Brubaker and Phillips are at it again. One of comics’ most reliable writer/artist teams, to the point where even their lesser projects turn out to be pretty readable, is back with a brand new title which tackles an all-new subject for them. This time around it’s the concept of vigilantism and what makes an average citizen decide to take the law into their own hands. While this may not be a new concept, the creators grounded, character-driven approach makes for a believable and compelling read.
The volume starts off with a tense action sequence to show us that its protagonist, Dylan, will eventually become really good at killing people before flashing back to show us how he got that way. We learn that he’s an isolated person who has suffered from depression and has tried to kill himself before. That attempt didn’t take and only served to get him kicked out of college for a while. Now he’s a twenty-eight-year-old grad student struggling to complete his classes with a roommate, Mason, who is perpetrating the (unintentional to him at least) dick move of dating Dylan’s childhood friend Kira.
While this situation is awkward, it’s still something Dylan can deal with. The problems start when he and Kira start getting closer in a way that our protagonist finds out to be nothing more than misguided pity. That’s when Dylan tries to kill himself again by throwing himself from the roof of his apartment building… only to survive the attempt. Though this grants him a newfound appreciation of life, he soon finds out that a darker force was at work here. Dylan is subsequently visited by a demon who states that the student is now living on borrowed time and must now kill one person a month in order to stay alive.
Now, you might be thinking that this is something of a spoiler. There’s nothing on the back to suggest that there’s a supernatural angle to this series, so the fact that there’s a demon pressing our protagonist into killing other people would normally sound like the kind of surprise that a creator would spring on you in order to reel you in further to the story. That may have been Brubaker’s intent but to me it reads to me like a double-fakeout. On a surface read it’s clearly intended to propel the book into horror/fantasy territory, possibly broadening the title’s appeal beyond those would normally be interested in a grounded crime thriller. However, the demon doesn’t do anything that can be explained in a rational way. Even the broken arm Dylan gets could’ve come from his suicide attempt while his failure to notice it at first is a result of him coming off of his adrenaline high. Plus, there’s a very big hint that this demon is all in his head at the end of the volume as well.
This isn’t a problem as far as I’m concerned because it feeds into the unstable loner characterization that Brubaker lays out extremely well here. Before demonic possession or mental illness come into play, we see Dylan as a very unhappy person, unable to connect with other people, and in the process of being isolated from the one person he feels truly understands him. Toss in a broken arm, a real nasty case of the flu that includes hallucinations, and a mugging, it’s not surprising to see Dylan give into the demands of this “demon” and decide to start killing bad people.
Ah, but how exactly does one person go about doing that? That’s part of the fun, such as it is, of this series as it readily acknowledges that finding bad guys to kill is a lot harder than the movies, TV, and comics make it appear. First comes getting a gun, then comes actually deciding on who to kill. While it would appear that Dylan’s first victim certainly had it coming, there’s a lot of uncertainty generated from the fact that he’s not the most reliable of narrators. That first one also turns out to be the easiest as his subsequent kill really makes you wonder how he’s going to keep finding the “right” people to kill, let alone get good at it.
We also get to see the toll it takes on his personal life. Dylan makes it clear that having a double life is exhausting, particularly when the complications in his relationship with Kira start to pile up. It’s not entirely unexpected that things play out in the way they do, given what we learn about their history together. Still, it’s interesting and even a little amusing to see how Dylan notes how exhausting his new double life is and considers doing speed because he clearly needs to experience more bad ideas now.
Regardless of whether or not the demon in Dylan’s life turns out to be real, Phillips makes sure that it doesn’t look out of place in his story. I’ve talked before about how his off-kilter style is versatile enough to work well with depicting, and mixing, any given genre and that’s true here as well. Phillips also deserves special mention for how he manages the body language of the characters here — Dylan in particular. You really get a sense of the character’s awkwardness and isolation just by how he looks on the page. We also get to see the artist tackle some of Dylan’s dad’s sci-fi/fantasy porn briefly in this volume, and while it may seem like a salacious detail there’s a bit more to it in the end and Phillips’ artistry helps them rise above that.
“Kill or be Killed” is off to a strong start with it’s in-depth look at what makes a vigilante tick. Phillips’ visuals are as strong as ever, while Brubaker does some careful yet constantly interesting characterization of his protagonist. It all leaves me wanting more because while we know that Dylan gets better at what he does, there’s no indication as to what’s going to happen with him after that. If you’re a fan of both creators then you likely already have this volume. That said, “Kill or be Killed” is good enough so far that I hope it serves to further broaden their audience.