Kill or Be Killed Vol. 1
Written by: Ed Brubaker
Art by: Sean Phillips & Elizabeth Breitweiser
*Spoilers Ahead* Despondent about where his life is heading and feeling powerless to do anything to change the growing relationship with his best friend Kira for the better, Dylan makes the decision to commit suicide. When he miraculously survives, however, it comes with a price. Because Dylan tried to take his own life, now he must repay that debt by taking the lives of bad people. Not just a straight forward take on vigilantism, it’s the story of how one young man struggles with the decision to take a life in order to protect his own, which is slowly falling apart. It’s a comic book that has a moral to the story: if you don’t appreciate what you have, someone will take it away.
We’re dropped directly into the action where we see Dylan confront two of his targets. As he shoots both men dead and walks out of the apartment, he narrates some of his motivation for killing. “This isn’t how I imagined my life would be. Ever. But you don’t always have a choice, do you? And let’s face it…I’ve become pretty good at this. Killing people. People who deserve it. And yeah, you can sit there and ask what gives me the right to make judgement…But that’s just your defense. Your alibi for not doing anything. Because the world is shit right now, and we all know it.” During this narration, we see Dylan move down the hall way and wait for his next two targets coming out of the elevator before shooting them to death as well. “Big business controls your government…Assholes go on shooting rampages almost daily…Terrorists blow up airports and train stations…Cops kill innocent black kids and get away with it…Psychopaths run for President. Oh, and the Middle East is one nuke away from turning us all into dust. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg. The fact is, there’s no justice. Bad people get away with everything…And greed is destroying the entire fucking planet.”
Dylan is then confronted by a pimp and ends up engaging in a fight, one he nearly loses, before beating the pimp to death with his shotgun. “We cling to fantasy…to hope…we sit at our screens and fill our heads with noise and scream at each other…As if that’s going to change anything. I get it. I used to be like that, too. But I’m getting ahead of myself. This isn’t the beginning…No, this is way after the beginning.” As Dylan leaves the scene of the crime, he struggles to remember how the story started from the beginning. He surmises that in some way, the story started that New Year’s Eve where he took the bus home with his friend Daisy, feeling powerless to stop a few assholes from catcalling her. When he tried staring at the offenders to make them back off, they only sneered at him, daring him to make a move. Dylan tells readers that he and Daisy ended up arguing the rest of the night, “Because I thought maybe she wished I was the kind of guy who could beat up three assholes on a city bus. And maybe I wished I was that kind of guy too. But I wasn’t. Not seven years ago, and not even now…Not really.”
Dylan clarifies through narration that that wasn’t really the start of things either, it was just a small stupid moment in a long line of small moments that he can’t let go of. Dylan says that it really started the night he tried to kill himself for the second time.
The first time he tried to kill himself, he overdosed on pills that saw him end up in the hospital and kicked out of school for a time. Which is why, he tells readers, that he’s a 28 year old grad student, struggling to finish his degree, living off inheritance and student loans. We come across a conversation between Dylan, his roommate Mason and Mason’s girlfriend Kira, who also happens to be Dylan’s best friend. Kira worries about Dylan getting enough sleep and Mason jokingly apologizes for the pair of them keeping Dylan up at night. Dylan tells them it’s fine, that his only getting two hours of sleep a night has nothing to do with them as he can’t hear anything coming from Mason’s room.
Dylan states that he and Mason were friends when they moved in together as roommates, but since he started dating Kira, he mainly just pretends to be friends with him. Mason’s relationship with Kira ruined the best thing he had. Kira still came over to their place all the time but no longer spent time with Dylan, which makes him feel lonelier and more isolated than he previously thought was possible. According to Dylan, Kira understood his sense of humor, his taste in music and his isolation, so when he overheard them in Mason’s room one night talking about how Kira felt sorry for him, Dylan snapped and decided to kill himself. “The person who knew me best felt sorry for me…” he states.
This heart breaking moment comes about a month after Kira came onto Dylan and they ended up having a make out session. Everything stopped when they heard Mason come back into the room. Dylan narrates that he expected some kind of discussion or explanation after what happened and instead, it kept happening when Mason left the room. “And so, that night hearing Kira say she felt sorry for me..Suddenly it all felt so empty…My whole life. I’d been thinking she was going to break it off with Mason…and Kira and me would become some kind of couple. But that wasn’t what was going on. Those kisses were the death throes of our friendship…She was giving me what she thought I’d been waiting for, but it was her voice I wanted than anything…Not her charity.” As readers, we can definitely sympathize with Dylan on loving someone you can’t be with, though it doesn’t excuse him from going behind his roommate/friend’s back, the larger culprit here is and will always be Kira as she’s having her cake and eating it to with both men romantically interested in her.
Dylan makes the decision to jump off the top of the building and as he does so, almost immediately has regrets. “That even if my life sucks, life is still the sweetest thing we’ve got..” He is saved by getting caught in the laundry lines and an old rug that had been left out on the line, resulting in a fall of six stories, where Dylan lands in a snow bank. In shock, cold and inwardly berating himself, Dylan mentally celebrates being alive. He contemplates telling Kira that he loves her and wants their relationship to be open but opts not to with Mason there. As he goes to sleep that night, he says that when he wakes up in the morning, his plan was to be a whole new Dylan. He just didn’t know then how right he was.
Dylan is awakened that night by a shadowy demon with its hand on his throat. The demon tells him that second chances don’t come cheap and that it was time for Dylan to pay for his. He tells Dylan to kill for him, that he’ll kill one bad person a month as ‘rent’ to the demon. In other words, rent for the life Dylan tried to throw away.
When Dylan says it’s crazy, that he can’t kill anyone, the demon simply states that he’ll be the one to die. When Dylan questions how he’ll find bad people, the demon simply tells him to open his eyes and look at the world around him. To prove to Dylan that he’s real, the demon breaks Dylan’s left arm. Kira comes to the door, having heard the commotion and is shocked to find that Dylan broke his arm. Dylan lies and tells Kira that he fell and asks Kira to take him to the hospital.
As Dylan gets the cast set on his arm in hospital, he’s already rationalizing everything and telling himself he was probably sleepwalking. He rationalizes that he broke his arm when he landed in the snow bank and didn’t notice the pain because of the adrenaline in his system. The moment between him and Kira passes on the way home, without Dylan telling her how he feels as he’s still mentally stuck on the nightmare delusion. He spends much of the next day still trying to rationalize what happened.
However, doubt starts to creep into Dylan’s mind when, a week left in the month, he got so sick, he was bedridden for days. On the third day of his illness, Dylan sees the demon reflected in his bathroom mirror. Afterwards, every time he turned his head, he’d see the demon reflected in windows or mirrors, or as a shadowy figure in the darkness. Worried that the demon, Dylan tries to stagger to the ER. He’s instead accosted by two thugs with a wooden plank, beaten and threatened with a gun. As the thugs loom over him, Dylan hears the demon warn him that all he has left is one day. “I’d like to tell you I lay there for a long time thinking about everything over and over again…But the truth is, it only took a minute before I thought…The hell with this, I’ll do it,” Dylan narrates. “Because I wasn’t sure what was happening to me…But I didn’t want to die.”
Once Dylan makes that important decision, he tells readers about the story of The Tale of the Hunchback, from the Thousand and One Nights. The Emperor’s favorite jester, a hunchback, chokes to death on a fish bone after being served dinner by a tailor and his wife. Terrified of the Emperor’s wrath, they dump his body on a doctor, who trips over him in the dark and thinks he killed the hunchback. The doctor then gets rid of the body, tricking someone else into believing they killed the hunchback. The passing of the corpse just continues until someone’s caught with the body by the city guard. But when this man is about to be executed for the murder, one by one, the people who think THEY killed the hunchback step forward, unable to let anyone else get punished for their crime. Instead of punishing them, the Emperor is amused by all of it and ends up pardoning them. The hunchback also turns out not to be dead and they’re all rewarded with riches and titles.
According to Dylan, the story tells you a very simple truth about people. “They all want to get away with it. Whatever crime they’ve committed, whatever they’ve done…They want to blame it on somebody else and run the fuck away….That in real life, the bad sleep well..And guilt doesn’t trouble them. Hell, real bad men? They don’t even live in the same world as we do. When they look around themselves, they see a whole other reality. ..They see sheep and they’re looking through the eyes of wolves. I know it’s true because I’m a wolf now, too.”
Realizing he’s once again jumped ahead, Dylan backtracks to finding the first person to kill. Kira is astonished to find him all beaten up, but Dylan downplays what happens and they arrange to speak that night about their relationship. Dylan goes to his drug dealer Rex about obtaining a gun. Rex tells him that there’s no way he has one as all the pills and weed he’s pushing isn’t worth his life. However, he advises Dylan to get an untraceable gun from an old man’s desk.
Dylan remembers that his late father had a gun and takes a trip to his childhood home to find it. He mentions that his father had been 55 years old by the time he was born and had been doing work as an artist for sci-fi pulp magazines. As kids, when he and his friends were paging through the glossy soft-core porn images, Dylan found his father’s gun. Scared that he’d get into more trouble, Dylan hid the gun. Now, many years later, he found it among his father’s magazines, still in the closet. Dylan remembers thinking of his father as a genius, but his father saw himself as a failure. The man wanted a job in advertising while the soft core porn art was supposed to be a side job. Instead, it became his entire career. A few months before his father killed himself, Dylan remembers talking to him about his career while his dad was drunk. “Life screws over everybody somehow…” Dylan’s father stated. “ain’t nothin’ you can do about it kiddo..Sometimes you’re just the one that gets picked. Your dream gets crushed, nothin’ you can do..” Looking at his father’s art, Dylan remembers how unfair the world is and suddenly, has his first target.
Dylan remembers that as a kid, he had a conversation with his friend Teddy. Teddy suggested that they pull each other’s pants down and rub their genitals together, to which Dylan responds that it’s stupid to do. Teddy reveals that his brother does it with him. Dylan reveals that at the time, Teddy’s brother was a teen. Over the years, Dylan pushed that incident out of his mind, until high school. He and Teddy ran with different crowds, with Dylan on the swim team and Teddy hanging out with the stoners. After Teddy dropped out in tenth grade, he later froze to death sleeping outside in a doorway. Dylan states that for awhile in school, it seemed like everyone claimed they were Teddy’s best friend or cared about him just so they could mourn him. It was then that Dylan remembered that conversation with Teddy. “And by then I knew what the poor kid had been telling me. That his older brother had been molesting him. And he was so young and naïve that he didn’t even get that it was bad. But later, obviously he got that. Later it destroyed him.”
Dylan states that he didn’t say anything then because no one would believe a tenth grader talk about something that happened years ago when they were kids, but he never truly forgot about it. He manages to track Teddy’s brother Mark down through Facebook but experiences some doubt about whether Mark has changed. Steeling his resolve, Dylan points a gun at Mark once he leaves the bar. Dylan thinks he said something about Teddy, but he says later that there’s a possibility that his memory just added that part afterwards. However, Dylan swears he remembers seeing the look of panic on Mark’s face, the panic over being caught. Dylan then shoots Mark in the head.
As Dylan rationalizes the shooting in his head and tries to act normal around Kira, he’s taken aback by the news of Mark’s murder in the local paper. He does, however, have an awkward conversation with Kira where they both skate around how their relationship has changed. Dylan then feigns an excuse about having things to do & then leaves. “Now I was terrified if I had any kind of “real” talk with Kira I’d just blurt everything out. And I knew how she’d look at me then. She wouldn’t understand. She’d think I lost my mind and turned into some kind of monster. Then she’d turn me in, for my own good. She’d be crying when she called the police, but she would call them..And shit, maybe she’d be right to,” Dylan states.
As Dylan walks the busy streets, he starts to doubt that what he learned about Teddy was even real, comparing himself to the assholes in high school who made up a link to Teddy just to feel important. But then, he says, why would he make up such a childhood story and not tell anyone? “And maybe the rational me still wasn’t convinced that demons exist..But this one did break my arm, get me severely ill, and send men to beat me to death..So maybe the rational me was full of shit. See? That’s what was going around and around in my head. An endless argument spin cycle.”
Dylan continues to turn it over in his mind until even his dreams are affected. “In my dreams that night, I’m walking the frozen streets but no one can see me. And when I look at them, it’s like I’m seeing inside…To who they really are…All the ugliness they hide.” The demon appears to Dylan and tells him that it’s easy now because he’s not blind like the rest of them, he crossed the line and now he can see the truth. When Dylan protests that he doesn’t want any of this, the demon tells him that he’s wasting his time lying to him, he should try convincing himself first.
The next scene cuts to Dylan and Kira walking on a boardwalk by a closed amusement park. As they walk and reminisce, Dylan narrates what he loves about Kira. “She had this oddly sad way of looking at the world…Kind of like she was mourning every beautiful thing she saw..Like she could see the future coming, when they’d be ruined or placed or demolished.” Kira lets Dylan know that she’s afraid of what’s happening between them as she feels like she’s being deliberately self-destructive, “which fits my pattern,” Kira says. “But it’s not fair to you and when it blows up on us, probably soon..then we won’t even be friends anymore.” Dylan assures that he’ll still want to be friends. Kira admits that her therapist says that she’s stuck between who she thinks she wants to be and who she really is. She tells Dylan that Mason is the guy she’d pick for the person she wants to be, but Dylan is the one she can be herself with. That scares her because she always finds a way to fuck things up.
Dylan narrates Kira’s history to give readers some context. “See, Kira’s mom always changed with every guy she married, like a chameleon trying to hide herself behind her husband’s image. Husband #2 was into sailing, so they were out at Martha’s Vineyard every summer, spending half the day on the water. Husband #4 was a Republican, so Mom started preaching about immigrants and how global warming was a hoax. But the guy before him, Husband #3, he was the interesting one…Because this guy was a swinger. So when Kira was just getting to the age where you think about sex a lot, she had a front row seat to a few dozen orgies….Watching your mom have sex with two guys at once, or going down on some lady you sort of recognize from church…it should gross you out. But for Kira it was different. Everyone looked so happy, she said. And they were being so nice to each other. And in the center of it, surrounded by all this skin and sex…Her mother looked incandescent…You can see how Kira might end up with some unconventional ideas about sex and relationships.” Kira tells Dylan that her therapist believes that she’s using Mason to transform who she is. Kira believes that her therapist means she’s turning into her mother. When Dylan states that it’s her therapist’s job, Kira passes it off with a joke.
Dylan tells readers that having such an honest conversation with Kira worked to temporarily take his mind off the murder he committed, but he worried about how he could be open and honest with her. As he searches for news of Mark’s murder one more time, he suddenly feels vindicated. As it turns out, Teddy’s brother wasn’t just a child molester, but one who was connected to a child sex trafficking ring. His murder allowed cops to gain a way into busting the ring of child molesters.
Dylan and Kira decide to head to the shooting range, where Dylan’s newfound impeccable aim has him thinking that Kira has started looking at him differently. In spite of that and their earlier conversation, Dylan and Kira end up making out the Uber on the way home, only to run into Mason who was supposed to be Philadelphia for a conference for another day. Though Dylan states that it still hurt to see Kira with Mason, his mind was already occupied with where to find his next target.
In the next sequence, we see Dylan purchase the red ski mask, gloves and scarf we see him wearing in the beginning of the story. Afterwards, we see him murder two young thugs who were attempting to rob an elderly woman, but that sequence turned out to be a figment of Dylan’s imagination. He states he’d never pick a target on the subway due to the surveillance and limited exits and even then, being there when something’s actually going down is extremely rare. Not mention, he says, he’s not going to follow cops around waiting for them to start shooting people for being black. “So yeah, as hellish as this world is now, actually finding people who deserve killing isn’t as simple as the demon said it would be. You can look around and see awfulness on every corner, but how can you be sure which awful people need to die?” Dylan says that living a double life is absolutely exhausting and due to that, he has more than one bad idea rattling around in his head.
Speaking of bad ideas, he and Kira end up having sex. Kira frets over being unfair to Mason and breaking up with him, claiming that it would be ugly for all of them. She asks Dylan to give her a few days to think of how to break the news to Mason, as she’s already betrayed him and doesn’t want to hurt him any more than she has to. They both agree that they’re horrible people for hurting Mason.
Meanwhile, Dylan goes back to his research to try and find his next target and to do more than just take down one bad person. “What felt good about killing Teddy’s brother was that it led to something. It caught a child porn ring, maybe even saved some kids’ lives. I needed something like that again..” That desire for killing to lead to something bigger is what leads Dylan to an upscale strip club in Brooklyn. He finds out that it’s a front run by Russians and that’s a good chance that many of the women aren’t there by choice.
Dylan watches the women get into several group vans at 4 am in the morning four nights in a row to make sure he picks out the right target. He decides to go after the bouncer for the last van of women. The night he decides to make his move, Mason confronts him, worried about him going out at 2 am every night. Dylan dismisses his roommate’s concerns, stating that he just isn’t able to sleep. “See?” he narrates to the audience, “That’s what I’m talking about…Leading a secret life is a fucking pain in the ass.”
Meanwhile as Dylan awaits his target outside the strip club, Mason calls Kira, worried for Dylan’s safety. As Dylan confronts the gun toting bodyguard, most likely a member of the Russian Bratva, the man isn’t afraid and even scoffs at what he believes is Dylan’s attempt at robbing him. Dylan shoots the man twice, only to get attacked by a stripper when he unlocks the van to free them. Panicking about getting caught by the cops, Dylan ends up shooting the stripper in the stomach.
Safely alone on the subway, Dylan peels off his mask, worried about whether the stripper would live or die and if her death would cancel out the Russian mob enforcer. Feeling the blood and bruises on his face, he decided that he’d have to learn how to fight if he was going to continue the crusade.
Once he gets home, he’s confronted by both Mason & Kira, Kira telling Dylan that Mason called her because he thought Dylan was sneaking out to see her. Dylan instead fakes a breakdown about being self-destructive. Inwardly, he believes that the love affair between him and Kira is now over because he was too damaged. “That moment where you see something about someone else that just breaks your heart. And Kira and I were always breaking each other’s hearts a little bit. So year, our secret affair was over that night…But my best friend was still there to take care of me.”
The story ends while one of the strippers describing to the police what she remembered of the man who shot the Russian enforcer and Kira paging through some of Dylan’s father’s old magazines, checking out the illustrations. The conversation is abruptly put on hold when Kira tells Dylan they need to talk.
Dylan is perhaps one of the most relatable protagonists I’ve come across in a long time. No, he’s not perfect, in fact, he struggles all the time with what it means to commit murder in order to save his own life. He’s afraid of the unknown, struggles with rationalizing his decisions to kill and yet he takes some satisfaction out of knowing that at least one of his kills led to some good, with the police being able to bust the child sex ring after Mark’s death. The premise of the story honestly reminds me of Saw, with the demon taking the place of Jigsaw and forcing Dylan to fight for his own life after he initially didn’t value it.
In spite of this, I believe that Dylan hit the nail on the head when he stated that the entire world is corrupt, that there is no justice and those people who commit murder, steal livelihoods away and abuse women and children generally get away with their crimes. In that sense, the vigilantism the demon is forcing Dylan to undertake is a much faster and permanent way of dispensing justice.
As Dylan struggles, I definitely sympathize with his internal rationalizations on what is the right thing to do, even in his relationship with Kira. His feelings for her were tangible and heart breaking all at once while Kira herself seemed hell bent on self-destructing and using both Dylan and Mason as conduits to do so. She may love both men in her own way, but it certainly didn’t mean that she should be with either one of them.
As a minor critique, I think that in some ways, Vol 1 spends too much time sharing Dylan’s rationalizations for what he has to do. After the first few, I believe readers get the point and there’s no need to focus as much on Dylan’s inner monologue.
Overall, the story is partially a look at the difficulties of young adulthood while combining that with a thriller and a look at what happens when you have a reluctant vigilante. Looking forward to the next chapter and how Dylan may improve on his crusade.