Graphic Novel Review: Kill or be Killed, Vol. 1

The duo of Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips, seemingly given carte blanche to write and create any book they want for Image Comics, have carved out a unique niche for themselves in the modern day comics industry. While TV and movie screens are happily rehashing and rejiggering superhero tales from the story vaults of the big two, DC and Marvel, Brubaker and Phillips are both prolific artists who have never strayed far away from the crime genre.

Whether it is a Lovecraftian mystery (Fatale, 2012-2014), an Ellroy-esque noir (The Fade Out, 2014-2016), or straight up hard-boiled tale (Criminal, 2007-2016), the duo meld the aesthetics of the crime narrative with their own unique way of telling a story.  Their most recent collaboration, Kill or be Killed (2016-ongoing), is a vigilante thriller in the vein of ‘70s classics like Taxi Driver or Death Wish. However, those expecting a gore-filled violent epic wherein white hats kill black hats while offering up witty comic remarks will be sorely disappointed.

Dylan is a lonely, down-on-his-luck twenty-something whose lack of a social life and serious self esteem issues have turned him into a mental and emotional wreck. Like any true millennial, money troubles and family issues have left him feeling slightly unmoored from the real world. The book opens in medias res with an execution of a nameless figure, but Dylan is no professional assassin and a number of cock-ups almost leaves him dead. Dylan looks at killing as a chore: utilizing shortcuts like Facebook to track down his victims and donning on a makeshift costume like some damaged superhero when hunting his prey.

A consummate storyteller, Brubaker weaves elements of Faust into the mix, with the appearance of a shadow demon that forces our vigilante anti-hero to kill “bad people” after saving Dylan’s life from a comically ironic suicide attempt.  Of course, the definition of “bad” is subjective, and Dylan’s wrestling with the idea of what makes a person bad enough to warrant killing them is the central conflict in the story. This makes the first volume of the graphic novel not just an origin story for the protagonist, but also an exploration into the psyche of a very damaged and possibly deranged man.

Kills draw cringes and, as a credit to Phillips’ art, the blood spilled in the story seems to stain the pages as crimson blotches or mercury orange stippling. Phillips devotes whole panels to showcasing viscous gunshot wounds and carmine-colored abrasions, helping to putt the graphic in graphic novel. Aside from those elements, the intermittent shifts in line and coloring work were jarring in all the right ways; the hard lines and inky black shadows warp into a Frazetta-style fantasy tableaux.

Reading the comic, it’s not too difficult to infer from Kill or be Killed a meta-commentary on the current political zeitgeist. Phillips’ artwork and Brubaker’s voiceover captions paint a world where everyone is tainted with sin. It’s also hard not to shudder at just how far our world has fallen, and sigh a little bit that it can’t be rescued by selling our services to the devil, wiping away the scum of the earth with just one click of a trigger.

The paperback version of Kill or be Killed,Vol. 1 was released in January.