Kill or Be Killed
For the second week of my October-inspired horror comics binge, I decided to go with the vigilante murder of one of Image Comics’ new series: Kill or Be Killed. As a lifelong fan of the hero vigilante Batman, I’m no stranger to the idea of someone dressing up in a costume and going out to take out the bad guys. The big difference here is in crossing that line between getting justice and becoming judge, jury and executioner. In the newest series by the creative team of Ed Brubaker, Sean Phillips and Elizabeth Breitwiser (previously known for their work on Criminal, Fatale and Fade Out) team up for a very morally ambiguous story about a young man who gets faced with an unwinnable deal: kill or be killed. The series began early this year and is still ongoing with a third volume due out in January.
As the story of Kill or Be Killed opens, the reader gets to meet a fairly average grad student named Dylan. Dylan is overworked and stressed out with little to no social life beyond his studies and a struggle to keep from feeling lonely and isolated. After a botched suicide attempt, a demon presents Dylan with a conundrum: kill someone else once a month or be killed yourself. With this threat looming over his head, Dylan decides that if he’s going to kill someone, why shouldn’t it be people who have gotten away with terrible things? And so begins Dylan’s hunt for vigilante justice. As the series continues, Dylan struggles to keep his secret life as a vigilante out to kill those who deserve it and his personal life as a grad student with a small social circle separate. It’s a recipe for disaster and Brubaker certainly doesn’t disappoint on that score.
I’ve read a few series by the great combination of Ed Brubaker, Sean Phillips and Elizabeth Breitwiser and I’ve always been immediately enthralled and blown away. This is the first time that I’ve come away completely underwhelmed. Unlike with previous Brubaker stories, Dylan is a character that it’s extremely difficult to feel sympathetic for. Maybe this is Brubaker’s intent, I’m not sure. While Batman comes across as flawed but ultimately good, Dylan just comes off as whiny and self-important. At no point did I particularly care about Dylan or really any of the other characters in the story. Normally Brubaker can take a seriously flawed individual and make them sympathetic or appealing in some way. Unfortunately, the story keeps you stuck in Dylan’s head and it’s not a great view. It improves as the story progresses but the first volume is particularly painful. Things seem to go too smoothly for Dylan at first and it’s not really until the second volume that it starts to unravel for him. Dylan’s rantings about how terrible the world is and how everyone is out to get you feels tiresomely like Frank Miller. I’ve always loved the way that Brubaker understands human nature and can make even terrible people interesting. Kill or Be Killed feels more like a manifesto than an examination of the dangers of vigilante justice. It’s frustrating to me to read a Brubaker story that I care so little about. Although he did end the second volume with an intriguing cliffhanger so it looks like I won’t be stopping here.
Probably my biggest frustration with this series so far is how influenced it is politically. I don’t consider myself particularly conservative but I think this is a story that is going to appeal largely to people who have the same mindset that Dylan and probably Brubaker do. Nowhere is this more telling than when firearms come into the story. Throughout, Dylan’s main weapon is firearms. Which is fine, he’s not a hefty dude so it makes sense that he’d pick a ranged weapon. I’m not a gun nut but thanks to dating one, I have a fair familiarity with guns. After reading Kill or Be Killed, I have a difficult time believing that Brubaker knows anything about guns. Somehow Dylan gets his hands on a gun owned by his father that’s been sitting in an attic for years, uses it on multiple occasions and yet it never requires any maintenance. And somehow a dude who had never shot a gun before is just an immediate expert. Dylan talks very cynically a lot about the bullshit you see in movies about vigilantes and shooting but there’s a lot in the first volume in particular that smelled pretty terrible to me.
I wouldn’t say that Kill or Be Killed is terrible. With this team, that’d be difficult. But it is in no way up to par with their previous work and I really struggled to care enough to finish it. For certain readers, the political viewpoint and oddities concerning firearms is going to be a dealbreaker. For me, I mostly struggled to sympathize with Dylan as a character which is truly unusual for a Brubaker story. I ended up almost skimming in parts because I wanted to see how it ended but was thoroughly bored by the journey. Up until close to the end of the second volume, I would have characterized my reaction as “meh.” It wasn’t until it became clear how unreliable of a narrator Dylan is and the connections of the demon to his past that I started to become interested. I will likely continue with this series to see if Brubaker is able to make it pay off but I can’t say I’d recommend this series to everyone. If you like morally ambiguous stories about flawed and mostly unlikeable characters, this may be up your alley but it certainly isn’t a standard Brubaker story.