There are some creative teams in comics that I’ll come out for whenever they release works, not because their consistency is so high that I know I’ll get perfection but because even if the work is disappointing, it’s still entertaining. Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips stand out as especially symbolic of this, with their current run of Image series providing ample entertainment even when the material might not be as inspired as their best collaborations. The Fade Out had a strong start and was refreshing for its Hollywood history but its ending fell flat for me, and Fatale had an intriguing horror noir dressing but lacked substantial characters, yet I would never say I regretted following either work. Brubaker and Phillips are trustworthy artisans who have reached a point in their careers where they don’t have to innovate or push their boundaries because their collaborations have the comfort of well-worn boots, reliably easy to get into but never a bold fashion statement.
So what is one to make of the fact that the pair’s new Image monthly Kill or Be Killed hypes itself as “unlike anything Brubaker and Phillips have ever done?” Just a cursory glance at the summary for it makes it hard not to view that statement with ample skepticism– “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” might not perfectly describe every Brubaker & Phillips story, but it’s not too dissimilar from the bulk of their ouevre. Especially once you’ve read the first issue and realize it can be boiled down further to “generic white man is frustrated with his lot in life, takes extreme actions to change that.”
Brubaker & Phillips arguably peaked with this kind of narrative in Criminal: Last of the Innocent, where the noir cliche of a man disappointed by domesticity and obsessed with “what ifs” concerning his past was dropped into the framework of an Archie Comics gone gritty reality. Last of the Innocent allowed a lot of Brubaker’s scripting weaknesses to become strengths– the stilted dialogue, the archetypical characters, the middle class white male ennui morphed into meta-commentary on tradition in comics, allowing the series to function as a condemnation of that bitter white man behavior both in the industry and in the real world, and the Archie traits similarly pushed Phillips to get outside of his normal style and work in classic comics minimalism.
But in its first issue, Kill or Be Killed is a mirror image of that. Our protagonist Dylan is in a different kind of love triangle, pining for a friend who has spurned his (unknown) advances in favor of his generic roommate, and he has turned his bitterness inward, engaging in suicidal behavior, dwelling on his perceived masculine inadequacies, sulking in the dark while life carries on without him. The harsh light of Last of the Innocent is traded in for the moody blues of Fatale, and even the supernatural elements of that work are seemingly carried over. And the hook of Kill or Be Killed that is promised by its title– Dylan must kill “bad” people or he himself will die, as a kind of Final Destination: Noir twist because of his most recent botched suicide attempt– wouldn’t exactly be out of place in Brubaker & Phillips’ Ellroy aspiring vigilante ode Incognito. Kill or Be Killed is only unlike anything else Brubaker & Phillips have done if you mean that in the sense of it being a mash-up of everything they’ve done rather than a totally new work.
This isn’t to say Kill or Be Killed is an uninteresting work. Like every Brubaker & Phillips joint, it has narrative propulsion and addictive style. Some of the tricks the team used on The Fade Out have been amped up here, specifically backgrounds that burst out of and surround the panel frames, and Elizabeth Breitweiser’s coloring makes it clear that this will clearly stand out from the classic Hollywood noir textures of that work and fit better in the context of ’70s neo-noir and urban grime. This team has never shied away from violence, but the opening scenes that feature Dylan shotgunning his way through a crime den are intense and visceral, with the impact of his shots lacking the pristine, precision holes of traditional Hollywood in favor of brutality on par with Taxi Driver’s climactic final third.
That said, Kill or Be Killed too frequently feels like collaborators going through the motions. Dylan is a flat, uninteresting character and nothing about the script gives the reader any reason to give much of a fuck about his lot in life. Depression of course never needs a reason to come but when writing characters suffering from it, it’s always difficult to present their issues in a light that is fair but even handed but Dylan never comes across as anything but miserably masturbatory. Phillips nearly always shows him on the outskirts of scenes involving him and friends and Brubaker writes him in a way that makes it seem as though he is incapable of viewing other people as anything but barriers to his happiness.
In one notable early scene, we see him attempt to stand up for an (ex?)girlfriend named Daisy (who happens to be black and who we never learn anything about or see again), by throwing passive aggressive stares at some catcallers. Afterwards, he is upset with Daisy because he believes she wishes he was big and strong enough to stand up to them, not because she has done anything to indicate this is something he desires, but because it’s something he is eternally self-conscious about.
Later, Dylan makes out with Kira, his friend who happens to be dating his roommate, and even during these scenes we get a running monologue from Dylan about how he wishes people would just talk to him. Yet we are always seeing people try to talk to Dylan, try to draw him out, try to get him to open up. This could be viewed as a sly effort by Brubaker to comment on how depression alienates us, but the combination of his script’s tone and the body language Phillips illustrates work against that– Dylan is simply petulant and self-centered, a black hole of brattiness who drags down everyone around him and believes the world is treating him so unfairly that he must always take extreme actions to get noticed while he lives off “inheritance money and student loans.”
Dylan does not appear to have an ounce of self awarenesss, especially when you factor in the absurdly tone deaf intro monologue where Dylan rants about violence against black people despite one of the two black people in the comic being a victim of his. Granted, Dylan’s character limitations do not make him an inaccurate portrayal of a huge chunk of the male population, but what about Dylan makes him a character worth exploring? What about him makes him stand out from not just all the other dudes in comics and film and tv and videogames who are like this, but all of the similar characters Brubaker and Phillips have showcased throughout their careers?
Taken strictly as a work of entertainment, Kill or Be Killed is serviceable and the craft on display is unsurprisingly proficient. But taken at its own purported aim, to show you something unlike anything Brubaker and Phillips have ever done, it’s an unmitigated failure. Kill or Be Killed is business as usual, a work that could be added or removed from the Brubaker and Phillips canon without making a difference in either direction. It is a work that exists and that can occupy your time, but not a work that does much to justify its continued existence, not at this point, anyway.
Nick Hanover got his degree from Disneyland, but he’s the last of the secret agents and he’s your man. Which is to say you can find his particular style of espionage here at Loser City as well as Ovrld, where he contributes music reviews and writes a column on undiscovered Austin bands. You can also flip through his archives at Comics Bulletin, which he is formerly the Co-Managing Editor of, and Spectrum Culture, where he contributed literally hundreds of pieces for a few years. Or if you feel particularly adventurous, you can always witness his odd .gif battles with friends and enemies on twitter: @Nick_Hanover