Saturday, February 6, 2010

Kick ass #1-8

"Kick ass" was originally solicited as a six issue creator owned mini-series by Marvel exclusive Mark Millar and John Romita Jr. Released almost to coincide with the movie adaptation of Millar's own "Wanted", it was solicited to present a similar take on the superhero genre, albeit grounded as a nominally realistic story. Published by "Icon", Marvel's author-friendly impint, the mini-series' release schedule was constantly interrupted by John Romita jr.' obligations as the penciller on the "Amazing Spider-Man", yet the news of a fast tracked production of the "Kick ass"' own movie adaptation still kept the book fresh in everyone's memory. It finally concluded almost two years after it started, transforming into not only a two-issues longer work, but one that is clearly marked as the first book in a series, with the creator now apparently repackaging the project as an ongoing commitment.

"Kick ass" starts with the flash-forward to the story's finale, yet the over the images of the over the top violence that have since become the book's signature, are quickly interrupted as the narrator feels the need to start the story at the beginning. Thus, the reader is transported into a much more sombering daily life of a comic-book fan, trying to escape his dreary high-school existence into the fantasy life inspired by Marvel and DC's superhero lines. Even in his eager beginnings, much of Millar's cruel and cynical writing persists, as it constantly teases the promise of the bigger and more catastrophical developments.

To get the idea of the creators' protagonist, as well as the creative and marketing approach at play, it should be noted that even the main character's name was auctioned for charity. The covers are likewise adorned with bold letters making impossible proclamations, which goes hand to hand with the frankness of the creative vision - Millar and Romita jr. are violent and persistent in winning over the audience traditionally averse to new superhero properties.

Similarly, Kick Ass keeps constantly name checking the superhero titles that inspired him, which at first seems harmless, but once again turns into a much more calculated and direct device. In striding to make a wider point about would-be heroes being one and all inspired by the mainstream superheroics, Millar actually sticks to the pattern established in his previous work. Despite no doubt deliberately mentioning movie-friendly well known superhero icons, he is once again shamelessly exploiting his core audience, just like he did with "Wanted".

By providing a grotesque version of the real life troubles he feels that his fans can identify with, Millar is both providing the shocks of R-rated action-movie entertainment, as well as a sly commentary meant to take up the space where the book's heart and meaning should reside. This is a particularly dubious tactic which could well be taken as an insult to his own audience, if he wasn't so smug and open about it. In the end, the morale of the story ends up being just manipulative enough to make the reader sit up and take notice in all the right places, but to do no other thinking post closing the book, except for remembering to follow Millar's next highly commercial creative endeavour.

By combining bad taste and idealism, Millar is purposefully calling out the confusion and anger in his readers, but it's largely unwarranted once one really gets down to the specifics. The reality of Kick Ass' world is defined by caricatures of American teenagers decades removed from the writer's own Scottish upbringing, that are once again subjected to constant referencing of current Internet perephernalia, in a desperate attempt to appear convincingly modern.

Of course, the chief device Millar employs in depicting the reality of the main character's coming of age relationship is defined by his homophobia. Once again, the writer shows no subtlety in teasing the reader with a longstanding paper-thin negative conception regarding the irony between the costumed heroes larger than life adventures and their stereotypical shy and socially awkward audience. This concept, more than anything else, serves to drive home the reality of Kick Ass' civilian life, as he is prone to repeating in endless narrative captions. Of course, in reality, this is just another attention grabber, along the likes of fake documentary footage that appeared on the Internet in order to promote the book. It is to Millar's testament that he manages to squeeze enough drama with this part of the plot to keep the reader caring, and tide him over to the next scene.

The best part of "Kick ass" still comes from this bitterly satirical portrayal of everyday life, as Millar somehow manages to keep to the reality of the world where no superpowers exist. Likewise, the parts where his protagonist openly reveals the need to get to the center of the attention along with his first steps in the world of costumed vigilantism by doing no more than trying to help out the tenants of a burning building and then hurry up home to his computer to see the message board reaction feel somewhat inviting in reaching the honest tone that Millar and Romita Jr. constantly strive for.

Yet, where it all gets problematic is when it comes to depicting the violence. From the start, the reader is made certain that this is a "mature-readers only" book as despite the profanity, the vulgarities depicted at every turn serve as a constant reminder. Bluntly, the Romita jr. depicted pages are regularly filled with the details of black-eyes and blood and snot exiting the characters' mouths, and that is only in the pages depicting "Kick ass"' quiet periods. The celebrated "Spider-Man" artist is routinely called forward to show gangs of thugs from all sizes and colors ganging up on the protagonist and his eventual associates, proceeding to try their best to beat him up to the point of death in the goriest and most bloody way.

If one believes that the scenes are taking place in what is almost the Punisher's semi-reality of New York city, which is what the artistic cues seem to point at, there is still little actual maturity behind the bloodshed. The gangsters' heads are split open like watermelons, while their guns seem constantly set to stun and injure, providing their lives to be as cheap and familiar as the well worn bad guy types they so strongly emulate. This is the shocking promised in the book's title and it just seems endless and repetitive, while nevertheless constantly kept in check by the video-game-like rules of such encounters. What little reality can be gleaned behind the purple tinged, indigo-like shadows falling across everything, comes from the aforementioned injuries. Still, their treatment and general presentation are once again in tune with the familiar superhero cliches of the vigilante needing to protect his identity even while suffering grievous injuries. Instead, they just read like a laundry list of almost every possible injury one can sustain in a fight, and never actually survive combined, much less get up and fight crime again.

The little nods to the protagonist building up the physique are quickly forgotten, while his actually mastering a particular fighting style is never really explored in the first place. His determination seems enough, as indicated by the image of a still growing-up teenager getting across the neighborhood in a wet suit, and trying his hardest at fighting with makeshift weapons. This is not because of the space taken by his relationships with school kids, which except for his love interest keep being left out in the backgrounds, in order to focus on the superhuman movement that springs along with Kick ass' step. And except for the nods toward the already existing portions of subculture exited to get dressed in garish costumes,this is where the book is actually at it's most unreal.

Because by jumping through the down time, Millar gives his protagonist no time to remain in the spotlight for long enough, before the make up of the rest of the so-called superhuman scene takes the stage. This is perhaps what lead to the series being extended beyond the original plan, as the writer and the artist try to take time to provide glimpse into the lives of their other costumed creations, seemingly inspired by Kick ass' actions in the first half of the book. It is not only that their character designs bring to mind much more familiar and generic forms of superheroes, it is that their arrival feels to soon. If Millar and Romita jr. indeed suddenly changed their plans and turn their concept into a series of mini series, then they still should have kept to their protagonist in this early, introductory phase. Perhaps they felt the need to keep up with the plot of the movie, and didn't want their original presentation to be seen as lagging behind the developments introduced in the cinematic version. In any event, the creators' experience helps them integrate the rest of the characters into the story on the plot level, leading to the proceedings taking a much larger scope, even than the flash-forward that starts the book out. Millar's constant referring to the next stage of Kick ass' superhero life also helps smoothen out the transition, along with the characters' cameos before they officially start teaming up with one another.

The book is thus transformed into a much larger and filled with the choreography that mimics that of the traditional superhero titles. Having debuted, Kick ass' imitators all have their own agendas, leading to the extended conclusion where they all set out against a clear villain. It goes without saying that these new superheroes are also much more gratious and offensive in what passes as a shorthand for their characterization.

Beyond their capacity for violence, Hit-Girl, Big Daddy and Red Mist come designed with their own sense of mystery and surprises, much of it forcefully tied into the book's thematic structure. A particular plot point regarding the origin of one of Kick ass' cohorts might have actually benefitted from the intermittent serialization, as it appears glaringly obvious when the mini-series is read as a whole. In any event, it is difficult to think that the book might have reached such an impossible overblown conclusion without their presence, so there's little sense in second guessing the creators' original intentions.

Instead, it's the page after page of bloodbath at the big showdown with the local gangsters that will stick to the reader, and decide on his or her eventual acceptance of the work as a whole. Millar and Romita jr. decide only to tie up some of the loose ends afterward, in a manner that is clearly not meant to be definitive. The book ends on a splash page directly teasing the plot of the second stage in the development of the concept, in a reasonably logical way. Before that happens, the movie adaptation theatrical debut will no doubt prove to be be critical to the concept, and it's eventual development by millar and Romita jr.

Still, despite "Kick ass" being a very visual comic book collaboration it's hard to shake the feeling that John Romita jr. is somewhat shunted off to the side, to make way for Millar's manipulations. It is his sure hand that renders all of these characters and scenes, and the veteran artist shows signs of improvement everywhere. Seeing his depictions of school life, gang-related violence, and the over the top superhero portions of the story, actually creates the story from start to finish. His clear layouts and the emotions he conveys in the cast, coupled with the writer's cynical delivery of the dialogue, really make a lot of the captions superficial.

Once again, it's hard not to imagine how the story would have looked like, had the creators not deemed it necessary to rush through the recovery scenes, before settling on the scenes involving the greater plot of superhumans versus a key mob figure. Letting Romita jr. render the miserable days the teenager wanting to be known as Kick ass recovers from his mistakes, instead of mostly being told about them in captions, would not really rob the series of it's action packed scenes, as there are more than enough of them that take center stage in the book's initial chapters.

Overall, it depends to be seen where the creators feel fit to next take the property's original comic book iteration. It is more than possible that they will continue to keep creating a guilty pleasue package tinged with bitter irony, or if they will employ a different form of sarcasm in the adventures of the somewhat older version of Kick ass. Hopefully, now that they've established their audience, and gauged out the shape of the project, they will settle into just creating a coherent story, despite probably keeping a healthy dose of controversial surprises. At this point, "Kick ass" is exactly the cross-media developed comics property that the industry hasn't seen since the 1980s, and will no doubt help secure Mark Millar's reputation as a talent capable of coming up with the high concept ideas of his own, and developing them in a very distinctive way with the help of some of the industry's most beloved superhero artists. After all, no less is to be expected from the man who markets his own book as the product of collaboration between the writer of "Civil war", and the artist of "World war Hulk", who never forgets just how to manipulate his initial audience.

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