By Drew Baumgartner and Ryan Desaulniers
This article contains SPOILERS. If you haven’t read the issue yet, proceed at your own risk!
Don’t bury the lede.
Drew: Is journalism the opposite of storytelling? Maybe these terms are too sticky to parse, but it’s interesting to me that one of the cardinal rules of journalism — putting the most dramatic part of the story at the start of the article — is essentially the opposite of the basic narrative structure, where the climax arrives very close to the end of a story. Actually, the difference may lie less in where the “climax” (for lack of a better word) occurs as where it’s allowed to occur. While narratives tend to have the climax in their final act, it is by no means as hard-and-fast a rule as “don’t bury the lede,” and precisely where the climax fits in that final act is decidedly more flexible than absolutely, positively occurring in the first paragraph. It’s a simple matter of the purposes of these art forms — the kinds of tricks storytellers use to surprise us or keep us in suspense are totally inappropriate in a newspaper article designed to inform us of what happened where. And it’s those wrinkles in form, unique to storytelling, that make Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips’s Kill or be Killed 17 such a delight.
And they really are using the form for all it’s worth. Within the first few pages, Brubaker and Phillips orient us to what this issue is all about: Dylan’s plan to kill Perry the orderly. Only, it isn’t so much a plan as it is a vague intent. Without access to his shotgun and mask, Dylan is forced into a much more opportunistic mode, though the claustrophobic setting of the mental hospital doesn’t present a whole lot of opportunities. And Phillips really conveys that claustrophobia, keeping that whole opening act at 4-6 panels per page, with nothing wider than a medium shot.
It’s the kind of detail you wouldn’t notice in isolation, and might not even put your finger on after several pages, but it definitely lends this sequence a sense of confinement. Dylan is boxed in, and Phillips is making us feel that viscerally.
If we don’t feel that mood creeping in as the issue wends on, we definitely feel the change as Dylan enacts his plan (or at least, what he thinks is his plan):
Dylan is free for the first time in the issue, and Phillips makes sure we feel that intuitively. He’s free of the effects of his medication and the watchful eyes of the hospital, sure, but he’s also free of the panel borders and yellow narration boxes that contained his stories thus far in the issue. He is relaxed and at peace here as he’s waiting for his victim to stumble into his trap.
And it’s here that Brubaker embraces the thwarting of expectations that make his narratives so thrilling — Dylan’s plan doesn’t come to fruition, as if it were simply too perfect to actually exist. Instead, he’s hustled back into the hospital where he is once again boxed in by Phillips’s oppressive panels. Only, they’re a little changed. We’ll get one more full page spread in this issue, and several more full shots of Dylan, but never at once, as we get here. Dylan’s dream is compromised, defying his own expectations of what would happen out in the snow. So when Dylan finally succeeds in killing Perry the orderly, it happens almost nonchalantly, packed into the same little panels used to show Dylan puttering around the hospital.
It’s almost defiantly anti-climactic. It’s burying the lede, but that’s the whole point — it’s Dylan that buried it. That he killed this guy is utterly uninteresting to him, as is the fact that he get’s away with it, which he casually adds above. Perry never mattered to Dylan’s story, but the freedom that killing him (or at least planning to kill him) represented definitely does. It suggests that Dylan is a much more deranged individual than his narration could ever really betray.
Man, Ryan, this was a hell of an issue. It puts the plot machinations on hold for a moment, instead offering us a ton of insight into Dylan’s psyche. This kind of answers the question to me about whether Dylan is actually seeing demons, though the fact that Perry was molesting and raping patients in his care might kind of sort of justify Dylan’s lack of remorse? Is there any wiggle room for you there, or is Dylan definitely a psychopath?
Ryan D: Man, I still do not know how to gauge Dylan’s level of psychopathy, and I think that Brubaker keeps Dylan in this grey area of justification in his actions so that we can’t simply reduce his behavior to some kind of mania. Otherwise, looking at the cover and seeing the main character in a straight-jacket would not be a cause of concern and thus a reason to pick the issue up off the stands. Why would the audience care whether Dylan, a man guilty of several accounts of murder who believes that he communes with a demon, receives proper psychiatric care? We root for Dylan to escape because we, too, have felt murderous under the surface of our thoughts, and if Dylan ends up in a padded room, perhaps we deserve the same.
Maybe I’m sniffing some Millennial skepticism here, as well. Dylan’s vigilante tendencies betray his lack of trust in government or state institutions such as prisons or jails, in a similar way that socially active Millennials protest the prison industrial complex. Dylan originally believed that his current situation might be helpful for his mental health, but now feels trapped in a way that echoes his generation’s skepticism of over-medication. For better or worse, Dylan seems intent on this new path of self-determination, with no devils or doctors to tell him what to do or who to kill.
Speaking of the kill, Drew, thank you for pointing out its anti-climactic feeling, especially considering how intelligently Brubaker and Phillips build to the confrontation. For the past two issues, Dylan stalks Perry, building a rough case against him. And visually, there are some nice cues about what is to come:
We see the recurrence of taped fists and hands raised into aggressive or defensive positions here in a way reminiscent of a boxer. While Dylan historically uses his trademark shotgun for a kill — with the odd pistol or knife mixed in — here we have him stripped of his vigilante trappings and forced to execute using hand-to-hand force. Couple the pugilistic allusions here with those bold and liberated pages of Dylan standing solidly in a resolute neutral stance, and the audience expects a struggle of a fight.
As you said, Drew, this event is lackluster and devoid of any romance; the kill is no longer the struggle and there’s no feeling of “…or be killed” here. Even Dylan’s process of justifying the murders no longer present him much of a conundrum. The real and immediate barrier in front of him is this mental institution, and judging by the previewed cover for the next issue, this may be a very temporary vexation. However, with Mason tipping off the police and the “copycat” vigilante’s death, the real test may prove to be how swiftly life in the city keeps moving, without regard for whatever philosophical victories Dylan attains while he’s buried (like the lede, Drew) Upstate in the snow.
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