Kill Or Be Killed #1 is either a joke with a really bad punchline, as told by critically-acclaimed Image Comics team Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips, or a lengthy trip down mediocrity road. You decide.
From the concept to the setting’s geography, this comic is a mess that makes one question what the thought process must have been leading up to the comic’s publication. Did Brubaker bounce his thoughts off anyone who wasn’t a straight white man before putting words to paper? Did Phillips check the dates on his photo references of NYC before drawing several panels that this New Yorker can’t recognize? Did they even agree on what year this comic was set in before stringing up fucking laundry lines as a plot point? All these questions one has and more, in between possibly incredulous laughter.
After starting and restarting no less than three times, Kill Or Be Killed fully introduces us to its protagonist, Dylan. Dylan is sad – very sad – because the world is so hard nowadays. Among the things he cites as wrong are big businesses controlling the globe, psychopaths running for president, cat calling, police murder of black people, and mass shootings. Not that he has to endure cat calling, or being murdered by police, or belonging to the many groups such Presidential-hopeful psychopaths target. In fact, people who look like him are the ones who are doing the mass shootings, which he proves by talking about them as he’s committing one.
In the hyperviolent, masculine world that is comic books, opening a comic up on a shooting spree is far from the most innovative angle one can use. However, Phillips admittedly nails several panels in this sequence. When Dylan leaves the hotel room that holds the bodies of his first victims, there’s an unsettling openness to the space. Even as Dylan’s back is turned to the reader, it represents his point of view. The hunt is on, and he has the power to leave a once quiet area marred with violence.
We know this because we see the contrast in a later victim, whose face contains the terror of captured prey. Dylan fires a bullet straight into this man’s neck or shoulder from the back and the man lets out a shriek of wordless alarm. The sharp edges of Phillips’ gunfire and word balloons punctuate the suddenness of these attacks while colorist Elizabeth Breitweiser’s blackish blood splatters, demonstrating the wide impact of the victim’s mutilated bodies. Dylan is a merciless killer, one without any particular justification for it.
One gets the sense that this is, in fact, the joke that Brubaker and Phillips are trying to tell. Knock, knock. Who’s there? A sad cisheterosexual white man from a wealthy family. A sad cisheterosexual white man with a wealthy family, who? A sad cisheterosexual white man who shoots people up because he has clinical depression. Isn’t that pathetic, hahaha?
Wait, what? That’s the punchline?
It’s not necessarily the comic’s implication that Dylan attempts to kill himself because of all the societal woes mentioned beforehand. Instead, Brubaker’s first person narration suggests that he does it because of a horribly reductive and rather misogynist situation wherein his female best friend likes to make out with him while her boyfriend is in the other room. After Dylan survives jumping off of a roof because of prior-mentioned laundry lines (I would walk around to see if we still have any of those in this city, but the stereotype is true—New Yorkers don’t look up), a demon comes to break his arm and inform him that in order to make up for his suicide attempt, he must become murderer, destroyer of bad people.
And thus is the major problem of Kill Or Be Killed #1. Don’t attempt or commit suicide because suicide is evil and instead of being helped, you should be punished.
Brubaker and Phillips depiction of depression itself is poor, at best. In groping for a reason for Dylan to have depression—which has the misguided implication that depression, a chronic illness often caused by genetic factors, ever needs a specific source—they settle on “Dylan’s education was delayed and the woman he covets doesn’t return his feelings.” Although certainly difficulties, we don’t quite get to the nuance of why being a single 28-year-old grad student (which is a perfectly normal situation) fuels Dylan’s depression. Phillips’ art depicts surface emotions, such as exhaustion as Dylan studies in a supposedly-NYU library room (which again, is a space I don’t recognize even though I should) and pain as his friend Kira kisses her boyfriend. Although Phillips repeatedly places Dylan away from his friends in order to evoke the feelings of isolation, these panels don’t quite hit so hard as, say, Owen Gieni’s despair-filled work in Negative Space or E.K. Weaver’s recent autobiographical webcomic on her own experiences with depression.
These problems also don’t compare to the sexism and racism and other biases in society that Dylan makes a point to mention in the very beginning of the comic, signifying that these issues should set the tone of his story. So one must ask: is this on purpose? Are Brubaker and Phillips essentially saying that Dylan is as whiny as some of his individual narrative captions suggest because he doesn’t have it as hard as black people or women? Is Dylan attempting to kill himself a joke about white male entitlement? Because if it is, it dismisses the very real struggle mental illness presents on its own.
And if it’s not a joke on male entitlement and that is, in fact, a deeper read than this comic intended… Well. That says very poorly of Kill or Be Killed #1 because it doesn’t offer much else. Not in developing reader attachment to Dylan’s character, not in presenting a unique viewpoint about the world’s wounds, and not much gripping in concept either. For all of Phillips and Breitweiser’s technical proficiency, their standout work in this comic remains in that opening sequence. However, it’s not enough to make Kill or Be Killed #1 worth a reader’s while through all the other ridiculous, testosterone-fueled mass shootings on the comics shelf.