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WRITER: Ed Brubaker
ARTIST: Sean Phillips
COLOR ARTIST: Elizabeth Breitweiser

There aren't a lot of sure bets in comics. Even the most prolific creators have mediocre spots on their résumés. That said, this team of Ed Brubaker, Sean Phillips and Elizabeth Breitweiser is an unstoppable force of pulpy, violent brilliance. Every time they collaborate, they knock it out of the park, and I mean every time. Whether it’s a 1940’s Hollywood murder mystery (The Fade Out), a noirish horror tale centered around a Lovecraftian cult (Fatale), or a spin on the clichés of crime fiction (Criminal), these three always have a fresh perspective on genre that is both unique and timeless. Their latest is a deconstruction of the “vigilante” and a spotlight on how unchecked masculinity can be poisonous and destructive.

The first issue begins with a bit of a bait-and-switch. A guy in a ski-mask blows away criminals and talks about how there’s no justice and that he’s cleaning up a corrupt society and blah blah blah… you’d forgive me for thinking that I’d picked up a Punisher book or something by Mark Millar since this thing reads like every macho revenge fantasy you’ve ever read. But then the narrator slows things down and flashes back to a simpler time in this psychopath’s life.

Dylan is your average, boring, middle class, white guy who hates his life. People walk all over him wherever he goes and he quietly lets them. As a 28-year-old grad student, most of his friends have already moved on to their “real” lives. His best friend, Kira (for whom he harbors a secret love) is sleeping with him, but dating his dickhead of a roommate, Mason. Unable to take it anymore, he decides to kill himself. After failing, spectacularly I must say, he realizes that he actually would like to live after all. That night, he is visited by a hideous shadow-like demon and that’s where -holy shit- this book takes a sharp veer into crazy-town. This demon claims to have saved him and demands Dylan take the life of a “bad” person once a month, every month, as long as he wants to live. At first, Dylan assumes this was a hallucination, but as it gets closer to the end of the month, he begins to grow sick and have more visions of this demon. On the edge of losing his mind, he begins hunting down and murdering people that he thinks qualify as “bad” enough. Is Dylan a crazy person? Almost certainly. Are his demons real or metaphorical? Can we trust anything we see through his eyes? I think those things are yet to be revealed.

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It’s a pretty dark setup, but Brubaker does try to throw in some humor. Most of the laughs come from the fact that Dylan is a terribly pathetic human being and pretty lousy at being a killer to boot. He has the brilliant idea of asking his pot dealer for a gun (his response: “So I can get shot over a bunch of pills and weed? No… fuck THAT.”) He considers running people over with a car until he realizes that he doesn’t know how to steal a car. He tries to kill a mobster, only to get his ass beat by one of the hookers he was trying to save in the first place. He’s constantly getting into situations where somebody like Charles Bronson or Bruce Willis would excel, only for them to backfire magnificently.

You kind of want to root for the guy, in spite of his thorough incompetence. Jealous and love-sick, all he wants is the dream girl he’s stuck in the friend-zone with. But when it comes down to it, he’s really just a self-centered sad-sack with no spine. He never makes it clear why she’s so special to him other than claiming to love her and thinking he deserves her more than her boyfriend. Not to mention he gives her zero reason to choose him over Mason, other than Mason’s kind of an asshole too. 

In fact, none of the characters in Kill or Be Killed are “likable” in a traditional sense. They all pretty much suck at life but that doesn’t make it one of those things where you scream “WHY WOULD YOU DO THAT?!” every time someone does something stupid. Dylan and Kira are so clearly defined, it’s pretty easy to understand why they’re fuck-ups.

Kira generally comes off as reasonable and likable until you remember that she’s cheating on her boyfriend with her boyfriend’s roommate who is also her best friend and justifying it as something she’ll “figure out”. As a healthy individual you might think to yourself, who would put their partner and their best friend through something like that and why would I want to read about it? In issue #3, Brubaker and Phillips give a concise, two-page window into her past that makes her feel like a real person rather than a love-interest-plot-mechanism. It completely explains why she has unconventional ideas about sex and relationships without blaming her or letting her off the hook either. No need for a whole issue to explain her entire backstory, just a handful of paragraphs and two full-page images that tell you everything you need to know. It’s truly masterful, economic storytelling and it represents an evolution in Brubaker and Phillips as storytellers.

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In their past collaborations, Phillips has almost always gone for a grid layout where the page is divided up into thirds and those sections are divided up into smaller panels. It’s a clean, easy-to-follow format, that’s easy on the eyes and easy for the reader to follow. That’s not by any means a discredit to Phillips, it’s a storytelling choice and it’s a style he and Brubaker have been cultivating for over a decade. But this time around they’ve gone huge and cinematic with widescreen images that incorporate the entire page, form the background of a page, or bleed over into other panels. There are pages that are one single beautiful image with a sidebar of narration that I could gawk at for ages. I mean, my god does this book look good. 

Breitweiser expands her palate here too with deep reds, oranges, and purples that go beyond the somewhat-muted style of her previous work with these guys. I especially love the bloody red that she uses for Dylan’s mask that cuts right through the more restrained parts of the book, giving his presence a bold look and tone. It’s clear this team was going for a different approach this time around, but it’s one that’s unmistakably Brubaker/Phillips/Breitweiser.

Creatively, Kill or be Killed has the potential to be this team’s best work yet. It’s gorgeous, it’s entertaining, and it’s a clever spin on a tired, formulaic narrative that has a habit of making comic books look like adolescent bullshit. In a world of comics constantly hammering home a message that standing up to injustice can be a violent fantasy, Kill or be Killed says “Whoa. You realize that makes you a crazy person, right?”

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Tags: Image Comics , Ed Brubaker , Sean Phillips