Saturday, July 24, 2010

Book-A-Day 2010 # 171 (7/24) -- Kick-Ass by Millar and Romita

There's an always-roiling debate among critics -- and the people who read them -- about sensitivity and tact, about how nice reviewers should be and how honest, and about whether one can, or does, or should always come to a book with a positive outlook. I often have sympathy toward the "reviews should be positive" viewpoint, since I've known a lot of writers and generally don't want to deliberately injure people I know.

But, on the other hand, a book is not its author. A book is a standalone artistic work, which (we all hope) will still be available to be appreciated and enjoyed and savored long after the author is dead. So the stakes are actually much higher than any consideration of the author's state of mind, and an artwork can never be flattered or offended or depressed. And it's stupid to think one must wait until an author is dead to say, for example, that Henry James was a horrible writer, able to make social minutiae endlessly dull and never capable of writing a medium-length convoluted sentence when there were three or four more unrelated clauses he could jam in there. The time to take aim at a bad book is when it first enters your sights, and to blast away with all the ammunition that the book's own flaws provide (though never more than that).

So critics do have to grapple with bad books, and face them squarely -- have to be willing to say, right out in public, that something is lousy. And sometimes those critics will deliberately read a work they're pretty sure is horrible, to give it a chance (however slight) and to know what it really is.

For example, right now: Kick-Ass is a piece of shit, a deeply conventional piece of superhero mythologizing in the currently fashionable pseudo-deconstructive mode that masquerades -- as that strain of dull superheroing generally does -- as a fresh and vibrant and transgressive look at the same old bullshit that it has swallowed whole. It's a carefully calibrated kiss-slap in the face of jaded superhero readers, bringing the relationship of the writer and the reader even closer to a true sado-masochistic scene than the big corporate characters have yet allowed, as writer Mark Millar in turn fawns over the puerile power fantasies of his readers and then stomps all over them with his high-heeded vinyl boots -- though, again, since this is a S&M relationship, he never hits to wound, but only to hurt, and only to keep the scene going until the reader slinks out of the dungeon, sated but too woefully un-selfconscious to feel bad about his filthy passion for boys in skintight suits.

Kick-Ass (the poisoned well that watered the recent stunted movie) is neither real -- as Millar and his defenders claim -- nor fantasy, as some detractors have argued. It's a decadent, self-conscious parody of both modes, coming so late in its genre that what should be parody can be played utterly straight and get roaring approval from the jaded herd. It's the story of yet another dope who wants to save the world -- or is it aggrandize himself? or perhaps push his sensation-jaded nerves to feel something new? or is it that Millar wants to feint in all those directions at once and not settle anywhere? -- and does so in a way that only makes sense in the context of a superhero comic book. There's a lot of violence, which is simultaneously too easy (for this dweeb to do, without knowledge or ability or training) and "realistically" bloodily dangerous...except that it's still pulp-novel violence, which either kills outright or is something that can be shaken off for a speedy return to full "fighting trim."

John Romita, Jr. draws it all in a crisp, easily readable mainstream style -- he's done much better work than this (though Millar has not), and will undoubtedly get to illustrate stories that aren't self-servingly wretched in the future once again. But Kick-Ass is the apotheosis of the modern violence- and realism-obsessed superhero comic; if you want to be able to continue reading them without instinctively flinching, I recommend either avoiding Kick-Ass or reading it with only cursory and transitory attention. Luckily, the kind of person who seeks out Kick-Ass for pleasure is incapable of reading any other way.
Book-A-Day 2010: The Epic Index


Chuk said...

So, did you like the comic or not?

(Definitely agree with you on the art, Romita has done better, including the stuff he did for the movie)

Kaz Augustin said...

Yeah, I think you may have been a bit subtle on this one, Andrew. Tell us what you REALLY think! Mwahahahaha

Anonymous said...

I have to dispute "(Mark Millar has not [done better])". He has done a lot of crappy work recently, though even now he does some good pieces: I liked his run on Fantastic Four a great deal, Marvel 1985 almost worked, and Wolverine: Old Man Logan was pleasantly good for what it was, which is to say Damnation Alley with superheroes.

But Millar was a treasure back in the late 1980s and early/mid-1990s, with Savior and his runs on Swamp Thing and The Flash in collaboration with and continuation of Morrison. And then there were his 20 or so absolutely charming, clever, and straightforward issues of Superman Adventures, some of the best younger-reader comics in America since the 1950s.

I have said, for years now, that Millar is a style chameleon, and the quality and tone of the work to a large extent depend on who he's echoing. He approaches greatness when he's recreating the wonder that comics had for him when he was young, but when he tries to write cynical (or, to be more unkind, when he imitates Warren Ellis at Ellis's surliest) he's beyond unreadable.

I think Kick-Ass was Millar's attempt to capture the spirit of early Frank Miller. As such, it was every bit as bad as Frank Miller's attempts to capture the spirit of early Frank Miller. I don't think you can say that Kick-Ass was any worse than The Dark Knight Strikes Back, but that's setting the bar so low that even Rob Liefeld could step across it.

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