In the final issue of Kill or Be Killed, Ed Brubaker, Sean Phillips, and Elizabeth Breitweiser get gutsy narrative-wise by killing off their protagonist Dylan on the opening page, trying a kind of alternate ending, and then switching narrators altogether towards the end of the book. It’s unreliable narration at its finest, and Phillips and Breitweiser turn in some final snow blown New York vistas while Brubaker finally unpacks the book’s message in dramatic fashion, which is basically, “Everything and everyone is screwed”. And, in connection to the real world, this message makes much more sense that when the comic first dropped in the relatively halcyon days of August 2016. In a country where children are separated from their mothers and put in cages, women’s reproductive rights are on the chopping block, and there doesn’t seem to be much to be excited for on 4th of July, Kill or Be Killed’s observations about the unbeatable nature of evil sadly ring true. It’s not something that be thrown in jail or gunned down with a shotgun, it simply is.
Continuing a trend that has permeated the series, Ed Brubaker gives the protagonist, Dylan, some great valid points , but when it all boils down to it: he’s a white male gunning down people. The “imaginary” sequence narrated by him from the afterlife where he has a relatively stable life, is in a relationship with Kira, and acquaintances with the police officer who has been hunting him down the whole series culminates in him killing a corrupt cop and continuing to be a vigilante. (Although, he changes his outfit and M.O. every so often to keep the press, criminals, and NYPD off his trail because everyone’s genre savvy beyond the grave.) Brubaker, Phillips, and Breitweiser riff off superhero comics for a bit in these scenes calling Dylan’s vigilante activities “an unsustainable fantasy version of life” and having the images of a masked man gunning down criminals or brooding on a rooftop ring hollow. The ever present snow helps.
Up to this point, I’ve been qualifying Kill or Be Killed #20 and the series as a whole as having a message or point, and it sort of does: the cycle of evil and the futility of violence to stop it. But, to its credit, Ed Brubaker isn’t preachy in the series using the unreliable narrator device to cast doubt on if Dylan is a sympathetic protagonist, and he and Sean Phillips even play to the lizard brain part of humans and give him a kind of “happy ending” that seems unearned and is ripped away for a path of pain and actual consequences. In what constitutes the comic’s third act, Phillips and Elizabeth Breitweiser relax the stylized panel compositions and dark greys, reds, and blacks for something more neutral and slice of life. Kill or Be Killed has gone from the New York of Death Wish to the New York of the “New York, I Love You” episode of Aziz Ansari’s Master of None although it forgoes its diverse POV for the perspective of a dead white man and a white woman. It’s almost like Brubaker and Philips are apologizing for unleashing Bernhard Goetz 2018 edition on 2018’s New York City.
However, this vibrancy is short lived as Brubaker switches narrators one final time from dead, omniscient Dylan (On a craft level, Kill or Be Killed proves that omniscient narrators still work in comics.) to Kira, whose emotions are filtered out in beautifully lettered captions that are like Todd Klein’s elaborate letters on Batman Year One, but on Sticky Notes. She’s angry that her best friend was ground down by his mental health issues, society around him, and his violent coping mechanisms and coupled with men cat-calling her at every corner, it leads to a breaking point and a literal mirror image of the possibly supernatural inciting incident of Kill or Be Killed. It also made me think about how even more fantastic this series would have been if Kira was the protagonist…
After an action heavy penultimate issue, Ed Brubaker, Sean Phillips, and Elizabeth Breitweiser use Kill or Be Killed #20 to play around with traditional narrative expectations and look at how life is both terrible and precious from a beyond the grave perspective. And, in closing, Dylan’s vigilante activities were definitely not commendable, and he needed psychiatric help much earlier than the final arc, but he made some excellent social observations throughout the series.
Story: Ed Brubaker Art: Sean Phillips Colors: Elizabeth Breitweiser
Story: 9.0 Art: 9.5 Overall: 9.3 Recommendation: Buy
Image Comics provided Graphic Policy with a FREE copy for review