By the mid 90s, I kind of lost my taste for superhero comics. Events like Operation: Galactic Storm, Infinity War and Crusade, and Age of Apocalypse had worn me out, and I needed something different. On a whim, I had begun reading Garth Ennis and Steve Dillon’s run on Hellblazer, and I really like it, so I decided to give some other Vertigo books a try. At the time, Grant Morrison’s name didn’t mean anything to me, (I mainly paid attention to artists then) and I’d never heard of Philip Bond before. But on another whim, I picked up Kill Your Boyfriend, and I was elated to have found it.
The first thing about Kill Your Boyfriend that caught my eye was the artwork. It didn’t look like other Vertigo books I had seen at the time. Vertigo’s other books, except for Hellblazer, they had this dark, broody artwork, and I was still nursing an addiction to the adolescent-targeted artwork of Jim Lee and Rob Liefeld. And Philip Bond’s artwork, to me, didn’t seem too far removed from them. No, his work featured neither ridiculously proportioned women nor men who looked like they were pumped full of HGH, but his pencils are clean, and I easily discern what it was at which I was looking. Also, the book is full of bright colors, which made it stand out against the eerie, dreary artwork that I associated with Vertigo at the time. It was the perfect gateway drug to me.
Back when I first got it, I read it over and over again. The story seemed to be ready-made for film development, and it was full of everything preoccupying my mind at the time: ditching school, violence, rebelling against the system, sex. It was like Grant Morrison could read my teenaged thoughts. (In fact, I’m pretty sure he was reading them.) But there was something else about it that I was aware of, but I couldn’t put my finger on it. Looking at it now, I’ve realize what that thing is.
The story is a subversive shot at suburban normalcy.
The subversion should really come as no surprise to anyone who has read Morrison’s The Invisibles, but the subversion is a bit more subtle here.
For those of you who haven’t read it yet—and if you haven’t, what are you waiting for?!—Kill Your Boyfriend is the story of a teenaged girl, bored with her British, suburban life and her parents’ incessant arguing, who, on a whim herself, goes on the run with a gun-toting, vodka-drinking, drug-taking hooligan, right after he kills her boyfriend, Paul, hence the title. It sounds kind of gruesome now, but this wasn’t long after Pulp Fiction, Natural Born Killers, and True Romance had all been in theaters and were all still very much a part of the zeitgeist, so Kill Your Boyfriend was par for the course.
Grant Morrison gives us full access to the girl’s thoughts by having her break the fourth wall and speak to the reader repeatedly through the story. The girl is a little hesitant at first, even scared to go along with the guy. She’s shocked when he kicks in the window of a Reliant Robin and even voices some complaint, but she abandons all hesitancy shortly thereafter, when he convinces her to throw a rock through an elderly couple’s window, finding the thrill brilliant. From there, she shows little shock at all when her new accomplice, actually she’s the accomplice, guns down her boyfriend. There’s a brief look of disbelief on her face, but she doesn’t emote in any other way. By this point the girl has totally abandoned any attachment she had to her suburban life. Basically, because of the boredom, because of her parents’ arguing, she had little attachment to any of it to begin with. This new guy, the guy she runs away with, makes her heart beat, which in turn makes her feel alive. Hence, she goes with him as his Maenad on a Dionysian spree of drunkenness, drugs, and danger.
This new life of crime inspires more change in her. As the two begin their life of crime in earnest, Morrison has the girl adopt a new identity, or in reality, an identity. It should be pointed out that Morrison does not give names to the two protagonists of his story. By doing this, he suggests two things. For the guy, his lack of a name suggests that he has no identity, and this is so because society rejects him and has rejected him since he was born; he was given up for adoption. No one needs to call him anything because no one will ever call him for anything. He lives on the fringes, and for the most part, people don’t even want him there. For the girl, having no name means she is no different from anyone else. There is nothing unique about her, so she just kind of blends in with her surroundings. Once she dons the blonde wig, make-up, and a tight red dress, she creates an identity for herself. (And being that the dress is red, it suggests an almost super-heroic transformation; she is, after all, taking a stand against society.) The new dress bears a stark contrast to the frumpy schoolgirl uniform, the glasses, and the pigtails she wears at the beginning of the story. It should be pointed out that even though a schoolgirl outfit has become as fetishized as a tight red dress, probably even more so now, the girl goes from wearing what she has been told to wear to what she wants to wear, from the purely suggestive to the totally explicit. She puts herself on display and essentially becomes everything people try to hide about themselves, which is where the subversion comes in.
Morrison does a very good job of establishing that the girl lives in a repressed society by showing that most of the other characters have something to hide. On the night that he’s killed, her boyfriend Paul is home masturbating to a porno, even though earlier in the story the girl suggests to him that they spend the night together. The girl steals her red dress from an old man who owns enough pornography, costumes, and sex toys to open his own adult video store. The police to whom the parents report the girl’s disappearance steal an urn from the house, dumping the ashes into the sewer. Her parents have things to hide as well. Years prior to the story, her mother had a child out of wedlock that she gave up for adoption, and during the beginning of the story, her father has gone through her underwear drawer. And later on, we learn that he owns a collection of “specialist” magazines, which feature photos of under-aged models; the genders of the models are not given. So all of these people are hiding things, and people hide things about themselves because they’re frightened. They worry over what these things say about them, but more importantly, they worry over what these things will make other people think of them. And because they’re so frightened of these things, they’ll do whatever they can to make sure they remain hidden, which is why the young man dies in the end.
What Morrison shows here is that normal, non-criminal people are willing to kill to make sure their secrets remain hidden. When he’s shot, the stern-faced officer in charge says, “Got the bastard!” It gives a sense of relief, as though there was worry the young man and the girl would get away. The absence of a phrase suggesting the young man is going for a gun and the exclamation point ending the officer’s line evidence this culpability. Or, in other words, the message is: Do as we say or die. Which leads to the tragic end for the young, lawless couple. The young man chooses suicide, jumping from Blackpool Tower, taking a few officers with him in an explosion. The girl on the other hand, she surrenders to authority, but this does not mean that she become innocent. The story jumps ahead, and the girl is now older and married with a daughter. But this image of suburban normalcy is shattered when the girl puts a few sprinkles of rat poison in her husband’s food. She does this, and initially goes on this crime spree, because hiding things can drive people crazy.
And as Morrison also suggests, hiding things can also lead to trouble. An easy to miss subplot of the book, as it is only alluded to briefly twice, involves the identity of the young man with whom our protagonist runs away. Just before he dies, he gives the girl the parcel stamps from the box in which he was dropped off at the orphanage when he was a baby. Earlier, when the mother’s first child is mentioned, the one she had out of wedlock, the father mentions that she dropped off the child in a postage box. Judging by the girl’s reaction, she has no knowledge of this story from earlier in her mother’s life. And while the daughter probably never tells the mother about this souvenir, Morrison lets the reader knows about this cringe-inducing connection. The mother has inadvertently caused her daughter to commit an act society looks on as an aberration. And in hindsight, it makes the girl’s crime spree, while not justifiable, somewhat excusable.
Despite the seriousness of the subject matter in the story, Philip Bond’s artwork adds a little undercutting, while lending some satire as well. (And it’s what drew me to the comic in the first place.) Bond’s characters hover somewhere between realistic and cartoon, which allows them to emote or over emote as the story necessitates. In the first half or so of the book, the story establishes and focuses on the girl’s normal, everyday life, so nothing crazy our outlandish needs to be shown. In the latter half of the story, after things have picked up a bit, the cartoony-ness of the figures allows Bond to exaggerate some of their features and enhance the emotions of some of the panels. For instance, there’s a scene in which the girl and guy are hitchhiking. When a car passes without picking them up and the girl yells “Bastard!” at the driver, the girl’s mouth is opened a bit farther than it should be able to, and deep dimples sink into her face. All of this expresses the angst she feels after a good many hours of attempting to hitch a ride without any luck. And because of Bond’s cartoony style, this exaggerated grimace on the girl does not break the verisimilitude of the artwork. Most of the time, Bond renders the guy in girl with the more realistic appearances, while saving the more animated renderings for the other characters in the story. What this does is suggest that the guy and girl are the ones to be taken seriously. Everyone else, with their cartoony ways, are not. They are there for comic effect.
Bond also stays away from using a lot of shadow. His work is free of the crosshatching that was so popular in the 90s. (See any of the Image comics founders’ books at the time to see what I mean, especially early Youngblood and WildC.A.T.S.) As I mentioned before, this really made this book stand out to me at the time. Back then, comics artists seemed to rely heavily on imitation. (I once read an interview with Ian Churchill somewhere in which he said that he was told by editors that if he wanted to get work in comics, he’d have to draw like Jim Lee.) Aside from standing out in the industry, the lack of crosshatching allows the characters and colors to standout all the more. This coincides with the idea that this is a repressed society, as mentioned earlier as well. Basically, none of the characters have any shadows to hide within. Everything is out in the open for everyone to see in nice bright colors. And for some reason, on a subconscious level, I guess that resonated with me during my teenage years.
Aside from being something that was completely different from all of the other comics that I had read, Kill Your Boyfriend really resonated with the angsty, suburban teenager that I was. I had some of the same feelings that are represented in the comics, and I longed for a girl just like the one in the comic. (I’m convinced Grant Morrison has been reading my mind somehow.) Looking at the book now, it still appeals to me, not for the same reasons though. It’s a solidly written piece with great artwork. As I understand it, it has even been reprinted within the last ten years or so. Hence, there’s no reason for anyone to not go secure themselves a copy as soon as possible.