By Ed Brubaker, Sean Phillips and Elizabeth Breitweiser
The latest comic by top-tier collaborators Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips, Kill or be Killed, is hardboiled, street level storytelling. These guys know how to make a gritty story, but this series definitely contends to be the grittiest. It’s dark and real to the point of bluntness, covering more taboo elements than violence even. As of issue #3 the story is a sophisticated drama that develops the characters in a way only Brubaker and Phillips can do. They are so good at creating such believable people that we already know them well by the end of the first issue. So by the third issue we’re right there with them, shoulder to shoulder, while the story steadily progresses.
Brubaker writes even and balanced scenes from what must be a well planned outline. His pacing keeps you interested and makes it less a comic book and more a great story. It’s as if he and artist Sean Phillips are using a shorthand in creating a flawless and captivating juxtaposition. Anyone who has read other titles by these two like Fatale, or Criminal, already knows that the writing and art only get better the more they produce. Nothing is diluted or stale and they only seem to crank out high quality comics. There’s a brand identity in both style and content that makes it feel like one universe, although Kill or be Killed is certainly the coldest and grimmest corner we’ve visited yet. Even the portrayal of romance comes across as tainted, unclean and perhaps worthy of a degree of age-appropriate reproof. Adults in this world are typically toxic, and as a result children grow up afflicted. Demons (yes, actual demons) may be real and, even if they aren’t, people are being killed and more murder is imminent.
The protagonist (for lack of a better term) takes comfort in his fate, whether he can explain it or not. Ironically, he finds new confidence in this issue allowing himself to take solace in his actions, which only means he’s going to kill again. But the real point is, everything that happens in this book, whether a conversation, love scene, or cold blooded killing, carries an equal gravity, which keeps this book grounded. It looks real, it sounds real, and it reads as brutal as a book with this title should. The odds aren’t in anyone’s favor and it hurts to see what passes for happiness in a world crafted from the moral consequences and circumstances of walking the razors’ edge between vigilante and murderer.
Colorist Elizabeth Breitweiser does so much more than render Phillips’ artwork. She adds to the sense of anxiety and unease we feel throughout the comic with an artistic charm. Even in somewhat happier moments, Breitweiser’s color palette enhances aspects of the storytelling method, which all at once lets us know we’re in the real world, which also happens to be incredibly dangerous. Main characters engage in acts that would potentially get each of them in trouble if they were caught. They also deal with the fact that others get away with all sorts of things whether excusable, or criminal to varying degrees. It’s the art that makes this a convincing thriller as well as an examination of living a life fabricating moral justification each step of the way. The sun never comes out, and if it isn’t snowing it appears freezing cold. Surreal bursts of color exist in dream sequences while the waking world is bleak and honest. Here’s hoping this artistic team stays together for a long time, because this is working and then some.
Kill or be Killed is a must read for fans of Brubaker and Phillips, but anyone looking for standout comics should also take note. This book, like so many of their other and aforementioned titles, reflects the best parts of classic pulps, paperback crime novels, and noir films combined with hefty doses of originality in plot and storytelling. If you can make your way through the content and a dark tale of violence and wrong doing, then you’re sure to discover everything else that makes this book so worthwhile; that is all due to Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips. Their appreciation for the genre drives their efforts and we can’t wait to see what they come up with next much less what happens in issue #4, which will conclude this first arc. Kill or be Killed is a must read.