Kill or Be Killed #1

Kill or be Killed #1
Written by Ed Brubaker
Illustrated by Sean Phillips
Colored by Elizabeth Breitweiser
Published by Image Comics

Kill or be Killed is the newest collaboration from the award-winning team of writer Ed Brubaker, illustrator Sean Phillips and colorist Elizabeth Breitweiser. After one issue, I can say that they've put together an intense, bloody, compelling first issue.  I'm not sure where this story is going, but I'm interested enough to learn more.

Brubaker and Phillips have been collaborating for years (Breitweiser joined them during Fatale) and have made some spectacular, truly special comics during that time such as The Fade Out, Fatale and Criminal, so when they announce a new project, it's worth taking notice. Without giving too much away about the plot of Kill or be Killed, the story opens as we see a young man named Dylan engaged in brutal violence in a grungy apartment building, all the while, telling us some of the many reasons that the world is terrible. He kills people, it's what he does. It's an intense few pages, as we watch our narrator barely survive his encounters with those that he's trying to kill and that are trying to kill him, as he provides us a little bit of narration which gives a sense of his state of mind. The story then flashes back to his life before, showing part of how he got to where he is now, as he makes his transition from milquetoast sad-sack schmo to unrepentant killer. The story takes some pretty dark and surprising twists, as the story moves from realistic crime fiction (like Criminal) to...something else. 

I very much enjoyed this comic; it's an interesting inversion of typical hero tropes and a compelling drama.  The story here both is and isn't a departure from some of Brubaker and Phillips' past work; the setting of the story is a departure from their most recent work like Fatale and The Fade Out, but the world illustrated by Phillips and Breitweiser is a dark, grimy one and this could easily be a story set in the 70's. In fact, its violence and the New York setting brings to mind stories like Death Wish and Taxi Driver (and Dylan has a slight Travis Bickle vibe). I did find the setting of the story to somewhat less precise than other Brubaker/Phillips stories I've read, as Dylan's narration reflects thoroughly modern concerns but the New York depicted feels more historical.

As we get a chance to know Dylan throughout the issue, we get to see that he's in some ways a classic Brubaker/Phillips protagonist; moody, introspective, a little bitter, dealing with some very dark thoughts, profoundly in over his head, and desperate.  He also comes across as someone who's both fairly privileged and mad (and a little whiny) at the world for various ills. Dylan is a somewhat challenging character, but at least for my own enjoyment of a story, I don't need a protagonist to be likable to be engaging.  Brubaker is clearly interested in testing this character and making him grow as a person, in one way or another.  By the end of the first issue, Dylan is on his way to being someone who's going to kill some very bad people. So I'm very curious to see (and I hope to see), as the story progresses, the exploration of morality here, as Dylan has to decide who's bad enough to die, and maybe some exploration of our societal obsession with guns and violence as well. The story seems fairly clear that this guy isn't necessarily a great judge (not that anyone should judge this) of who deserves to live and who doesn't.

Phillips and Breitweiser do great, atmospheric work in illustrating the story. Breitweiser herself is carrying a lot of the storytelling water here and she is very much up to the task. So much of what she's doing (in the preview pages included here and elsewhere) is setting the mood for the story; Phillips' layouts are spare, but Breitweiser is filling the page with dark-but-bright unusual colors, using an exaggerated color palate on the initial pages almost like the work of Francesco Francavilla, a more realistic color palate in scenes taking place before Dylan became a killer, and certain pages (where strange things are happening) set in an almost grayscale palate, like all the color has been drained from the world.

One specific touch in this comic really impressed me (among many others); on the below panel where you see Dylan being punched, there's a checkerboard pattern in his attackers' shirt. In other comics I've seen artists/colorists simply digitally insert a pattern into the item of clothing without any recognition of how the look of that pattern would change based on the angle of the person, the wrinkles and folds of the shirt/skirt/pants as the person is in motion. However, here the artistic team (presumably Breitweiser) has made sure to account for those folds and wrinkles so that the shirt looks more like it would in real life. It's not a huge point in the story, but it's attention to detail that I really appreciate.

Phillips' work here is unsurprisingly excellent as well. He uses a varied layout and panel design to effectively move the story along. It's possible to almost take for granted how good Sean Phillips is as an illustrator, but when you look at an issue like this, you realize this is an artist absolutely operating at the top of his game. Phillips (with Breitweiser) completely nails the tone and setting of the story; this looks like a real, lived-in world you could step right into (though you might not want to). Notwithstanding my concerns about the narration not quite syncing with the art, I think Phillips' work is very strong here. His character designs are precise and feel like specific people, and he's one of the best there is at facial acting and conveying the full range of human emotion on his characters' faces (seriously, no one conveys pained, anguished looks better than he does). 

In addition to his skill as an illustrator which is on full display in this issue, he also does some very strong sequential storytelling. He does something in layout which I really enjoy which is putting a very large image on the page and then a series of panels overlaid on top of that page depicting the action before or after the main image depicted on that page. It breaks up the flow of storytelling in such a way that it builds up anticipation to the "holy shit" moment on the page and then shows the fallout from that moment. 

It's strong, interesting work from all of the creators involved, and this is a creative team that's earned my trust. If you're a fan of any of Brubaker, Phillips' and Breitweiser's previous collaborations, or if just a fan of gritty crime stories generally, then I recommend picking up Kill or be Killed