A bad workman always blames his tools.
Drew: People don’t like to accept responsibility for their failures. If there’s anything else that can take the blame, it probably will. Of course, there’s always something that can take the blame — even absent tools, we can blame vague forces like “office politics” for holding us back. Indeed, when there are no more tangible forces to pin our failures on, we’ll will sooner make up concepts like fate than hold ourselves accountable. As with any tool blaming, that equation is flipped when things are going well — our successes aren’t the result of outside forces or inanimate objects, but our own effort and ingenuity. Taken to the extreme, that illusion can utterly disorient our ability to judge our own actions; if we can effectively do no wrong the very notion of “wrong” loses all meaning. This is the precipice Dylan finds himself on in Kill Or Be Killed 5, as he attempts to reconcile his actions with his own sense of morality.
That Dylan might be blaming an outside force for his own desires has been a central question of this series from the start, but this issue finds Dylan pondering his powerlessness, as though his actions are not his own. What’s remarkable about this is how gently Dylan eases into this philosophy, coming at each piece of it sideways. Look at his opening line from this issue:
That’s one hell of a hedge. He opens dismissing the concept of fate, but spends much of the rest of the issue walking that dismissal back. He offers examples of fate by other names, brings in Jung’s notions of synchronicity, and ultimately falls back on “I also didn’t believe in Demons, so what do I know?”
And actually, that connection might speak to the very cognitive dissonance I referred to earlier. Dylan doesn’t (or didn’t) believe in demons or fate, but starts considering them when he needs something to blame his actions on. Which is to say, this issue is basically Dylan convincing himself that he’s not responsible for his actions. Or, more specifically, he’s naming yet another force that is responsible. Only, the force he ultimately settles on isn’t fate, but chaos, though the sentiment that he isn’t in control of what happens to him is basically the same.
But there are hints along the way that Dylan likes what he’s doing. In our discussion of issue 3, I wrote at length about how artist Sean Phillips was implying Dylan’s subjective view of the events of this story, but the structure of the narrative might hold similar insights. This issue once again starts with a flash-forward, which I’m starting to suspect betrays Dylan’s interest in violence. He skips right to “the good part,” and doing so allows him to relive the killing twice, as the issue inevitably loops back around to putting that moment in context. In fact, the actual moment of killing is from the same angle — check out the moment as it appears in both the beginning and end of the issue:
That moment is frozen in Dylan’s memory. Contrast the recreation of that exact panel with the rest of the sequence, which covers the same beats on both of these pages, but is remarkably different. For me, the key difference is our distance from Dylan. In the opening — dropped in without context — we’re basically seeing this scene through Dylan’s eyes, such that we’re gazing directly into his eyes as he peers into the mirror. Contrast that with the over-the-shoulder shot we get of Dylan looking into the mirror at the end of the issue — seeing Dylan’s body in frame reminds us that he’s not us.
Phillips pulls a similar trick in the final panel of both of these, flipping our allegiance by flipping the perspective. In the opening, we’re looking over Dylan’s shoulder, watching as he faces the cop, whose position back and to the right sets him up as our adversary. At the end of the issue, we get the reverse shot, setting up the cop as the hero and Dylan as the villain. Dylan might be the hero in his mind — and in the way he likes to present the story — but with the full context, it’s hard to see him as anything other than the bad guy.
Michael, I continue to be impressed at the sophisticated visual language of this series, and how Phillips uses it to emphasize Dylan’s subjectivity. But I wanted to talk about the way writer Ed Brubaker walks us through Dylan’s more conscious rationalizations for his behavior. Can you maybe pull us back on track?
Michael: At the moment Dylan is in a very confused headspace, to say the least. As he’s becoming a more confident killer he’s finding his “new life” at odds with his “old life.” On a basic level he is acting how I would assume anyone would be after they have taken a life: he is evaluating how he feels and how that falls in line with everything he thought he knew about right and wrong. However, we are dealing with a supernatural force here, so these quandaries are brought to new heights.
With his “deal with the devil” Dylan has arguably entered a larger world: one where he kills bad people and gets to keep on living. With this new perspective he is trying to make sense of his place in the world. Dylan realizes the absurdity of his situation and how crazy he would sound if he tried to explain it to anyone. Even if they did believe him would they approve of him killing? This is where Dylan’s rationalizing and justifying comes into play. As Drew mentioned, the internal dialogue that Dylan is having with himself in Kill or Be Killed 5 is rife with cognitive dissonance. He presents an argument against his murderous actions then eventually turns the argument on itself, rationalizing his deeds. On more than one occasion Dylan says something to the effect of “maybe insanity is the only sane response.”
Drew also brought up how each issue of Kill or Be Killed opens with Dylan skipping to “the good part” or as Dylan called it. Dylan advises us that it was clear that we started the issue “in media res…so this one is kind of on you.” This is another example of Dylan not taking responsibility for his actions and blaming it on outside factors – the reader. Dylan is very guarded in his storytelling: he pre-emptively argues against his actions before shutting it down. He’s like a politician who is doing self-opposition research and covering all the bases before anyone else can find the holes in his logic.
The demon comes to Dylan one night and accuses him of changing, of not struggling against killing people and feeling righteous about it. The very simple fact of the matter is that curse or not, Dylan has gotten a taste for blood and he likes it. In its own way Kill or Be Killed has been an origin story, as Dylan learns and perfects the art of killing. We haven’t witnessed every lesson that Dylan has learned along the way as time has moved forward since last issue. Dylan tells us how he cornered Barry Jameston in that bathroom by tailing him every day. This messy business has become second nature to Dylan so he slides right into stalker mode without making the slightest fuss about it.
Kill or Be Killed reminds me of Wanted or Fight Club in the way that its protagonist breaks out of his average mold and turns into an otherworldly maniac. Now that he’s a demon’s hitman Dylan sees things a little bit differently, but unlike Wanted or Fight Club we haven’t seen him change his civilian life in a drastic way just yet. There’s no scene where he punches his jerk boss in the face or stands up for himself where he wouldn’t before – probably because he’s trying to maintain a low profile. Throughout the series Dylan has talked about how difficult it is to maintain two lives, which could explain why he’s trying to keep them from bleeding into one another.
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