Kill or Be Killed

Note: This is a review of the first volume of Kill or Be Killed.

Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips are one of the best comic duos working today. From their gritty, warm cast of characters in Criminal, to the noir infused cosmic horror of Fatale, they create visually creative, narratively engaging stories that leverage the full power of the medium. Their latest, Kill or Be Killed, has yet to reach its stride. The characters are there, the book just needs to gain some momentum.

College student Dylan decides to end it all. After attempting suicide, he wakes up alive and discovers a demon has saved him. However, he finds himself trapped in a deal with the demon as he is given one more month of life for each person he kills. As Dylan struggles with this moral conundrum, he also tried to balance a precarious relationship with his roommate and the roommate’s attractive girlfriend.

While that sounds like a fascinating premise, the demon stuff has yet to factor in beyond being a catalyst for the killing. It’s a presence sorely missing from the first arc and something I hope is put into the next arc. I could imagine this going along the lines of Death Note and have the demon follow him around. The absence of the demon makes for a lack of urgency to kill.

That being said, where the book shines is in the characters and relationships. Brubaker knows how to write sympathetic, complex portraits of people and their messy relationships. It would be easy to make Dylan morally repugnant, but he tries to kill bad people and hopes to make the best of a horrible situation.

Sean Phillips’s art is also fantastic. There has always been a layer of pulp to the Phillips/Brubaker brand, but Phillips feels like he embraces that fully with a lot of dark blacks and vibrant reds. The visual tone here is a little less of the more nuanced stuff in other books, but only because it feels like Phillips goes for a more iconic vigalantee look. It’s a striking book that’s a constant pleasure to view.

All the pieces are in place for something great, but the book isn’t there yet. There needs to be an arc or a hook here that sustains each issue instead of these self-contained, decontextualized killings. Give the book some immediacy, tease at a bigger world and this book could be great. As it stands, the opening arc is merely good.

© 2016 James Blake Ewing