A new collaboration between writer Ed Brubaker, artist Sean Phillips and colorist Elizabeth Breitweiser is always something to check out. Sleeper, Fatale, Criminal, and The Fade Out are all masterpieces of comic book storytelling and crime fiction. We can now add Kill or Be Killed to that list.
Kill or Be Killed, published by Image Comics, begins with a simple concept. A young, lonely, frustrated young man decides to become a vigilante. Issue One (this first volume collects the first four singles) begins in medias res before jumping back to reveal how our protagonist, Dylan, decided to pick up a gun and mask to take the law into his own hands. And here is where the twisting and subversion of the vigilante genre begin to take place. Dylan is in the deepest moments of depression, and one drunken night attempts suicide. He survives, it seems, by pure luck. However, in a moment brilliantly left ambiguous, a demonic figure appears to Dylan and explains that in surviving suicide, he now owes another life. This entity, disturbingly rendered as a very creepy shadow-like creature, makes him a deal: Find those who deserve to die and kill them. It’s a great set up and immediately creates a unique mythology. An added bonus is that we don’t even know if what Dylan saw is real or a product of his own disturbed psyche. It almost doesn’t matter; either explanation is frightening and filled with many possibilities.
As issue two begins, we start to learn more about Dylan and what led him to attempt suicide. He lives with his best friend, who is dating Kira, the love of Dylan’s life. He is also a drug user, abusing pills to self-medicate, and a failed and frustrated writer. (The bulk of narration is done in journal format.) He is a flawed person (everyone in the book is, actually) and he is far from your typical comic book vigilante. If I had to compare him to anyone, it would be the morally ambiguous Travis Bickle from Taxi Driver.
In issue three, Dylan decides on his target. After a visit to his mother’s house to retrieve an old family gun, he remembers remarks made by his childhood best friend that clearly indicates the kid was being molested by his older brother. Using social media, Dylan tracks the brother now and commits his first kill. It’s a great scene done with little fanfare, yet it is brutal and graphic in its simplicity.
Issue four at first takes a break from all the killing, with some scenes involving Dylan and Kira that heavily develop their very destructive and unhealthy relationship. But it’s not long before the story begins to unravel more. Detailing it too much would spoil some nice developments. We do learn a bit about Dylan’s father and their relationship, which adds to the character’s psyche. One image in particular also brings into question the demonic entity and Dylan’s sanity. This is mature, deep and dark writing from Ed Brubaker. It may be his most complex yet.
Art-wise, this is a gorgeous book. Sean Phillips expands his style a bit, playing with page layouts by using heavy amounts of white side bars with narration. The effect is fantastic, as it gives the reader a perfect “voice over” feeling. It’s cinematic and inventive. And of course, this being Phillips, his character drawings are realistic without being stiff. Facial expressions convey emotions; action and violence are abrupt and shocking.
The package would not be complete without the colors, and Breitweiser always works as a cinematographer of sorts, creating a noir-tinged atmosphere that lingers over every image. Everything looks mute and dark. The world looks weary and worn. It’s a perfect visual expression of the emotions conveyed by the story and an integral part of the storytelling.
If you are in anyway a fan of comics, don’t sleep on this book. Brubaker, Phillips and Breitweiser are a sequential art team on par with Moore/Gibbons and Lee/Kirby. This is a team at the peak of their creativity and this is a book that will be discussed and read for years to come.