Graphic Novel Review: KILL OR BE KILLED by Ed Brubaker & Sean Phillips
KILL OR BE KILLED, VOLUME 1 by Ed Brubaker, writer; Sean Phillips, artist and letterer; and Elizabeth Breitweiser, colorist. (Image Comics, January 2017) Trade paperback, 128 pages. ISBN #1534300287 / 9781534300286 Awards: Will Eisner Comic Industry Awards nominee for Best Continuing Series, Best Writer, Best Cover Artist, and Best Coloring. Collects Kill Or Be Killed Issues #1-4.
How did the creative team of writer Ed Brubaker and artist Sean Phillips, the modern masters of crime comics, follow up the highly engaging and cinematic THE FADE-OUT? They released KILL OR BE KILLED, an even more emotional and grim story more akin to art house noir films. The result is a brilliant work, worthy of a five-star rating as well as the many 2017 award nominations it received.
With this series, Brubaker takes on the angry vigilante genre, but rather than resort to standard tropes he puts a different spin on it. Main character Dylan, while self-absorbed, depressed, and despondent about the sorry state of humanity, is not the victim of some horrible street crime that resulted in the loss of loved ones or produced trauma that marred him for life. He stumbles into his vigilante role for entirely different reasons: you must kill or you will be killed.
Dylan is a 28-year old graduate student, unhappy with his academic standings, his employment prospects, and failing relationships (all afflictions of his own making). To complicate matters, his college roommate has appropriated Kira, who Dylan is secretly in love with but never had the nerve to pursue beyond friendship. She was his best friend and now she’s in a romantic relationship with someone else, and right under his nose.
That leads Dylan into a suicide attempt, climbing to the roof of his apartment building and stepping off. His fall is broken several times during the descent to the alley and he survives. Back in his apartment, Dylan sees an apparition that manifests as a dark demon demanding an eye for an eye – – – a bad person must die to make up for Dylan’s survival. Someone deserving of death must be dispatched of by Dylan, one per month and every month thereafter. To make his point, the demon breaks Dylan’s arm.
That is a phenomenal premise for a crime series.
What makes it even better is the first person narration by Dylan. Brubaker makes it seem so real, and takes readers straight into Dylan’s head. The story relates as if Dylan is telling the story directly to the reader, and sitting in a room making his confession, sharing his innermost thoughts and fears.
At first Dylan is reluctant to act on the demon’s directive but doubt and the pain and anguish that follows as he approaches the first deadline act to force his hand. Realizing that he hasn’t learned how to judge who is evil and who isn’t, he choses as his first victim someone related to a troubled friend from his past. As the story progresses, he begins to understand his mission and starts to take a twisted pleasure in being an angel of vengeance and justice. Each issue moves the narrative forward as Dylan learns how to plan, fight, use weapons, and gains more confidence to the point of being carelessly cocky. The first story arc ends on a bit of a cliff-hanger. This is just stage one of Dylan’s story.
Dylan reveals everything out of sequence, frequently correcting himself and apologizing for jumping ahead — similar to the way a nervous, disturbed person tells a story. Brubaker never indicates whether the introduction of the horror element (the demon) is the actual basis for Dylan’s current state of mind. Could he be driven mad by these events, and acting on his own initiative, thinking that others are compelling him in a manner similar to Son of Sam? Perhaps he broke his arm during that failed suicide attempt, and the only voices are the ones in his head. I love the uncertainty and look forward to learning where this is going.
There is a great supporting cast, and the first volume also devotes some time to their equally engaging back stories: Dylan’s father, Kira’s troubled upbringing, in particular.
Just as a classic film noir crime story is dependent on direction, setting, and the use of lighting – – KILL OR BE KILLED hits its’ precise atmosphere due to the art team. Phillip’s illustrations are super-expressive, painting a vivid portrait of events with facial expressions that enhance the narrative. Breitweiser’s work on colors and shading make the book glow. This is a true winner.