“Kick-Ass 3” #1 by Mark Millar and John Romita Jr. begins the final story arc of their ironic epic starring Dave Lizewski, a.k.a Kick-Ass, who is not so much anti-hero and loser-hero. It’s a strong first chapter, well-plotted and surprisingly bloodless for a title notorious for its gruesome violence.
The story picks up directly after the end of “Kick-Ass 2,” with Hit-Girl still in the clink. Over seven panels, Millar uses Hit-Girl’s letter to Kick-Ass to bring readers up to date. The letter is part self-justifying manifesto, part rescue request, rendered in Hit-Girl’s voice, a combination of earnest school-girl, bloodthirsty violence and foul-mouthed self-righteousness.
The ensuing rescue operation amounts to a five-page-long joke, with a punchline of “all talk, no action, embarrassingly so.” It’s deliberately cringe-inducing and well-executed. It’s also a reminder of just how merciless Mark Millar is with his main character.
Millar has mentioned in interviews that the character of Kick-Ass is based partially on himself and his teenage friends. Despite this or because of it, every quirk of Dave’s neurotic, self-aggrandizing, selfish, destructive and delusional behavior is exposed to the reader. It’s like reading a Philip Roth novel, where the excesses and of the white male main character are both mocked and celebrated, except that instead of a sex-obsessed Jewish bachelor, Millar instead simultaneously excoriates and dignifies the self-important, superheroes-obsessed teenage geek.
After the failure to jail-break Hit-Girl, the rest of “Kick-Ass 3” #1 has Dave going around town, posing. There isn’t a better word for it. He first milks the orphan connection to Batman and then he plays responsible father figure to the team members living like parasites off Hit-Girl’s money. Maddeningly, Kick-Ass seems unaffected by the actual tragedies in his life and remains obsessed with the idea of being a hero (instead of being obsessed with, you know, actually doing some good), until he runs into a real problem on the final-page cliffhanger. Dave’s choices in “Kick-Ass 3” #1 are unlikely to endear him to new or even returning readers, but it’s a nice bit of complex characterization.
“Kick-Ass” has been alternately celebrated and criticized for its offensive elements, but its outrageousness has limited scope. Millar’s dynamic with his audience is like stand-up comedy, where almost nothing is off-limits for a laugh, but it’s worth repeating that just because a comic incites a response doesn’t mean that it’s revolutionary.
A case in point is the character of Hit-Girl. She is far more intelligent and capable with violence than any dude in the cast, but that simple inversion does not suffice to make her an actually progressive character. Her costume design alone makes that conclusion obvious. Millar’s characters and his dialogue play against reader expectations, and enjoyably so, but instead of being truly subversive, they reinforce the status quo. Millar’s brand of humor relies heavily on the continued solidity of stereotypes for its bite. It depends on the shock value of incongruity, like men in drag. It’s a little too easy and lazy. Despite Millar’s substantial powers of observation and deft psychological brutality, “Kick-Ass 3” feels limited by its lack of ambition and risks. It falls short of being serious satire, which is more deeply critical of its subject matter.
This isn’t to entirely discount Millar and Romita’s gifts. “Kick-Ass 3” #1 is engaging and remarkably friendly to new readers without resorting to information dumps. Romita’s artwork is strong in both action scenes and quieter scenes, and Millar’s plotting and prose are distinctive and vivid. It’s a safe bet to say that readers who have enjoyed previous installments of “Kick-Ass” will also enjoy this new chapter.