In a rare advance look into my thinking, I’ll mention that I’m holding off on writing about The Man of Steel until the mini-series is complete. I will say that I liked the first issue more than I expected to; it sets up an interesting mystery, and while Bendis is Bendis – which is exemplified by a similarly-constructed tautology in the story – even now, he does still have his moments. Yes, the sheer Bendisness of some of the dialogue is grating, but there are times – and more of them than I would have expected – in which the sharp, staccato back-and-forth works, and seems fresh and crisp. The benefits of a good editor? If so, kudos to Chen, Cotton, and Cunningham.
Given that I rarely write about trades, that left me with two options, and while there some interesting surprises in what by all rights should have been a silly bit of nonsense, it feels like now is a good time to unleash some spoilers for…
Kill or Be Killed #19
Writer: Ed Brubaker
Artist: Sean Phillips
Cover: Sean Phillips
“You just have to not stop yourself…y’know?”
After my return to comics following almost a decade-long hiatus, there were a lot of new names and faces awaiting me, not only in terms of the characters but also in terms of the people behind the comics, and while as someone who particularly appreciates the visual elements of the medium most of the names – if not faces – that stood out initially were artists, there was one writer whose work caught my attention almost immediately: Ed Brubaker.
I’ve been wanting to write about Brubaker – particularly Brubaker paired with Phillips, his frequent collaborator – for a while, but he keeps getting edged out by other works, and when the Weigh In was still a thing, hardly anyone ever voted for his work when the option was available, because there’s clearly something wrong and broken inside of each and every one of you.
In any case, it’s likely that at some point – possibly several – when I opt to dive into the archives for future Spotlight posts I will emerge with something by Brubaker (and Phillips).
But for now, let’s take a look at this week’s entry, which is the penultimate issue of the series.
Kill or Be Killed (KoBK) tells the story of a young man named Dylan, and it began with a suicide attempt. Immediately after jumping off a building, Dylan decides that he’s made a mistake and, though realizing it’s much too late to make such a realization, decides that he wants to live after all.
Somehow, though what seems like divine intervention, he survives, a bit battered and bruised, but overall not much the worse for wear.
Later that night in his bedroom, however, he discovers that while there was intervention, it was infernal rather than divine, as a demon appears and informs him that it saved his life, and now he, Dylan, owes a life in return.
Lives, actually. As if paying rent for the existence that he no longer owns, he owes the demon one life a month from this point on, and if Dylan should ever fail to deliver, he’ll be evicted (from life).
Given that he struggles with issues of mental illness, it’s unclear – to Dylan and to us – whether the demon exists outside of Dylan’s mind, but whatever the case may be, Dylan soon learns that there are consequences to ignoring the demon’s demands, and eventually starts making his payments, becoming a ski mask-wearing vigilante and targeting people who, in his mind, deserve to die.
Along the way he discovers, much to his surprise, that he’s actually pretty good at it, though he makes plenty of mistakes – including accidentally killing his drug dealer, who, by his moral code, didn’t deserve to die – and running afoul of the Russian mob, who have at various points come perilously close to finding Dylan.
He also makes a mess of his personal life, and ultimately ends up, where we find him in this issue, institutionalized.
Dylan has been in the institution for several issues already, but his life there hasn’t been the entire focus. I mentioned that the story began with his suicide attempt, and that’s true in terms of the chronology, but is not at all reflective of the non-linear manner in which Dylan – who provides the narration – tells his tale. The first issue began with him in full badass Liam Neeson mode taking out a bunch of Russians and the standard, “I’ll bet you’re wondering how I got here” approach to starting a story in the midst of things, a set of circumstances that Dylan keeps returning to for brief intervals while promising that eventually we’ll get the answer to what we’re wondering before moving on to something else.
We start out this issue in the institution, during a blizzard, with Dylan making progress towards his eventual release, and letting us know that, demon or no demon, he intends to get back to taking out the trash once he is out.
The one problem with that plan is a detective who has discovered that Dylan is the vigilante and is on her way – risking the drive in the lousy weather – to confront him, though she does so without realizing that a car full of Russians is on her tail.
When she confronts Dylan, he realizes that if she had him properly dead-to-rights he’d be in cuffs, and the fact that she hasn’t arrested him means that there’s some reason that she can’t.
While Dylan was away, a copycat killer went on a brief rampage, that ended with his death, and as far as the NYPD is concerned the copycat was the vigilante all along and the case is closed.
Dylan is prepared to walk away, but the detective – Lily Sharpe – draws him back in with a reference to Rex, the accidentally-murdered drug dealer.
While the brass won’t let her reopen the case, Sharpe still wants answers, to know the why of it all.
Their conversation is interrupted by the arrival of the Russians, who start killing people in an attempt to find Dylan, and at that point there are larger concerns for the two of them than discussing the morality of murder and of the primacy of the rule of law.
The two make an surprisingly effective duo – with Dylan, a civilian, being more of a battle-hardened veteran than Sharpe, who, prior to the events of this issue, had never shot anyone – right up until they don’t, which is the point at which, after getting outside to the parking lot, they discover that the Russians had left one of their number outside lying in wait.
It will be interesting to see where Brubaker goes from here – and how he manages it – and I wonder whether we’ll get any answers as to the nature of the demon. One thing I hadn’t mentioned is that Dylan’s father killed himself years earlier, and the gun that Dylan used initially was found among his father’s things.
His dad had been an artist who illustrated covers and images for various pulpy horror, fantasy, and science-fiction publications. (Dylan is particularly disturbed when he learns that his mom served as the model for some of the more erotic images that he and his friend used to peek at when he was a kid.)
Sometime after taking on the role of masked vigilante, Dylan discovers a trove of his father’s artwork that he had never seen before, all of it depicting an image of the same demon that has been driving him.
Further, he learns that he had an older brother – from his father’s first marriage – who killed himself before Dylan was born, and who seemed to have been haunted by the very same demon.
It seems equally likely that these coincidences indicate that the demon is real or that it’s some sort of shared delusion within the family. Perhaps Dylan’s father began depicting the demon as a means of dealing with the loss of his son and Dylan did see the images in his youth, and after his brush with death Dylan drew on the memory of those images to create a rationalization for his actions.
After all, while the demon may have pushed Dylan to become a killer it didn’t make him enjoy it. That’s all on Dylan.
KoBK is an intensely political work, capturing much of the current zeitgeist, and driven by Brubaker’s own frustration with what he sees happening in the world, a world in which the rich and powerful are utterly unaccountable to the laws they use against those who are not rich and powerful, and the story it tells is one of taking that frustration to extremes.
(Interestingly enough, given the timing, the inclusion of Russians as antagonists/corrupting elements in the story seems to be entirely coincidental.)
It’s also incredibly fraught, given our current environment, and the reality of gun violence. Superficially, it may seem to glorify that violence, to suggest that violence is not just the solution but the only solution.
I don’t think that’s the case. While he has arguably done some good, Dylan has so far solved nothing, and created more problems through his actions than anything else, and those actions – no matter how good they make him feel, or how justified he thinks they are – required the intervention of a demon to push him past the inertia of his more conventional sense of morality.
It’s not that we need to start murdering the “bad guys,” and we don’t need a demon threatening to kill us to provide a rationalization, but we do need to take a more honest look at what’s happening in the world, at the demons that are driving us, and find a way past our complacency.
The other day on Twitter, Kelly Sue DeConnick challenged people to identify the pervasive themes in the works of their favorite comics creators.
For Brubaker, I suggested that it’s people trying to find a way to some kind of happiness or peace, no matter how dire the circumstances, and dealing with, or trying to avoid, the damage they cause along the way*.
I think that assessment aligns well with Brubaker’s noir sensibilities; the genre often involves terrible people doing terrible things, but ultimately doing so for the sake of something not necessarily noble or pure, but at least a little bit closer to the better angels of our nature.
And it’s certainly where we find Dylan, as he imagines a post-institutionalized life in which he can go back to spending time with his best friend/woman he loves and to killing bad guys on the regular (exemplifying that “trying to avoid the damage” aspect).
Brubaker’s flair for and interest in noir storytelling is what made his super-hero work so compelling, focusing, in large part, as he did on the “street-level” kinds of heroes, like Daredevil. He can spin a good story with the more “cosmic-level” heroes as well, but his best work involves damaged people who are doing their best, or, more often than not, their worst.
That approach is best complemented by Sean Phillips, whose art is a study in contrast in contradiction, feeling simultaneously old and new, mixing simplicity with complexity in a way that’s ideally-suited for the kind of stories he and Brubaker tell, and his open panels allow for a full bleed that is appropriate for the work, leaving only the barest hint of negative space to provide the requisite flow.
I also appreciate the occasional pages that are laid out in a way to separate the text from the images, allowing you a few moments to enjoy the two separately before diving back in to the more traditional blending of the two.
As is something of a rare gift for artists, Phillips is especially adept at capturing naturalistic facial expressions that convey a wealth of information, contributing enormously to the storytelling.
The thinness of the simple, clean line work pairs as well with the dark, detailed shadows and heavily-rendered backgrounds almost as perfectly as, well, Brubaker pairs with Phillips.
Their frequent partner in crime (noir), Elizabeth Breitweiser brings a moodiness and grit with her flat colors that add dimension without detracting from the depth of the inkiness or creating the distraction that more seemingly-sophisticated coloring techniques would.
Ultimately, my takeaway from Kill or Be Killed is that as much as it sometimes may seem otherwise, I have to hope that those aren’t the only options we have.
Literally ALL the Brubaker and Phillips. All. Of. It.
That does it for this week’s Spotlight Sunday. Check back on Saturday for the Showcase.
*And my response was “liked” by Sean Phillips, which made my week.