In the many series Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips have shepherded, happy endings are in short supply. This week with Kill or Be Killed #20, readers find out the end result of a deal with the devil and the true cost of getting away with murder.
For 20 issues, Kill or Be Killed has told one of Brubaker and Phillips’ most internal and unsettling stories, about an ordinary college student named Dylan who quickly repented his misguided attempt to end his own life, only to find his existence now at the mercy of a demon who required him to take one human life in turn each month in order to stay alive. Dylan’s efforts soon involve a red ski mask and hoodie, a growing reputation as a vigilante, the attention of some very dangerous mobsters, and the ongoing suspicion that all of this just might be in his head.
Today, Dylan – and readers – finally get their answers as the series ends with issue #20. In recognition of that, we talked to Brubaker and Phillips, who offered some process shots of the cover, their insights into Dylan’s motivations, and a hint at what’s next for them in their long creative partnership.
Newsarama: Ed, Sean – how does it feel to have the series completed?
Ed Brubaker: It's always a bit of a mixed bag ending something this long. You get attached to a book and its characters, but you're excited to move onto something else at the same time.
Sean Phillips: It's always a relief and a disappointment. A relief that all that work is over, and disappointment that it's finished just as I was getting the hang of it. It was always going to be around 20 issues, not all stories need to go on forever.
Nrama: Was this planned in advance, or did it just seem like the right time to end it?
Brubaker: This was always the planned ending for Dylan's story, but I wasn't always sure how many issues it would take to get there. I figured somewhere around 20 or 24, but until we were deep into it, I didn't know.
Nrama: What was particularly unique about creating Kill or Be Killed? The series has a distinct ”voice" to it that's different from The Fade Out, Fatale, etc., but I'm also curious about your creative process behind it - your notes in some issues imply a more spontaneous narrative than your other collaborations.
Brubaker: To me, it was all about the voice of the character, or characters, since Kira got an issue to herself as well.
I was taking the basic structure of superhero comics, the hero in a mask who tries to balance their home life with their mission month in and month out, and then layering something else on top of it. Something much more about the world we're living in and much more about the inner workings of Dylan's mind and how he reacts to the world.
And in doing that, it allowed for a much more experimental narrative style. The voice of the story became more fun and playful, while it got darker and darker at the same time.
Nrama:You did an early version of the concept with the character of Miss Misery in Sleeper. What made you want to revisit the concept of a ”moral" person needing to inflict pain and murder to stay alive?
Brubaker: I don't think Dylan and Miss Misery are actually that similar, honestly, and I never thought of her when writing Kill or Be Killed.
With Dylan it was more about an average person who has to start looking around them to see how many horrible people get away with awful things on a daily basic. The demon may have set him on this mission but, depending on how you view it, it's Dylan who is finding the victims and deciding who deserves to die.
And in doing that, he starts seeing the world differently. or accepting how he sees the world, instead of being in denial about it.
Nrama: How did you decide upon how you wanted to depict the demon in the story, both visually and as a character?
Phillips: Ed described him as, “the basic shape of a man, with a rough edge, like a charcoal pencil. The only things we see are white eyes and teeth among this dark shape.” I just went with that and added some demonic horns.
Brubaker: I wanted to blur the line between whether he sounded like a demon or whether he sounded like something that might just be in Dylan's head. He doesn't sound particularly theatrical, you know?
Nrama: For that matter, what were some of the things you did in terms of researching/depicting mental illness?
Brubaker: I was raised by a psychologist who took me to her Alcoholics Anonymous meetings my entire childhood, so I have that as an underlayer of research. And I spoke with some psychiatrists and doctors.
Some stuff, of course, I just made up, because it's a story and I needed the story to work no matter what.
Nrama: I'm curious about how the element of classic pulp art came into play here - what made you want to use it as part of the story, and what were some of the biggest influences on the images used in the tale?
Brubaker: When I used to haunt used bookstores in the ‘80s, you'd see old men's magazines that had T&A sci-fi and horror stories in them, with lavish illustrations, and those always stuck with me.
As I was thinking about Dylan's backstory, I wanted to give his father a job like that, that would seem amazing to a kid - to see beautiful models coming and going and your father doing this kind of forbidden art - but that his father would think of as something to be ashamed of. It also references the way comics artists used to think of themselves, on a social level, until recent decades.
But giving his dad that backstory allowed me to throw more questions around whether the demon was all in Dylan's head, as well, so it played several different parts in the story.
Phillips: The images were influenced by 1970s sci-fi book covers by artists such as Peter Jones and Jim Burns and 1970s Italian comic book covers especially by Alessandro Biffignandi and Emanuele Taglietti. Mostly though it was an excuse to try something new and to practice painting digitally.
Nrama: The book in many ways deconstructs vigilantism, both in terms of the glorification of and justification for it. In depicting the first-person story of someone's descent into “justified” killings, did you ever have moments where you found yourself going, “Wait, I find what this character's doing very cathartic, and I don't want to relate to him?” Um, because I did, as a reader. [Laughs]
To simplify the question: What do you think are some elements that are fundamentally appealing about that kind of Punisher/Death Wish/Bernie Goetz figure, what's seductive about that concept, and what realities do you feel people should be aware of if they view that figure as some kind of wish-fulfillment/cathartic release?
Brubaker: I mean, the first thing to be aware of is that it's not reality but it's talking about reality.
I don't know, I'm not a teacher. The appeal to me was to deconstruct the idea of the vigilante and the world at the same time. So what Dylan is doing is clearly “wrong,” but the world is “wrong” as well, so we could see at least part of where he's coming from.
He speaks to human nature and human history – I mean, he opens #2 with a rambling monologue about one of the stories from The 1001 Nights, and equates it back to modern life and how everyone thinks they should be able to get away with murder.
There's a reason that Dylan's origin isn't, “my family was killed and I must avenge them.” Dylan's just had it with this world. It comes back to the idea of injustice that is part of our DNA, that's why you relate to some of this stuff even when some of it is obviously the rantings of an insane person.
That's what makes it more than a vigilante fantasy wish-fulfillment thing, because it touches on things – I mean, hopefully – that we all feel somewhere inside. We all know the difference between fair and unfair, right and wrong, greed and charity. That's the essence of every fairy tale we grew up being told, which is why it goes back to The 1001 Nights.
Nrama: What were some of the moments/characters in the book that really surprised you while you were doing them?
Brubaker: Lily Sharpe. Every scene I got to write starring Lily ended up being much more fun than I expected. She became my favorite character in some ways, and she was outside the story, dealing with the real world.
And the Kira issue was surprising because it allowed me to channel some of my own tortured family history into her story in a way.
Nrama: The two of you have now had one of the longest continuous collaborations across multiple titles in comic books. Do you have another collaboration in mind for the future - and if so, can you tell us anything? or do you want to take some time apart for your next projects?
Brubaker: No, we never take a real break. A week or two, maybe. We're hard at work on our next book, which is a hardback OGN coming out in October.
Phillips: It’s out just in time for LICAF.
Brubaker: It's called My Heroes Have Always Been Junkies.
Phillips: I've just drawn a short story written by Ian Rankin for a comics anthology also out in October, but I've no other plans to work with anyone else apart from Ed. We have total freedom to do whatever we like so why go somewhere else?
Brubaker: And then we're onto another monthly right after that, but we haven't announced it yet.