It’s curious how things such as economics or technology can affect the direction of art so profoundly. Take comics, for example. In America, the four-colour printing process was effectively limited by the quality of the pulp paper that was used for early full-colour 20th century comic books. Subtlety was not a strong feature but garish splashes worked wonderfully. Costumed superheroes, once invented, steadily drove most of the other genres to extinction.
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In the UK, however, smaller print-runs meant that colour was generally restricted to the covers. (Even the British reprints of American comics had to be re-rendered in black-and-white). This seemed to have an effect on the narrative of the British material, with darker, character-driven stories appearing on its pages. These days, the British market has all-but collapsed, with just the odd survivor wandering around like a Japanese soldier who hasn’t realised that the war is over (sometimes literally, in the case of Commando comics). Blame the usual technological suspects.
Technology and an ageing audience have, however, come to the aid of British comic creators and it is now perfectly plausible to be based in Britain and work for the big American publishers. In the 1990s, DC and Marvel found the likes of Fleetway to be very fertile ground and, with the growth and success of their mature lines such as Vertigo; they were able to offer a creative freedom to go with the large cheques. Many followed where Alan Moore had first led.
Naturally, most of the writers were also big superhero fans and were not averse to working the line of their childhood dreams. Mark Millar is from the west of Scotland but he found himself at home penning tales of Spider-Man. Kick-Ass proved a harder sell, apparently, although it’s no more transgressive than something like Preacher from – oh – 15 years ago now. And it had a major film deal before it had even hit the shelves.
The basic premise is one that could only be written by a superhero fan. What if someone attempted to be a real-life superhero and fight crime? It’s a bit disingenuous to say that the film deconstructs superhero mythology. The guy wouldn’t last five minutes in real life (as one of the geeks points out pretty early on in the film) so our hero has to suffer a major accident pretty early on that necessitates the input of a large amount of surgical metal and which also causes a lot of nerve damage. Bang! Look – no pain! It also becomes pretty clear, as events progress, that this is a conventional wham-bang superhero action film. It’s just that they don’t have much in the way of superpowers and we haven’t heard of any of them.
Dave Lizewski (Aaron Johnson, looking like an indie Tobey Maguire instead of the blond wimp in the comic) is fed up of getting mugged on his way home from the comic store so he orders a costume from e-bay and goes into action. Disaster… However, he tries again and eventually becomes a roaring success on YouTube, and gets his own social network fan-page with plenty of followers. This leads to him taking on a job that gets him way out of his depth as he discovers that an abusive boyfriend is a heavily-armed gangster with lots of heavily-armed friends.
He is only saved by the intervention of Hit Girl (a stunning performance from Chloë Grace Moretz), a lethal, foul-mouthed young girl who dispatches the villains with a wide variety of weapons. This is a very violent film, but here the blood is spilled to The Dickies’ rendition of the Banana Splits theme, with cartoon violence from lock, stock and Vaughn. A later extended incident is sound-tracked to a cover of Joan Jett’s Bad Reputation. It’s unfortunate that a joke is only funny once – and hang on a minute! – this very song got used for exactly the same purpose in Shrek! Did no-one catch this in post-production?
Back to the plot: Hit Girl’s dad is Big Daddy (Nicholas Cage rather than Shirley Crabtree, a joke which will be lost on most of the American audience), another highly trained and well-armed vigilante. Big Daddy, in a Dark Knight-ish costume, is conducting a personal vendetta against crime lord Frank D’Amico (Mark Strong). D’Amico’s business is drugs, the default comic-book career of non-superpowered villains. Well, if you’ve got superpowers you’re gonna go out and raid banks, aren’t you? Stands to reason… The story arc from there on is fairly traditional and it zips along in an entertaining fashion. If you leave your Derrida on the shelf and crack open a beer instead you’re going to have fun.
The comic does score over the film in one major respect. Nicolas Cage. Lines that bounce off the page just stumble from his lips and fall flat on their arse. To be fair, Hit Girl’s famous use of the ‘C’ word also packs more of a punch on the page, but on the whole the two media are so different that there is no point in picking one over the other. Personally I prefer the comic book, but people will take what suits them, which will be both in a lot of cases.
This probably also colours my favourite item from the multitude of extras in this is a double-disc set, which is a 20-minute documentary on the making of the comic. Mark Millar (possibly the nicest man in the industry), and artist John Romita Jr, take part, of course, but so also do Dean White and Tom Palmer, the colourist and the inker respectively. It’s a fascinating look at the making of the comic series and would make an excellent ‘how-to’ feature for any aspiring comic fan. This, along with a commentary from Matthew Vaughn, is on disc one.
Disc two is much less essential as it focuses on the making of the film – lots of interviews with everyone involved; behind-the-scenes shots of blue screens; the usual. The storyboard is also included, as well as a collection of film artwork and a photographic run-though of the costumes. It’s a pity they didn’t drop something and include the first issue of the comicbook instead, though.