Kill or Be Killed #1
Written by Ed Brubaker
Art by Sean Phillips and Elizabeth Breitweiser
Published by Image Comics
Review by David Pepose
‘Rama Rating: 8 out of 10
You’ve read the story before - a sad sack gets bitten by a radioactive something or another, gets extraordinary abilities and an iconic mask, and learns the value of power and responsibility as he punches out a bad guy in spandex.
Kill or Be Killed isn’t that story.
In many ways, Ed Brubaker, Sean Phillips, and Elizabeth Breitweiser lift some surface-level similarities from the original Sam Raimi Spider-Man films - and maybe just a little bit of Mark Millar and John Romita Jr.’s Kick-Ass - as they introduce their masked antihero with the most downcast of narrations. While this opening issue takes a surprising twist to justify the book’s ultra-violent premise, it’s a testament to Brubaker, Phillips, and Breitweiser that their voices as creators give this book its solid foundation.
“This isn’t how I imagined my life would be. Ever. But you don’t always have a choice, do you?” Brubaker’s masked protagonist Dylan says on the book’s first page. “And let’s face it… I’ve become pretty good at this. Killing people.” You can almost hear Tobey Maguire’s voice, if the book’s narrator wasn’t also toting a shotgun. But like the original Spider-Man films, Brubaker uses this tool to connect readers with his lead’s misanthropic life, as he talks about terrorists, power-mad cops, lunatics running for office, as well as a cheeky line when he says that “assholes go on shooting rampages almost daily.” This action-packed introduction aside, this string-bean character starts off as an ordinary New York punching bag, getting belittled by everybody from jerks on the street to the girl he has a crush on, who alternates between loudly pitying Dylan and making out with him whenever her boyfriend leaves the room.
So like I said earlier, you’ve probably seen this before - a hapless hero is touched by fate and is given a chance to serve justice. But given Brubaker’s subversive streak - not to mention that this book is titled Kill or Be Killed - it’s no surprise that while Dylan might be called upon to dispense some shotgun-enhanced karma, he’s far from being on the side of the angels. Following a botched suicide attempt, Dylan finds himself as a man on a mission - namely, to kill bad guys, or to lose his second lease on life. While the actual mechanism behind this status quo might be Kill or Be Killed’s weakest point, Brubaker deals with the actual fallout nicely, with Dylan’s initial refusal to act not only serving as a nice counterpoint to the blood-soaked first few pages, but also giving our protagonist a particularly nasty kick in the pants. And that winds up being this book’s biggest hook - when you boil it down to its most essential parts, Kill or Be Killed is a story about violence, and ultimately, it might not even matter to readers who’s on the receiving end of it.
Thankfully, when you have Sean Phillips and Elizabeth Breitweiser on the art, it’s easy to fall in love. The second page of the book has a particularly spooky image of the hooded Dylan walking down a seedy apartment hallway, his face consumed by shadows as he doesn’t even bother hiding his shotgun from freaked-out residence - by giving us such a gorgeous visual this early in the book, Phillips and Breitweiser set the bar high, less challenging themselves to top it as much as they are giving readers the assurance that they know they will. And there are a lot of great moments here - while you’ll remember big moments like the kaleidoscopic choreography of Dylan jumping off a roof, there are some smaller moments that might even prove more skillful, like the horror in a guard’s eyes when Dylan shoots him in the back of the neck, or the gorgeous transition as Phillips keeps Dylan’s face in the shadows before softening his features and lighting the moment he takes off his mask. Phillips also seems to evoke that classic Steve Ditko Peter Parker when he’s drawing Dylan, particularly the sad way the character seems to fold in on himself as he third-wheels it with his roommate and his girlfriend.
But while Phillips provides the base for all this drama, it’s Breitweiser who sells the mood - Kill or Be Killed, even at its happiest, still has a gloomy haze of faded purples and washed-out greens. Breitweiser not only excels with her use of cool tones, but also her use of complementary and triadic colors - while she uses shades of purple as her base, Breitweiser draws the reader’s eyes using strategic bits of greens and oranges, keeping Dylan’s world looking oppressive and dismal while ramping up the energy for key action beats.
If there’s anything that might hold back Kill or Be Killed, it’s that based on its first issue, it straddles that line between killer high concept like Velvet and earning its path through sheer naturalism like Criminal - the premise of this book lends itself to a more episodic structure, but it can’t help but feel a little inorganic as Brubaker lays down the foundation for the rest of his story. But where Brubaker does hook us is with his character’s unique voice, and it’s that characterization that pairs so nicely with Phillips and Breitweiser’s art. Given Brubaker’s previous works, it’s not surprising to see the writer playing the long game here - when you’re this solid as a creator and working with this strong of a creative team, you don’t need to play it flashy. Yet there are plenty of great moments for Kill or Be Killed, and if Brubaker and company can keep adding new twists to make it different from comic books’ other mopey protagonists, this could be a book that could blow you away.