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It’s hard to think of a creative team in the world of comics with a better batting average than Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips. Pretty much every single thing they’ve worked on together is pure gold. Their latest, Kill or be Killed #1, is no exception. For fans of tough, gritty crime stories that push against the boundaries of the genre while exemplifying the best of it, their stuff has been immensely satisfying and always surprising.
This series is their take on the urban vigilante tale, a story of a young man dealing out brutal punishment on bad people. The first issue opens with a bang, and then flashes back to show us how a seemingly unassuming and frankly under-achieving young man became a murderous scourge of the underworld. But “Kill or be Killed” promises to be so much more than Brubaker and Phillips’ take on stories like “Death Wish” or characters like The Punisher. This creative team never just approaches a concept form the most obvious and least complex angle.
From the very beginning, Kill or be Killed #1 puts the reader in a position that isn’t very comfortable. On the one hand, the frustrations of our protagonist Dylan resonate because a lot of people feel similar in this day and age. When he says, “Because the world is shit right now, and we all know it” it certainly echoes strongly with even the most casual follower of world events. He then goes through the litany of the anger on both sides of the political spectrum. He speaks of corporate malfeasance and a system set up to benefit the wealthy, big business’ stranglehold on politics, mass shootings, injustices faced by African Americans. It all feeds into a complete mistrust and anger directed at the way things are, and the way many feel things are only getting worse. This is, of course, the mindset of those who take justice in their own hands.
But it’s also the mindset of the dangerously mentally ill. And the brilliance of Kill or be Killed #1 is in how carefully and effectively it walks the line between the reader seeing Dylan as a man on a righteous mission, driven by a force larger than himself, and the reader seeing him as simply another mentally ill young man who sees killing as a solution to everything including the hole inside himself. That rare and lethal combination of aimlessness, rage, disaffection and powerlessness that we’ve seen far too often.
The great thing about this issue is that either reading, Dylan as righteous urban vigilante or Dylan as mentally ill murderer, works equally well and are not mutually exclusive. The issue is a twisted journey inside a troubled mind, and it doesn’t really matter at this point how much of what is going on is what it appears to be, the issue immediately captivates and troubles and engrosses, with not a wrong step in sight.
That applies to the art by Phillips as well. For an artist who is well schooled in the noir traditions of shadows and high contrast, this might be one of his darkest issues. One of the things I loved most was his layout design for the issue. Eschewing a traditional grid format, which he has stuck to before notably in “Criminal,” the action is communicated through a layout the echoes the subjective nature of the story, with pages blending settings more loosely, using panel boxes that merely highlight elements without a larger image. It keeps the action firmly within Dylan’s mind, and it’s genius, and more subtle than flashy. You can’t ignore the superb colouring by Elizabeth Breitweiser, who uses oranges and reds to accentuate the action and also manages to use gradations of black and blues and greys to show us, in one aspect in particular, a blackness more black than black and therefore more terrifying.
Kill or be Killed #1 is a perfect debut issue, and promises to deliver yet more essential reading from the Brubaker/Phillips team. For that reason, it’s getting a perfect 10/10.