It’s called Kick-Ass, but the character who really popped was Hit-Girl, the 11-year old killer sidekick to Big Daddy. Foul-mouthed and lethal, Hit-Girl was the true star of the show - which makes a nice change of pace for superhero sidekicks, who have been relegated to the short end of the stick for decades.
Sidekicks are nothing new in fiction - Gilgamesh had Enkidu, Achilles had Patroclus, Don Quixote had Sancho Panza - but the superhero sidekick is its own, strange animal, mostly because superhero sidekicks tend to be children. The ones that weren’t - Ebony White, sidekick to The Spirit, for instance - tended to be dehumanized racial caricatures who looked and acted like children.
Robin is the most famous teen sidekick, and rightfully so, as he’s the first. Dick Grayson became ward to Bruce Wayne as well as the partner to Batman; DC Comics introduced Robin in 1940 in an attempt to appeal more to the young readership of comics. Here was a POV character with whom kids could identify; being millionaire Bruce Wayne might be out of their reach, but being an orphan who lucked into a life of riches and excitement? That could happen to any dead end kid. And he offered Batman the opportunity to patiently outline the plot so young readers could better follow along.
Robin was a huge hit, doubling the sales of Batman comics. And so came a legion of imitators, few of whom were as well-created as the Boy Wonder. Most were just teen versions of the hero - Toro, flaming sidekick to the Human Torch, Sandy the Golden Boy, weirdly collared chum of the Sandman, Speedy, who was a lot like Green Arrow but wore red. Bucky, Captain America’s sidekick, was an exception but the biggest exception was Stripesy - the grown-up sidekick to The Star-Spangled Kid. They flipped the script on that one.
Even to readers in the 1940s, the golden age of teen sidekicks, something was weird about the fad. What kind of responsible adult brings a kid into dangerous crime-fighting situations? And what kind of an adult hangs around with kids all day anyway? The Dynamic Duo were already the butt of gay jokes long before Dr. Fredric Wertham came on the scene with his book, Seduction of the Innocent.
Wertham’s book and subsequent Congressional testimony about the danger of comic books are legendary in the history of pop culture, mostly for the way he destroyed EC Comics. But his labeling of Batman and Robin a gay duo may have been equally important; while that joke had existed, something about Wertham’s testimony made it stick in the popular consciousness. When teen sidekicks returned in the 1960s Silver Age, they weren’t quite the same.
DC Comics was the major label that had sidekicks; Bucky is one of the few sidekicks in the Marvel Universe (Rick Jones was sort of a serial sidekick, starting as the Hulk’s pal and moving on to Captain America and Captain Marvel, among others). In the Silver Age DC’s teen sidekicks found a level of autonomy, forming their own supergroup, the Teen Titans. These new sidekicks were again largely imitations of their mentors - Kid Flash, Aqualad, Wonder Girl - but they now had deeper personalities and stories.
They also didn’t have the name recognition of their elders, which meant the increasingly sophisticated writers in the comic book industry could use them to tell stories that would never fly with the main character. The Teen Titans were a highly soap operatic group that slept together and often had infights. Speedy developed a heroin habit. Robin was beaten savagely and then blown up by the Joker.
By the time Robin was killed - his fate decided in a phone poll by fans! - comics had entered not only a dark age but a self-reflexive age. Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns and Alan Moore’s Watchmen had begun the deconstruction of the genre, but it wasn’t until the year after Robin’s ignoble end that Bratpack completed the dissection by focusing on sidekicks. The Dark Knight Returns had touched on the subject with new Robin Carrie Kelly, but Moore left the topic all but untouched. Which was fine, because Rick Veitch, writer and artist of Bratpack, had more than enough to say.
Bratpack is the direct spiritual ancestor of Kick-Ass. Set in the fictional city of Slumberg, it’s about a world where a quartet of superheroes keep the peace. Each of the heroes has a teenage sidekick, and when Bratpack opens they’re recruiting new members... because the last batch were killed by villainous Doctor Blasphemy. Each member recruits to type: the mincing vigilante Midnight Mink wants a twink, while Judge Jury goes for an Aryan Nations fascist. Hot-to-trot Moon Mistress finds a new sidekick and immediately gets her breast implants, while lefty King Rad gets his sidekick hooked on drugs. It’s a scabrous critique of the corporate superhero complex - one that almost looks quaint when compared to modern horrorshows like DC’s New 52. Bratpack is dripping with drug abuse, fascist violence, pedophilia, deviant sexuality and a blazing anger at how superheroes - and their audience - had been fully corrupted.
Hit-Girl wouldn’t be out of place in Slumberg, but where Veitch’s Bratpackers are squalid, she’s a real hero. It’s a weird place to end up; where Veitch’s satire was intended to tear down things, Mark Millar’s satire sometimes seems a little too supportive. Hit-Girl should be a deconstruction, but she ends up being exactly the sort of character against which Veitch was railing.
The teen sidekick still exists in some form today. There will always be a Robin. But the modern sidekick comes at his or her job differently; no longer does the hero recruit a young ward but rather the young person, inspired by the antics of the superhero, takes up the mantle for him or herself. The hero is forced to work with the younger person for their own good - they can’t stop Kid Superhero from fighting crime, so they might as well train them to do it right.
Teen sidekicks tell us a lot about the state of comic books; where they were once included as audience identifiers now they’re just as likely to be audience distancers. The average comic book reader is well past the age of identifying with a 13 year old (although I worry some aren’t past the age of lusting for them). They still exist - there’s a Kid Flash in the New 52, for instance - but it seems like they are there as nods to history. And in a post-Hit-Girl world, can they ever really be the same?