A lot of people think the Punisher and other criminal-killing characters are cool, because they explode judicial system red tape and deliver retribution to bad guys in the swiftest, most ice-cold way possible. A new comic out this week from Image, Kill or Be Killed presents a kind of polar opposite — a chilling new take on masked vigilantism where there's no emotional detachment and the roiling upset of the modern world seems to justify killing over and over again. The basic premise of a lot of superhero comics and genre entertainment is this: The world is fucked up and the only way true justice will get implemented is at the end of a fist or a gun. That fuckedupness usually gets presented in broad, black-and-white strokes, like a caught-redhanded drug lord who walks back into society on a technicality. The beginning of Kill or Be Killed — written by Ed Brubaker, with art by Sean Phillips and Elizabeth Breitweiser — opens with death sentences being beaten into men who we're told in passing are bad. The details of their venality aren't important to the narrator; they just need to die for him to live.
28-year-old NYU grad student Dylan has been struggling with life, bereaved of his parents at a young age and unluckily watching his two best friends fall into the love that probably should be his.
Kira, the female component of the love triangle, starts secretly making out with Dylan. But when he overhears her pitying him, he feels like there's nothing left to live for.
A freakish set of occurrences scuttles his suicide attempt and Dylan resolves to do better with the time he has left. But a continued existence isn't going to be that easy for him.
He's going to have to earn out the rest of his days by killing, as payment to a demon that seemingly visits him at night.
Dylan's deep-rooted need to mete out fatal reckonings isn't just a metaphorical justification. It's a debt that will take his life as payment if he defaults. At least he thinks it is.
At first, Kill or be Killed seems like a more socially tuned-in riff on Kick-Ass, a what-if-superheroes-were-real exploration rooted in the late-capitalist polarisation bearing down on our lives. But the surprise injection of horror swerves readers' assumptions into an abyss that's not on the roadmap. The scariest part of Kill or be Killed is the nagging sensation that Dylan's demon may not be real at all. The flashbacks we see from his life show enough turmoil and heartbreak to make the idea of a psychotic break from reality very plausible. If you're a reader familiar with the Brubaker/Phillips noir oeuvre, the guessing game becomes even more tantalising. They have done straight-up crime fiction in their excellent series Criminal, a horror-skewed thriller with Fatale and melded hardboiled undercover-cop drama with a superhero universe in Sleeper. The fact that they have executed in different subgenres makes me wonder which slot Kill or Be Killed will fall into. It's a great comic on its own; the meta-layer of trying to parse the creators' approach makes it even more enjoyable.