I’ve said it before: even though he’ll probably be remembered for his time writing Captain America, I’m most impressed by Ed Brubaker’s crime story collaborations with artist Sean Phillips.
In their latest project, the comic Kill or Be Killed, Brubaker and Phillips have combined their noir influence with superhero tropes into a realistic distillation of vigilante fantasy. This series stars Dylan, a melancholy college student infatuated with his roommate’s girlfriend. When he overhears them talking about how they feel sorry for him, his suicidal tendencies take control. It isn’t until he’s dropping from the roof of his six story building that he decides he’d actually prefer to live. Miraculously, a series of clotheslines break his fall and he walks away with nothing more than a few scrapes and bruises and the apparition of a horrific demon haunting him.
That’s right. After Dylan’s failed suicide attempt, a demon appears before him. The demon claims to have saved Dylan’s life and demands repayment in the form of sacrifice. Every month, Dylan will be required to kill one person. If he doesn’t, he will die. That’s it. Kill or be killed.
Of course Dylan doesn’t want to kill anyone, but after he grows deathly sick near the end of thirty days, he reluctantly decides that it’s better to kill people than to die himself. But if he has to kill people, he’s going to try to make it people who probably deserve it. If he can take out pedophiles and human traffickers, maybe Dylan can make the world a better place and maybe he’ll even start to enjoy working for the demon, even if it is a product of his untreated mental illness.
Elements of the plot call to mind Dexter, Breaking Bad, and American Psycho, but I suspect the biggest inspiration for Kill or Be Killed might be Spider-Man. Beginning with Allan Moore’s Watchmen, there have been plenty of deconstructions examining how superheroes might work in the real world. This version might be the realest yet. Dylan’s “every man” character just happens to have a history of depression and can’t afford his proper medication. He feels a calling to right the world’s wrongs but he doesn’t have any super powers. Kill or Be Killed casts its “hero” as what he would realistically be: a mentally disturbed, criminal vigilante mad at the world.