Today, Drew and Ryan D. are discussing Kill Or Be Killed 3, originally released October 12th, 2016. As always, this article contains SPOILERS.
Drew: Narrative modes in comics are a particular fascination of mine, as the visual “narrator” isn’t necessarily tied to any of the modes we understand in prose — indeed, while comics may have an explicit narrator in the text, the visual storytelling isn’t necessarily tied to the perspective of that narrator. Film may be a better analogue, because the visual storytelling can similarly be divorced from, say, voiceover narration, but I’d argue that such explicit narration is FAR more common in comics than film. Point is: narrative modes are complicated in comics, yet are rarely remarked upon. Unless, of course, we’re talking about a comic by Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips, in which case, I struggle to talk about anything but the narration. I’ve never really been able to put my finger on why their use of narration draws my attention in this way, but Kill Or Be Killed 3 reveals that the idiosyncrasy may be more with their visual narration than their textual one.
It’s easy to see why I’ve been confused on this — Brubaker’s text always demands attention. Even here, Dylan’s narration is conversational in a way that makes me wonder exactly who he’s addressing:
The thought that he’s apparently aware that this is the third chapter in his story — that he’s worried about establishing a rule in this story going forwards — is certainly intriguing. It may even become an important question as the series develops, but I think it would be an exercise in futility to guess how or why that might be at this point. For now, it’s enough that this approach allows Dylan’s voice to shine through, telling us not just what he’s thinking, but how he’s thinking it.
And that’s the point I really want to focus on, because the focus on Dylan’s subjective experience — of both the world around him and his own feelings — is what’s so unusual about this series (and arguably every Brubaker/Phillips project). Communicating that subjective experience via text is common enough, but comics tend to adopt a filmic third-person visual perspective, forcing us to presume some amount of objectivity. That presumption can be challenged (often in a twist when the limits on that perspective are revealed later), but only because it is so commonplace as to be a presumption in the first place. Even stories with an explicit narrator will show us scenes that narrator isn’t present for because we understand the visual narrator to be independent of any one character’s perspective.
Not so with Kill Or Be Killed. The central question — whether Dylan is truly haunted by a demon or is simply imagining it — only works because there is no distinction between what we’re presented and Dylan’s subjective experience of the world. We can’t trust that it’s real just because we saw it, because we can only see the world through Dylan’s subjectivity. Phillips throws every tool in his kit to make that explicit, from “camera” angles to compositions, but my absolute favorite is the way he uses lighting. Just look at how the lighting in this sequence reflects Dylan’s opinions about himself and Kira:
His face is perpetually cast in hard black shadows, while hers is always clearly lit. It’s a clever trick that underscores Dylan’s emotions throughout the sequence.
In a complete vacuum, we might understand such a technique as revealing an objective truth about these characters — that Dylan really is as shadowy as Kira is angelic — but Brubaker cleverly primes us for this sequence, confronting us with the limits of our perspective throughout the issue. There’s the dream sequence, which I quite enjoyed — and not just because Brubaker lampshades just how obvious the symbolism is. Unlike virtually every other dream sequence I can think of, this one emerges from a story actually tied to the perspective of the dreamer. (The dream sequences in Mad Men, for example, always bugged me because the visual narrator is otherwise entirely divorced from any one character’s perspective.)
But the part that has me most excited are the hints at the depths of Kira’s own subjectivity. There’s a whole world going on in her mind that Dylan — and thus, the reader — isn’t privy to. If I can be so corny, she’s clearly struggling with her own demons, and Dylan is just as incidental to her narrative as she is to his. That is, he’s projecting things on her, but we understand from the glimpses we get that she’s also projecting things on him. They both have enough baggage to fail to see the other as a complete person. Hell, when Dylan imagines Kira’s childhood, he spends half of the time focusing on an idealized image of an orgy, envisioning it as a pile of perfect (and mostly female) bodies.
Granted, some of that idealization may come from Kira, whose memory Dylan is imagining here, but there’s little doubt that Dylan’s subjectivity is just as influential here as it is when he’s dreaming.
All of this emphasis on Dylan’s subjectivity works to drive home his isolation at the end of the issue. Without Kira there to counter his shadows, Dylan virtually disappears into the blackness of his jacket. He’s left only with the vindication he felt when he realized his victim truly was a monster, leading him to seek out a different source of light:
How a depressed twenty-something becomes a cold-blooded killer isn’t an easy thing to understand, but Brubaker and Phillips’ emphasis on Dylan’s experience of the world guides us clearly and directly down that road.
Ryan, I dealt a lot of glancing blows to much of this issue, but there’s so much to dig into here. I didn’t mention the symbolism of the Coney Island boardwalk in winter, or Dylan’s supernatural proficiency with a gun, or any of Elizabeth Breitweiser’s color work. What grabbed you about this issue?
Ryan D: Drew, wow, great takes on the narration. To your point, you mentioned how subjective the narration is, as it comes from the character’s perspective. The follow-up question for me, as it is with any new work I pick up, is “can I trust this narrator?” While the knee-jerk reaction might be to say “nope!”, there is one small fact which keeps me guessing: Dylan constantly asks himself the same questions which Brubaker has the audience asking. For example, Dylan confronts the idea of the demon being a complete fabrication of his imagination, or — better yet — a misremebering made to justify his own actions. This ability to anticipate my queries almost makes me feel as if I am in collusion with Dylan as we figure out what’s really going on as he embarks upon this murderous journey. And the way he puts it, I ALMOST can not blame him for his actions.
His predicament with the demon reminded me of Pascal’s Wager. Pascal thought that the gamble of believing in God was a simple one: if God exists and you believe in Him, you gain eternal reward, and if God does not exist and you do not believe in him, an eternity of perdition awaits. Thus, it is just common sense to believe. Dylan’s situation is a bit more complicated. IF the demon is real, Dylan must kill to stay alive. If not, Dylan has blood on his hands for no reason, so him finding out about the child sex ring is very important to keep him going, balancing his mental scales. One could make another logical leap here and say that if demons exist, then so may the traditional Christian afterlife model, so that introduces a rise on stakes which has not been addressed nearly am much as his internal conflict of morality.
But Kill Or Be Killed 3 is an issue of morality and justification. Dylan seems very contemporary to me as a millennial, seeing that his primary tool of argument is his rational mind. This is made evident by the two “voices” in his head, arguing the pros and cons of his situation. This begets the big concept which interested me with this issue: does self-awareness make the reader sympathize more with the character, or — even more — does it absolve a character of their actions in any way? This applies not only to Dylan’s internal battle with his recent murders for self preservation, but also is pertinent to Kira. In the Coney Island scene, the audience learns that Kira is struggling with her behavior as of late, is seeking professional help, and wants to work on finding a solution. That being said, on the Uber ride home, she and Dylan continue to hook up contrary to everything about which they just spoke.
Which brings me to Dylan. Though we know that he may have a supernatural entity threatening his life, that Dylan struggles with the morality of the situation constantly, and that his first victim turned out to be a pederast, does this matter at all, in the end? Ultimately, he is, objectively, a murderer, but hey — our pull list is replete with vigilantes who take the law into their own hands, forsaking due process for personal vendettas. So, while I may understand Dylan’s mental tribulations and maybe even sympathize with his predicament, I can’t empathize with him, nor do I take any guilty pleasure out of his deeds. I attribute a part of this inability of connection to the idea that the world this title takes place in to be virtually identical to my own — there are no superheroes or powers as far as we know — and the fact that his one murder thus far has been extremely gritty, personal, and really quite unfair. KobK1 opened in media res with an epic fight scene; Dylan’s first kill was nothing of the sort. Whether you are in the same boat as me or not, we can all agree that this issue played an important role in Dylan’s mindset. Now, he “has work to do”, and the tentative nature of his which made him accessible might soon be going the way of the buffalo.
Speaking of “doing work”, there are few titles I can think of which feature the colorist, Elizabeth Breitweiser, doing so much of the heavy lifting themselves. The aforementioned boardwalk scene showcases one small detail which I love:
The way the snow on the ground from the first “panel” blends seamlessly into the sky of the bottom-most is a very sneaky use of colors which also fits in to help convey how depressing and monochrome Northeastern winters can get, making Kira’s ability to find beauty in such a deserted place all the more impressive. She, like the vivid red of her hair, stands out to Dylan in his bleak world. Breitweiser’s coloring here really helps set the tone for this scene, and I really admire how consistent she has been with coloring Dylan’s clothing in a black so deep that it seems more like a negation of space than a color, mirroring the character’s mindset, a mentality which more and more makes me think of the narrator in Dostoevsky’s Notes from the Underground.
As far as the symbolism here given by the boardwalk, I found it moving in two ways: 1) Dylan is changing, and the effects of the murder have made places from his childhood all but unreachable to him 2) Dylan references how him mom never wanted to take him there as a kid, which makes the distance between them all the more heartbreaking — especially since the last time we saw his mother was last issue, when Dylan would not even stay for dinner when he visited home for his dad’s gun, leaving her alone in the house again. Interestingly, Kira is either more aware of her distance to the past and Coney Island’s significance, or can still somehow tap into it. Hmm. Maybe there’s some things I’m missing here that the comments section can clue me in on.
I admit that sometimes in a Brubaker series, it is around issue three or four when I might begin to lose interest (sorry, The Fade Out. I know. I’m a heathen). In this series, however, I feel that Brubaker and Phillips are doing a very good balancing act of taking an interesting concept, letting the audience ask questions, and revealing more while keeping the mystery engaging. I am still very interested in the visual and textual narrative mechanics in this story, and enjoy being kept active as a reader in terms of my perception of the lead character. The art always seems on point and extremely deliberate in what it chooses to show and not show. While we all roughly know what will be happening in the next few issues, I am still curious as to how this creative team will get us there, and that, to me, is more than enough reason to keep tuning in. I rather like it when a title like this can keep me guessing.
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