Ed Brubaker has had a legendary comics career, writing some of the best-loved graphic stories of the last twenty-five years. Justly famous for his genre-bending work on superhero icons Batman and Captain America, he has focused in recent years, however, on a series of loosely connected crime themed comics with his long-time collaborator, artist Sean Phillips. Their most recent Image title, Kill or Be Killed (with colorist Elizabeth Breitweiser), will finish its twenty issue run this week. Like many Brubaker/Phillips titles, it’s a gritty exploration of urban crime, but spiked with hints of the supernatural and with subtle winks to its own comics DNA.
As with seemingly every comic title today, there is a possible Kill or Be Killed film in the works from John Wick director Chad Stahelski, although the next Brubaker adaptation will be his original series with Nicolas Winding Refn, Too Old to Die Young, coming sometime in 2019 from Amazon (trailer).
LIDL: Going back and re-reading Kill or be Killed from the beginning, I was surprised to realize that the flash forward from issue #1 does not pay off completely until issue #14. Was that the plan from the beginning? Or did Dylan’s story develop in unexpected ways as you went along?
Brubaker: I don’t think I knew exactly which issue the story would catch up, but I knew it would be late, and I always knew the last arc would take place in an insane asylum.
But yeah, the story definitely developed in ways I didn’t expect, pretty quickly. I had no idea how much Dylan talking to the reader directly would open up the story. It allowed me to veer all over the place, from his personal history to his random thoughts about everything going on in the world today, instead of only being about his vigilante tales.
In the early conception, I thought the story would be a bit more “return to status quo” at the end of each issue, like an old fashioned monthly superhero comic, but about a somewhat mentally disturbed vigilante killer, instead of a superhero. But as it went along, it became all one long story, instead, but with the structure of a monthly comic underneath it, which is something I think is kind of cool.
LIDL: Are you guys happy to conclude the story at #20? You have such a track record of serial self-contained stories, it’s obviously nothing new to you, but will you miss Dylan and his world?
Brubaker: I mean, Dylan’s world is so close to our world anyway, like even the weather tracks to large degree with whatever was happening a month or two earlier, so I definitely won’t miss that part.
But as for moving on from Dylan’s story, no regrets. It’s been our most successful book so far, and it’s been a lot of fun to make, but me and Sean both love finishing a story and moving on to something else. It gives us a chance to stretch and try new things.
Sean Phillips: It’s always frustrating to finish a series just as I’m getting the hang of it, but new projects are always exciting. It’s a chance to draw something different and change styles if needed.
LIDL: Also in re-reading, I was struck by something I missed originally. Dylan’s homicidal violence appears to be grounded repeatedly in a context of wounded masculinity. From the first anecdote of his failing to defend Daisy on the subway, to his emasculation by Mason with Kira, I read Dylan’s violence as a kind of rage over his own impotence, that gets expressed in a kind of crackpot chivalry. His vigilante justice gets applied in the defense of female Russian prostitutes, his love Kira, the female mental patient, and the woman detective. Was that an element you wanted to explicitly explore or did it arise primarily from the characters and situations?
Brubaker: I think that’s a valid reading, although it wasn’t something I was specifically thinking of in the writing. To me it was about that feeling of helplessness we all get when we see people treating other people like shit and getting away with it, but Daisy sure thinks Dylan is an idiot for letting those guys get under his skin, which looks very much like wounded male pride. But to me it was also him remembering that moment and wishing he could have just done something, wishing that he could break the rules and do something.
And yeah, I think crackpot chivalry is probably a good way to phrase it. In issue 19, Dylan even talks about this underlying morality we’re all taught as children, from fairy tales and cartoons and movies, that we all grow up believing, and then it turns out the real world isn’t like that. In the real world Scrooge doesn’t wake up on Christmas a changed man, he wakes up, shakes off his bad dream, and goes back to being a greedy fuck. So yeah, that’s all in there, and like a lot of noir “heroes” Dylan is a bit of a tarnished knight.
But structurally, a lot of this stuff just came about in the process of telling the story and writing the characters — and let’s not forget that he killed people over finance crimes, and for poisoning dogs, too.
LIDL: Did the Kill or Be Killed reach the audience you were hoping for? According to The Beat’s tracking of ComiXology rankings, it appears that Kill or Be Killed had noticeable success as a digital offering, punching well above its weight in online sales relative to print. Is the Brubaker/Phillips audience a different one from the traditional comic readership?
Brubaker: Kill or be Killed was a pretty big hit for us in both print and digital, actually. Our sales for most of the run were higher by a decent percentage than any of our previous series.
From what I can tell, our print audience for the monthly issues and the trades and stuff is incredibly loyal, but then Sean and I have been putting out books for about 18 years now, so our readers have learned over the years to follow us to each project. And in our experience so far, every new project the audience grows. You always get some new people who had heard good things but were waiting for a new launch.
LIDL: I have to ask, is there any update on the Kill or Be Killed movie adaption? The announced director seems to have a lot on his plate currently (John Wick 2, Analog).
Brubaker: Oh yeah, directors always attach to a ton of stuff because 95% of movies don’t actually get made.
The only update I can give is that the screenwriter has already turned in a draft. Chad is shooting Wick 3, so I’ll know more when that wraps.
LIDL: Finally, while I am sure Ed is primarily focused on his upcoming Amazon series with Nicolas Winding Refn, “Too Old to Die Young,” is there any update on the previously announced Velvet show?
Brubaker: I’m a bit in the dark on that show right now. Last I heard, Paramount had ordered more scripts for season one, but that was a while back, so I’m not sure what’s going on.
Brubaker and Phillips will be back with their new “romantic” comic My Heroes Have Always Been Junkies in the fall, described by Phillips as a “departure stylistically” that he is coloring with his son Jake. It’s the duo’s first original hardcover graphic novel, set to be released on October 19.