Visually stunning and unstintingly brutal, the second issue of Kick-Ass is a blood-soaked, ingeniously choreographed homage to old-school Marvel that packs a solid emotional whammy amid the ultra-violence.
Just when you thought every possible superhero story had been uncovered and done to death, this comes along and rewrites the formula. The misfit who becomes a costumed vigilante is a familiar figure, but Mark Millar and John Romita Jr have reinvented the tale as an all-too-human tragedy. Stripped of four-colour glamour, this adventure is deeply disturbing, searingly raw and unflinchingly honest; an unblinking look at what would really happen if someone donned a mask to fight crime.
As issue two opens with Dave Lizewski hooked up to a life-support machine, looking like a slab of meat that’s been hung in an icebox and battered by the hands of Rocky Balboa, we realise there’s rarely been a comic with such an unpretentious vision of life as a superhero. The violence, the utter stupidity of it all is exposed in Romita Jr’s stark pencils.
Dave begins to relive the kicking he got on his first outing as a superhero, hallucinating in and out out of his fears, and we see a kid who is simultaneously coming apart and gaining in conviction. And when the action speeds through months of rehabilitation, we see the unexpected rebirth of an old, familiar tale. This is the 21st century reboot of Marvel’s streetwise superheroes.
I couldn’t help thinking of the origin of another New York superhero, Daredevil. Young Matt Murdock saved someone from danger and ended up in a hospital bed for his trouble. But where Stan Lee had Matt Murdock gain incredible abilities following his stint in hospital, Millar injects Dave Lizewski with a dose of reality. There’s no instant, radiation-induced powers in this comics universe, just the Fight Club-thrill of putting your body on the line. Like a comeback boxer who smells victory and pays no heed to the punishment he absorbs, he is gung-ho for more.
Dave, in the finest tradion of teen Marvel heroes, is a weirdo, an oddball who is ostracized by the hot chicks and testosterone-fuelled jocks. His family doesn’t understand him, he doesn’t fit in at school. Like Spider-Man, he creates his own costume and tries to find a redemption when he wears it. This is the real world though. Walking around in a mask, people think he’s a pervert, not a superhero.
Then something happens. As Dave stumbles across a gangfight he is thrown into that ultimate test that every superhero has, not just of physical prowess, but of character. And as Romita Jr shows Dave getting the absolute living shit kicked out of him, but refusing to give up, his dialogue-free panels have a power reminiscent of one of the pivotal moments in Spider-Man’s career, when he summons up every ounce of strength and digs himself out of tons of rubble in Amazing Spider-Man 33. Romia Jr must have been mainlining on some super-strength Steve Ditko when he drew that.
And check out the words from Millar. This is a snarling, street-wise version of what Stan Lee was doing in the 1960s. Snappy dialogue followed by sudden bursts of brutality replaces The Man’s unflinching optimism and over-the-top hyperbole.
Brutal, stylish and addictive, Kick-Ass is blue-collar super-heroics. For most of the issue this is an emotionally wrenching downer of a comic, but it lets in a ray of hope through its astonishing blend of hyper-realism, visual complexity and powerful themes.
Deftly avoiding cheap thrills, it nails adolescent anger and rebellion, the killer final page slyly drawing attention to a pop culture and consumer ethos that encourages youngsters to play grown-up before they’re ready.
Kick-Ass does what it says on the tin. It kicks ass.