Coming off of the hot success that was The Fade Out, Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips could have produced any book they wanted. Knee-deep into their five-year contract with Image Comics, allowing them creative freedom to make any kind of book they wanted, fans knew their next series would be a blood-soaked noir tale in the vein of Chandler and Lehane. What fans weren’t expecting alongside all of this was…humor?
Yet that’s what readers get in their new book, Kill or be Killed. Set in an unnamed city, the reader is introduced to Dylan in media res as he murders several (presumed) “bad people” in a seedy building. After this bloody and shocking opening, the reader flashes back to earlier points in Dylan’s life as he recounts the story – in a relaxed, non-linear fashion – of how he wound up wearing a mask and killing people to save himself.
Despite having dedicated to himself to creator owned books – many of which have been in the same crime genre as this new series – Brubaker manages to bring many new things to this opening issue. The first of which is the humor. Through the first person narration throughout the issue from Dylan, the reader is granted access to the mind of the protagonist in a way unique to other focal characters from Brubaker’s books, such as Fatale and Velvet. The dark comedy of seeing Dylan both explain and puzzle out what drove him into this world makes for a jarring read at times. Yet by the end of the book, it’s hard not to want to see him succeed – in a similar way to how viewers wished Walter White success in Breaking Bad.
Here, Brubaker also returns to the world of mysticism he worked so well with Fatale by bringing a supernatural twist to this straightforward revenge/crime story. After miraculously surviving a suicide attempt, Dylan is visited by a mysterious demon looking to trade “a life for a life.” But while Fatale openly showed readers the Lovecraftian monsters plaguing the heroes, here it isn’t as straightforward. Dylan wrestles with the idea that he may just be hallucinating seeing the mysterious creature. Even after his arm is broken by it, Dylan tries to argue it was all in his head. Under a less trained hand, this could come across as a hokey gimmick. Yet Brubaker, through the voice of Dylan, makes the reader really begin to question whether any of this magic-hooey is actually happening.
The only downside to the writing is in the length of the book. Being an oversized issue (it clocks in at forty-eight pages), some scenes tend to drag along at times. While there are good character moments along the way – seeing Dylan realize the girl he loves feels sorry for him is a decidedly heartbreaking moment – there are also plenty of scenes with his roommate that feel stretched out. It’s almost akin to shows like Sons of Anarchy and Mr. Robot, which take advantage of extended run-times to add scenes that slow plot progression down. Hopefully later issues will be a bit faster-paced, with a shorter page length per issue.
Once again though, Phillips brings his heavy use of shadow and line work to Kill or be Killed, making it look just as moody as any of the Brubaker-Phillips collaborations before it. Whether it’s showing blood splatter across a wall as buckshot rips through a body or a tender kiss in front of a glowing television, Phillips brings just the right mood and look to the story. Accompanying Phillips on art duties is Elizabeth Breitweiser, jumping with the boys from the recently concluded The Fade Out. While Phillips’ pencils look great on their own, the atmosphere of the book is made even stronger through the muted colors and stark winter hues chosen by Breitweiser.
What’s also intriguing to note is how Phillips breaks away from the more straightforward page layouts he had used in previous books and makes the book feel less like a novel and more like a comic. While the aesthetic of previous books drawn by Phillips is a welcome and dense read, this new style employed on Kill or Be Killed will help give the book even more of a unique vibe compared to the other works in the Brubaker-Phillips library.
Picking up any one of Brubaker and Phillips’ works will without a doubt lead readers into a strong noir story. What is amazing is how, over a decade after their first book together, they continue to unveil new comics that feel fresh and exciting, all while still staying in the same genre. Kill or be Killed is no different, bringing a darkly humorous protagonist into a life-or-death scenario that challenges the reader’s idea of a “justified” homicide.