Thursday Comics Hangover: Vigilante justice

Unlike a lot of male superhero comics readers of my generation, I’ve never been a fan of the Punisher. I always preferred my superheroes to be aspirational. Murdering criminals in the street is something that only criminals do. The Punisher, to me, has always demonstrated the ugly, conservative side of superheroes, where the bad guys are an other—monstrous, irredeemable, worthy of nothing but scorn.

Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips’s new comic Kill or Be Killed is a series about a vigilante who kills criminals, but it’s not a Punisher-style glorification of the genre. Instead, they smartly rub the Punisher up against Travis Bickle of Taxi Driver, providing a more realistic perspective on the kind of person who decides they should be able to wield the power of life or death.

In the third issue of Kill or Be Killed, the protagonist, a young man named Dylan who is haunted by visions of demons, has killed his first criminal. Dylan believes that he’s made a deal with the devil — that if he doesn’t take a life, he will die — and so he chooses a criminal whose crimes have gone unpunished as his victim.

Dylan is about as unreliable a narrator as you can find in modern comics, and his narration pulls the reader in uncomfortably close. It’s like being pinned in on the bus by someone who insists on sharing their unpleasant worldview with you. Here, Dylan revels in his first kill:

It was almost like I’d peeled away a layer from the world, and I was more now… More than other people…. Last night, before I fired that gun, it felt too powerful in my hand. Like it was going to fly out of my grip or explode when I pulled the trigger. But now I don’t feel that way. I’m not so weak and full of doubt anymore.

Dylan spends much of the third issue with a young woman named Kira, trying to seduce her away from her boyfriend even as he revels in his newfound power. The reader can’t help but want to tell Kira to run; unlike series like The Punisher with muddled morals, there’s never a second of doubt in a reader’s mind that Dylan is anything but a danger to everyone around him.

Brubaker and Phillips have been making comics together for a long time now, and Kill or Be Killed is a work of supreme confidence. The comic feels dense, like a chapter of a novel, but Phillips still has plenty of opportunities to show off his hyper-detailed artwork. It’s rare to find a writer and artist who have achieved this kind of a tight symbiosis, who bring out the best in each others’ work on every single page.

And colorist Elizabeth Breitweiser’s palette for the book is another subtle nudge into Dylan’s decaying mind: every person looks a little bit grey, like they’re sick, or rotting from the inside. Only a few flourishes like the red of Kyra’s hair breaks the monotony of Dylan’s universe, and the few threats of violence in this issue pop out with bright colors. Forget the opportunities for love, or the distraction of sex — the violence, the promise of murder, is the only thing that brings Dylan, however momentarily, to life. He’s a sick, violent man who looks at the world and sees something as sick and violent as he is. Worse, he believes he’s the only one who can do something about it. This story cannot have a happy ending.