Monday, 01 November 2010

Becoming Mark Millar My feelings about Mark Millar (with one notable exception) have been rehearsed often enough that you'll probably be surprised that I allowed my students to talk me into teaching Kick Ass (the book and film) in my American Manga courses.* I hadn't seen the film yet but knew from having read the book what to expect: a premise that's not nearly as clever as Millar thinks it is (ahem Nemesis ahem) would be presented as if it were a brilliant counterfactual (ahem Red Son ahem) only to be violated when the opportunity arose to "cleverly" twist the narrative with no regard for the logical or moral implications such a twist entailed (ahem The Ultimates ahem). A quick diagram of Kick Ass would work something like this: an unclever premise (what if superheroes were real?) presented as a brilliant counterfactual (they would regularly get their asses kicked! in extremely graphic ways! by amoral people!) whose logic would be violated at the first opportunity (superheroes do exist!) to "cleverly" twist the narrative (but they're sympathetic 10-year-old girls who like to say the word "cunt"!) with no regard for the logical (supereheroes can't exist! but they do!) or moral (Hit Girl is a sympathetic sociopath!) consequences such a twist entails As I've already discussed his fascination with the word "cunt" and he's since named his magazine after the old printing pun so I think it goes without saying that Hit Girl is Millar indulging in a spot of gender-bending narcissism with pedophiliac overtones and, as such, is telling me things about himself I frankly don't want to know. Think about it: Big Daddy and Hit Girl are clearly variations of Batman and Robin, itself a relationship of questionable provenance, only Millar turns the 10-year-old proxy for Robin in a female version of an idealized vision of himself. How is that not disturbing? But I digress: His premise is that superheroes can't exist in a world constructed with something resembling a realist ethos, and in order to prove this he has John Romita, Jr. draw the reason why with unflinching brutality. (This is because at our current historical moment, "realism" functions as a synonym for "gritty," but you already knew that.) For example: In the real world, panels like this argue, a superhero would be stabbed and then hit by a car and then all the blood in his body would fly from his wounds like so many kicked-in teeth. Such panels claim to be realist but are, in fact, hyper-stylized indulgences in violent juvenile fantasies ... which also happens to be a fairly accurate assessment of the entire book. All that said, you might be surprised to learn that I actually liked the film. Why? Compare the above to its on-screen equivalent: Notice a difference? The first and most obvious one is that the amount of blood on the pavement approximates the amount someone stabbed in the stomach would bleed. The second and more important difference is that Matthew Vaughn shoots the aftermath...
How a person becomes a body Since some complained that my lack of detailed anatomical knowledge or emergency room experience undermined my larger argument in my first Kick-Ass post, I thought I'd approach the same argument from another angle. If you'll recall, in that post I argued that Vaughn's shot selection is essentially critical of Millar and Romita, Jr.'s excessive lust for representing broken human bodies. To put it another way: in Millar and Romita's book, the characters aren't people so much as bodies to broken; whereas in Vaughn's film, the characters are sympathetic people with lives to be invested in. This dynamic, it turns out, also exists in scenes that don't involve the quantity of blood that a body can realistically bleed out. Consider the scene in which the titular hero, Dave Lizewski, teases the audience with a typical origin story: In the first panel, the dead mother is a headless body sprawled on the floor. The high angle of framing only allows for the reader to register the shock of her death via Lizewski's body language, as his face is so distant that the only visible emotional marker is his oblong, half-opened mouth. That's not a shot that's liable to build sympathy for a character; in point of fact, the almost omniscient perspective in the panel creates a sense of the narrator's distance from the events being narrated (despite said events being the death of his mother). The second panel transposes the reader from the reality (however coldly rendered) of a mother's death to the decidedly unreal world of superhero origin stories. Again, the distance of the reader from Lizewski places the emphasis on his body; his face is an open howl, but his vengence (such that it is) is communicated through the Liefeldian posturing. (I have a strong memory of Sunspot frequently being in an identical posture during Liefeld's run on New Mutants, but Google's being unforthcoming.) All of which is only to say that, in the book, grief is demonstrated not through facial expressions that might lead readers to sympathize with Lizewski, but with exaggerated postures that render him less of a person than a trope. Compare that to the same scene in the film. It opens with an establishing medium shot of the family at breakfast: Then zooms to the right and into a medium close-up of the dead mother: For narrative reasons the cereal occupies the center of the screen, but it also divides the scene between the mother's head and Lizewski's reaction to it falling to the table. His face is visible; his reaction is measurable. The woman at the table is not a headless anonymous thing called "Mother," but a woman who once was, but is no longer, a presence in a life. The camera then pans up into the next shot, which mirrors the one from the book: Before panning back down to the table: This shot is identical to the previous with the exception of the fact that the mother is missing. It then pans back...

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