In Mark Millar's original Kick-Ass, a 16-year-old high school student from Queens puts on a homemade superhero costume consisting of a wetsuit, ski mast, and a pair of boots. Dave Lizewski, who has no superpowers, sets out to protect his neighborhood from evil under the monicker "Kick-Ass."
Dave gets stabbed by a criminal and then stumbles into the street where he's hit by car on his first night patrolling. The point of Kick-Ass' origin story, Millar told me while chuckling, was to make it clear that the comic is grounded in the real world, where people don't fly, but they do sometimes carry knives and things get bloody.
As a writer, Millar's something of a polarizing figure in the comics world. There are those who swear by the foul-mouthed, hyperviolent action that's come to define his titles like Kick-Ass, Nemesis, and Wanted. But there are also people who feel as if Millar's work is problematic—particularly when it comes to his characterizations of people of color and women. Which is why the new Kick-Ass has raised some eyebrows: it follows the story of a 29-year-old, married black mother who comes to the conclusion that she too needs to become a hero.
When I spoke with Millar via Skype, he told me that the decision to focus on a completely new Kick-Ass was actually inspired by the way he ended the original series. After Dave leaves his life of vigilantism, his former partner Hit-Girl gives his old suit to a teenager and trains him to become a fighter. The kid, Millar explained, was just another nerdy white guy and he'd already told the story about the nerdy white guy coming into his own. It was time for something different.
"Just as a writer, I'm a little bit bored with variations on the same character," Millar said. "But also as I was traveling around for work, it hit me how white everything was. What I see in comics and what I see in movies is a lot different from what I see in the world."
Since Kick-Ass's publication in 2008, Millar's written two sequel volumes and the series spawned successful two film adaptations. In 2013, Millar announced that Kick-Ass 3 would be the last entry into the series—until this week when the writer answered his fans' prayers with the news that he and artist John Romita Jr. were teaming up again for the new title.
While the prospect of a black, female Kick-Ass has many fans buzzing with excitement, some took the news about the new series with a grain of salt, citing Millar's past characterizations of women and minorities. Put simply, Millar has a reputation for putting his female characters in unbelievably awful situations that, at times, can come off as gratuitous and unnecessarily grim.
In the original Kick-Ass, for example, there is a scene in which The Motherfucker, Kick-Ass's arch nemesis, tracks down Kick-Ass's girlfriend Katie, murders her father, and then proceeds to gang-rape her with his henchman. The moment is brutal and visceral even by Kick-Ass's standards and many readers felt as if it was a glorification of sexual violence that served no plot purpose other than to give male characters something to feel.
In an interview with The New Republic, Millar defended the scene, stating that the evil and brutality on the page were intentional and meant to convey just what kind of villain The Motherfucker was. Rape, Millar said, was the same type of horrible act as decapitation.
Comics Alliance head Laura Hudson disagreed and insisted that the gratuitousness of the scene was made that much worse by the fact that Millar had no first-hand experience with being the victim of sexual assault. “It’s using a trauma you don’t understand in a way whose implications you can’t understand, and then talking about it as though you’re doing the same thing as having someone’s head explode. You’re not," Hudson said. "Those two things are not equivalent, and if you don’t understand, you shouldn’t be writing rape scenes."
Millar's come under similar criticism for his treatment of characters of color, who some argue the writer portrays as two-dimensional and grounded in racist stereotypes. When I asked Millar about whether or not he, as a white man, could really write a story from the perspective of a black woman in a way that was authentic, he reasoned that as a writer interested in seeing different stories in the world, that was the job.
"I've written a good Superman story, but I'm not Kryptonian," he told me. "I've written Kick-Ass and it works, but I've never lived in New York, but I can write a story that's set there. If you're a writer and you just write your life experiences, then your body of work is going to be very narrow. You've got to experiment and if you fail, you learn from that."
Millar wouldn't tell me much about the new Kick-Ass other than the fact that, like her predecessor, her crimefighting will come along with all of the real-world stakes involved with taking the law into your own hands. He did say, though, that in the same way that he was able to see himself in Dave, readers will be able to see themselves in the new hero.
"The number one thing with Kick-Ass, no matter who's behind the mask, there's someone you can identify with," Millar said. "Dave Lizewski was just a good person and he felt like me at that age, so I could identify with him. And this woman is someone that we can identify with, too."