Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips are back together again with their latest Image noir. There’s murder afoot, perpetrated by disparate characters, all stuck in a seedy environment. Except this time, there’s no mystery to solve, because they’re taking a look at vigilantism. If you were to list a set of things you expect out of a Brubaker/Phillips collaboration, you would have “Kill Or Be Killed” #1.
Written by Ed Brubaker
Illustrated by Sean Phillips and Elizabeth Breitweiser
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 & PHILLIPS have ever done.
There’s a certain set of elements you can expect out of an Ed Brubaker/Sean Phillips comic. It’s going to take place in some crime-ridden underbelly of a major city. There will be a down-on-his-luck hero trying to deal with this girl he’s pining for, as he slowly realizes there’s no one in his life he can actually trust, including the people he thought were his friends. The aesthetic will be moody and murky, with subdued colors, sketchy lines, and an overall tone that reeks of grime. There will be a crime and everyone will be miserable as their lives get upended while Brubaker and Phillips use this chance to explore the dark dredges of humanity.
In sort, you can expect a noir.
“Kill Or Be Killed” #1 is definitely an Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips book. And while it’s great that these two have found a genre that works for them and have, in all fairness, produced some truly strong work using said genre as a springboard, the seams are starting to show. The concept is starting to wear thin. I remember reading the solicit and saying, “Oh. They’re doing another crime story. Again.” Even with the slight twists on the material (the eldritch horror of “Fatale” for instance), by the end of the day, we’re still dealing with the same conventions, can still guess at how it’s all going to play out. Something like “Kill Or Be Killed” #1 is well-crafted and told confidently, but it’s never exciting or surprising and completely like everything Brubaker and Phillips have ever done.
That’s not to say “Kill Or Be Killed” #1 is bad: it is enjoyable enough. Honestly, it’s even pretty funny. Not an awkwardly chuckling and uncomfortable sort of funny, but one with some genuine situational jokes and gags. It’s just creatively stagnant.
Brubaker and Phillips focus on Dylan, a 28-year-old grad student (which isn’t that old, Brubaker, to be in grad school) whose life has ground to a halt. His best friend, this girl he’s of course in love with, is in a relationship with his roommate. And it’s not their constant sex that bothers him, but the fact he can always hear them talking about the loneliness and pitifulness of his existence. His prospects are dried up, he has trouble meeting new people, and has altogether allowed himself to be miserable.
But then, he gets involved in something seedy, suddenly finding himself tasked with killing people.
Brubaker and Phillips balance a lot of different sources for “Kill Or Be Killed” #1. There are elements of “Death Note” (a young hero deciding he should kill a bunch of bad people), “Fight Club” (depression fueled by torpidity and a deep hatred of consumerism), and “Trainspotting” (a non-linear narrative propelled when the narrator remembers the bits and pieces). Brubaker shows a strong control over Dylan’s narration, jumping backward and forward in time as he recalls some random detail to help contextualize what we’re seeing. The book opens on Dylan in the middle of a rampage, but never circles back to it, so that might be how the arc ends.
Don’t look for any closure, however. Honestly don’t look for many questions, either. “Kill Or Be Killed” #1 only really introduces the characters and their world, touching briefly on their situations, before flirting with the larger plot. Just enough for us to draw lines and connections between everyone, but never enough to make them feel more like a character sketch.Continued below
The thing is, Brubaker and Phillips know how to bring out the best in each other. Reading this, you get a sense that these are people who trust each other enough to produce the most interesting comic book they can. Their pacing, their control of time, their sense of scene: it’s all incredibly well-crafted and controlled. Brubaker is aware of when he needs to pull back to let a scene play out through images versus when he needs to slow down the momentum a bit with more captions. He trusts Phillips to show an emotion or reaction or feeling and doesn’t go about explaining everything within the text, in case you didn’t get it. Phillips does most of the character work through body language and expression, and I think you get a better sense of who all these people are watching them interact with one another and with their environment than by anything they actually say. He knows how Brubaker likes to write and builds open, breathing images. They are a tight team. Nothing about the book feels out-of-place or unnecessary.
Yet, like the rest of the book, none of that is surprising. Although “Kill Or Be Killed” #1 has some slight variations on their common theme, they’re still hitting the same beats. Still doing the same thing. “Kill Or Be Killed” #1 is an all right book, but Brubaker and Phillips’s reliance on their common conventions keeps it from really going anywhere.
Final Verdict: 6.5 – I think it’s time for Brubaker and Phillips to branch out a bit.