Yeah, I know. Another Image book. What can I say? They publish a lot of good stuff.
This one was easy to spot, being another Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips work. Elizabeth Breitweiser worked with Phillips on the art, having first joined with them for Fatale. As always with this team it’s great looking work.
Of course Brubaker and Phillips are deservedly well known for their noir work in Criminal, Fatale, and The Fade Out. Kill or Be Killed certainly follows in that vein in tenor and appearance. The back matter also includes great writing about noir films, most often by Kim Morgan. These essays are worth reading on their own.
But Kill or Be Killed is a book that uses the form of noir to examine consciousness. It never once uses that term, but that’s what it is. What is reality? Kill or Be Killed leaves the reader wondering.
Lead character and narrator Dylan has a history of suicide attempts, self medication, and complicated romantic relationships. His father, a talented but frustrated illustrator, was a suicide when Dylan was young. His father’s sexually charged horror illustrations were porn in the woods to young Dylan and his friends.
When the story opens Dylan is a serial killer targeting people who are unsavory, whether child molesters, Russian mobsters, or American oligarchs. Taking a nonlinear narrative approach that parallels Dylan’s own mental process, Kill or Be Killed jumps around to fill out Dylan’s story that includes girlfriends Kira and Daisy, roommate Mason, dealer Rex, and detective Lily.
Throughout the story the reader is pressed to determine how reliable Dylan is as a narrator. Is his perspective what’s really happening? Is it an adverse reaction to harms to his mind? Is he suffering from an organic brain problem? Better yet, the question includes whether Dylan is morally and ethically right in his actions even if he is unreliable as to why he he’s taking those actions.
Brubaker, Phillips and Breitweiser don't tell the reader whether to believe Dylan or whether his actions are justified. They weave a complex story that's full of questions, as well as a lot of violence and a little bit of sex. The reader can take the surface joys of sex and violence as sufficient entertainment, or the reader can have the added enjoyment of thinking about what is consciousness, reality, and morality/ethics, and who decides any of those for anyone but themselves.
Coincidentally I was recently in a group discussion about consciousness in the philosophical sense. This book, which concluded at 20 issues, fell right in with that discussion, certainly as much so as the Force from Star Wars that owes its genesis to Jung and which was a part of the group discussion.
I should also mention the covers. A small sampling here shows several of them. Different arcs within the story merited a different theme to the covers. The opening arc all had the dark background like the first issue. In the middle there was a run of orange and the demon that Dylan says is his impetus. No detail is too small for this creative team to use in telling the story.
Kill or Be Killed is an excellent read, full of tension like any great noir story, that has the addition of an insightful look at what is reality, who can be believed in telling a story, and the uncertainty that is life.