A Beautiful Gory Display

A Beautiful Gory Display: Kick-Ass (Mar 11)

Welcome to the first installment of “A Beautiful Gory Display”. I’ll try my best to make you proud. With the cross-pollination between Hollywood and the world of comic books, and comprehensive pop-culture commentary has to include a look at comics. And given that I’ve spent approximately 10% of my life thinking about The Flash, I volunteered to take it on.

There’s an old Peanuts strip from the fifties, where Charlie Brown is at a newsstand, looking over the comic book rack. It’s festooned with titles like Hate and Punch and Gore!, and Charlie Brown simply says “What a beautiful gory display!”, so that’s where my title comes from. And in this first column, I’m looking at a new series that would have fit in on that rack, Kick-Ass.

Many series have purported to be a real-world look at superheroes, but inevitably there’s somebody with powers or an alien, or something that instantly takes it out of the real world. Not so with Kick-Ass. Dave Lizewski is a thoroughly unexceptional high school student. He never dealt with the death of his mother, he spends his time with his nerdy friends discussing nerdy things, and the girls in his class think he’s a stalker. For reasons Dave’s not self-aware enough to explain, his obsession with superheroes grows until he decides that putting on a costume and fighting evil is a viable career option.

This being the real world, Dave works out just enough to put on some muscle mass, and makes a costume out of a wetsuit and ski mask. After a week of skulking in alleys all night, he comes upon three teens committing vandalism, and sets out to be a hero. And as would probably happen in the real world, he loses the fight. Badly. We can assume this doesn’t end his heroic career, as the framing sequence features Dave, in costume, being tortured by a completely different antagonist. I’ve read a lot of first issues in my day, and I’ve certainly never read another one where the lead character is tortured with electrodes to the testicles by page four.

Writer and creator Mark Millar has a knack for getting attention. In fact, you could call him a relentless self-promoter. I assume that’s what his business cards say. This is the guy who had the characters in his Wanted series drawn as the actors he thought should play them in the movie. (On the one hand, his casting choices didn’t actually come true, but it did become a movie, so that’s a pretty major wins.) He made the papers when he had Spider-Man reveal his identity to the public, and he made news again when he publicly offered to write the next Superman movie for free. (He had the job for one day.) Years back, he caused a pretty serious controversy in his native Scotland with Chosen, a coming-of-age story about a boy who might or might not be the second coming of Christ. It probably shouldn’t come as a surprise, then, that he had a movie deal in place for Kick-Ass before the first issue was even completed.

This would all be very irritating if Millar didn’t have the talent to back it up. Fortunately, the vast majority of his work is solid and entertaining. At his best, he can be excellent. It’s too early to tell on the basis of just this first issue if Kick-Ass will be up there with the best, but it’s a great start. The premise itself is appealingly original, and the execution is, frankly, twisted. For me, the most interesting aspect of the story is the way Dave’s narration is at odds with what we can see for ourselves. Dave assures us that he’s “a normal guy” over and over, but normal guys don’t hang around in front of a building for three hours to catch a glimpse of the girl from biology class. Normal guys don’t spend years unable to deal with a parent’s death. And normal guys certainly don’t put on costumes and try to fight crime.

I think that’s where it’s going to get tricky. We have to just barely believe that Dave is making rational decisions, but if Millar ever completely sells it, then it’s not the real world anymore. As soon as becoming a superhero is a rational decision, it’s a fantasy world and Dave is no different from a hundred other masked crimefighters. But as long as we’re conscious of the fact that wearing a costume under your clothing is more masturbatory than it is a show of determination, Kick-Ass can stay firmly in the unpleasant territory between exciting and disturbing.

Actually, I think it hits home just enough to make the target audience uncomfortable. The detail that really hit me was that Dave’s obsession with superheroes and fantasy reaches its peak during exam week. In my junior year, during final exams, I went a little around the bend myself. I think I bought and read 45 issues of Cerebus during that week. I don’t know if that’s a common occurrence among my people, but it’s a little detail that felt real, and made me distinctly uncomfortable.

The art is terrific, too. John Romita Jr., long a mainstay of traditional superhero series, draws people who look like people. They’re not the standard marble statues that populate the genre. His people can be scrawny, heavy, awkward, and ugly. The big fight scene starts out as the standard action ballet, but then takes a turn into a harsh, visceral reality. It’s brutal and ugly and it’s haunting.

I can’t even pretend to know where it’s going from here. Dave’s in no shape to do much of anything by the end of the first issue. In fact, the cover for the second issue has him in a full body cast. And thanks to the framing sequence, we know it’s only going to get worse. Perversely, I can’t wait.

Score: Four and a half beans

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