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Marvel Slugfest: Kick Ass #1

Posted: Tuesday, February 26, 2008
By: Keith Dallas

Mark Millar
John Romita Jr. (p), Tom Palmer (i)
Marvel Comics
Editor's Note: Kick Ass #1 arrives in stores tomorrow, February 27.

Matthew J. Brady: 3.5 Bullets
Ariel Carmona Jr.: 3.5 Bullets
Paul Brian McCoy: 4 Bullets
Dave Wallace: 4 Bullets




Matthew J. Brady 3.5 Bullets

Mark Millar and John Romita, Jr.’s new entry into Marvel’s Icon imprint of creator-owned comics purports to be an especially realistic look at superheroes. Its main character, Dave Lizewski, appears to be a normal kid in the real world (or some variant thereof; there are hints that his actions will change society drastically in the future) who decides to don a costume and take up crimefighting, with not-so-flashy results. The idea seems to be to look at the mentality of somebody who would do such things in real life, and Millar seems to think he would be a jerk with a severe disconnect with reality. Dave narrates the story, but what he’s saying doesn’t match the actions going on in the panels; while he claims to not really be a nerd, he obviously is, and he says he isn’t really that into comics, but we see him debating niggling details of comics-to-film adaptations with his geeky buddies. It’s not a pretty picture, although Millar does seem at least a little bit sympathetic to him.

John Romita, Jr. does a nice-enough job on the art, but I wonder if somebody with a more realistic style might have been a better choice. When I see Romita’s work, I think of Spider-Man, putting me right in a comic-booky world, so colorful costumes and stylized violence don’t seem too out of place. Sure, the violence is a bit more extreme than your typical Marvel book, but it still looks like a fairly typical superhero comic. And while somebody like John Cassaday or J.G. Jones might have made Dave’s costume look awkward and silly (like I think it’s supposed to), Romita’s rendition doesn’t seem too different from the typical superhero tailoring.

Millar often seems to strive to be controversial, and that’s definitely the case here. He fills the book with swearing and graphic violence, which is probably enough to get his fans on his side, even though he is portraying comics fans in general in a pretty harsh light. I suspect this will be talked about as much as Wanted was, with many people calling Millar a terrible writer who personally insulted them (while still spending money on the book). But it’s certainly not a bad story, and there are some hints of interesting developments to come. And the issue ends on a moment that really makes you want to see what happens next. So, while I don’t know if I would recommend it, I predict that it will cause much hand-wringing (and high sales).




Ariel Carmona Jr. 3.5 Bullets

The first thing that grabs you as a reader upon reading Mark Millar’s Kick-Ass #1 is that fantastic John Romita Jr. artwork. He’s been one of my favorite artists for quite some time because his work is so distinct and his style is so unmistakable that it is a pleasure to see his contributions to almost any comic blessed enough with his skills.

Another factor contributing to this book’s debut is of course the script by Mark Millar. The award winning comic book writer also boasts of his own particular voice and narrative style, and his often jarring storylines have been featured on great titles like The Authority and Wanted. The latter was a great mini series which sprung from an interesting premise: What if all the superheroes had been eradicated and the villains were running amok?

Similarly, his latest effort also tries to reconstruct super hero comics with another simple premise: What if a regular kid decided to make heroism his career choice? Millar tries to make his protagonist a hard luck case and a loser, and he weaves a tapestry of normalcy around his background in order to make his fantasy that much more heroic and unattainable. This works and backfires concurrently, and as gifted as the writer is in creating the principal characters, he borrows too much from similar efforts to make his young hero-to-be a singularly original creation. His relationship with a despondent, 9 to 5 working dad is almost identical to one created by Jim Valentino in Image’s Shadowhawk comic book, even though that comic’s hero’s powers were derived through super natural means and the kid in Millar’s book has no powers at all.

What does work is the dialogue. Millar knows how to write realistic, down to earth characters. Case in point, his main character could be any kid in America and as such, talks about his dreams, his life and his trials much like you would expect any young person would and his interests are also very common: video games, comics, etc. If anything, Millar focuses specifically on the comic book angle too much, clearly defining the demographic he is writing to by naming books like Whedon’s Astonishing X-Men and Buffy season eight.

The pacing of the comic is brisk and surprising, and I think that the premise is original enough to keep the readers flipping pages and reading the next installment, if only to find out what happens to this kid with the idealistic but unrealistic dreams. I was left wondering about the sequence of events. Was the opening scene in which our young hero is being tortured by a group of villains what happens to him following the cliffhanger in this issue? Maybe this will be dealt with in future installments, but it was the only subplot which left me hanging.

Overall, Millar has put together a provocative look at super hero conventions which pokes both fun at its devotees while at the same tries to have a meaningful, albeit implausible purpose. It’s going to be fun reading the next chapter.




Paul Brian McCoy: 4 Bullets

I'm going to try to avoid the obvious opening line, but damn, did I enjoy that! And this is coming from someone who isn't the biggest Mark Millar supporter around. I've liked some of his stuff; I've not liked some of his stuff. I don't care about the hype and the internet uproar whenever he does an interview. Hell, I rarely even read them. And to be quite honest, all I knew about this title was the basic description of what would happen if a real 16 year old kid decided to make a costume, grab a weapon, and go out to try and stop crime.

I didn't even know it was an Icon title.

The name of the book didn't inspire confidence. Kick Ass is a bit too ridiculous and obvious. Given how Millar dropped the ball in Civil War, I was really expecting this to just be fluff. Violent fluff with lots of swearing.

And don't get me wrong. There are lots of swearing and lots of violence, but I really didn't find it to be fluff. Maybe that's just because I'm part of the comics audience choir that this story is particularly geared toward. There was a time in my mid-teens where comics were pretty much all I had for company, and while that's really the only similarity between the main character, Dave Lizewski, and me, it was enough for a lot of the book to resonate.

Now, with that said, this isn't perfect writing. There's something a little unsettling about this messed up white kid going out and taking a billy club to some black kids painting graffiti on walls (graffiti should not be a criminal offense no matter what uptight white people think). I'm not going to try to examine it for racist subtexts or anything like that, but it is a bit troubling. As is the use of "homo" or "fag" when characters are insulting and violently beating each other up. Granted, it's realistic, but it's still hard to read, especially when we're supposed to be sympathizing with Dave up until that point. So far, white, straight, and male seems to be the target audience, but I’m hoping that this isn't a pattern that continues through the rest of the series.

The overall story is interesting, beginning with Dave in an extremely horrifying situation (especially if you're male), but then jumping back in time to the "secret origin Dave Lizewski." I like that Millar acknowledges the traditional tropes of super heroes and their origin stories while avoiding excessive melodrama. The relationship between Dave and his father is as subtle as the relationship between Dave and his friends is overt. To ground the "real world" setting, there is some discussion about current films and comics (all Marvel, of course), that may bug some readers but rang true to me (although I don't like Whedon's Astonishing X-Men as much as Dave does). The issue ends in a very brutal place, one that makes me extremely curious about where it can go from here.

The star of the show, however, is John Romita Jr. This may be the best work he's ever done. It's far superior to his World War Hulk art, which was pretty good already. I think it's even better than his work on The Eternals, which was also pretty damn good. The costume designs in this first issue are simple and realistic, while at the same time, hearkening back to Kirby. His storytelling is very cinematic, and there were times when his layouts drew me across the page in ways that simulated camera work in a film. This was especially powerful in the final few pages as the shot suddenly zooms in to a tight close-up of Dave just before something very violent is about to happen. The "deer in headlights" look is perfect and helps emphasize the impact of the next couple of pages (pun intended). I groaned out loud and cringed as the book came to a close. But in a good way. Really.

This is really good work from both Millar and Romita. IF the hype machine puts you off of checking this out, don't be that guy. Give it a look and ignore the ad copy. There's a lot of comics love here, alongside a lot of fairly realistic exploration of the concept. If it can maintain the intensity and creativity of this first issue, without giving in to the lowest common denominator approach to scripting that mars moments of this issue, this is going to be well worth the time and money.




Dave Wallace: 4 Bullets

Kick-Ass is the new creator-owned book from Mark Millar and John Romita Jr., which examines the consequences of a teenager taking inspiration from his comic-book heroes and donning a costume to become the first real-world costumed vigilante. In some respects, the book covers the same territory that Millar's Civil War sought to explore - but whereas that book's arguments about the unrealistic and unworkable nature of the classic superhero model felt somewhat out-of-place in a fictional universe in which superheroes can and do operate successfully, the subject matter fits far more comfortably into this story's more realistic setting. In fact, Millar spends much of this first issue going to great pains to point out just how normal Dave and his world are, and how his life is as grounded in a reality which we can relate to, rather than a colourful superhero universe. These early passages are occasionally clunky, and the book plays to its audience a little too transparently at times with its talk of comic-buying habits, fanboy arguments (including the debate over whether or not Galactus should have appeared as a dust-cloud, and whether Spidey should have had mechanical web-shooters) and internet messageboards. However, it makes its point effectively, and spends enough time sketching out the character of Dave Lizewski that we've begun to invest in his actions once he begins to realise his dreams of becoming a costumed superhero.

Lizewski is characterised as a regular teenager who does the kind of things that regular teenagers do, but with a naive idealism which makes him believe that his superhero fantasies could be realised if he was committed enough to bring them to life. Millar implies that the tragedies of Lizewski's family life may have pushed him to invest too heavily in the escapism that is offered by superhero comics, and as the issue goes on, we see the character become more and more disconnected from reality as his delusions take hold. At one point, Millar even has the character describe his actions as being "like a murderer," which makes me wonder whether he intends to push his “hero” into even darker places as the series progresses. However, the writer injects the book with a lightness and youthfully optimistic verve which allows it to avoid feeling as miserable and mean-spirited as the likes of Garth Ennis' The Boys or Millar's own Wanted miniseries, even when it's poking the same sorts of holes in the superhero genre.

That said, it wouldn't be enough for Kick-Ass to simply point out that the concept of the superhero is rooted in juvenile wish-fulfillment fantasies which don't correspond very closely with reality. This isn't new information, and it isn't a particularly insightful observation to make about the genre. What's more, the “superheroes in the real world” concept has been done-to-death over the last few years (and let’s face it, you're probably never going to better Watchmen in that field anyway). So, it’s lucky that in addition to exploring this well-worn territory, Kick-Ass also manages to be fairly entertaining whilst doing so. There are several genuinely funny moments which I won't spoil here, and Millar subverts many of the standard superhero clichés (coming up with a superhero name; trying on the costume for the first time; hiding the secret identity; and trying to come up with some impressive one-liners) with evident glee. I do wonder how long the core concept can sustain a series, but there are suggestions that Millar might take the book in a less predictable direction in future, with the opening scene hinting at the possibility that Dave's actions eventually start a global trend for real-life superheroes.

I do have one or two problems with this first issue, the most major of which is that in pointing out how juvenile many of the conventions of the superhero genre tend to be, Kick-Ass does fall into the trap of becoming just as puerile and immature as the material that it's satirising. There are several scenes of gratuitous violence that could have been presented far more subtly, without losing any of their impact. There's also a fairly casual attitude towards swearing, which isn't something that I have a problem with per se, but which becomes distracting when it appears to have been included solely in order to shock. The language and violence included here would certainly make it a MAX title if it wasn't being published under Marvel's Icon imprint, and I don't see why the book should limit its younger audience and potentially irritate its more “mature” readers with such unnecessary attempts to impress and be “edgy.”

I wavered between giving this book three-and-a-half or four bullets in my rating, because the story isn't the most original I've ever read, it often feels like it's trying too hard to impress, and most of my enjoyment of it comes from the surface details of the writing - and from the artwork. In the end, I plumped for the higher rating, and the element that tipped the balance was the presence of John Romita Jr. as artist. I've always enjoyed Romita's work, and he brings all of his best qualities to this book: the bombast and energy of the “big” moments (including a particularly brutal action scene towards the end of the issue); the command of body language and telling facial expressions; and the grasp of minor details which can transform a panel, such as his subtle emphasis of the bumps in Dave's clothing as he wears his wetsuit costume under his clothes in class, or the attention that he draws to the character pulling up his sheets in bed (which foreshadows the first reveal of his costume). It's also nice to see John Romita Jr. paired with an inker who can make the best of his bold linework, and Tom Palmer doesn't shy away from using thick, chunky lines when Romita's art demands it, reserving a finer line for backgrounds and detail.

Kick-Ass seems like the equivalent of junk food for the brain, and whilst that sounds like a damning criticism, it's not meant to be; it's just an honest description of the way this story feels. If you approach the book as a fun exploration of the misadventures of a wannabe superhero, you'll probably enjoy it a lot more than someone who is looking for more serious insight or commentary on the genre. As long as you have a balanced diet, there's no harm in occasionally snacking on something that might not be good for you, but is tasty whilst it lasts - and Kick-Ass serves that purpose perfectly well.






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