I thought that I had deep thoughts about comics in the past, and regular readers would probably have thought the same judging by my verbose reactions to pretty much everything. But I read a comic book series recently that evoked a reaction as extreme as the language and violence contained within it's covers. I read "Kick-Ass 2," and, well, I haven't had a series crawl deep inside of my gut like that in years, if not ever.
Not in a good way, no. I mean, "Kick-Ass 2" is about as far away from a book I would choose to read as you can get. I read the book for my podcast -- which gets a shout-out in my column's footer -- and my deeper thoughts about the story's content can be heard there when that episode goes up. No, I want to discuss something that's tangentially tied to "Kick-Ass 2," and it's something that reading the hyper-violent/shocking series by Mark Millar and John Romita Jr. made me realize.
With great power comes great responsibility.
Yeah, Spider-Man's catch phrase can be applicable to comic book creators too it turns out. What I realized is that "Kick-Ass 2" is what Mark Millar decided to release as his own unfiltered idea of what a comic should be. In my opinion, the comic is vulgar, casually misogynistic, gratuitously violent, and fleetingly homophobic. Millar could write about anything, and this is what he chose to write. This is what he decided to attach his incredibly high-profile name to, a name that draws readers in.
Before "Kick-Ass" lovers come at me with whatever the X-rated equivalent of a pitchfork is, please note that I said "in my opinion." Just because "Kick-Ass 2" was not for me doesn't mean it isn't for someone. Just because I don't agree with what Millar attaches his name to doesn't mean it's not a valid expression of his art. Not everything has to be for everyone, and trust me, I have plenty of reasons why that book is not for me. But again, this article isn't about that.
This article is about what writers choose to do with the creativity they possess, and how "Kick-Ass 2" made me realize that it's definitely a choice. My biggest problem with "Kick-Ass 2" wasn't the horrific acts contained therein, befitting the book's mature readers certification; my biggest problem was that the book didn't do enough, if anything, to challenge the reader or even question the actions and motivations therein.
The book is about teenage boys aimed at teenage boys; teenage boys fight teenage boys, use homophobic slurs, and treat girls as objects, and there are no characters in the book with the contextual authority to call any of them out on it. There's no one there to tell Dave Lizewski that Katie accepting his Facebook friend request does not grant him permission to objectify and stalk her (among other things). There's no one there to call Dave out on using the term "homo" to antagonize the main villain. Dave is written as what is widely considered to be the average American teenage boy. He views women as objects to be obtained and is down with using gay slurs, neither out of malice but both out of ignorance. As a teenage boy who grew up around teenage boys, yeah, it rings true. But isn't it sad that it rings true?
In "Kick-Ass 2," Millar pretty much takes a character that I'm sure a lot of comic book fans can relate to, and presents him warts-and-all as the hero of his own superhero story. But those warts are presented as just parts of his character, and those warts are never frozen and knocked off... okay, yeah, that metaphor got weird. My point is, Dave doesn't learn that women are human beings. The object of his desire is used only as a plot device to enrage him, and she is completely violated. The old women in refrigerators trope is firmly in play here.
People afraid that I'm about to launch into something similar to the old "violent video games cause mass shootings" argument, have no fear. I'm not. I don't think that reading "Kick-Ass 2" is going to damage anyone's brain. To Millar and Romita Jr.'s credit, the book is so over-the-top that it'd be nearly impossible for anyone to even recreate. And the book definitely ends on a fairly strong "violence is not the answer" message, at least that's what I got out of the final confrontation. But the problem is, "Kick-Ass 2" does nothing to change anyone's mind, something that comics can absolutely do.
Men who read the comic and didn't pick up on the fact that what happens to Katie halfway through the story happens in fiction with shocking frequency left still unaware. Readers who think it's okay to use harmful language that damages the gay community put down the book, hopped on the internet, and called something "gay." "Kick-Ass 2" didn't make anyone do that, but it sure didn't cause anyone to question their actions either.
This would have been infuriating to me had I read the series when it was originally published between 2010 and 2012, but it's even more infuriating when read during what feels like a social justice renaissance in the Big Two. Harper Rowe is defending her brother from bigoted bullies in Scott Snyder's "Batman." Kelly Sue DeConnick and Brian Wood are firmly stating that the term "superhero" knows no gender, thanks to their work on "Captain Marvel" and "X-Men." Marjorie Liu gave us a gay wedding in "Astonishing X-Men" and W. Haden Blackman and J.H. Williams II had Batwoman propose to her girlfriend. Brian Michael Bendis had Kitty Pryde deal with anti-Semitism in "All-New X-Men," in response to Rick Remender's ongoing social commentary about minority politics in "Uncanny Avengers." Matt Fraction had a Moloid named Tong come out as transgender, only to be unwaveringly accepted by her family and friends, and Gail Simone did the same for Barbara Gordon's roommate in "Batgirl." Kieron Gillen and Jamie McKelvie depicted Kate Bishop as a young woman confidently in control of her sex life in "Young Avengers."
The thing is, all of these writers have an audience. They could write stories that perpetuate the less-welcoming parts of our society and play into the dismissive and harmful tropes that have dominated media since media was invented. Instead, they all feel responsible to try to make the world a better place, and they use their power as comic book writers to write fantastic, entertaining stories about the type of people they want to see in the world. They write about heroes. They write stories for the comic book readers who have had to come out to their family, or had to accept that the gender they are doesn't match the body they were assigned at birth. They write stories for people who have had to stand up against bigoted comments and rise to meet conflicts that seemed bigger than them. And even if a reader has never experienced those specific circumstances, how can that reader not be at least a little influenced by those stories?
Reading "Kick-Ass 2" reminded me that not every comic strives to push its readers outside of their comfort zone and, hopefully, to a more accepting and thoughtful place. It also reminded me that it's not every writer's job to do that with every story. But now that I'm aware of it, I have a better idea of what I like.
Thanks "Kick-Ass," but you're not for me.
Brett White is a comedian living in New York City. He co-hosts the podcast Matt & Brett Love Comics and is a writer for the comedy podcast Left Handed Radio. His opinions can be consumed in bite-sized morsels on Twitter (@brettwhite).