Today, Drew and Ryan D. are discussing Kill Or Be Killed 9, originally released May 31st, 2017. As always, this article contains SPOILERS.
The best-laid plans of mice and men
Often go awry
Robert Burns, To A Mouse
Drew: I use this epigraph a lot on this site. It’s an appealing quote, both because of its sentiment and its popularity (bastardized “translations” to English aside), but also because plans going wrong is such a ubiquitous source of drama. We’ve all had something fall apart in spite of our best efforts, which makes seeing it in fiction tragically relatable, even if our plans (and how they go wrong) are more banal than we might encounter in fiction. It’s probably a bit too generous to say that Dylan’s plans were ever the “best-laid,” but we still recognize the panic that comes when they go awry. This issue pushes him ever closer to completely losing control, though he manages to just barely hang on.
Of course, he’s working against the best-laid plans of Bogdan, the Russian mobster sent to track down and kill Dylan. He goes about tracking Dylan methodically, picking up a tip from a cab driver and then systematically checking up on every drug dealer with a white van in New York. It’s slow going, but a few lucky breaks puts him on Dylan’s dealer, Rex, but Bogdan doesn’t seem to have the patience for a stakeout, so instead opts to beat Dylan’s name and address out of him. Rex actually doesn’t have that info (he has some best-laid plans to avoid incriminating — or being incriminated by — his customers, though again, that doesn’t factor in the Russian Mob), but another lucky break for Bogdan lands Dylan in the hopper.
That’s a lot of backstory on Bogdan and his plans, but it wouldn’t be an Ed Brubaker book if I didn’t have to bring up the provenance of the narration. Dylan has acknowledged all along that his narration is giving us info that he didn’t have at the time, confirming that he’s narrating this story from some point in the future, but this issue actually catches us up to the info, showing exactly when and how Dylan learns everything he knows about Bogdan.
(Oh, right: Dylan kills Bogdan. Bogdan’s plans go well enough to send Dylan’s awry, but not so well to not go awry themselves. Entropy is the law of nature here — time will ruin everyone’s plans eventually.)
This moment is fascinating to me. Dylan (or Brubaker) could make the choice to reveal Bogdan’s story at this moment, when Dylan learns it, but instead, we’re given the same information pages earlier, giving us more context for what is going on than Dylan has in the moment. That our knowledge is different from Dylan’s isn’t just a choice that Brubaker is making (say, to separate us emotionally from his mentally unstable protagonist), but one that Dylan is making. That is, Brubaker is using this choice to tell us something about Dylan, but I can’t quite get my mind around what. Is it that he, too, is repulsed by what he’s done, so in hindsight (and perhaps in a better mental state) tells the story in away that distances us from his actions? Or is it simply reflecting that his mind is a bit scattershot — that he struggles to stay “in the moment” when telling this story? We may not fully understand these storytelling choices until we understand when, where, and to whom Dylan is telling his story, but they beautifully complicate what could otherwise be a straightforward crime procedural.
Another intriguing element is that Dylan is pretty casual with his verb tenses. That panel above is all past tense (woke, sat, told, etc), but elsewhere, Dylan slips into the present tense — particularly in those sequences where his narration bumps out into the margins.
It’s not a hard and fast rule, but verbs like see, think, and feel make it clear that Dylan is in this moment, perhaps hinting at his attitudes toward these violent moments, even as he’s self-consciously narrating from the future. For his part, artist Sean Phillips does everything he can to keep us in that moment, too, drawing us further and further into this exchange of glances with ever smaller panels and tighter shots. It creates a real sense of claustrophobia, emphasizing just how inescapable Bogdan’s fate really is. It’s a chilling moment.
Ryan, as ever, I seem to have disappeared up my own butt with this analysis, but I’m convinced there are layers of storytelling going on in the storytelling choices Brubaker is having Dylan make. I don’t yet have a similarly holistic opinion of the choices Phillips is making, so I’m curious if you have any theories as to what we can read into the art. It’s as atmospheric and clear as we’ve come to expect of Phillips’ work, but are there other details we should be noticing?
Ryan D: It’s interesting to me that you were drawn in so much by Brubaker’s narrative in this issue, Drew, because this issue really cements for me how holistically (to steal your word) Sean Phillips works on this title. I appreciate you pulled that specific half of a page to talk about Phillips keeping the audience and Dylan in the moment before the coup de grâce comes. What you may not have realized, Drew, is that the moment works so well because of little touches Phillips uses throughout the issue. In the bottom corner of that page, we get that tight cluster of panels, what stands out to me is how they all have a gutter separating them.
The right edges of these small panels run onto the side of the page, letting our eyes know that these actions have yet to be resolved, which is smart, but compare this moment with how Phillips ends two other large beats of this issue:
When I first saw how these pages ended, I was intrigued. What could have been two fairly traditional nine-panel grids instead feature the final images living without gutters and right at the edge of the page. This bleeds (no pun intended) the action forward, giving the audience a very concrete impetus to turn the page i.e. what happens to Rex? or What secrets does this Russian gangster’s phone hold?
On its own, I enjoyed this tactic, but in context of that group of panels before Dylan kills Bogdan, I find it brilliant: Phillips trains the audience throughout the issue on how actions flow from page to page only to subvert that trend to really hold us in a crucial, high-stakes moment, which also makes the following kill-shot all the more impactful.
If you’re thinking I might be looking too much on the micro level for Phillips’ small flourishes, I also think his broader work serves a high purpose than may appear at first glance, as well. For example, this issue and many of the preceding feature a plethora of panels inset into other larger panels.
At first, I chalked these up to Phillips’ personal style, but then it sank in that this serves a more grandiose scheme. He sets up these broader establishing shots very deliberately; they serve to show the initial staging of the scene, which really helps sell the blocking as the scene moves forward. So it shows us how the scene progresses from the opening of the interaction, and then the inset panels convey how the space between characters changes. Though this story may be about a young man’s descent into violence/madness, the title truly revolves around how that character’s breaking of the social contract (via murder) changes the world and how people relate to it. Thus, it’s crucial that Phillips displays — visually, physically, and spatially — how character dynamics morph throughout a situation. He uses these inset panels and the establishing shots to depict this beautifully, scene to scene, and breaks up the classic “shot/reverse shot” binary.
There’s one last detail which I really loved from Phillips which I’d love to point out. There’s a some great visual contrast with the writing when Dylan has Bogdan down, but the gritty mafioso is still fucking with Dylan’s head:
Bogdan taunts Dylan, and in the second panel, we see the reaction. The shot is low-angle-traditionally used to portray control or status — from Bogdan’s perspective, looking up at the business end of a pistol; however, we know that Dylan is thrown off by Bogdan’s derisions. What we get, then, is a wonderful disparity between Dylan’s external state (powerful, controlled) and his internal (scared, vulnerable). It’s in this friction that we see a contrast in a character which makes the audience lean in to what’s happening and stay engaged with a three-dimensional character.
So does this add up to a holistic use of the art for the title on the whole? Absolutely. Phillips is not only implementing high-level visual storytelling, but also allows the art to feel like the visualizations of a story being actively told. Brubaker lets Dylan talk to the readers like we’re sitting down with him, and the way scenes here are established, what Phillips shows and doesn’t show, all make me feel like I’m watching a person tell a story. Couple that with Brubaker’s uncanny knack with words, you get two best-laid plans coming together beautifully.
For a complete list of what we’re reading, head on over to our Pull List page. Whenever possible, buy your comics from your local mom and pop comic bookstore. If you want to rock digital copies, head on over to Comixology and download issues there. There’s no need to pirate, right?