Today, Spencer and Ryan D. are discussing Kill Or Be Killed 1, originally released August 3rd, 2016.
Spencer: Maybe I’m just sheltered, but even at 29 years of age, I have trouble wrapping my head around the concept of people killing other people. I obviously understand that it happens, but there’s a difference between accepting that and actually being able to put yourself in the headspace to understand being capable of such a thing. As much as I may dream of justice in such situations, I’m equally baffled by the people who are actually able to fight for it, be they police or simply someone out for revenge; I can’t even imagine taking a life to save my own, much less purposely killing someone, no matter how evil they are. What pushes somebody to that point, allows them to take such a drastic step? That’s one of the primary questions explored in Ed Brubaker, Sean Phillips, and Elizabeth Breitweizer’s newest collaboration, Kill or be Killed, which opens with its protagonist, Dylan, working as a Punisher-esque vigilante, before rewinding the clock to see how he became one in the first place.
Spoiler alert: the answer’s right in the title. Dylan, a down-on-his-luck student at NYU, attempts to kill himself, only to realize at the last second that he wants to live. After miraculously surviving his attempt, he’s seemingly visited by a demon who informs Dylan that his second lease on life comes with a catch: Dylan must kill one “bad person” a month, or else he himself will die.
While Dylan’s attempts to explain away/ignore the supernatural ultimatum and his eventual decision to murder someone are the grand climax of the issue, what I find most intriguing is actually the lead-up to Dylan’s suicide attempt. Throughout this portion of the story Brubaker establishes Dylan as a flawed and recognizable figure, and there’s some real complexity to his predicament; the love triangle alone is screwed up enough to fuel an entire series. I want to delve more into Dylan’s insecurities, learn more about his past (why is he living off an inheritance? What’s the story behind his first suicide attempt?), and, of course, I want to know what exactly Kira’s deal is!
That’s not to say, of course, that there aren’t complexities I enjoy when it comes to Dylan’s decision to kill as well.
The relief Dylan finally feels when he gives in is surprisingly relatable (sometimes the biggest relief simply comes from making a decision, even if it’s a terrible one), and even if it can be summed up in a statement as pithy as “kill or be killed,” I love that Dylan’s decision stems from his desire to live — a clear consequence of his earlier actions.
What disappoints me a bit about this aspect of Kill or be Killed, then, is the demon’s involvement in Dylan’s decision. I have no problem with the creative team bringing the supernatural into their story, I just feel like this creature distracts from an otherwise very personal story. It isn’t really Dylan’s choices in life that push him to kill, but intervention from a being otherwise entirely unrelated to the story at hand — even the demon’s command to kill “bad people” robs us a chance to see Dylan come to that conclusion on his own. Wouldn’t it be more interesting to see Dylan convince himself it’s okay to kill a bad person, instead of being told that those are the people it’s okay to kill?
(Now, Brubaker does leave open the possibility that this creature is all in Dylan’s head, meaning that the ultimatum could simply be Dylan’s subconscious motivating him. I’m curious to see if this is the case — and keeping an open mind just in case — but even if I run with that theory, I don’t exactly see how Dylan’s failed suicide attempt would lead him to want to kill, even subconsciously, at least not yet.)
The opening sequence, where Dylan has already become a vigilante, is fascinating in its own right, albeit in a more “morally complex” way. Dylan not only justifies his decisions, but casts blame on the readers for judging him for it, using some devastatingly familiar evidence to support his point (namely, that these people deserve to die, and that there’s no real hope or justice in the world).
It’s hard to argue with Dylan’s motivation, and that’s scary.
Yet, I’d still like to argue just a little bit. In light of all those things Dylan mentions, I know I, more than ever, can’t give up hope. In light of all those things, I’m more uncomfortable seeing people use guns and violence to solve their problems than ever before. It’s easy to make a connection between Dylan’s quest and the revenge porn of Death Wish that Devin Faraci writes about in the issue’s backmatter, and while Dylan’s targets may be “acceptable,” it’s easy to imagine that, if someone else (say, a Trump supporter) was given the same “kill or be killed” choice, their definition of a “bad person” would be far less charitable.
That would be enough to turn me off of Kill or be Killed if the creative team was glorifying Dylan’s violence, but I don’t think that’s the case at all. Brubaker himself mentions in the afterward that this is a character study, and exploring what can push a person to this kind of violence could actually be quite useful in learning how to stop it. I didn’t necessarily love every decision made in this issue, but after their work in the excellent The Fade Out, I trust Brubaker, Phillips, and Breitweiser to deliver a thoughtful, nuanced exploration here, and I’m interested in seeing where this story goes next, even if it takes me to uncomfortable places.
Ryan, there’s a lot to unpack in this one — was there anything you got out of this issue that I missed? And it’d be criminal if we didn’t discuss the art of Phillips and Breitweiser in more detail — their work really makes this book sing, even in its goriest moments. Is there anything about their contributions you’d like to explore?
Ryan D: It would be CRIMINAL, wouldn’t it? Nice reference to the 10th anniversary of that keystone Brubaker/Phillips/Breitweiser title, Spencer! I see what you did there.
Before I dig into the brilliant artistic choices, I’d like to run with your thematic analysis for a second. I think a lot of the overt tones are presented clearly in Kill or be Killed, but then that afterword got me thinking. If Death Wish was, as the writer argued, structured around the middle-class, white fear of urban youths and the poor, what is it that really drives Dylan’s killing spree? Sure, we have a supernatural external force acting upon him in the form of the demon, as well as a strong internal drive for the character in the form of his desperate will to live, but what societal commentary and/or subconscious motivation does this character have?
I think that the moments talking about Dylan’s relationship with Daisy are key. The idea is: man’s girlfriend gets heckled on a public bus, man does nothing, man feels powerless. I am digging the idea that, while on paper, Dylan follows the demands of what may or may not be a demon, the real reason why he pulls the trigger and ends human lives is perhaps due to a Millennial impotence, a feeling of shortcoming in the face of a culture that is currently redefining its views on gender roles, but is still heavily informed and dominated by its past generations. For all of the wonderful boons of being a twenty or thirty-something in this day and age, the specters of yesterday’s action hero stars (I love you, John McClane) and figures like some of our fathers loom over us. The ideal of male grit and strength, the belt hitched tight high up on the waist, the “rub some dirt in it and walk it off” notion of masculine stoicism, the John Waynes and generations of children playing cowboys and Indians instead of “Angry Birds”, often seems to be an untenable paradigm for a generation stereotyped to be more into purchasing their own apiaries to make their own honey instead of fistfighting over honor and shaking hands after. “Sorry to hear about your insecurities, Ryan,” you might say, Spencer, but look at the victims of Dylan’s opening killing spree: middle-aged men, some in business suits — the corporate, nine-to-fiver lifestyle against which our generation has rebelled in the form of pioneering online start-ups and entrepreneurialism and a model for a dead-beat dad:
That man, soon to be bludgeoned to death, fits the prototype of beer-swilling couch-dweller so well that I know you could clearly hear him mutter “Why I oughtaaa” the second you saw his tacky shirt. I see this opening massacre as not just a purge of a brothel’s nefarious clientele; this is a generational war between the old guard who grew up “the hard way” vs. the next in line, who never had to face a draft lottery or duck and cover under our desks out of fear from THE BOMB as schoolchildren. The more I think about it, it’s the difference between an era when men had to pull the trigger, as opposed to one when an ideological crisis gives a strong should. Brubaker is a consummate story-teller, but he generally has some larger brush strokes behind the story, and I hope that this is an alley-way he continues to explore.
Speaking of brush strokes, this is my segue into the art of this title. It’s difficult for me to not automatically put anything from the Brubaker/Phillips/Breitweiser triumvirate immediately onto my pull list. Brubaker/Phillips might well be the most successful and best enduring artist/writer combination since Mike Mignola and…himself. Picking up one of their titles, with the colors of Breitweiser, guarantees at minimum that you will be reading something cohesive and secure in its tone. Kill or be Killed 1 is no exception to this rule, and there are some really clever, lovely things happening visually here. One particular section which worked well for me was this scene on the couch:
The use of a panel holding Dylan as the third wheel in the relationship in his apartment does an excellent job reasserting his isolation in his own home in a way that is not distractingly stylized. This works for me very well. Also a great moment of paneling comes in Dylan’s room. The separation of one image — Dylan on his bed — into separate but cohesive image gives the reader’s eye the same feeling of a camera panning. That’s one thing which has always struck me about Phillips’ page composition: it often feels more like camera movement instead of static images, giving the world life and engaging me as a reader in a more cinematic way. Add in the coloring and textures, and every scene seems to take place in a very lived-in space, whether that be inside an apartment, brothel, or on the city streets.
Perhaps my favorite stylistic use of paneling — or lack thereof — takes place during Dylan’s most grandiose suicide attempt.
This is one of our only panel-less pages, using instead the cropped, white right side as our text holder, keeping the image uninterrupted by any flotsam and jetsam. This gives my brain the feeling that — while comics tend to use the cinematic equivalent of “shot, reverse-shot” — here, we have a bold, steady camera single shot. This is important from a character’s perspective, showing that our “protagonist” is not acting rashly, but stands on the precipice, surrounded by layers of an indifferent New York City, before leaping.
This creative team has made a career out of inking and penning issues which raise more questions than they answer, and this title is no exception. Kill or be Killed 1 reads briskly and offers a new perspective on the vigilante/vengeance killer genre. I am keen on seeing Dylan reach other milestones on his path towards the ruthless executioner we see at the top of the comic, and know that Brubaker will give us plenty to think about, and more chances to put ourselves into the shoes of a murderer.
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On the role of the demon, I feel the key idea is not to make him like Kersey. As Faraci says, Kersey is a fascist. And yet, with Dylan, we get another figure. One more closer to us.
To the average person, there would have to be more of an incentive (and even Kersey kind of has one). And so, Dylan is giving one. He is given a justification. But that doesn’t give him an excuse not to kill. He could have just died. Nor does it justify his choice of victims. Ultimately, the violence comes from Dylan himself. The demon is just the genre version of the thugs that attacked Kersey’s family. The only major difference is that the demon is designed to keep the focus on Dylan’s decisions. With Kersey, you have to give up and say that he is a fascist. With Dylan, we are forced to confront his individual decisions with each and every kill.
And that is going to be interesting. I just started watching Mr Robot Season 2, and then stopped because of just how mindnumbingly stupid it was. One of the big problems with Mr Robot is the lack of self awareness it has, and I’m looking forward to seeing Kill or be Killed deal with similar vigilantism with actual self awareness. Because so far, Kill or be Killed has self awareness.
I feel it needs to make efforts to build on the supporting cast, especially Kira, quickly. But I look forward to seeing Brubaker explore what makes DYlan kill. We already have a nice combination of ‘moralism’ and emasculation, and I hope to see Brubaker deconstruct Dylan’s supposed moral arguments. This is something to watch.
Also, I love how well Devin Faraci’s essay works alongside the issue. It feels like an essential part of the narrative and I am not surprised that both of you brought it up in your pieces. When you reach the essay, it feels designed to guide your immediate response to what you just read, another part of an experience much more complex experience than just a comic book. Hell, even the sorts of movies Brubaker recommends and what he says about them feel like the natural thing to come after that final page