Page 45 Review by Publisher Blurb
KILL OR BE KILLED is the psychological self-examination of an affable and educated young man's descent into mass murder.
That's the sentence I returned to, time and again, during my reviews of these four phenomenally compelling softcovers, tweaking or embellishing it a little each time. Before we begin, extras this time include all of Jake Phillips's essay illustrations liberated from text, and some Sean Phillips art used elsewhere.
Kill Or Be Killed book one
"See? That's what was going around in my head.
"An endless argument spin cycle.
"Point, counterpoint... all day long."
In which the snow blows thicker and thicker.
To begin with it's almost soft. It's certainly softer than a sidewalk from six storeys up.
It tumbles across the sprawling city as far as the eye can see, which is further than you might think; especially when you're on one of its rooftops, so precariously close to the edge and determined to jump.
From below the thick flakes recede, smaller and smaller, into the heavens which glow a rich, luminous turquoise, while below all is neon-lit for danger.
By the final four pages of the first chapter it's a veritable blizzard in blinding, icing-sugar white, with wild flashes of thought and explosions of violence like landmines detonated in your head. Then, when it's settled, there's a moment of clarity - for Dylan at least.
He's not going to kill himself. He's going to kill other people instead.
From the Eisner-Award winning creators of CRIMINAL, FATALE and THE FADE OUT, the first six pages are a bludgeoning barrage of quite cathartic violence, all the more brutal to behold because Phillips has dispensed with the frames and the gutters to go full-bleed to the edge of each page. It's more immediate. It's more in-your-face, just like that shotgun, which is meticulously rendered and weighted.
Crucially, however, even if it's more difficult to draw, then it's as easy to read as ever, for the three-tier structure remains intact, the panels inset instead against an extended background. It's something he carries right through the subsequent flashbacks and it pays off especially outside because the wider sense of space is phenomenal.
Anyway, in case you're reading this on the product page rather than the blog, here's some of Dylan's socio-political self-justification. It's not why he's blowing holes in these very bad people, but isn't it kind of comforting to know that you're making the world a better place than it currently is?
"Just look at the news for five fucking minutes and it's obvious...
"Big business controls your government...
"Assholes go on shooting rampages almost daily...
"Terrorists blow up airports and train stations...
"Cops kill innocent black kids and get away with it...
"Psychopaths run for President...
"Oh, and the Middle East is one nuke away from turning us all to dust...
"And that's just the tip of the iceberg."
What follows does not lead directly into the opening sequence - this is a long-form work, and Brubaker has a lot to explore in terms of psychology and practicalities before Dylan develops into a proficient and equanimous mass murderer - but it does go some way to explaining how Dylan, studying later in life than most at NYU, might eventually find himself a) with a shotgun b) using it.
It begins with that attempt at suicide - not his first, either - and that began with a girl. It began with his best friend called Kira, one of the few people Dylan felt ever understood him. She got his sense of humour, his taste in music and his sense of isolation which had already set in before his flatmate Mason got between the two of them by dating.
"Their relationship ruined the one good thing I had.
"Kira still came to our place all the time, but almost never to hang out with me.
"And that made me feel even lonelier than I usually did."
That sense of being cut off from Kira is emphasised by Phillips in a similar way to what Ware did at the window in JIMMY CORRIGAN: by distancing Dylan, isolated inside his own panel, from the rest of the couch where Kira and Mason sit closer together. Breitweiser bathes the lovers in light from the television set they're watching, whereas Dylan remains shrouded in darkness. I can't imagine anything much more uncomfortable.
Oh wait, I can, because that's what happens next. And eventually it leads to the rooftop.
Where that leads is even more startling, but I'm not about to spoil that for you now. All I will say is that Dylan's head is far from healthy. He's fallen far enough already, but he's got a long way to go before picking up a gun and going if not postal then at least house-hunting.
As I've mentioned before, one of Brubaker's many fortes is making you want to spend as much time as possible in his protagonists' minds, no matter how disturbed. Here he does so in part through Dylan's vulnerability and confessional, apologetic and self-searching tone. However confident in his newly acquired worldview Dylan seems on the first six pages - and I'd place money on that being a 'good' day - none of that is reflected in any red-bloodedly aggressive tendencies either earlier in life or even now.
This is not a revenge story and Dylan's acts are not an expression of angry contra mundum. They are instead acts of survival which require - and result in - all sorts of practicalities which Brubaker explores in depth.
One of those practicalities is avoiding any meaningful conversation with Kira even though their relationship grows increasingly complicated and Kira's being honest with him. The guilt that he's not reciprocating gnaws at Dylan, but he is fully aware that if he begins to offload in one way he's likely to do so in others. Kira's love and genuine, deep-rooted concern for him is the one thing he has left, and it's almost certain to evaporate instantly if she learns he's beginning to stalk and murder very bad men, whatever the crimes they've committed.
As well as his prowess as a weather and landscape artist - there are so many daylight cityscape shots of extraordinary detail which Breitweisser colours with a finger-numbing freeze - Phillips gets to show off his photo-realistic skills as Dylan sifts through the erotic fantasy stories his father illustrated, recalling his dad's craft by conjuring one of those nudes in his mind's eye. Wouldn't you just know that she'd look one hell of a lot like Kira? And as he remembers perving over the magazines with his young friends, aged 6 or so, he realises who has behaved so horrifically as to merit being his first target.
This begs further practicalities for a novice like Dylan, like finding a gun which won't be traced. As to hunting down someone he only knew only tangentially many moons ago, well, that's what Facebook's for, right?
But then there's the self-searching and doubt which I alluded to earlier.
"See, I kept having this sick feeling that I might have killed someone for no reason.
"Like, think about it for a second. There had to be some possibility that I hallucinated [REDACTED]. "Didn't there? And if I did, if it wasn't actually real, that meant my head was fucked, right?
"Which meant the way I remembered that day with Teddy could be wrong too... Right?"
Now, that's all very specific to this particular story, but one of Brubaker's interests lies in our universal, shared experiences and another of his skills is in making those connections and exploring their implications.
"I've read how memory works...
"I know we edit our memories so we look better in them.
"So what if I made up the whole thing?
"What if I was just like those assholes back in high school, pretending to have some secret link to the tragic dead kid?"
That would be Teddy.
"Except... Why would I make up a childhood story, especially one as sick as that, and never tell anyone about it?
"Who makes up a story and keeps it a secret?
"What is the point of that?"
Sorry to keep the quotations so cryptic, but you've got to be wondering what his memory was now... Right?
We've got a long way to go before we get to page one.
Kill Or Be Killed book two
The psychological self-examination of one affable if awkward young man's descent into mass murder.
If you think it improbable that you will root for the guy, I'd remind you that such is the strength of Brubaker's internal monologues that the self-contained CRIMINAL: THE LAST OF INNOCENT had us all desperately praying that a man could get away with uxoricide.
This is the periodical I pick up first no matter what else is on offer on any given week.
There's nothing sensationalist about it. Our narrator is an astute individual with a keen moral compass, and that's as much of a trigger as anything. Much of the priming in terms of mental isolation has already been explored, but the other trigger - the core motivation, if you like - is an element of the first KILL OR BE KILLED which I deliberately kept from you for fear of spoilers.
I'm not going to elaborate here, either, except to say that there is a moment of discovery on the part of his best friend Kira which leaves her in fear for Dylan's safety, while holed up in his closet as he makes love to an ex-girlfriend. Kira, it should be noted, is undoubtedly the love of his life, but lest he blurts out something incriminating he's been keeping her at a distance, even as she confides in him.
It's not this discovery that he's worried about, but he should be.
And it explains everything which you may have puzzled over in book one.
Where Dylan has become compromised is with both the NYPD and the Russian mob now, after one public blunder (or a spot of bad luck) and a miscalculation about just how wide the Russians' net is spread and how tenacious they can be. Fortunately institutional sexism and male police pride may give him some breathing space for now, but the Russians are more open-minded and resourceful.
Here's more of his self-justification:
"Lobbyists aren't all bad, of course. Some lobby for human rights or the environment. But most of the time, they work for big business and what they do is, they pay a lot of money to politicians to pass laws or repeal regulations... so the corporations they work for can do whatever the fuck they want.
"Gideon Prince was the kind of lobbyist who helped put poison in your drinking water and then laughed about it to his buddies.
"And what I mean is, he'd done that exact thing...
"And yes, look - I know this one is sort of a stretch. He didn't personally poison that ground water. But people who can look at dumping chemicals as a good thing because it saves them money... who can make fun of the people who are suffering because of it?
"It's hard to argue the world wouldn't be better off without them."
He's exceptionally self-aware and quite the philosophical conversationalist when it comes to his audience if not his few "friends" whom he keeps at a remove. He's not deluding himself, except when it comes to that one key element which, when you discover it, is sadly so common.
Most of his longer reflections and reminiscences are aligned down blank vertical columns outside of the art, giving them chance to breathe, but don't get too complacent about what's being shown there, that's all I'll say.
I never intended this second review to be anything but brief, but you could write an essay on the body language alone: little details which either Brubaker or Phillips drops in, like Detective Lily Sharpe - the one on the ball whom her fellow officers studiously dismiss and ignore - who was raised in foster care between several group homes, reading on the bottom bunk of a bed, the toes of her bare feet digging self-protectively into the duvet as someone else's dangle over the top.
There's something squat, rough and ready about Dylan's physique and physiognomy. It's not simian, but it's burly and certainly atypical of most protagonists', both within comics and without; I keep thinking of the Gallagher brothers from Oasis.
Anyway, with police attention now drawn, so is the media's and I suspect Sean will become quite sick of drawing news stands before Dylan's done.
Dylan is forced to become more reactive while increasingly restricted, and even though you know that he lives to tell this tale (if not under what circumstances), you will be kept on the edge of that proverbial seat, toes possibly digging into the carpet.
Kill Or Be Killed book three
"And suddenly every word that she said was a gift.
"Every smile was a miracle,
"I'd been so stupid... We're all so stupid all the time.
"We stop noticing our miracles."
We do indeed.
And now for the bits you've been waiting for!
KILL OR BE KILLED book one began in blazing gunfire, a sequence we've been promised a return to, and by the end of this volume you will finally see Dylan in that "hotel" with the shotgun, you'll understand exactly why he's so focussed, specifically on social injustice, and it's all but the beginning of a meticulously thought out act-and-distract plan to shut down the local Russian mafia for good.
If he doesn't, they've given every indication that they will come for his girlfriend, Kira.
KILL OR BE KILLED has been the practical and psychological self-examination of one educated young man's descent into mass murder.
We're most of us more capable than we imagine we are. Dylan is ruminative by nature - which is why it's taken two volumes to get to this point! - thinking things through, though not all the time with a clear head; that, he would be the very first to concede. Here he contemplates courage, and the nature of fear as something self-imposed as well as instilled in us through aphorisms and cautionary tales designed to curtail our curiosity or limit our ambition (Daedalus / Icarus and "A bird in the hand..." etc). We are persuaded to believe not in ourselves, but in our weaknesses, drawing lines in the sand which we dare not cross. But if others have crossed them - if one person can kill a grizzly bear - why cannot we?
Dylan's unusually self-aware, constantly rummaging around in his own troubled memories and the physical boxes of published art which his father left behind, whilst musing on Kira's past as well as his father's sad life and suicide.
"I guess it's different for people whose fathers didn't commit suicide, but if yours did, then he's probably a fairly tragic figure in your memory...
"That familial memory that shapes who you are.
"That's how it always was for me. My father was legendary and tragic and sad... all at one time.
"And if I had to pick one word that described him best, it would've been a tie between "lonely" and "isolated".
Dylan has just described himself, and little wonder: "That familial memory that shapes who you are."
He's far from alone but lonely instead, isolated inside his own head. So often there are moments of hope that he will be able to free himself from the shackles of his pragmatic secrecy, this solitary existence, and steer freely away from the desperate trajectory which he has found himself locked on.
One of those is where we came in and he realises that "We stop noticing our miracles." Yet it's these very preoccupations which prevent Dylan from fully engaging and actually existing inside the moment, and those moments of hope do not last long.
All of that is conveyed in the art: in the cinema, for example, with Kira beaming while Dylan sits dead-faced, obsessing over his predicament. And that's after his supposed satori.
Thanks to Phillips and Breitweiser, Dylan is surrounded by so much arboreal beauty which he singularly fails to notice - even as he's strolling through Central Park with the love of his life, lit bright with laughter, which was formerly all that he craved - and it will only become more pronounced in the next volume.
It's not just that he fails to notice it, either: it is that he is entirely removed from its life-affirming balm by his inner demons - the psychotic shit that's going on his head - and by the very real danger that surrounds them both. That Kira is oblivious to the danger (because Dylan has repeatedly refused to communicate for fear of blurting out the rest) makes the gap between them loom even larger. He has built the proverbial brick wall.
Kill Or Be Killed book four
"Is everything all right, Dylan?"
"No... not really. But it will be."
It's the KILL OR BE KILLED finale and if the penultimate chapter's cliffhanger is a narrative bombshell you couldn't possibly see coming, then the final-page punchline is a visual whose eyes will bore into your own so hard and so deep - meeting your gaze directly, unflinchingly - that I defy you to look away. For a full five minutes I studied those dense, shining shadows, sweeping black lines and broad colour brushstrokes, so bold that anything behind became even more ethereal. Then, almost as soon as I looked away to flick back through the preceding four pages which made so much sense, I had to return almost immediately.
I think that's the general idea with obsession.
And this all about obsession.
Up until now KILL OR BE KILLED has been the psychological self-examination of an educated young man with a gnawing sense of social justice but a fine line in convivial conversation as he descends into a surprisingly efficient mass murder spree.
Expect Breitweiser blizzards so dense that they will all but obliterate your vision, which will give Dylan ample opportunity to talk about climate change, industry, government, and the war between wealth and accountability. It will also give the unexpected ample opportunity to sneak unseen upon the unwary.
I've run out of space now, but it's also worth studying all the different hair treatments throughout the series. Yes, hair! Dylan's mother's is completely different from the others' not only in style but in its method of rendition, far closer to Kira's. Phillips goes to great lengths to draw identifiable, individual strands of hair for both women and men, whereas Dylan's mum's is lifted by mousse to look like a meringue or Mr Whippy.
What a note for finish on. Honestly.