Remember how I said during my review of The Ultimates that Mark Millar was a love ‘im or hate ‘im writer, sometimes within the same work? Well, Kick-Ass offers Millar at his best and at his worst. He gets the superhero genre, understands why and how it works the way it does. That’s why he’s so good at deconstructing and reconstructing it. He grasps the escapism element and knows his target audience like the back of his hand. However, he’s a writer who refuses to ever accept that there is such a thing as “too far”. There is no taste, there is no top to go over. But, more than that, there’s no restraint. And there’s the problem with Kick-Ass: for a novel so interested in giving us a relatable protagonist and heroes grounded in “the real world”, it’s too absurdist to really work.
I don’t shock easily. I am not a prude. I sat through the violence in the movie adaptation without flinching. However, this book is blood soaked. Page after bloody page. It’s initially shocking, and then grows numbing. Eventually you wonder why Millar and Romita are spending so many pages on it.
It’s a shame, because the story is relatively serviceable. The central character, despite being a bit of an ass, is charming. There’s and interesting subplot here, absent from the movie, where Dave routinely promises to swear off his crazy stunt, in return for a lucky break. He gets the lucky break, and then jumps right back into the costume. It’s hard not to see this as an attempt by Millar to demonstrate that Dave has brought it all upon himself.
Indeed, one of the problems with the story is that Millar seems intent to hammer home that every single one of these characters is a comic book geek. It becomes obvious what he’s doing early on, and it undermines the dramatic beats. In fact, the reader is able to predict some of the key reveals ahead of time. It’s all very one-note: these guys are losers and geeks; ultimately, they suck; ergo, you, a comic book reader, also suck.
In fairness to Millar, some of it works well. Most of the book walks a line between deconstruction and reconstruction of the genre, without choosing a side. On one hand, Dave and his ilk are losers, liars and incredibly unlikeable people (at one point, as in the film, Dave describes how “like a murderer, fantasizing would only cut it for so long” – there is something very wrong with that kid). On the other, Millar pitches this as a sort of superhero nostalgia trip.
Somebody somewhere observed that Millar – underneath his bravedo – wanted to he Stan Lee. In that light, this is his Spider-Man. For all the mockery Dave generates in his swimsuit, he does good things. He intervenes in a street fight, he rushes into a burning building to save what he thinks is a child. Of course, he’s an idiot, but aren’t all superheroes? Could Spider-Man do something more productive than swing between buildings and snark at criminals? Probably. Couldn’t Superman do something with more impact than foiling bank robberies? Of course. Despite his many, many faults, Dave tries his best.
A lot of Millar’s concepts simply update those of the superhero, dragging them into the modern age. MySpace is just “the twenty-first century version of the Bat Signal”. Hit Girl is Robin, viewed through a modern lens (albeit more successfully than Frank Miller’s take on the dynamic in All-Star Batman & Robin). Superhero team ups are explored and even justified (they are “fun”). Each take is slightly cynical (though even the revelation about the nature of the team up echoes back to The Golden Age, with the superhero team The Seven Soldiers of Fortune was originally orchestrated much the same way), but there’s a fondness in using them, and Millar never deviates too far from the conventional superhero origin, right down to supervillains.
The book does suffer, from not being entirely sure whether it is a deconstruction or a reconstruction. The movie laid its cards on the table with its finale act, and – to a much lesser extent – the comic does too. However, it doesn’t seem to want to have to pick one side or the other (remaining much more cynical than the film). This dissonance is more than a little odd, and leads to the book feeling somewhat emptier than it should.
I’m on the fence about Millar’s writing. It is – at least – better than his attempt to write ‘hip’ teenage dialogue for Ultimate X-Men, possibly because it is unashamedly geeky. There are still a myriad of geeky in-jokes which, while I got most of them, were a little offputting. The book isn’t smart enough to serve as the kind of pop culture stew it so desperately wants to be. Some of the references make me smile, but I wonder if I will get them in a year or two. Still, Millar has a way with words and – when he’s not indulging his “geektionary” or “nerdgasms” - he tells a good yarn.
John Romita’s art is odd. It’s very cartoony (and yet insists on making the violence as graphic as possible). It seems odd – in many ways it looks like a standard conventional superhero story. Big Daddy, for example, looks like a superhero straight out of the grim ‘n’ gritty nineties. It’s a style which seems oddly out of place. That isn’t to say it isn’t good – it’s very good – but that it doesn’t sit particularly well with the narrative. there’s nothing which denotes that this is meant to be anything more than a standard superhero tale, which seems at odds with how Millar constructs the story. Their last collaboration – Wolverine: Enemy of the State – saw the two in better step with each other.
I probably sound like I’m being harsh. Maybe I am. I loved the movie and had heard good things of the book. It isn’t half as good as the film, which quotes verbatim several key passages, but smooths over the very rough edges found here (as well as choosing a position on the issue of comic book superheroics, which the novel can’t seem to decide one way or the other). It’s an entertaining read, if a little gratuitous. It doesn’t feel substantial of itself, but rather like a pleasant snack.
Sadly, it isn’t quite Kick-Ass.