I’m uncertain if this admission is going to hurt my credibility as a comic fan and reviewer, but until this week, I’d never read an Ed Brubaker comic, despite numerous recommendations from friends. (I’ll wait while you finish jeering.) You know how it is: you’re trying to find time to cram in all the amazing comics out there, and there’s always a list of those you’ve been meaning to check out as soon as you can catch up on the 8,000,000 series on your pull list. Since the most recommended Brubaker titles were Incognito and Fatale, both collaborations with British artist Sean Phillips, I jumped at the chance to review the duo’s latest effort, Kill or Be Killed; I figured I’d forgo the need to play catch-up and make a brand-new series my intro to Brubaker and Phillips’ collective body of work.
Dylan is a lonely, disillusioned NYU student, deeply depressed and suicidal, and in love with his best friend Kira, whom he sees as the only glimmer of hope in his life. Unfortunately Kira is dating Dylan’s roommate while sending mixed signals and making advances towards Dylan on the sly. On one particularly bleak night, having reached the breaking point, Dylan is given the ultimatum of his life: exterminate one person each month as “rent” for a life he seemingly does not value, or sacrifice himself and suffer the consequences.
From the faceless thug pictured on the cover and what I knew of Brubaker’s reputation prior to reading, I fully expected a taut, well-written vigilante story with a noir-ish edge. What I got was exceptional writing indeed, but it was not quite the vigilante story I was expecting. I don’t want to say much more regarding the plot because I want anyone who sees this and intends to read Kill or Be Killed to have the same experience I did of coming to this book with expectations of a good crime story and leaving with so much more, having been reminded how fragile and vulnerable we can be as people, how life can change so drastically and so suddenly. At no time does it feel as though we’re watching Dylan from a distance; as he narrates, flashing back and forward to recount how he came to this fateful crossroads, we are there with him, reliving every moment of pain, rejection, hopelessness. Lest that sound too depressing, rest assured that this is a horror story as well as a psychological drama, so no worries of walking away feeling more dejected than intrigued. Dylan’s is certainly a sad story so far, but don’t let that deter you from reading by any means.
If this is a worthy example of Brubaker and Phillips’ teamwork, I will definitely be picking up their other books, as Phillips is adept at underscoring the emotions of Brubaker’s characters to an almost spooky degree. Phillips’ art, supported by Elizabeth Breitweiser’s somber color palette, beautifully conveys every emotion intended, making Dylan’s internal and external conflicts that much more real and empathetic. One particularly arresting page depicts Dylan seated on a couch with his friends, framed within a smaller panel, isolating him from the other characters in the same room. I absolutely love it when this medium is used in these types of thoughtful, cinematic ways, and it does Brubaker’s character and his story the utmost justice.
There isn’t much more I can say without giving away way more than I’d like. If you want something a little grittier, more real and intense than the usual comic fare, I urge you to read this book, and trust you’ll love it as much as I did.