Beaten, stabbed, tossed into traffic and hospitalised

A review of a comic like Kick-Ass really doesn’t mean much unless it’s written by someone who closely follows the commercial comics which are its creative context. It is itself a commercial comic, but in more or less exactly the same way that Quentin Tarantino makes films about cinema, it is also a comic about comics. Of course, what I’m writing here is not a review but a journal entry, and I’m under no obligation to be well-informed, but I shall at least bear in mind that most of this book’s references are lost on me. I basically decided to read this because I’m a little bit in love with Glasgow, and it pleases me that a number of noted comics creators hail from that city. One such, Mark Millar, has an enviable critical reputation (and an MBE) for his work as a writer of commercial comics, many of which have been eye-wateringly successful. Such reputations are not to be taken at face value, however, since the mass-market variants of most cultural forms are utterly formulaic, and what passes for creative work is usually technical work instead – incredibly polished, but artistically bankrupt. It is possible however, to do good creative work in such a context: sometimes something with quite serious intentions can tick enough boxes to make it commercially, but there is another way to slip some art through the mincing machine. The compositional materials of the medium itself can be abstracted, so that while an ostensibly conventional movie (say) plays out, an aesthetic exposition built from the interplay of its formal elements plays out alongside it. John Ford did this with his westerns; some film musicals of the early Technicolor era did this, in my opinion; Tarantino does this with his films; Alan Moore and Grant Morrison have both done this with many of the comics they have written; David Bowie did this with many of his recordings. Such works speak on the apparent level of the text, and also on the level of a formal commentary on the medium. There are, in fact, thousands of examples, and Kick-Ass is one of them.

So it’s a comic about comics in that rather abstract, formal way, and it’s also a comic about comics in the ways that it refers and pays homage to the history of the form, both Millar and John Romita Jr. being experts therein – the latter a second-generation, bona fide legend. But it’s also a book about comics in that the social world of the comics fan is where it is set. The characters that populate it are nerdy kids that hang out in comic shops and fantasise about becoming superheroes. The story belongs to a tradition of comics built on postulates that run something like ‘if this happened in the real world, then X’, and obviously, beyond the shadow of a doubt, if anyone were to suddenly put on Lycra outfits and go out to confront petty criminals, it would be comics fans. In Moore and Dave Gibbons’ Watchmen, comics are concerned with other forms of adventure, since costumed adventurers are a part of the prosaic, but in Kick-Ass those adventurers spring directly from the exact same tradition as the book’s authors. The characters here are well-informed connoisseurs of the medium, not simply modelling themselves on their heroes, but modelling their actions on legendary scenes, and borrowing quips to be used in the midst of their battles. The first issue of the comic is absolutely straight-up ‘how would this go in the real world?’ The answer is obvious enough – the hero is beaten, stabbed, tossed into traffic and hospitalised. Thereafter it becomes a power fantasy, of a rather different stripe to other superhero comics, but the same species of tale nevertheless.

I won’t rehearse its plot or its themes, except to say that it is the same kind of love song to the medium as Tarantino’s movies are to cinema, and that it aestheticises violence in the same way. As such it’s morally vacuous, but formally brilliant. Or actually, there is a little more to its moral perspective than that. In the way it represents violence, not just the actual nitty gritty, but its social construction, it asks us to place our sympathies in a place not too different from that occupied by the recruiters/abusers of child soldiers. This says two things to the informed reader, and one to the uninformed. To the latter it says ‘fuck off, this isn’t for you’. To the former it says ‘no, this isn’t about the real world’, and it says ‘this isn’t a story, it’s a comic’. Of course, it is a story, but it is not a story that can be read as though it were a film, or as though it were a novel – forget your moral compass, because this is a fantasy about a world where morality, among other things, is different. And if you ever enjoyed a superhero comic of the family friendly sort, but think a comic in which brutal mass murder is committed by nerds and children would be kind of offensive, it is a challenge to your values as a reader. The comic is morally vacuous, but its authors are not, and they understand precisely what they are doing in that regard.

This is a creator-owned comic that was released in industry-standard monthly magazines, over four distinct runs, each of which has been collected, perfect-bound, and combined in a box set, which is what I’ve just read. There are advantages to coming late to everything. Romita’s art is stunning throughout. He is a great storyteller, one of the great storytellers, not just in the way he presents action, but in the way his characters carry their inner lives in their posture and facial expressions, and in the way he induces time to pool placidly in one panel before rushing like a torrent through the next. Overall, this reads like a series that has been bound together and put in a box – the narrative does not have much tensile strength across any one of these volumes, let alone across the entire collection, but then that’s not really the point of it. To be episodic is a part of the nature of the medium, certainly of commercial comics, and although some that were written as series attain a sense of total, constructed coherence when they are collected, these are rarities. There is enough of an arc through each series to keep the pages turning, and each successive volume relates to the others as a sequel. For this reason, the cinematic comparisons I keep returning to seem appropriate again: each volume contains far too little plot for a novel, but just about the right amount for a ninety or one-hundred-and-twenty minute action movie. Now if only someone would… oh, wait.

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