The first issue of Kill or Be Killed came out in 2016 and I have a strong memory of going into my local comic shop, scared that they wouldn’t let me buy the first issue (because I was under 18). Luckily(?), they didn’t care in my neck of the woods and the first issue blew me away. It was some kind-of fantastical fusion of pulp and psychological thriller. Think Donnie Darko meets Taxi Driver about a young man who kills “bad guys” because a demon tells him too after a failed suicide attempt.
And for the longest time, we went along with the series because, hey, who knows where this is going? And you never know what the next issue will bring! But now that the entirety of the series, all twenty issues, is collected in one big ol’ thang…there are plenty of problems that reveal themselves.
Let me clarify that this isn’t going to be a review of each issue. It’s a review of the complete package. And it almost feels like Ed Brubaker and Sean Philips wanted us to get more enjoyment out of each individual issue. Because if you graded each individual issue, the scores would be decently high from yours truly. Because, again, Kill or be Killed strings us along with lots of questions and surprises. But if you read the entire thing and can see the whole picture, it comes across as fairly sloppy.
SPOILERS from here on out. To discuss this story overall in any detail, I will spoil a ton. You hath been warned, reader.
I know I said I wouldn’t review every issue, but the first issue is a solid piece of work that does a tremendous amount of heavy lifting in terms of set-up. So that deserves to be talked about for a second.
The first issue opens with a massacre committed by our main character Dylan. It’s gruesome, bloody stuff as he blows away middle-aged suits in a dingy apartment. It’s like we fast-forwarded to Travis Bickle’s climactic shootout. But this is no self-serious comic. Dylan is a snarky 28-year old grad student who’s being cucked by his best-friend (Kira), depressive, suicidal, and has daddy issues; and as he guns people down, he’s narrating with a flippant, meta attitude.
If this sounds like too much too fast, Brubaker’s main tactic through Kill or be Killed is to mask horrific violence and crushing depression with snarky narration. At times this does wonders, like in this first issue, letting us into this pathetic character’s life and getting us to sympathize with him despite our knowledge that he’ll end up killing people. However, as the series progresses, his continual flow of snark grows tiresome and overly pleased with itself, like Rick Remender’s VO can often grow in his series. It’s especially irritating when its used to comment on cliché story beats. Just because a writer winks at us and says a story beat is lazy—does not mean it’s suddenly acceptable. Either don’t do the cliché or don’t draw attention to it.
We flashback before Dylan’s massacre to observe his miserable life. So, depressed, Dylan decides to kill himself. But he comes out the other side very much alive. With a newfound appreciation for life (great true-to-life detail regarding suicide survivors), he goes on his merry way. Well, until a demon appears to him, saying Dylan owes him a life and that Dylan must take others’ to pay the debt. Of course he doesn’t want to do this at first—but a sudden sickness takes him to death’s door, clearly instigated by the demon to force Dylan’s hand. So, exhausted, Dylan agrees. Thus ends the first issue and we’re off to the races.
In screenwriting terms, this covers a lot of ground, introducing the life of the character, the inciting incident that sets them on their quest, the debate over whether they should move forward, and the break into Act 2 where they make a decision to go on a journey. All of this is packed into #1 and it’s a very solid, well-paced issue.
I won’t directly cover every issue going forward, but instead address threads and themes across the series.
The biggest problem with Kill or be Killed—is the demon and the morality of the issue. And also tonal inconsistency. When the demon first arrives, we’re not sure if its real or imagined. Afterall, this series sets itself up as a gritty psychological drama. It wouldn’t have goofy shadowy demons, would it? But in the individual issues we went along with it, assuming there’d be some twist. After all, Dylan keeps thinking that he must be crazy and that this demon is surely something from his past.
However, it’s revealed that his father saw the same demon and painted it into Heavy Metal-like illustrations. Another revelation says that Dylan had a mysterious brother who killed himself and saw the same shadowy, horned figure. So in this fairly grounded, contemporary universe—demons are real and mentally torture and torment people if they fail to commit suicide.
However, that brings up several problems. As I already mentioned, it’s a tonal clash to have such a goofy looking, supernatural being driving a gritty, fairly grounded story about mental angst. Since Brubaker and Phillips have introduced such a silly element like an invisible demon—they should have gone whole-hog. They should have explored the implications of this demon and what that means about morality and ethics in this world. Go crazy—lean into the supernatural horror. Or, if Brubaker didn’t want to go full camp, then he should have made the demon, well, not real. I’m not asking for a whole essay from Kill or be Killed, but we needed more than what we got—which isn’t very much.
See, Dylan gets off fairly easy. Going around killing people like a vigilante is obviously not OK despite all the injustices in the world (despite what some cops who love Punisher paraphernalia say). But that gives him some kind-of out, or at least, that’s what Brubaker wants for us. He still wants us to root for Dylan to some degree, so the demon doesn’t just want anybody’s life—he wants “bad people.” Which, firstly, is patently ridiculous to begin with. Why the flipping seven hells would a demon care about getting “bad people?” Isn’t that, like the opposite of what demons are supposed to want? But I’m getting sidetracked—the point is—Brubaker, in the set-up, gives Dylan some form of escape. He doesn’t kill good people! Just bad people! It’s OK, folks! Don’t be scared! Feel free to cosplay as this guy!
Unfortunately, it doesn’t stop there. There are brief moments, especially early on, when the morality of Dylan’s rampages are examined. Especially #2, when Dylan kills a pedophile. Before he pulls the trigger, Dylan asks himself what is “bad?” What’s “bad enough?” Can people change? If so, maybe this guy that did something bad years ago doesn’t deserve to die now. But Dylan concludes that good deeds can’t outweigh evils, and he kills the man.
That’s some dark, heavy stuff there and exactly what this series should have explored more of. However, other than this moment, there’s not much more moral qualms Dylan has. He wants to quit all the time, and feels bad about accidentally killing a drug-dealer “friend” of his, but he’s mostly blasé about the whole affair, mainly because he “only kills bad guys” and feels justified. Besides, these qualms are all selfish on his part.
There are plenty of similar stories about men who end up growing hopeless about the state of the world and believe something should be done about it. See the previously mentioned Taxi Driver or the very recent and brilliant First Reformed (written by the same guy, Paul Schrader). These are about social outcasts who despair and want to lash out against evils of the world. We, as the audience, agree that there is evil, but their method of eradication is shocking and crosses the line. With Travis Bickle of Taxi Driver, he’s mentally unstable and we’re never quite sure what he’ll do next. Yet, we’re in Dylan head all the time and although depressive, it’s made clear he’s not crazy. There is a demon. We’re supposed to like him to a degree.
So Kill or be Killed could take the First Reformed rout where a man falls steadily into extremism. But Dylan doesn’t really fall. He’s given a moral out—he only kills “bad people,” and after he lets go of fear early on, his main goal is to survive. His mental anguish or extremism does not increase.
Dylan does suffer in these issues—but it’s incredibly selfish suffering that doesn’t challenge him or the reader. Kill or be Killed is all about Dylan’s romantic, mental (but he’s not crazy), and physical pain. If he doesn’t do what the demon wants, it strikes him with sickness. And across the course of the story, he gets hurt and incarcerated in different ways. But despite this story having a demon and thusfore, a spiritual, moral world—there’s not a lot of spiritual or moral anguish Dylan undergoes.
You’d think if there’s a demon, there’s some kind-of spiritual essence to this world, so Dylan would have a soul that could be tortured. But that isn’t explored. And as I’ve already said, Dylan isn’t morally or ethically tortured because he believes he’s in the right. But think about this—Dylan is forced into killing. He probably would have been fine if not for the demon’s forceful bargain. Another out. The point is, this is an edgy story that plays in big, complicated waters many have succeeded in before, and it does next to nothing. Kill or be Killed is more focused on T&A, kills, and pop-psychology angst.
Kira, is a constant through the series, and her relationship with Dylan is believably messy. They grew up friends, but its awkward now that her boyfriend is Dylan’s roommate. Yet, they still have romantic feelings for each other and beyond that, a great deal of understanding and care. Eventually we learn about Kira’s backstory, mostly in #7, where the focus is mainly on her. Suddenly, a wealth of themes pop up regarding her estranged mother. #7 is about the secrets we hide, forgiveness, and how we all become our mothers (a theme also in Nocturnal Animals). But do these themes ever present themselves after this? Saddly—mind-bogglingly—no.
It should also be mentioned that Kira comes across as a manic pixie dream girl. Even when she’s vulnerable, like in #7, it’s an absurd male fantasy of a “damage girl.” I kid you not, her backstory is that her mom held orgies at their house, and as a little girl, Kira watched and that’s why she’s “all messed up.” Seriously? What’s with comics defaulting to orgies as some form of edgelord maturity? And how does anybody think Kira is anything other than a male wet-dream idea of the “perfect girl?” Despite Dylan’s psychosis, she refuses to stop caring for and enabling this guy.
Dylan gets a girlfriend, Daisy, for a little while. What’s her story? Well, apparently it’s not important, because she’s just used as a plot device so Dylan can have sex with somebody and make Kira jealous. Her only other purpose is to help Dylan find an eerie painting from his dad that reveals the demon’s lineage, but Daisy wasn’t necessary for that, and she’s immediately dropped from the narrative afterwards.
To show how Dylan gets caught or tracked, a Detective Sharpe is introduced, and the story comes to a grinding halt whenever she’s around. One of the most pernicious, dull clichés in crime stories is the detective that nobody believes but whose determination and instincts guide them to victory. Extra brownie points if it’s a woman and her superiors and peers are all men who don’t believe in her. Understand, this isn’t inherently bad, women should be in more stories and toxic masculinity should be taken down a peg. But usually female inclusion is just a tiny detail thrown in by men as a weak gesture of equality. Even worse, Sharpe has no character beyond being a “driven female detective.”
As for pacing, Kill or be Killed isn’t ever necessarily boring. We keep reading because we want more answers and to see how it’ll end. But it’s almost as if Brubaker wants to intentionally disrupt any flow he builds up. As soon as we settle into a rhythm with Dylan’s story—it’s shatter to focus on Kira or Detective Sharpe. In order to be meta and “clever,” too many issues begin in media res, then cut back to Dylan practically saying: “You’re probably wondering how I got here.”
Every writing class will tell you not to do this, and for good reason. If you build up tension then deflate it with a flashback, that shows a lack of confidence in writing and a stubborn insistence on showing everything, no matter how relatively unimportant. There’s room to break the rules, but Kill or be Killed serves as just another example of what happens when writers think they can do clichés because they’re meta about it—and fall flat on their faces. Just because you namedrop Kafka does not mean you can dive into a pool of clichés.
Well, now that I’ve winged about the story for a while, I suppose its time to shift gears and praise the art. Refining their partnership over many years and projects (Sleeper, Criminal, Fatale, Fade Out, to name a few), Sean Philips and Ed Brubaker work wonders together. Infusing noir and pulp tropes, the art is both gritty and expressionistic.
NYC is the main location, and it’s one of the best renditions of the city in comic form I’ve ever seen. Panels depicting the city streets are so packed with bustle and detail, it’s like you’re actually peeking at the place through windows. I’m sure photo reference was heavily used, but it never feels like traced work. Nor are there ever so many details that it becomes distracting.
Across these twenty issues, there are so many stand-out visual moments, but I’ll highlight just a few. In #3, there’s a beautifully woozy vision in Time Square where Dylan stumbles around a swirl of neon lights as the demon stalks him. #12 works almost like a bottle issue as Dylan stalks down a Russian lacky and sets a plan in motion to cripple the Russians. Throughout, there are panels of pure noir, like Philips forcing us to stare straight on at Dylan as he grips his steering wheel like a character out of Sin City or when Dylan’s car glides over asphalt reflecting the city light up above as he tails a victim.
Granted, the art isn’t totally perfect. Flashbacks involving children can lead to “Frank Miller giant child head syndrome,” a problem I’ve cited in recent Criminal issues as well. When the action heats up, Philips’ style can’t fully keep up. He’s not a generic artist only interested in drawing punching, muscly figure…but when he’s called to have characters punching, it can lack dynamism and come across as stiff and photo-referency.
Although it has a startling, attention-grabbing premise with stunning art, when viewed overall, the series has serious structural and thematic issues. Although owning Kill or be Killed in a yuge hardcover Image format is a beautiful package, the story only marginally works when you read issue to issue. But hey, maybe paying $50+ might be worth it for Philip’s art and the special features.