On its most basic level this is the story of a school student who, inspired by his comics, decides to dress up as a superhero and go out into the city and make a difference. But Kick-Ass is much more than that, although it may be a far-fetched story it still manages to capture a reality which makes the central character one easy to identify with.
Putting on a costume is a chance for David to stand out from the crowd and stamp his influence on the world, he considers himself to be a non-entity as he lives his life at school generally unnoticed and overlooked. There's no way that his alter-ego can slip under the radar though, and the genius of this book is how it constantly grounds itself in reality. After stepping out from the shadows to reprimand a gang of hooligans David doesn't engage in a series of ninja style moves which leave his opponents beaten - he is mocked, beaten up and left for dead. Instead of basking in the glory of vigilante justice he spends weeks in hospital and cries for hours thinking about the medical bill his exploits have left his dad with.
It's easy to identify with Dave as he narrates events, he shares his thoughts and regrets with us. We aren't just seeing the story, we're hearing his account of things and understanding his motives to the extent that you feel as though you're living out the whole saga along with him.
This is a comic for a modern age, it's full of modern cultural references such as 'Star Wars Kid' and of course various comic book characters. It also mirrors modern life with its frequent references to online social networking sites such as MySpace and Youtube. In fact, Kick-Ass becomes a cult phenomenon after a chance encounter with local thugs is captured on video by onlookers and uploaded to YouTube.
As it turns out, David isn't the only masked vigilante in town - and it's only a matter of time before he crosses paths with Hit Girl and Big Daddy - in many ways the real deal. Perhaps less heroic is Red Mist, another have-a-go costumed superhero with similar interests, but David has an identity Crisis when the new superhero starts to get all the media attention. We get to understand his desire to be Kick-Ass, it's given his life a new energy which has spilled into his normal life - he becomes more confident, he interacts better with people and evens becomes close to the hottest girl at school - but that's because everyone assumes he's a rent boy and she finds the gay David interesting and non-threatening! But by seeing how enriched his life is with Kick-Ass, we see how he can't bring himself to put the suit away and call it a day, something he sums up perfectly when he observes that "Dave Lizewski had eight friends on MySpace and Kick-Ass had thousands".
I read Kick-Ass after seeing the film and it's interesting to see how faithful the film was to the book, but there are still enough differences to make this feel quite different in places. The film successfully made efforts to look visually cool and also managed to inject a great emotional edge, the book instead feels less hyperkinetic and more gritty. The two complement each other perfectly and both have characters which defy logic to be incredibly believable. There are lots of superhero comics out there, but it's rare that a costumed crime fighter is shown involved with violence which has real consequences. Here there is lots of violence but it isn't mindless cartoon punches, there's real pain and moments which will have massive repercussions. The book has some great humour (I chuckled to myself seeing "tunk" make an appearance towards the end) and David's friends have the same sort of conversations I had as a teen (and still have now in my early thirties!).
The artwork in Kick-Ass is real enough to bring everything to life but slightly 'cartoony' to give it a unique style. Detail is great and the gangly limbs of Kick-Ass hint at the scrawny kids beneath the suit. The characterisations are perfect with faces conveying the thoughts and feelings of the full ensemble well. This hardback compilation of the original 8 books also features some displays of alternative cover art from the original releases.
In a nutshell: In the end he might not have been a superhero - but Dave did make a difference, the world was a little different and a bit more interesting because of him. Kick-Ass is ultimately a story about an 'average' kid who became an inspiration. Perhaps he was a super hero after all.