The Eisner Award-winning team of writer Ed Brubaker and artist Sean Phillips impress in their new crime comic Kill or Be Killed. [Warning: Review contains significant spoilers.]
- Script: Ed Brubaker
- Line art: Sean Phillips
- Color art: Elizabeth Breitweiser
- Publisher’s description: The bestselling team of Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips (The Fade Out, Criminal, Fatale) launch their new monthly series: Kill or Be Killed, the twisted story of a young man who is forced to kill bad people, and how he struggles to keep his secret as it slowly ruins his life and the lives of his friends and loved ones. Both a thriller and a deconstruction of vigilantism, Kill or Be Killed is unlike anything Brubaker and Phillips have ever done.
- Available 03 August 2016
In a panel on the second page of Kill or Be Killed #1—the debut issue of writer Ed Brubaker and artist Sean Phillips’ new Image Comics series—a masked gunman is shown loading a shell into his shotgun through the weapon’s ejection port. To the firearms novice, this might appear to be an error, seeing as how most pump-action shotguns have a dedicated loading port located at the bottom of the receiver. Those familiar with the operation of the pump-action shotgun, however, will recognize the technique depicted in the comic as a speed-loading maneuver commonly used to ready a weapon that has run dry in a combat situation (although ideally, it should be done with the non-trigger hand).
It’s attention to small details like this that helps set apart Brubaker and Phillips’ work from the majority of the crime comics field, but their esteemed reputation in the industry—the duo share the 2012 Eisner Award for Best Limited Series/Story Arc for their work on Criminal: The Last of the Innocent—is really built on their ability to reconstruct and repurpose the various literary and aesthetic signifiers of the crime genre to address contemporary themes, as they have done most recently on the Eisner-nominated period noir The Fade Out.
The aggrieved everyman finding moral restitution and empowerment in doling out righteous vigilante violence is a storytelling convention with a long tradition in American entertainment—it’s the formula that informs cinematic icons such as Death Wish‘s Paul Kersey and popular superheroes such as Batman and Spider-Man—but it’s also one that is ripe for criticism. Director Martin Scorcese and screenwriter Paul Schrader got a lot of mileage out of their recouching of the classic underdog vigilante hero as a volatile, homicidal outcast in their landmark 1976 film Taxi Driver, and Brubaker and Phillips’ Kill or Be Killed seems to be following a similar thematic trajectory: Kill or Be Killed #1 opens in medias res, with the comic’s putative vigilante hero already in the process of gunning down several individuals. It then proceeds to a flashback which comprises the remainder of the issue, revealing the vigilante’s identity as a neurotic, sexually frustrated, socially inept, and all-around sad sack graduate student named Dylan.
Dylan’s motivation for engaging in vigilante violence comes from what he believes to be a supernatural experience. After a failed suicide attempt (which triggers in him a renewed zest for life), he starts seeing visions of a demon who says that he must start killing evil men in exchange for his continued survival. While Dylan initially thinks that the demon is a hallucination brought about by his own mental infirmity, he is eventually convinced that it (and the threat it poses to his life) is genuine. Dylan’s vigilantism, in his mind, is an act of indirect self-defense. So long as he keeps killing evil men on a regular basis, the demon will let him live.
The ethical quandary surrounding the vigilante in fiction is rooted in the three-fold assumption that the vigilante has the moral authority to determine guilt in criminal cases, that he is practically infallible in his ability to assess matters of criminal responsibility, and that he is perfectly justified in using potentially lethal force. This is pure fantasy, of course. In reality, we have seen time and again how the actions of vigilantes have led to wrongful deaths. Outside of the most clear-cut cases of justifiable homicide, the moral basis and legality of potentially lethal vigilante violence should always be subject to skepticism—the burden of proof must be extremely high when an error can lead to the loss of innocent lives and vigilantes getting away with murder. (How convenient for so many action movie and comic book vigilantes, then, that their targets are almost always caught in the act of committing a crime, obviating the need for investigation and a proper trial for the accused!)
Dylan’s absurd arrangement with the demon (which may simply be a product of his fractured psyche) highlights the ridiculous ethical contortions involved when religion and ideology are used to rationalize the already shaky grounds for extrajudicial killings. This metaphor can also be extended so as to open the work to interpretation as a crypto-War on Terror comic and a comment on the current wave of racially-motivated violence plaguing portions of the United States (although I have no idea if this is Brubaker and Phillips’ intent). Where Killed or Be Killed goes from the first issue is anyone’s guess, but given the creative team’s track record, it’s bound to be worth following.