Best Shots Advance Reviews: KILL OR BE KILLED #20, LONG LOST VOL. 1

Long Lost, Vol. 1
Credit: Lisa Sterle (Scout Comics)
Credit: Sean Phillips (Image Comics)

Kill or Be Killed #20
Written by Ed Brubaker
Art by Sean Phillips and Elizabeth Breitweiser
Lettering by Sean Phillips
Published by Image Comics
Review by David Pepose
‘Rama Rating: 8 out of 10

This week marks the end of Kill or Be Killed, Ed Brubaker, Sean Phillips and Elizabeth Breitweiser’s latest critically acclaimed jam session - and what’s surprising is that while many writers try to end their big stories with a bang, Brubaker and company daringly try to stick the landing with a whisper. For most creative teams, this would be a total non-starter, but the skill that Brubaker, Phillips, and Breitweiser display as they break all the rules with an unsurprising amount of grace.

It’s usually considered, well, kind of a hack move to suddenly kill off your main character at the end of your storyline, and even for a writer as celebrated as Brubaker, it’s a little bit of a tough pill to swallow - after 19 issues of investment and twists and turns, his vigilante antihero Dylan getting shot can’t help but feel… small, as opposed to intimate. But Brubaker recognizes how most readers might recoil at such a turn, and so he uses Dylan’s narration to put his readers at ease - unlike the rules and structures of narrative fiction, life can be a much messier, more random affair. Who’s to say a “main character” can’t die unexpectedly? Who’s to say a miracle can’t happen and save you from the jaws of death itself? In the real world, that stuff happens every single day.

And so with a twist and no small amount of flourish, Brubaker and his team take yet another hard left turn, and watching Dylan’s epilogue can’t help but feel bittersweet. What’s the logical conclusion for the story of a budding vigilante? This isn’t just a twisted nod to old-school Spider-Man anymore, but instead, Brubaker gives us the ending for Dylan that we might hope for him the most, no matter how unsustainable or deeply crazy it might be - Brubaker’s been doing this long enough to know just how to manipulate and misdirect his readers, easing us through this by letting us know he knows narrative technique and, moreover, has just as much skepticism as any of us might. Without giving too much away, Dylan’s happy ending has its own trapdoor at the bottom, and that makes for a small but satisfying beat to end the series upon.

Of course, Brubaker might be going as overt as he ever has with his sense of storytelling misdirection, but it’s Phillips and Breitweiser who sell it. Their use of snow in much of their scenes is really breathtaking, playing up the murkiness and ambiguity not just of Dylan and his bloody quest, but also of the actual direction of Brubaker’s ending as a whole. Watching Dylan grow beyond his amateur roots is also a great bit of development on Phillips’ part, particularly with a scene on a rooftop as we see Dylan having changed his looks and his M.O. as he’s gotten better as killing. Breitweiser, meanwhile, does tremendous work in setting a mood, with her nighttime scenes in particularly looking really dazzling.

That said, while Brubaker and company work valiantly to pull of a trick ending - and they use every trick in the book to get readers to accept it - it’s still a low-key trick ending, which will be an acquired taste to be sure. You can explain why you’re deviating from the norm in terms of structure and theme, but at the end of the day, is that enough to justify said deviation? I guess it’s to this creative team’s credit that it’s not a total swing and a miss, that the actual execution and style of Kill or Be Killed’s finale doesn’t make this last issue dead on arrival. And in that regard, that sort of victory of technique over hard-and-fast rules might just be this team’s greatest victory, and a clear showcase of why Brubaker, Phillips and Breitweiser are one of the comic book industry’s leading teams to beat.

Credit: Lisa Sterle (Scout Comics)

Long Lost, Vol. 1
Written by Matthew Erman
Art by Lisa Sterle
Lettering by Lisa Sterle
Published by Scout Comics
Review by Joey Edsall
‘Rama Rating: 9 out of 10

We often talk about certain people being in our lives are fundamental in shaping who we are, but there is a flipside to that concept. Just as the presence of people in our lives undoubtedly shapes our character, their absence does the same. It’s why the loss of a parent at a young age can be the single most substantial moment in a young person’s foundation. The characters that live in the world of Long Lost find themselves defined by these absences.

The protagonists of the story, estranged sisters Piper and Frances, start from this point but ultimately find themselves being redefined by their sudden presence back in one another’s lives. Series writer Matthew Erman has undoubtedly done a remarkable job at breathing a sense of life into the characters, and his sense of build-up and release is even more appreciated in the format of a trade than in individual issues. Lisa Sterle’s unique stylistic choices matched with a mastery of conveying emotion through subtlety make this comic visually striking and contemplative in an art-house film sort of way. With both creators delivering such solid work throughout the book, it becomes hard to put down, and likely hard to avoid recommending to even non-comic readers.

It’s fitting, then, just how much of the plot of Long Lost is propelled by absences. The series opens with Piper living with her dog Pockets and ignoring her sister Frances. She is the absence in Frances’ life. Pockets goes missing, Frances drops in unexpectedly, and the sisters are given an invitation to their mentally unwell mother’s birthday via an otherworldly entity. From there, things end up going wrong more often than not, and through the revelation of both an aunt that there mother never mentioned and the slight alterations to their hometown, readers never get the sense that Piper and Frances are on solid ground, and their mother's absence looms over the story and the women's character arcs to such an extent that the absence becomes a presence all its own. Erman is also impressive at balancing the paranoid notion that nothing is as it seems with the occasional bit of playfulness between the sisters.

Without Erman’s strong sense of character and voice, the narrative would be weaker, and the character-driven aspect of Piper and Frances talking is given so much more intrigue by the sense of danger dictated by the plot. The two aspects of the story work in tandem, and when paired with the pervasive gothic atmosphere, elevates the book from something good to something special. Long Lost is one of the most tonally consistent books of the year, and Erman and Sterle both deserve credit for making the world of the comic feel as real as it does, even when the girls’ odyssey to their hometown becomes wrought with a quasi-religious sense of threat.

The rare missteps of the book become largely visible when viewed in the context of an otherwise stellar comic book. While Erman is typically very strong at crafting dialogue, the occasionally awkward phrase stands out among dialogue from characters that almost always sound like real people. Likewise, the final page of the comic is structurally less effective than everything that built up to it. It does a lot of things right - it builds intrigue for the final six issues, it has a sense of completion to an emotional arc if not a narrative one, and it is visually stunning - but the fact that it leaves readers wondering what will happen next rather than how the characters will react to some sort of new status quo. It's obvious that Piper and Frances will survive their foray into the unknown by virtue of the existence of the next volume of the series, so rather than allowing readers to stew in how these characters that they have grown to love will react to the future, readers are left wondering what the future even is, which is a weaker choice for any story, let alone one so indebted to its relatable characters.

Lisa Sterle’s influence over how unique this comic book feels is hard to overstate. Nothing really looks like Long Lost. Even without delving into the character and theme-driven narrative, Sterle presents Long Lost like a prestige comic book. It looks like the kind of things that your literary-minded friends would refer to as a graphic novel as a point of distinction from comic books. Without question, the black and white aesthetics heighten the comic. As much of this comic takes place at night, the shadows, overgrowth from the forest, blood, and even hair end up taking on much of the same charcoal-esque visual language. It gives the comic a timeless quality, but also imbues it with a sense of danger.

That sense of unease extends to subversions of the comic book’s established style. Aunt Joanna, for example, is emphasized with some of the lighter shades of gray in the series, but that contrast just makes her presence in the story all the more disquieting. Readers never trust her, and these visual markers are part of the reason. Sterle’s use of color on certain items scattered throughout the series is also effective and helps make the comic feel unique, but as a visual conceit never quite hits readers as strong as the first time she uses it. The influence of Junji Ito on her art is apparent in panels that are quiet and tense, the panels that display some visceral aspect of horror, and in the juxtaposition between the two.

Long Lost, with its constant moodiness, its distinct visual presentation, and its remarkably memorable characters is a refreshing comic, and as an overall book is one of the best of the year. The creative team behind the book seem to know what it is that makes it special, and between Erman’s balance of tense and character-rich storytelling and Sterle’s impressive artistry, the first volume is an easy recommendation without even knowing what Part Two will entail when it begins later this year. While it’s obvious that this book is for people who want something fringier than the typical comic book story, Long Lost is strong enough that it will likely inspire other readers to want to find other strange books that they might not have known about. Weird books that are this good are as beneficial for the industry as they are for readers.

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