Point-Counterpoint: Kick-Ass FTW!

Posted by on May 12th, 2010 at 12:01 AM

Simon Abrams on Kick-Ass.

There’s a rule of thumb in teenage fiction: that the age of the principal character dictates the age of the ideal reader.  If the character is younger than the reader, they’re seen as an annoying kid; if he or she is older than them, then they’ll tend to deal with situations and issues beyond the reader’s experience — if they don’t it rings horribly false — even though that often offers illicit pleasure.  So, let’s apply that rule here: The hero of Mark Millar and John Romita Jr.’s Kick-Ass is high school student Dave Lizewski, who imitates the action he reads in his comics by donning a green wetsuit and fighting crime.  This comic, with its teen protagonists and juvenile pleasures, is a kids’ comic… and it’s one of the best kids’ comics out there.

Consider the choices that your average 12-year-old has walking in to the local comic store — they’ve seen the super-movies, the Watchmen comic was alright, so now what?   Superheroes are either bogged down in continuity (again!) or using characters as a vehicle for, yawn, politics.  What about the other stuff that’s more self-contained?  Sandman? Too long, too emo and my English teacher likes it. Transmetropolitan? Ugh — more politics.  Why isn’t there something they can relate to, something that doesn’t take itself too seriously, with humor and action, something that just kicks… oh.

But, hold on, this is stocked in the “adults only” section in comic shops (if kids even go into comic shops any more — it’s on prominent display and easily available in their local Barnes & Noble on Amazon.com Demonoid.com) and it’s been criticized for its excessive violence and swearing, as well as facing accusations of homophobia — surely we can’t conscientiously recommend it to children?

Yes, it’s sweary, but so is the schoolyard — violent, too, for that matter. Let’s face it, the average media-hungry teen is exposed to much more extreme material online, and five minutes on Xbox Live is enough to expose any number of 12-year-olds using language that would make a whore blush.  So Kick-Ass just talks to them on their own level, and it’s that same antagonistic voice from online gaming that practically taunts the reader to endure what Millar and Romita are serving up.  Which, upon closer inspection, is not as bloody and gratuitous as the hype would have us believe.

Before it breaches the barrier of suspended disbelief, there are only a few really brutal moments in Kick-Ass.  Rather than glamorizing the violence, we’re shown the full consequences of Lizewski getting into a vigilante brawl, and the character spends half the second issue in the ICU.  Even the fights themselves aren’t choreographed with finesse — this is fists-feet-and-everything brawling just like at school… or round the back of 7-Eleven after school — and Romita’s composition manages to capture every imperfection and fumble in the scuffles.  Precisely because they are so realistic, the message and warning against these kinds of antics are all the more effective.  For all his shock-tactics and bravado, Millar is an incredibly conservative writer who ensures that there are consequences for all transgressions — beneath its blooded, foul-mouthed surface, Kick-Ass is as harmless as an after school special.

One of Millar’s main claims for the series was that it would be the first superhero story set in the real world (funny, I always thought that was Condorman) and, as a result, we’re encouraged to maintain a sense of disbelief about the events.  So, there are snide swipes at Spider-Man and Batman and the practical impossibility of what they do, which, of course, is exactly what your typical teenager will sit and point out about these stories.  It’s when we’re introduced to 10-year-old assassin, Hit-Girl, that realism is tossed out the window (along with too many bad guys to count on your fingers).  With the appropriate warnings in place, Millar and Romita Jr. then allow themselves to dive head-first into pure escapist fantasy, allowing their heroes to be crime-fighting, face-punching, wise-cracking super-cyphers: indulging in all the hi-jinks that superhero comic-books promise — perfect, disposable entertainment.

All the cries of homophobia that have appeared in criticism of Kick-Ass are completely unfounded and more likely the product of not sticking the comic out to the end.  Yes, it’s a major plot point that Lizewski pretends to be gay, both as a cover for his secret identity and in order to get closer to the object of his affections: Katie Deauxma (Deauxma? “Do  me”? This really is double-entendres for beginners). This device works, though, since it no doubt raises some nervous giggles from readers that are not quite sure of their own sexuality, and then delivers a one-two sucker punch to them, as Lizewski first questions: “Had I no dignity?”; and is then roundly spurned by Katie when she finds out about his deception.  So, not only do we have a morality tale about the dangers of imitating what we see in fiction, but we also get a stern lesson about lying and are shamed for any “LOL FAG” moments we might have had.

When it’s not flogging us with morals, though, Kick-Ass is just a lot of childish entertainment.  In its over-the-top, non-stop violence there are many vicarious thrills to be had and gleeful sniggering at a potty-mouthed 10-year-old and an inept wannabe vigilante.  For anyone above a 10thgrade reading level, this will seem horribly one-dimensional, insipid and uninspired, but this isn’t aimed at those people.  One of the main points that Millar made in his Wanted series was the contemptible nature of older comics fans, and that same point returns here when we discover that Hit-Girl’s father is nothing but a comics fanboy himself.  The adult reader is thereby chastised and actively discouraged from engaging with the comic entirely.  Kick-Ass is for kids and it’s a series that sits on an equal footing with Grand Theft Auto games, the Crank movies and Family Guy — loud, crass, immature and riotously good fun.

Tomorrow: Lees and Abrams’ concluding arguments.

all images ©2010 Mark Millar & John S. Romita

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