Hard-Traveling Fanboys: The Longbook Hunters (Kick-Ass)

Mild-mannered reporters by day, Greg Phillips and Nick Duke share an intense love of comic books that has made them the Hard-Traveling Fanboys. Over the course of their travels through comicdom, they have encountered numerous stories via the wonder of trade paperbacks and graphic novels. Once a month, Nick and Greg will review one of those collections in The Longbook Hunters.

Nick: It’s been a while, dear readers, and our longboxes are probably a but dustier than usual, but it’s finally time for a new edition of The Longbook Hunters. This time out, we’re taking on a book that I’m a longtime fan of — Kick-Ass.

Greg: This marks our first hunt since May, but never fear, we’re surely back on schedule now. Ahem.

Written by Mark Millar and illustrated by the legendary John Romita Jr., Kick-Ass was turned into a major motion picture not long after its publication (just two years after the first issue hit stands). I sat down last month and read through it for the first time, so I’ll be approaching the book as a newcomer.

KICK-ASS

Nick: That’s a great place to start — how you came to the book. Me, I was a fairly new comic reader in late 2007 when I heard the pitch for Kick-Ass. What if a teenager in the real world decided to strap on the tights and give the superhero game a go? Sounded like an interesting concept, especially to someone new to monthly comics who didn’t yet realize how the genre was packed with similar concepts. Plus, it was written by Mark Millar, one of the few creator names I knew at the time thanks to his Ultimates and Ultimates 2. So, I was sold a few months before the first issue ever hit in February 2008. What about you, Greg? I know I recommended the book to you several times in the past, but had you heard of it before then?

Greg: I’m sure I’d seen the name pop up on various comic book websites I frequented, and I probably heard it talked about. I recall it being quite divisive online, and I remember rolling my eyes at the title and just figuring it wasn’t for me. I do remember you and other friends describing it to me and continuing to think that it probably just wasn’t aimed at me. I wasn’t a huge fan of Romita Jr., though I had no real issue with him, and I’m not sure if I’d ever read any of Millar’s work other than parts of Civil War back then.

I think the first time I heard about it, I remarked to the person who mentioned it, “It sounds like a title Beavis and Butt-Head would have come up with.”

Uh-huh-huh-huh, uh-huh-huh-huh ... "Kick."
Uh-huh-huh-huh, uh-huh-huh-huh … “Kick.”

Nick: Indeed. Well, as I would soon learn, the concept of teenage superhero in the “real world” wasn’t exactly what we wound up getting. The first issue of the 8-issue series presented that concept with a fairly comedic bend to it, but as the series went on, things just got crazier and crazier and eventually became ridiculously over the top in terms of violence, language, behavior, you name it.

Greg, I believe you saw the movie before reading the book, so you likely weren’t taken aback by the drastic shift in tone from what the book was advertised as.

Greg: Yeah, I put off watching the movie for a while, despite the strong reviews and word of mouth, because I was just so convinced it wouldn’t be for me. When I finally got around to it a couple years later, imagine my surprise when I really enjoyed it. First of all, it was really funny. Director Matthew Vaughn got the timing perfect on most of the gags, and the cast filled the characters with heart and personality that went beyond the story’s snark and cynicism. So the movie definitely shaped my expectations of the book, and made it clear that it really wasn’t about a superhero in the real world.

Nick: We’ll talk more about the movie in a bit, but one area where it doesn’t stray very much is its opening. We’re introduced to the world the story takes place in, and see what happens to one of the first people to try to put on the tights, as an Armenian man with mental problems falls to his doom. That whole first issue is largely introductions, as we meet Dave Lizewski, his father and his friends. Dave’s father is largely a generic stand-in, but I took almost immediately to Dave and his buddies. Greg, seems to me that a trio of not-so-popular kids spending their free time in a comic book store might be somewhat relatable for a couple of we know, huh?

Greg: Oh, of course. Dave is an instantly relatable teenager who behaves like a typical American teenager. He and his friends are not unlike the friend groups many of us probably had. In fact, I think this was a missed opportunity of the book. We don’t get nearly enough of this group, and when we do get them, their conversations seem one-dimensional. Not saying teenagers don’t use colorful language a lot (I sure did), but it feels a little less natural in the book than I thought it would. Still, the early chapters are at their strongest when Dave’s first-person narrative is following along the lines of most teens — with plenty of distractions thanks to raging hormones.

Yeah, this was pretty much high school.
Yeah, this was pretty much high school. Just replace “Scrubs” with “Friends” and “Goo Goo Dolls” with “Creed.” Hey, don’t judge!

There’s also quite a few funny moments between Dave and his friends, especially for an older reader thinking about just how stupid these kids are and, hence, how stupid we probably were at the same age. In a weird way, the first chapter had a kind of “American Psycho” vibe to me, with the self-aware inner monologue and especially a pretty hysterical panel involving Dave staring at his teacher.

Nick: That’s a great comparison I never thought of. And you’re right — I remember loving the scenes with Dave in his natural environment and wishing for more of them. But the book takes a turn fairly early on. Once Dave decides to suit up for completely random reasons, (seriously, he just decides it might be cool to try it) he heads out on the town to take on some thugs. And it’s there that I got my first clue that this book was going to have a bit of a zany, over-the-top feel to it. Not only does Dave fail miserably at crime fighting, he’s beaten within an inch of his life, stabbed and thrown into oncoming traffic, where’s smashed by a speeding vehicle. The sight of a 17-year-old kid bleeding out in the street isn’t exactly a pleasant image, but I guess Millar was intending to throw all pleasantries out the window early on.

Greg: Romita did a great job getting across just how brutal and violent a beating would be in the “real world,” even if Millar’s script goes pretty far over the top with it. The first chapter may have been the strongest of the book, as you quickly realize that Dave’s grand vision was a pretty dumb idea.

And truly, the book amps things up from there in terms of the fantasy. Once he wakes from a long coma, Dave (in a funny but, again, random bit) decides to put the costume back on because he’s addicted to the rush. And he appears to have few leftover effects of the Alex Murphy-caliber beating except for a handy plate in his head that plays to his advantage at a few points later.

The aftermath of Kick-Ass' failed debut.
The aftermath of Kick-Ass’ failed debut.

While I felt Romita’s work got a little too extreme late in the book, he was stellar early on, making me cringe every time Dave would take a blow from an opponent.

Nick: Yeah, thanks to his injuries, Dave is granted a skeleton reinforced with surgical steel, his mild version of superpowers, I suppose. And, as Greg said, because he loves the rush, it isn’t long before Dave is back out on the streets. And that’s when things go WAY off the beaten path. After gaining a modicum of fame thanks to one successful foiled mugging, he sets out to take down a drug dealer that has been terrorizing a girl he has a crush on. He idiotically walks right into the dealer’s house, where he is of course surrounded by thugs with guns. No way a normal kid’s getting out of this, right? Cue one of the strangest and most unforgettable comic creations in recent years — Hit Girl.

The little tyke instantly cuts through everyone in her path, leaving puddles of blood and severed limbs in her wake. People may be largely familiar with the character now, but there’s something truly shocking and somewhat unsettling about seeing a small child dismembering people. That was the moment at which I realized that the “real world” concept was completely out the window and we were in for something different.

Greg: Indeed, Hit Girl was the breakout star of both the book and the film. Her initial appearance is mostly the same, and it’s no less shocking on the page than it was on the big screen. At that point, it seemed the book was going to settle into being a flat-out comedy, going for the most ridiculous parody comic imaginable.

Again, Romita’s work was spectacular, as he made Hit Girl’s rampage look like the most brutal Quintin Tarantino movie you’ve ever seen. That somehow helped the scene be even more shocking, as it’s not just a little girl killing people, but a little girl dismembering and decapitating people.

Kick-Ass and Hit Girl meet for the first time.
Kick-Ass and Hit Girl meet for the first time.

Nick: Yeah, the violence really is something to behold. Perhaps it seemed worse than it actually was because of Hit Girl’s young age, but it’s one of the hardest hitting comic sequences I’ve seen. Just gripping, whether it’s in a bad way or a good way. You’ve mentioned Romita a couple of times now, and It’s important to note that Kick-Ass had a little notoriety before it was ever released thanks to the participation of JRJR, something of a comic legend. I largely agree with you that Romita’s art changed somewhat over the course of the book, but I feel like that was intentional — as the book fell further and further into insanity and parody, Romita cranked up the kinetic frenzy of each panel. Your thoughts?

Greg: I definitely think it ramped up, but I didn’t feel the script was embracing the parody as much as the visuals were, if that makes sense. The book never really loses its self-seriousness enough to work as a violent parody in the way something like, say, Preacher or mid-’90s Lobo did.

As a result, a problem arises in that, like an extreme wrestling promotion, the effect of the violence is lost through all the saturation. If the reader is supposed to be disgusted or shocked, it loses impact by the latter half of the book, when you’ve already seen all the blood and guts imaginable. For me, I merely had a ho-hum reaction to most of the violence near the end of the book. At the risk of getting ahead of myself, the climactic battle in the book doesn’t really feel like a climax because, rather than rising action, it’s more like even-keel action throughout the book.

Nick: I actually agree somewhat with that, but we’ll get there. Anyway, after Hit Girl’s blood letting debut, we’re introduced to the book’s other major players — villain John Genovese, Kick-Ass’  fellow crimefighter Red Mist and Hit Girl’s partner and father, Big Daddy. The head of the Genovese crime family didn’t do much for me, as he was largely a generic crime boss, but I was a fan of Red Mist up until a big reveal that those who have seen the movie already are aware of.

As far as Big Daddy goes, I actually didn’t care much for him at first. It wasn’t until the sequence depicting the origin of he and Hit Girl that I came to feel for him and somewhat understand where he was coming from, even if I’d never dream of training a small daughter to be a superhero. (Or would I?!?) But then, we’re shown that the origin is actually a lie, swinging him back into the realm of unlikable.

Greg: I felt the book versions of both Big Daddy and Red Mist, whose secret identity if that of a kid named Chris, were utterly unlikable. The movie versions are a different animal we’ll address later, but any sympathy I had for Chris was undermined by a revelation halfway through the book that unveils his previous actions as a ruse.

I kind of feel like Dave Lizewski here when I try to watch "The Big Bang Theory."
For the next part of the interrogation, Red Mist forced Kick-Ass to watch Mojo Rawley matches.

As for Big Daddy … man. The book really caught me off guard with how different he was from the film version. This version of Big Daddy made a very selfish decision at an early age and, in the process, robbed his daughter of her childhood and put her life in danger for a cheap thrill. I saw nothing redeemable in this man. Pitiable, perhaps, but not redeemable. Only when Mindy/Hit Girl is being tortured do we really see the emotions of Big Daddy, but I couldn’t shake the feeling that he ultimately deserved his fate.

Nick: Although he was kind of an insane, overbearing douche, Hit Girl’s love for him was clear, no matter his faults. So, when he’s in mortal peril, you care. Maybe not for Big Daddy, but for Hit Girl. His death scene was one of the book’s most dramatic sequences, and it was enough to really make me feel Hit Girl’s pain as he lived his last moments. It was a terrible fate, and I’m not sure if he deserved it or not. Either way, Hit Girl certainly didn’t.

Greg: It was definitely a wonderfully rendered sequence by Romita and Millar. The revelations in that chapter, and the ultimate fate of Big Daddy, really gave the book a nihilistic edge. I remember wondering if everyone in the book was going to meet a similar fate!

Nick: In any event, the story is a largely straightforward one — Kick -Ass, Big daddy and Hit Girl set their sights on the Genovese family, and the family does likewise. Red Mist joins the trio, Big Daddy is struck down along the way and eventually RM is revealed to be a traitor, setting the stage for the book’s climax. You touched on this a bit earlier, but the climax was kind of, well, anticlimactic. The action scenes that preceded it were a bit better and there wasn’t much of a dramatic impact in seeing the heroes emerge victorious. It sounds like I’m not a fan of this book, I know, but I actually am. It just kind of meandered to the finish line in my opinion.

Greg: Yeah, and I think it’s really because of the way the story was structured. In a typical book, it may have felt like a great finishing sequence — it reminded me of an excellent Punisher issue I read as a kid where he finally took down a mob family he’d been chasing for several issues. But because the prior sequences were so amped-up, it felt predictable and unexciting to see Hit Girl and Kick-Ass calmly take out an entire mob family.

And a particularly over-the-top sequence also served to take me out of the scene before it began. Hit Girl was handed a container by her father before he died, with him instructing her to use it only in the case of an emergency. Before the big fight, she opens it and snorts its contents, which Dave refers to as cocaine. It was an eye-rolling scene that seemed like something out of a 14-year-old’s fan fiction.

The same "chemical compound" led to a lot of great '80s wrestling promos.
The same “chemical compound” led to a lot of great ’80s wrestling promos.

And as you mentioned, there are no ebbs and flows to the scene. Mindy and Dave just take Genovese and his minions apart. It also speaks to a larger issue I had with the book — the pacing.

Scenes tend to just happen with little or no transition. There are exceptions here and there — the chapter showing the origins of Big Daddy and Hit Girl, for instance. But especially as the finish line approaches, the book manages to feel rushed after feeling slow for a few issues. Both creators are more skilled than the poor transitions would indicate.

It was pretty satisfying, however, to see how easily Red Mist is taken down when he finally has to do something physical.

Nick: It really makes you wonder if the book was planned for more than 8 issues and had to switch gears quickly for whatever reason.

But yes, the takedown of Red Mist was BEAUTIFUL. Loved it. And I think that’s why, ultimately, I’m a fan of the book. It meanders at times and certainly has its low points, but the high points make up for it for me. I think the overall tone was something different from both creators after several Big 2 projects, and I was able to forgive its missteps because it did try so hard to be unexpected. I won’t say it’s an automatic buy for everyone, but I say at least give it a read and make your own mind up.

Greg: I guess now is as good a time as any to compare it to the film of the same name. The narratives are basically the same. The details, however, differ wildly in some ways. The film’s characters are imbued with a little more (or occasionally a lot more) humanity thanks to strong acting and a more focused tone. For instance, Dave’s relationship with Katie Deauxma is much more of a traditional romance in the film, as Katie is presented in a “Mean Girls” way in the comic. More importantly, Big Daddy and Red Mist are significantly changed by adjusting some of the twists of the book. The results, in my opinion, make for a more enjoyable experience on the big screen. I also felt the movie did a better job of making me care about Dave, Mindy, Big Daddy and the rest of the characters (short of Genovese and his minions, who remain one-note).

Director Matthew Vaughn took some of the self-seriousness out of the story, leaving a clear action-comedy with plenty of heart to spare, which I felt the book was lacking at times.

As a fan of the book, what did you make of the movie and some of the changes that were made?

Nick: It is the rare example of a movie taking its source material and improving on it in nearly every way. As you said, the characters have more clearly defined motivations, are more likable or hateable depending on which one the film is going for and, most importantly, the film identifies its over-the-top tone early on and never wavers from it. The climactic sequence in the book was a bit of a bore, but in the film it was hilarious, bloody fun.

Nicolas Cage and Chloe Grace Moretz breathed life into the characters of Big Daddy and Hit Girl.
Nic Cage and Chloe Moretz breathed life into the characters of Big Daddy and Hit Girl.

I’m a HUGE fan of the first film (not so much the second) and highly recommend it to anyone who likes films in the vein of The Expendables, where cheesy fun is the most important thing. But before we wrap it up, what are your final thoughts and recommendations on Kick-Ass, both the comic and film version?

Greg: I would recommend the film without qualification. At the very least, give it a chance and see if the humor and spectacle work for you. In my case, I really enjoyed the film, particularly the performances from Aaron Johnson, Chloe Grace Moretz (the film’s breakout star) and the wonderfully ridiculous Nicolas Cage.

As for the book, I have to say I can’t recommend it. There are high points and good aspects, for sure, but I’d encourage most people to watch the movie for a better version of the same story. The book just left me feeling hollow at the end, though it may work for others. The art is certainly special, even for someone who hasn’t always been a John Romita Jr. fan.

Nick: Well, that about does it for us this week. Be sure to be back next week, when we present the long-awaited edition of The Rundown, in which we’ll hit the biggest comics stories of the wonderful month known as Junejuly in order to make up for our absence last month.

Greg: Agree with Nick’s view on Kick-Ass? Mine? Neither? Let us know via email (GregP@placetobenation.com and NickD@placetobenation.com), through Twitter (@gphillips8652 and @nickduke87) or via the Place to Be Nation Facebook page.

Author: Greg Phillips and Nick Duke

Greg and Nick share two passions above all others, both of which involve people in spandex punching each other. Reporters by day, they also insist on being called "Two Dudes with Attitude" but can't decide who is Kevin Nash and who is Shawn Michaels.