By Drew Baumgartner
This article contains SPOILERS. If you haven’t read the issue yet, proceed at your own risk!
Mr. Helpmann: He’s got away from us, Jack.
Jack Lint: ‘Fraid you’re right, Mr. Helpmann. He’s gone.
Drew: There are plenty of worthy contenders, but I tend to think of Terry Gilliam’s Brazil as having the most contentious final cut in film history. Indeed, as the film languished in post-production hell, both Gilliam and the chairman of Universal Pictures, Sid Sheinberg took out competing ads in Variety, imploring the other to release their preferred cut of the film. And much of that disagreement came down to the two lines quoted above; the ones that reveal the frenetic, phantasmagoric escape our hero makes is actually his dissociative fantasy — it turns out he never escaped his torture chamber. Since this is a Gilliam film, it’s easy to argue the whole movie is frenetic and phantasmagoric — and it definitely is to some degree — but the ending flies off the rails in a way that really only make sense as a fantasy. It’s an over-the-top “coincidences help the hero” ending that reads as a straight-up parody of Hollywood films, so it’s kind of hilarious that Sheinberg would insist on that ending not being a fantasy. Any savvy viewer would recognize that something is seriously wrong with Winston’s escape, so to insist that there’s nothing is an insult to our intelligence. That is, we know that it’s a fantasy, we just need the movie to be smart enough to agree with us. With their final issue of Kill or be Killed, Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips lean into a similarly impossible-to-believe fantasy, along with a twist very much like the one Gilliam always intended for Brazil.
Though Brubaker and Phillips communicate the fantasy of Dylan’s escape a heck of a lot earlier. Indeed, before we even get to the fantasy, Phillips’ art deliberately places us inside Dylan’s head.
These images of Detective Sharpe are inarguably from Dylan’s perspective (we can even see him looking past his own legs in that last panel), effectively putting us behind his eyeballs even before the fantasy kicks in on the next panel, where Dylan “finds” a better ending.
But just like Winston’s fantasy, the ending is only “better” if you take a very shallow view, accepting Hollywood cliches without any scrutiny. And to be clear, this isn’t a criticism; it’s obvious Brubaker and Phillips are obviously in on the joke, and they pace if for all it’s worth. We start with some more believable fantasy: that maybe Dylan was kept officially “dead” while Sharpe wraps up her sting on the Russian Mob. But each new detail feels less and less likely: Kira decides she and Dylan should be together after all of this, Sharpe decides she needs a vigilante killer on her side, and finally, that Dylan needs to become a full-on superhero.
And to be sure, this wouldn’t be considered absurd in many comics (heck, this origin might be hailed as “grounded” in the superhero genre), but it feels downright silly in this world. And Brubaker and Phillips know not to push it any further. They offer us some specifics about Dylan’s double life, but then quickly snap us back to “reality,” where we’re forced to accept a perhaps equally unlikely explanation for Dylan’s narration: that there is an afterlife, from which Dylan is telling his story.
That might be a harder pill to swallow if we hadn’t just been offered a much harder one. By taking such an aggressive stance on the fantasy, Brubaker and Phillips have effectively put us on our back foot through the end of the issue, which allows them to sneak a few fastballs past us. The afterlife is one bit, but the other, bigger one is the epilogue of sorts, where Kira steps into the narrator position, and maybe follows in Dylan’s footsteps. Her typical empathy erodes into sympathy before we get a final image that suggests maybe, just maybe, Dylan’s demon is coming for her.
Here again, I think Brubaker and Phillips jerking us around at the start of the issue helps sell the question mark of this ending. It leaves that “was Dylan delusional, or actually seeing a demon?” question unanswered, but hints at the least likely option, leaving us to our own conclusions. Does the cycle continue, and what does that mean?
Which is maybe the ending of Brazil writ large. Where that ending is both happy and tragic for Winston — he doesn’t physically escape, but is effectively free from whatever further harm his torturers might inflict — this one might be true for the world at large. Dylan’s death means he’s no longer killing, but maybe Kira will be worse? Better? The same? It’s an ending as grey as Dylan’s morality.
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?