Kill Or Be Killed is a “graphic novel” series that began in August 2016 and ended in June 2018. This work was originally published in twenty “comic issues” 40+ pages each. I read The tradeback version of volume 1 that was released in 2017. The series is a collaboration between creators Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips. Creator Elizabeth Breitweiser’s work was nominated for the industry’s Eisner Award for best coloring. Volume one contains the first four issues of the series.
I have read and owned many comics and graphic novels – not as many as some folks, more than others. I have been a comics addict since I was in single digits; I began as a solid follower of the DC universe (specifically, Superboy and the Legion of Superhereos, of all things). After years of DC-focus, I did also read the G.I. JOE series by Marvel, and eventually things like Ghost Rider etc. I still very much prefer superhero comics.
However, I will, on occasion, read something a little less fantastic; for example Jason Aaron’s Scalped series or Matt Kindt’s Dept. H. I usually do not go for the bloodiest, goriest, or most depraved stuff. However, I am currently working my way (carefully, with goggles and gloves on) through Garth Ennis & Darick Robertson’s The Boys as-well-as Mark Waid’s Irredeemable. It takes me awhile to read things like this because I do not love being soaked in the murk and mire. Anyway, Kill Or Be Killed runs right along with these other series. Lots of grit and gore and dark.
Brubaker wanted to take the state of the world to the extreme, allegedly. Still, in a book filled with less than saintly situations – this seems to be far from amoral. Indeed, the volume seems more like an exploration of the far ends of extreme morality. This amuses me a bit…. ethics as extreme sport.
The main character, Dylan, is an upper-twenties graduate student. This guy has so many issues and problems that it is quite absurd. I am well aware that there are people in this world with tons of “issues.” I understand that many people are a mess. Brubaker has to start off with a character stuff with problems and twists in order to make the result – the effects – even more disturbed and wild. I think that if he selected a completely legit generally put-together individual, it would not seem plausible. While Brubaker is taking this concept to the extreme, he still wants have it feel highly plausible.
The storyline has a thread that develops from Dylan’s father: he committed suicide and had latent anger regarding how “….life screws over everybody somehow…” So many characters with so many major issues. Is this realistic? Is this showing how troubles get passed onward or envelop people within various spheres of influence? Or is it too much madness in one storyline? I reckon we will find out in future volumes.
This plausibility becomes sketchy with the introduction of the ultimatum that the main character is given. A demon basically tells Dylan to “kill or be killed.” Now, the introduction of this shadowy creature changes the story a bit. Adding a supernatural element to the story now makes it seem like Brubaker is cheating a bit. However, we can redeem Brubaker if need be, by making several arguments: 1. Dylan is a fellow with lots of issues – severe mental issues are present and may be expanded by any drug usage he may partake in; 2. If the demon is not a figment of Dylan’s mind nor a product of drug usage, it could still be metaphorical; 3. it could be illness-induced especially from lack of sleep or high fever.
Or it could be a demon, I guess. However, I dislike this last option for one reason. At one point the demon sort of “explains” why he is making this ultimatum and he says because Dylan survived a suicide attempt. Therefore, he has to “pay up” in a sense for having his own life saved. This feels….. too contrived for a real demon. Yeah, I know that sounds a bit ridiculous. My thought is that an entity that is making this sort of ultimatum is not one that I would easily believe resorts to tally-sheet style behaviors. It just does not seem nuanced enough. More believable is the idea that the surviving of the suicide attempt has induced a twisted reasoning process in an already disturbed mind – that also may have suffered untreated physical head trauma.
The best parts of the story, for me, are most of the explorations of morality “questions.” I am also interested in how this grad student becomes proficient at his new task. Right, wrong, or indifferent, I like how all of this is really a derivation of The Shadow. (I have an enduring interest in The Shadow.) Indeed, I felt, as I read along, that I should eventually come upon some paraphrase of: “Who knows what evil lurks in the hearts of men? The Shadow knows!”
The worst parts of the story, for me, are any of the parts with Kira. I really dislike her. I understand that she is a key ingredient in Dylan’s mental soup, which brings about some of the tragedy. But I really cannot fathom anyone putting up with her shenanigans. I know Brubaker gives us a few glimpses into her past, which has its own set of depraved situations, as a sort of explanation for her current behaviors. I am not sold on this, though. The segments with Kira are tedious for me.
One thing that I would like to praise is how perfectly the artwork works with the storyline. The art is actually very good. Anyway, this is not a story for the faint. No children. No innocent hearts. No readers who dislike the abyss, noir, depravity, questionable morality, or demons. R-rated and slamming into a whole mess of those bad topics.