Written By Cadeem Lalor
I first came across Ed Brubaker’s work with Incognito, a short but interesting series about a former supervillain in the witness protection program. Kill or be Killed (2016) frequently popped up in any discussion of Brubaker and I was quick to add it to my reading list.
The series follows Dylan, a college student who is visited by a demon after a failed suicide attempt. The demon advised Dylan that he spared his life, but must now kill one person a month in order to continue living. After the demon breaks his arm and uses host bodies to assault him, Dylan begins his quest to eliminate people who deserve to die.
Dylan’s father committed suicide when he was younger, which indicates he may have inherited certain dispositions from that side of the family. What makes the story so interesting is that Dylan has committed suicide previously, so we know that he is mentally troubled. For all we know, his vision of a demon is all a part of his own delusion: a sort of split personality that prods him to begin his quest. The series is only on its fifth issue so there is still plenty of time to see if this theory is right.
Dylan may be mentally troubled but many of his struggles are universal. He is yet another student trying to figure out his life, and who struggles with girls. His best friend, Kira, is dating his roommate and he mostly sees her only when she visits her boyfriend.
Even though the protagonist is relatable, the story can fall apart if the transition to crime-fighting is handled poorly. Brubaker excels at creating a realistic portrait of attempted vigilantism that reminded me somewhat of Kick-Ass. Dylan is able to get a gun pretty easily, since his deceased father had one buried in his possessions. This plot point might seem too convenient but it fits since we know Dylan’s dad committed suicide, he is likely carrying out his mission with his father’s murder weapon.
The toughest part for Dylan is finding people who deserve to die. He realizes that he can’t rely on movies as a blueprint, knowing that muggings and other crimes don’t routinely happen on subways or dark alleys when he is present. He finds his first target because he remembers that one of his childhood friends was molested by his older brother. He already knows the person’s name, and Facebook gives him everything else he needs, including the person’s work place.
When he’s successful with his first hit, he can’t remember if he said something to the target before he shoots him. Maybe he did. Maybe he didn’t, and his mind is retroactively adding in a cool one-liner that one of his favourite movie characters would say. Dylan faces success, but he also faces plenty of failure. His actions escalate, bringing more consequences for him. As the story progresses, we’ll likely see consequences for his loved ones too.
Kill or Be Killed is a deconstruction of vigilantism, a love story and a story of mental illness. Brubaker deftly handles Dylan’s development and I am eager to see how the series ends his journey.