Mark Millar & John Romita Jnr. Kick-Ass 2 (2013)
Kick-Ass is of course the superhero comic that could almost have crossed over with Harvey Pekar's American Splendour without requiring significant amendments to the laws of either physics or biology: real people putting on masks and patrolling the streets in the name of law and order, as has been happening in the real world at least since Mexico's Super Barrio first applied wrestling holds to village politics. As will hopefully be obvious to anyone reading this, there's no such thing as super-strength, invulnerability, or a mutant healing factor outside the pages of comics, so real life superheroes are somewhat more likely to have the living shit kicked out of them than the colourful characters from which they draw inspiration; which is a significant element of Kick-Ass, vividly expressed in page after blood-soaked page of stomach-churning violence, broken bones, bruises, black eyes, people braining each other with iron bars, and a vast chasm dividing the ideal of truth, justice, and the American way from what really happens, as Battle-Guy observes in the heat of a riot:
What the Hell, man? I thought you said we'd be heroes if we showed up and fought the bad guys. I thought it'd be like a comic book with people cheering and stuff.
Mark Millar has recently come under fire for this. Kick-Ass goes too far, seems to be the general consensus of opinion, and I can see there's a thin line between telling this kind of story, and the pornography of repulsion that informs the sort of thing upon which I don't feel inclined to elaborate and which is in any case probably quite easy to find on the internet. Two specific scenes in Kick-Ass 2 have been singled out as transcending the requirements of the narrative for the sake of gratuitous brutality - both scenes which have eluded faithful reproduction in the movie adaptation because, as Millar himself rightly points out, it's a different medium and not everything translates. I won't describe the scenes in question, but in the context of the story, I'm not convinced that either is significantly more repulsive than anything else here; and one of them I would argue is actually made worse for the visual gag with which it is cinematically prefixed.
Routine beatings, murder, someone pushed off the top of a building, child abduction, shootings, and a guy hung in his prison cell - these things are shown, whilst of the two transgressive scenes, both are described entirely by threat and aftermath because it simply isn't necessary to go into detail. The horror is already implicit. I would rather not be so crass as to ask whether routine beatings, murder, someone pushed off the top of a building, child abduction, shootings, and a guy hung in his prison cell are therefore to be considered acceptable as entertainment, but it seems significant that the two highlighted offending scenes push additionally emotive buttons of misogyny and animal cruelty. I'd suggest that it is specifically because these particular strains of evil are invoked that Kick-Ass 2 refrains from showing the horrible details, which is surely significant given that neither writer nor artist have held back in other respects. In other words, it's repulsive because it's supposed to be repulsive, but not more so than it needs to be.
This issue puts me in mind of controversy surrounding the power electronics group Whitehouse. For those who have better things to do than read The Wire, Whitehouse were formed in the early 1980s. I came across them in an issue of Flowmotion fanzine and was immediately intrigued by their being the one group of whom I knew nothing, and who had been routinely ignored by the music press. Shops refused to stock their albums, and even Throbbing Gristle's habitually awkward Genesis P. Orridge seemed to hate them.
The listeners of these recordings will always enjoy the most intense reactions of all because these are the most violently repulsive records ever conceived, claimed the publicity, and so of course I just had to know what this was about. Postal orders were sent and my copy of the Erector album somehow made it through the mail without anyone being arrested. The cover was a plain pressing plant cardboard sleeve with the photocopied image of a male johnson glued to the front. The music comprised four tracks of ear-splitting noise, just headache inducing feedback with a screamed litany of sexually sadistic threats; and one of the tracks was called Shitfun, apparently in honour of romantic acts involving faeces.
Yes, I concluded, this probably is one of the most violently, repulsive records ever conceived. Older and wiser, Whitehouse now sound to me like a noisy art gallery installation, but at the time I was seriously freaked out and half considered sending the thing back. I had gone in search of the transgressive, and unfortunately I had found it, which, allowing for the fact that any sort of attempt to rationalise such extremes of artistic expression will almost certainly be bullshit, seemed to be the entire point of Whitehouse. Whitehouse, I decided, were about reaction rather than art, giving all those sick puppy fans what they want, then forcing them to accept that maybe they didn't really want it quite so bad as they thought in the first place. I wrote to William Bennett of the group sharing these thoughts, and he told me it seemed that I had understood him very well.
Years later I was given a VHS copy of Faces of Death, a banned documentary purportedly containing actual footage of executions and the like. The documentary was at the time popular amongst a certain herd of counter-cultural sheep sharing the same dreary obsessions with Charles Manson, Aleister Crowley, and the number 23, and it was one such bleating industrial buffoon who sent me the film in the assumption that I would be interested. However, I found the very idea repulsive and ended up giving the unwatched tape to some guy at work who had also heard about it.
'It's supposed to be really sick,' he grinned, tongue working its way around the edge of his mouth for no obvious reason.
He brought it back a day later. He looked pale and upset.
'It was really sick,' he muttered unhappily.
To at last return to the point, these things come to mind when I read Kick-Ass 2, and particularly when it is criticised as glorifying brutality. Simply, I don't believe it does. I believe it rubs that shit in the reader's face, because if they really want an exciting adventure full of killing and stabbing, then they probably need it rubbed in their face.
Of course, there's also the point that whilst Mark Millar probably shouldn't be regarded as a campaigner for good, clean family entertainment working the system from the inside, he clearly loves annoying people; and all that I've written may actually be so much bullshit and rationalisation in service of defending the indefensible; but the bottom line for me is that surely no-one could miss that Kick-Ass 2 is informed by a strong moral code, even a sense of social responsibility, and certainly more so than a great many other books full of caped types blowing chunks out of each other whilst reciting the usual sub-Disney homilies about everyone being different and how that's a good thing.
Finally, because I've somehow yet to mention it, the art is characteristically powerful to the point of being perfect, and Kick-Ass 2 is, for my money, a wonderful if harrowing thing; and better than the film, in my opinion.