The Comic in Retrospect

The movie version of Kick-Ass received so much press attention that the comic can feel like a footnote. Because the movie was optioned and produced before the series was even complete, it’s easy to feel like the source material is superfluous, and that’s increasingly how I felt before reading the comic. Reading it, however, I found a strange, flawed, but deeply personal story. But what does it mean to have a personal story when the guy who wrote it is either an extremely canny self promoter or a delusional egomaniac?

First off, Kick-Ass generally works. It’s a fairly strong character-based story, but one that at no time is as radical or innovative as Millar seems to think it is. Alan Moore cracked on Geoff Johns quite a bit for retreading his ideas with Blackest Night, but it’s this series that really feels like a retread of those late ’80s grim and gritty super-hero comics that Moore and Miller did, going back to the old trope of “what would superheroes be like in the real world?” Of course, that reality lasts for about an issue. By the end, after several super-hero team-ups, we’re firmly in an elevated genre world. That undermines the series’s basic conceit, but it also functions in an interesting way as Millar exploring his own fame and success, to suddenly find himself not being a pretender to star status but actually being a star.

Reading the series in this way requires an understanding of the extra-textual Mark Millar persona. I don’t know Millar and have never met him, but from his interviews and online persona, I imagine him as an ambitious fame-hungry guy who got a taste of success and star power in the early part of the new millennium and has been rolling to bigger and bigger things ever since, focusing increasingly on movies and creating comics that can easily transition to cinema.

His weaker works suffered from feeling a bit generic; there, his authorial voice was subsumed to the general needs of the Marvel Universe in a way they never were on The Ultimates. I didn’t want to read about the Marvel U. version of Iron Man or Captain America after reading about the Ultimate versions. To me, those are the definitive takes on those characters, and it’s telling that the films have drawn so heavily on Millar’s work. The Ultimates is a really strong distillation of everything that works about the Avengers concept, and it has interesting things to say about fame and media culture, which is the unifying theme that ties together most of Millar’s signature works.

The Authority is the first riff on the super-hero as rock star, and The Ultimates escalates it to the super-hero as tabloid fixture, as modern celebrity. But both of those works are written solely from the perspective of cool insiders, so they may be aspirational texts, but there is no reader surrogate. It’s key to note that all The Authority and The Ultimates characters are sexy, powerful, and famous beyond their costumes, they don’t have to work to win peoples’ admiration — it’s inherent to their image.

Kick-Ass flips the perspective on this, showing a character who’s spent his life admiring those kind of characters (and in some cases, those exact characters to enhance the “reality” of the book) and decides that the best way to become famous and beloved is to become a super-hero. For Millar, being a super-hero isn’t about being a symbol of humanity’s best potential as a species (as it is for Grant Morrison); it’s about gaining fame, power, and notoriety. There’s this fixation on MySpace friends and critical heat throughout, and when Dave hangs up the mask early in the book, what brings him out of retirement is not the need to do good, but the desire to one up Red Mist and get his headlines back.

So the whole thing becomes this strange, petty quest of one self-perceived loser to gain social capital in the form of fame. He may pursue a relationship with Katie, but the love that he really wants is not a meaningful emotional connection with one person but the diluted adoration of the masses. Either way, he’s never able to put his true self out there, either to the public or Katie. It’s like he doesn’t have the self-confidence to let his true self be loved, so he needs to hide behind a facade.

The whole pretending-to-be-gay subplot may seem like Millar’s excuse to make a bunch of gay jokes, but it seems to be key to the work in many ways. In Kick-Ass, Dave discovers how a mask makes it easier to do things he never could as himself. The gay persona is another mask, and as the work goes on, we see less and less of the real “Dave.” He fades into this progression of false identities, playing a part to satisfy a particular audience who needs to see him in a particular way.

This has great resonance with the idea of fame itself. The person who becomes famous or beloved by the masses isn’t a real person but a construct built by PR people and the media to be an accessible, relatable presence for people. Incidents like Tiger Woods’s recent problems are interesting because of the disparity between the “real” person and the self that he presented to the world.

Dave’s status as a fanboy is emphasized throughout, and the whole work often quite literally deals with the idea of the super-hero as adolescent male power fantasy. Only this time, Dave is taking the very thing that makes him a social exile, his comics habit and nerdiness, and turning it into an asset, showing up the people who socially ostracized him by becoming something cooler and more loved than them, Kick-Ass.

And you can easily equate the idea of a “real” super-hero jumping off the comics page with Millar’s own comics being turned into movies. What was once this niche hobby relegated to dingy shops is now front page news, and comics like Wanted or Kick-Ass are household names. Millar himself is a media figure, and he feels like he’s blazing the trail of taking these books to larger and larger audiences.

So it’s appropriate that Kick-Ass is turned into a movie right off the comics page, since it’s taking the Kick-Ass idea and realizing it into a star-studded big budget blockbuster. Even within the comic, there’s meta resonance that Big Daddy, the seemingly ultra-cool impeccable assassin, the biggest “star” in the universe, is funding his missions by selling old back issues of super-hero comics. This comes mere months after Nic Cage, the actor portraying him in the film, is forced to sell his own back issues to get out of debt. The meta implication is that Millar and comics are so cool that even the bad-ass hero or ultra-popular movie star loves them — that deep down all the cool people are really just fanboys.

So the entire book plays as this strange mirror version of Millar’s own fame and increasing media profile; he’s got the MySpace friends now, he’s hanging out with celebrities, he’s been taken out of his regular life and become something more.

One thing I haven’t really seen mentioned in conjunction with the book is how structurally similar it is to Wanted. Both books chronicle the story of a loser who gets pulled out of his ordinary life into a world of excitement and adventure. That’s a pretty basic story structure, but there’s a lot of resonances, particularly the self-hatred the protagonist feels. Is Millar writing about this because it’s how he feels about himself? Or is it a calculated way to appeal to the fanboys who comprise his target demographic? The cynical reader could argue that Millar is playing the part of the “fanboy made good” as a way to solidify his media empire and ensure strong support for whatever ventures he embarks on next.

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