Emanata: Hi, Kids. Do You Like Violence?

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Mark Millar and John Romita Jr.’s miniseries Kick-Ass is, as the cover of the collected edition that came out this week indicates, “now a major motion picture”–or will be when the movie opens in April. Like Millar’s earlier Wanted, the comic book is written like an action movie, right down to the Bondian smart-ass wisecracks its adorable little-girl assassin Hit-Girl spits as she butchers the bad guys. Kick-Ass has a one-joke premise, and it’s a pretty good joke: Dave Lizewski, a teenage social outcast who escapes from the frustration of his life in comic books, puts on a costume to fight crime and rachets up Spider-Man’s “put-upon hero” archetype by getting himself beaten to a pulp and gruesomely humiliated at every turn.

I’d like to skip over the problematic actual plot of Kick-Ass here, in part because other people have addressed some of its more dubious elements, but I can’t let its conclusion’s racial politics pass without comment. Dave’s ultimate two-part humiliation in the story’s coda is that the girl he likes is having sex with his (black) schoolmate (“I whacked off at that picture while crying, some nights,” he tells us), and his dad is having sex–on panel, no less–with a (black) woman Dave had tried to rescue earlier. Now, you can look at that two different ways. The less charitable one is that Millar is suggesting that everybody knows that’s the worst thing that could possibly happen to a white kid, and therefore we get to laugh at Dave. Millar’s too smart for that, I think (I hope). The subtler possibility is that since Dave is explicitly presented as a stand-in for the archetypal fanboy–the not-a-jock, not-a-brainiac loser who stocks up on comics every Wednesday–and that since (Millar is suggesting) fanboys are racist pricks, this is what Dave considers the worst thing that could possibly happen to him, and therefore we get to laugh at Dave. That’s a kinder interpretation; it only suggests that Millar is asking his audience to hold themselves in contempt.

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And yet there’s something incredibly entertaining about Kick-Ass‘s Grand Guignol bone-splinters and blood pools, and it has less to do with Millar’s contribution than with Romita’s. The wonderful thing about Romita’s artwork here (inked by Marvel veteran Tom Palmer) is that it’s not particularly cinematic at all: he alters the size and shape of panels for dramatic effect, renders faces and bodies as strawlike bundles of lines, composes pages to direct the reader’s gaze, distorts characters’ anatomy at will. As he draws Hit-Girl, her head is roughly a third the size of her body.

Most of all, Kick-Ass is a comic about impact, and that’s Romita’s specialty. His character work isn’t especially subtle, and he sometimes can’t keep individual faces consistent, but damn, can he draw something smashing into something else. World War Hulk, the most kinetic comic he drew before this, was a huge, bloodless donnybrook, power clashing against power; Kick-Ass‘s violence is all about the way powerless bodies break and spurt. It’s a clever touch that Dave’s one real victory comes from his provoking someone to hit him again and again; Romita conveys every blow so enthusiastically that it becomes hilarious.

Frank Miller’s Daredevil was the first superhero comic where the bloodshed was convincing, but there was still something smooth and choreographed about it. The violence Romita draws in Kick-Ass owes a lot to Miller’s approach, but his version of it is mayhem: muscles and gunshots and knives tearing bodies apart, blood spattering over everything. It’s cartoon violence, with the big juicy movement lines that have largely gone out of style in American action comics. Even when his characters are just standing around, Romita suggests power radiating from them; a beating victim’s face is a nearly abstract mess of hash marks with gobbets of blood dripping from it.

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The last big kaboom of the book is as far over the top as it’s possible to go without passing out for lack of oxygen: a full-page image of twiglike ten-year-old Hit-Girl, cape flying, twisting through space, blood dripping from her eyes, ramming a meat cleaver halfway through the skull of a man whose bloodshot eyes are bulging out of his head as blood pours from his nose and mouth and splatters outward from the center of the panel, becoming indistinguisthable from the movement lines that shoot out from that point of impact. (Meanwhile, she’s screaming a catchphrase whose stupidity Millar has made a point of highlighting earlier in the book.) If Romita had rendered that image in the precise, “realistic” style of some superhero comics, it would just be sick and ugly; if it were in the cleaner, smoother style of his earlier work, it would be incongruous, a parody of bloodless fight scenes. This way, it’s a fist-in-the-air moment.

And then, naturally, Kick-Ass punishes its readers for enjoying it. The backmatter of the collection features a two-page spread called “Kick-Ass’s Greatest Hits”: the series’ most gruesome panels, leading up to the money shot of one of its major characters getting his brains blown out, just so you can savor it one more time. This is awesome, it says, and by the way, what does thinking it’s awesome say about you, fanboy?

Emanata is a weekly column for Techland by comic pundit Douglas Wolk. See past columns here.

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