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Graphic Novels Reviews


Writer: Mark Millar
Artist: John Romita Jr
Publisher: Marvel Icon

May 10, 2010

Dave Lizewski is a bored, lonely high-schooler in New York City, an ordinary geek who stalks girls in his class, downloads (and gets off to) internet porn and reads comics. The last of these interests is what brings about a life-altering decision ”“ he puts on a costume bought from eBay and goes out patrolling the streets to help people. His first encounter with street crime ends badly, in the trauma wing of the hospital. But when a cellphone video of his determined effort to help the victim of a mugging hits the internet and goes viral, Dave’s efforts seem to gain him newfound popularity and a cult following. It also earns him his costumed monicker ”“ Kick-Ass. The graphic novel has already been adapted into a film which hits theatres in the US this month.

Things start getting serious ”“ the word “nasty” would probably be more appropriate ”“ with the introduction of Hit Girl and Big Daddy, two superheroes who take Dave’s part-time activities to a more advanced level. Hit Girl, age 10, a cross between Dakota Fanning and Death Wish 4, is a crimefighter who decapitates criminals with the enthusiasm that girls her age usually reserve for ponies and Barbie dolls. When she and her partner Big Daddy team up with Kick-Ass and his new super-hero pal Red Mist to take on the local mob boss, things start getting more…interesting. Not to mention the increase in body-count, the completely gratuitous swearing and the overall bad-assery that permeate the proceedings.

The biggest problem with Kick-Ass is that it reads less like a book and more of a film storyboard. Anyone familiar with Mark Millar’s comic oeuvre would realise that the writer paces his plotting in the familiar three-act setup of a regular two-hour movie script, and Kick-Ass is no exception. You can hear the echoes of the narrator’s voice in your head, and if you listen closely, there might even be a generic drum-and-bass track playing in your mind as Lizewski goes about his adventures. The second incongruous aspect of the book is that while it sets itself up as a real-world adventure ”“ and drives the point home in the initial couple of chapters by showing Dave’s first misadventure in all its bone-shattering glory ”“ the introduction of Big Daddy and Hit Girl takes away that feel and replaces it with a generic superhero sheen. While one tends to identify with Dave’s pithy Joe Everyboy narration and his cynical outlook towards the world, it becomes hard to take him seriously once the heavy-hitters make their appearance.

Another big flaw in the writing is Millar’s over-the-top approach to characterisation and plot. Dave does not just get tortured by the mob, he gets electro-zapped for thirty minutes in his tender parts, and is still up for a fist-fight after that. Hit Girl gets, uh, hit by a lot of bullets, but obviously, the kevlar she wears protects her from permanent damage ”“ never mind the real-world implications of being hit with hollow-points at short-range, kevlar or not. The climax of Kick-Ass is precisely what it promises, neither matching up to the premise that was established in the initial couple of issues, nor going beyond a generic slice-’em-up fight sequence. As is expected, there is a sequel intended, and that makes the ending even more unsatisfying.

But Millar’s business acumen is in inverse proportion to his writing skills. The rights to the movie adaptation were sold even before the first issue sold out in comic stores around the United States. Sales were driven by unprecedented hype, partly fueled by the high grosses of Wanted, a summer blockbuster based on an earlier Millar miniseries. The lead character, Dave Lizewski, was named through a charity auction, with the rights to the name going to the highest bidder. The hyperbole kicks in from the tag-line on the cover of the first issue, which proudly proclaims that the comic you’re holding in your hand happens to be “The Greatest Superhero Book of All Time.” Such self-aggrandisement is not new in Marvel comics, most notably practised by Marvel guru Stan Lee even as he launched the Fantastic Four as “The World’s Greatest Comic Magazine” in 1961. But Kick-Ass, purportedly set in the “real world” takes this exponentially further. The setup includes characters indulging in detailed discussions about Marvel titles and movies, Millar even going so far as to advertise one of his own failed miniseries among the titles discussed.
But still one of the biggest strengths of the book is John Romita Jr’s art, aided by veteran inker Tom Palmer’s magnificent embellishment. The book wouldn’t be half as entertaining without the crisp artwork. Every page is a labour of love, every detail rendered with panache, the action sequences popping off the panels. Every act of violence becomes a glorious, hyper-detailed moment frozen in time, as Romita revels in showing details of bones cracking, blood spurting and bullets puncturing vital organs. Small wonder then, that it took nearly two years to finish an eight-issue series.

At one level, one could argue that Kick Ass could be read like a biting satire of the Myspace generation ”“ where the origin story could be something as mundane as boredom, where hardcore violence is casual as in a videogame, where an automatic rifle in your hand is all that is required to make you feel powerful enough to take on criminals. With a name that begs not to be taken seriously, and shouldn’t be - Kick-ass is a comic-book that exists as a meta-text for comics and superheroes, that props itself on the foundations of modern-day pop culture, name-dropping everything from Youtube and American Idol and references to Lost. Think of it as a tremendous in-joke – are you savvy enough to wink back and acknowledge that you get it?


Five Other Mark Millar Books You Might Want To Pick Up

Artist: JG Jones
Publisher: Top Cow/Wildstorm

Once pitched as a story of DC’s super-villains, Wanted became an epic story of what would happen if all the bad guys won, and established empires of their own. Wesley Gibson is an everyday loser who discovers that he’s the heir to a superhuman assassin and is destined to take up his father’s place in the Fraternity, the super-villain collective. Turned into a successful blockbuster starring James McAvoy and Angelina Jolie, the book catapulted Millar into the big time.

The Authority v2
Artist: Frank Quitely, Art Adams et al.
Publisher: Wildstorm

Millar’s follow-up to the adrenaline-fuelled first volume of the superhero series The Authority was to turn up the subtext of the previous chapter all the way up to eleven. By the time the last chapter of the run came about, 9/11 paranoia forced the publishers to tone down the violence and the political undertones of the series, but by then, it was clear that Millar had raised the barrier of superhero stories to another level altogether. After this, there was no going back to straightforward capes and fistfights.

Wolverine: Enemy of the State
Artist: John Romita Jr/Klaus Janson
Publisher: Marvel

Wolverine, among the deadliest superheroes in the Marvel pantheon, is brainwashed by the Ninja clan, The Hand, and a dissident organisation named HYDRA, and suddenly no one on the planet is safe, even as Wolverine fights the Fantastic Four, Daredevil and SHIELD, against his will. Pure popcorn superheroics where you know that the good guys will eventually win, but one hell of a ride because of Millar’s theatrical script-writing and the number of high-five-worthy moments scattered in the plot.

Superman: Red Son
Artist: Killian Plunkett, Dave Johnson et al
Publisher: DC

A bold and alternative look at Superman, this miniseries re-envisions the Man of Steel as he would have become had the rocket from Krypton landed in Soviet Russia, rather than a farm in Kansas. Mixing familiar versions of DC’s superhero family, such as Batman and Wonder Womanwith real-life political figures such as Joseph Stalin and John F Kennedy, Red Son is one of those rare instances of an alternate reality storyline gaining more popularity than a proper Superman storyline.

Ultimate X-Men Vol 1

Artist: Adam Kubert
Publisher: Marvel
Millar’s reinvention of the bloated X-Men franchise is a high-point of the Nineties. Using a streamlined version of the team, and an edgy tone that meshed perfectly with the sensibilities of the then-recent X-Men movies, Ultimate X-Men helped the franchise by bringing new readers to the Marvel stable, and became a commercial as well as critical hit.

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