Adam reads as many comics as he can afford. Then he reviews one every other week.
It’s rare to have so much trust in a creative team in comics, that when I hear they have a new book coming out I don’t have to look into what it is or what its about. At the very least, I’ll check out the first issue and will almost certainly be back for more. Ed Brubaker, Sean Phillips and Elizabeth Breitweiser are such a team, with Brubaker and Phillips’s previous collaborations Criminal, Fatale and The Fade Out (Breitweiser joined them as colorist on the latter) all receiving critically acclaim. The Fade Out (the first issue of which I reviewed a while back) was deservedly given the Eisner Award for Best Limited Series this year, as well as a place on the far less prestigious ‘Adam’s Top 5 Comics of 2015‘. So with all that in mind, Kill or be Killed #1 (written by Brubaker, drawn by Phillips and coloured by Breitweiser, published by Image Comics) was a must-buy this week. As with The Fade Out, this first issue also comes with a short piece from Devin Faraci on cinema, this time on Death Wish and what it said about 1970’s America, and is as interesting a read as his pieces on 1940’s Hollywood. That on top of a 34 page comic is a pretty good deal.
Kill or be Killed opens with a healthy dose of violence, with a masked and hooded man making his way through a building ruthlessly killing several men with a shotgun. The attacks take on the air of pitiless executions, while the book’s protagonist narrates over the killings calmly, reflecting on how he came to be doing this – murdering ‘bad people’ who deserve it. It’s an in media res opening that, after our masked man Dylan brutally finishes off his last target, winds back to his previous life. The narration moves on, somewhat haphazardly as Dylan tries to bring context to the reader, going from an early instance of feeling weak when a girlfriend is catcalled, to his recent suicide attempt.
Clearly, Dylan isn’t happy. His roommate is dating his best friend Kira, whom he is predictably also in love with, complicating and suffocating his home life. But the worst thing, and what drives him to a rooftop, is their pity amidst his loneliness. However, between this failed suicide attempt and the opening scene, Dylan gets back the “joy of being motherfucking alive”… and then his life changes dramatically, and the 28-year-old grad student becomes a man who needs to kill, however he justifies it in his head.
I went into Kill or be Killed knowing little else past the title and the team behind it, and if I’ve been particularly vague in my summary it’s because I think that is the best way to approach the story. The trigger point for why Dylan starts to kill was unexpected and deftly handled, and I think more satisfying with no prior knowledge. Rest assured, it is good. And as for the rest of the story, Brubaker’s talent for intrigue and character study are on full display, while delivering a script and plot that only replicates the level of quality of his previous work while simultaneously doing something entirely new. It is definitively modern, with Dylan talking about how “Cops kill innocent black kids and get away with it…” and “Psychopaths run for President…” as examples pulled straight from the headlines to illustrate how messed up the world is right now. But how that justifies his actions, or at least how he thinks it does (and we don’t know why the men he is killing are bad, all we have is his word), opens up a fascinating look into the morality of the vigilante killer, rendering Kill or be Killed as much more than a simple take on The Punisher for example. All said, this is very strong start to what promises to be an intriguing story.
As for the art, if Phillips and Breitweiser were producing stunning work on The Fade Out (they were), then this is some next level excellence. The book is full of heavy shadows, marrying subdued art up perfectly with the tone of the story. The action at the start is exhilarating and affectingly violent, while the facial detail throughout is gorgeous. The level of detail in the backgrounds too is incredibly high, in particular the snowbound city towards the end of the issue. But the more chilling elements of the book, and the catalyst for Dylan’s new life, is where I found the book to excel. There is a lot to be said of the layout of the art too, with panels framed in such a way as to enhance the fact that this is being narrated by the main character, and he is the focus.
Breitweiser compliments and brings out the best in Phillips’ work, with an array of different palettes and tones through each scene, none of which are a jarring change from the last. From the opening action and the dominance of the reds of Dylan’s mask and the blood spatters, to the oppressive clinical glare of a hospital waiting room or the unclean tones of a city bus and the city lights outside it, all the colour work blends in with the shadowy aesthetics of the book for a result that simply is the best modern comics can look.
It’s rare to have so much trust in a creative team in comics that you pick up a new book without looking into it at all. It is even rarer for that book to be even better than you expected from them. This is comic books at their best. Check it out at your local comic shop or digitally now.
Score: 9.5 Laundry Lines out of 10