac DNA), then re-read the novel again – you’ll believe a kid can bite off more than he can chew.

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