The movie Kick-Ass, based on the comic book of the same name, is ostensibly about a nerdy teenage boy who decides to take a stand against evil by trying to become a superhero. But the character who steals the show is purple-wigged and foul-mouthed vigilante, Hit Girl. Played by 13-year old Chloe Grace Moretz, Hit Girl is a pre-pubescent weapons expert and cold-blooded killer. True, Hit Girl has an alter ego, a conventionally adorable, pig-tailed schoolgirl named Mindy; but Mindy only exists to literally disarm the bad guys, allowing Hit Girl access where a more conventional (i.e. adult and male) hero might fail. Blood, gore, sudden death, and the C-word then fly.
Sound fun? Lots of people think so and Kick-Ass has done pretty decently at the box office, earning mostly positive reviews. Yet Kick-Ass also drew fire from disconcerted movie-goers like film critic Roger Ebert, who found the film "morally reprehensible." You could definitely conclude that this is one of those "my cup of tea/not my cup of tea" calls; after all, if the idea of a potty-mouthed girl killer creeps you out, you can always head next door to, say, How to Train Your Dragon. And, in fact, that may very well be what has happened. For months hyped as the next mega-blockbuster, the heir apparent to Avatar, Kick-Ass instead experienced a surprising 50% drop-off in box office last weekend and ended in relatively ignominious fifth place.
It can't be that Americans don't like heroines; if anything, I think we secretly crave them. Just think back on Kimberly Munley, the off-duty policewoman who helped bring down the Fort Hood gunman last November. For days, the story in all the news outlets was about how this "tough cookie" nicknamed "Mighty Mouse" by her colleagues managed to single-handedly subdue the killer, even after being shot in both legs and the wrist. Every woman I know, me included, absolutely loved the story; there was something so exciting, so satisfying about the idea of this nice lady, a devoted mother and good neighbor, someone basically kind of like us, who was still locked, loaded, and righteous when push came to shove. Even when it was later revealed it was probably her partner who actually brought the gunman down, this was barely a blip in the radar. As far as we were concerned, it didn't detract from Munley's genuine bravery... or more to the point, from our love of the heroine narrative.
In recent years, there seems to be a growing number of females in what has long been a male domain: comics and graphic novels. It's not just readers; there is also a growing number of girls and women who are creators, artists, writers, and publishers. At the recent MoCCA (Museum of Cartoon and Comic Art) Con held in Manhattan, I was struck by the huge number of girls and women present as vendors, artists and buyers: happily selling their zines, comics, t-shirts and graphic novels, filling bags with new books, getting autographs. Looking over the titles being sold that ranged from memoir to fantasy, young adult fiction to historical epic, I could tell that many featured female protagonists. Yet when I look back on the Wonder Woman and Batgirl of my youth, I'm sensing that the definition of what constitutes girl heroism is slightly different when it's written by females, for an audience that actively includes females. It can still be heightened, magical, intergalactic, and fantastical; they're still comics, after all. But just as often, heroism can be defined by a struggle that's emotional and psychological as well as physical. It more closely echoes real life and the fears, needs and desires of actual girls.
This week, my first graphic novel (written with playwright Laurence Klavan) is coming out. Called City of Spies, the book is set in the "Germantown" section of New York City in 1943, during the height of the Second World War. A ten-year old girl named Evelyn yearns to be a heroine; yet like the boy who cried wolf, she finds no one will believe her when she inadvertently falls on the trail of an actual spy ring. It's up to her and her best friend, Tony, to take on the Nazis and eventually save the world.
Sure, it's pure fantasy; yet along with the adventure is a portrait of a girl on a recognizable journey towards actualization and love. If we succeed, I hope Evelyn's tale will resonate not only with girls but even women who secretly still nurse a heroic ambition or two themselves.
Follow Susan Kim on Twitter: www.twitter.com/kimklavan