In the penultimate issue of the series, Kill or Be Killed #19 ties so many threads together as Detective Sharpe finally realizes that Dylan, not some random guy who got shot, is the masked vigilante. But the main event, or basically double feature, for Ed Brubaker, Sean Phillips, and Bettie Breitweiser is a ethics debate between Dylan and Sharpe about why he is a vigilante that is bookended by a tight corner, white knuckle shootout in the ironically named Serenity Oaks. Kill or Be Killed is smart and visceral and beautiful too with a blanket of snow covering the whole issue.
Sean Phillips uses different grids for the “interrogation” sequence in Kill or Be Killed #19 going wide when Dylan realizes that Sharpe has no jurisdiction to arrest or charge him and going skinny when he opens up after Sharpe brings up him killing his drug dealer, Rex, the only “innocent” caught in the crossfire. It doesn’t involve any intense violence, but has all the weight of a great reveal as Dylan gives up everything while also justifying his actions and even asking for thanks from the police officer. Phillips adds a nice level of subtext using the motivational posters in the room like “It’s okay to ask for help” when he opens up. The scene is a setpiece in and of itself with Dylan and Sharpe playing all kinds of emotional and moral trump cards when Dylan decides to go back to his room. However, Sharpe isn’t there to make an arrest; like Clarice in Silence of the Lambs, she’s interested in the psychology behind this vigilante killer. And Dylan finds a little bit of catharsis, and Phillips eases the wrinkles on his face for a bit until Kill or Be Killed kicks into action mode featuring its favorite baddies: the Russian mob. This scene plays out a lot like your favorite director just letting a couple great actors loose in a room as Phillips’ facial acting and use of gutters and Breitweiser’s fluctuating use of shadow play out a second act that is one hell of a moral drama.
With the help of a few panels in the beginning of Kill or Be Killed #19 that show how Dylan has been planning to be a better vigilante while on new meds, the fight between him and Sharpe and the Russian mobsters show how far he’s come since a freaked out, Brooklyn hipster shooting bad people to make a demon shut up. Brubaker and Phillips give him one-liners that would be badass without the context of the series, has him coolheadedly direct a plan of escape, and even has him make a heroic play towards the end, but scenes that would be “Hell yes!” in any other comic or action movie are downright tragic in Kill or Be Killed. Dylan doesn’t need a gun; he needs help. He may make some valid points about how the United States is a plutocracy, but solves this problem by shooting people in the head. However, Brubaker and Philips don’t make any black and white judgments on him (Even though this is how Dylan says he sees in the world in a sequence reminiscient of Heath Ledger’s Joker with less grease paint.) and make the Russians’ arrival at Serenity Oaks the result of a corrupt cop, not vigilantism. This book loves its moral conundrums, which is great, and places it in the well-earned company of Brian Garfield’s original novel Death Wish , not the Charles Bronson and especially not the 2018 remake directed by Eli Roth.
When reading Kill or Be Killed, I either think that Dylan makes some good points about systemic injustice, is a total violent fuckboy, or is somewhere in between. He isn’t a conventionally likable protagonist, especially in an age of white male mass shooters, even though Ed Brubaker gives him the political views of a frustrated progressive. However, towards the end of Kill or Be Killed #19, he and Sean Phillips start to give Dylan a real, guns a-blazing redemption arc. But his actions with Sharpe against the Russians show how numb he is to killing compared to the police officer who is in shock as the snow swirls around them providing Phillips and Breitweiser a visual shorthand to her emotional state.
With beautifully staged debates about justice and corruption and a chilling, closing action sequence, Ed Brubaker, Sean Phillips, and Bettie Breitweiser turn in virtuosic shadow drenched and snow blown work in Kill or Be Killed #19. I can’t wait to see how this grounded lofi (at times) approach to the vigilante genre ends…
Story: Ed Brubaker Art: Sean Phillips Colors: Bettie Breitweiser
Story: 9.5 Art: 10 Overall: 9.8 Recommendation: Buy
Image Comics provided Graphic Policy with a FREE copy for review