Writer Ed Brubaker and illustrator Sean Phillips have been one hell of a comic book duo since they found each other in the 90s. They started with a bizarre Batman book, found their crime comic style in Scene Of The Crime, and then began an ongoing collaboration on the award-winning graphic novel series Criminal and never looked back. Following the success of their Lovcraftian mystery Fatale, the duo signed an extraordinary deal with Image Comics that essentially granted them unlimited freedom to tell any story they wanted. Their first big release was the best-selling and brilliant Hollywood noir The Fade Out, and now their second comic, Kill Or Be Killed, has just finished its first four-issue story arc.
Their new book isn’t nearly as classy or elegant as the almost James Ellroy-esque The Fade Out. Instead they went for something a little more visceral and vicious. Kill Or Be Killed is the Brubaker/Phillips take on the vigilante genre, filled with all of the harsh violence and questionable morality that suggests. It is an attempt for the duo to deliver something a bit more on the potboiler side of their usual crime yarns, a nasty n’ violent tale filled with shocks n’ cliffhangers, the sort of thing that should be read with sweaty palms in the dark, with each issue designed to create a hunger for the next once the guilt of the last read subsides. Of course, Brubaker is too talented a writer and Phillips too painterly of an artist to make a pure sleaze comic. So they’ve made something of an art house exploitation film in comic book form, and thus far the lurid thrills have been glorious.
The tale told in Kill or Be Killed is about Dylan, a depressed college student who is something of a millennial Travis Bickle minus the PTSD. He lives a lonely life in New York attending college. His only real friend is a roommate who is dating Kira, the girl that Dylan secretly loves, which complicates things. Dylan reaches the end of his rope one night and decides to commit suicide. He leaps from a building, but changes his mind mid-fall and is saved by some clotheslines, except for a broken arm. Thank god. Everything will be alright, huh? Well, not so much. Dylan soon has a vision of a demon in his bathroom mirror who tells him that he owes the horned bastard his life and will have to kill someone for every additional month he walks the earth. Dylan shakes it off until he starts feeling incredibly ill, recovering only when he kills a mugger in self-defense.
Whew! Kill or Be Killed has a morbid set up, right? It gets more twisted. In order to satiate the demands of the new demon in his life, Dylan decides to become a vigilante and kill those who deserve it. It starts with a child abuser from the young man’s past, then extends out to the lowlifes he finds on the streets of New York. The increased confidence Dylan gets from all that righteous killing also leads to an unexpected and long awaited romance with Kira, though obviously that’s a bad idea for a variety of reasons. For now, Brubaker is very much in setup mode. Each issue has pushed the narrative inches forward and complicated the increasingly horrible situation a little further. It’s only by the end of the final issue of this run that Dylan finally gets the red ski mask that been plastered all the cover of the first issue as his vigilante uniform. It’s clear this nasty little tale has only just gotten started, and things can only get worse from here.
As usual, Brukbaker writes in the tersely naturalistic style of great crime novelists like Jim Thompson and Elmore Leonard. There’s rarely a word wasted, yet, vengeful demons aside, every character feels profoundly human. It’s a world of broken people who highlight the broken morality of Dylan’s vigilante journey. Aside from a few of the murder victims who only appear through Dylan’s cracked point of view, everyone in Kill or Be Killed has some damage and no one behaves perfectly. Dylan remains empathetic because his world and situation are so dire. His murderin’ ways might be graphic and shocking, but always come from some sort of perverted noble perspective. It makes for a disturbing read, with horror influences clearly slipping into the typical hardboiled crime world that Brubaker does so well.
Sean Phillps’ art follows suit, creating the Kill or Be Killed world draped in shadows even during daylight. His characters are realistic, but shrouded in darkness. The world feels dirty and worn down,the faces battered and wrinkled. Visually, the illustrator pulls readers into Dylan’s warped mind and broken morality, while Elizabeth Breitweiser’s elegant inks bathe the drawings in milky blacks and grays with splashes of muddy color. There’s a heavy Taxi Driver influence to the writing and art that doesn’t pale in comparison to that cinematic masterpiece of depression, murder, and madness. This is clearly an artistically driven story bound in blood, and wherever the team is going, they are sliding into areas deeper than cheap thrills. There’s something more here, and whether that will ultimately prove to be supernatural or psychological in nature, it’s clear Brubaker is building to some sort of cynical statement that will sting.
As always with the Brubaker/Phillips books, every issue comes with an essay outlining some sort of cinematic or literary influence to add to the experience. The first three essays are by the now unfortunately controversial Devin Faraci, writing about nasty revenge movies like Death Wish, Old Boy, and I Spit On Your Grave and the ways in which those pulp rides hint at deeper human truths in a manner that certainly feels true of Kill Or Be Killed itself. The third , by Jess Nevins, details the history of deals with the devil in literature and is either a hint of where the story is going or a sneaky misdirect. Either way, the movie nerd in me adores that Brubaker includes these essays in his comics, and they both enrich the experience and point comic readers in the direction of films they may never have touched otherwise (the art by Phillips inspired by the movies certainly don’t hurt either). The essays not only make the issues worth picking up individually (they are never published in the trade paperbacks), but speak to the artistry and care Brubaker takes in curating his crime comics. The guy clearly cares about delivering a satisfying, enthralling, intelligent, and nasty comic with each and every issue. He never disappoints.
It’s too early to tell how highly Kill Or Be Kill will rank alongside all of the excellent work Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips have delivered over the years, but it’s clear this will be one disturbing ride that won’t be easy to shake off. Their books feel like they could easily be adapted into other media without changing a beat and would be critically heralded. The Fade Out is a prestige HBO series just waiting to get awards and ratings. Kill Or Be Killed feels like the angry vigilante movie that’s been missing from screens in recent years, and in increasingly dire and cynical times, it just might be the comic on the stands we need more than any other, a sick punch to the gut by major comics talents who know how to get there through your head.