Dylan is a 28-year-old grad student. His roommate is sleeping with his best friend (and girl of his dreams) and he’s living off the inheritance of his deceased father’s erotic fantasy art. After a complicated kiss and an overheard conversation, Dylan decides to kill himself. It’s not the first time he’s tried, but it is the first time his life is saved by a devil with a list of demands.
The proposal is simple: I saved your life, now you owe me. To stave off his own bodily collapse to an inexplicable illness (seemingly caused by the devil in question), Dylan is charged with the murder of one human being per month. Here's the catch: Each person that he kills will deserve it, from a Punisher-esque standpoint of moral relativism.
Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips have a knack for capturing the human condition in their collaborations. Traditionally, the two weave complicated yarns full of pulp that showcase the unlawful underbelly of our fragile world. Criminal captured our imaginations with a carefully plotted tale of ceaseless crime. More recently, The Fade Out took us to a place of passion and movie magic, as brilliantly realized characters plotted from the shadows of Golden Age Hollywood. Now, the true dynamic duo of the comic book industry take us to the heart of American depression and vigilantism with Kill or be Killed.
Dylan himself narrates the story. He’s painfully aware of his loser status, and more than mindful of how crazy this all sounds. In a confrontation with the frightful devil, his arm is broken, meant to reassure him this is all too real. Even still, in the pale yellow caption boxes and the space of the comic’s gutters, Dylan spends each waking moment questioning the authenticity of his situation, as well as his fledgling commitment to vigilante justice.
Brubaker’s stupefying script accounts for the real nitty-gritty of vigilantism. Dylan researches his targets and constantly attempts to reassure himself of the valiance of his actions. Between practicing cool things to say when he pulls the trigger, he’s a sweating mess of guilt and self-pity, struggling to maintain the reality of his new double life.
Tensions run high with his best friend and dream girl Kira, as Dylan continuously returns home with new bruises and scars at odd hours of the night. Each interaction between the two is a carefully balanced trapeze act of delicately penned dialogue and masterful levels of nuance. These golden moments of graphic storytelling are captured artfully by Sean Phillips’ heavy black inks, and his utterly human faces, emerging from the page with subtlety and emotion.
The story contained in the first volume of Kill or be Killed is full of subversion, daydreams and gut-wrenchingly difficult pictures of human suffering. Dylan’s depression runs parallel to the narrative, as he recounts failed suicide attempts and his general feeling of helplessness. Murder becomes his medication, not unlike how many actual Americans rely on crutches, such as substance abuse, to get them through another tough month.
Dylan’s self-medication begins with a devil screaming at him in his dreams. The reader is left to wonder, alongside the protagonist, whether or not it was a real experience or an extension of his apparent mental disease. Before long, Dylan says “fuck it” and buys a gun. How long do you have until you say “fuck it” and buy a copy of Kill or be Killed?