Kill a Man is raw, violent, powerful. Steve Orlando, Phillip Kennedy Johnson, Al Morgan, and Jim Campbell’s story of a gay MMA fighter who gets outed and sets himself down a path for revenge is an unflinching exploration of homophobia in the sports world, of the challenges of coming out, of the self-destructive consequences of revenge, and of finding peace with yourself.
In the early days of mixed martial arts, before the EFC—Kill a Man‘s stand-in for the UFC—was as big as it is today, Xavier Mayne fights DJ Bellyi. Mayne is openly gay, but that’s something that’s far from widely accepted, as seen in Bellyi jumping straight into the homophobic insults as their fight gets underway. Xavier can only put up with so much before he snaps; what should have ended in a knockout instead ends with DJ dead on the mat.
Fast forward 20-odd years, and DJ Bellyi’s son, James, is one of the EFC’s rising stars, known for his flashy and aggressive style. He finally earns the right to challenge Derrick Waldron for the middleweight title—but during a pre-fight press conference, Waldron drops a bomb: James Bellyi, the son of a fighter killed by a gay man, an incident that made his already homophobic family even more so, is gay.
This seems like the end of James Bellyi’s career. The EFC manufactures an excuse to disqualify James from the fight with Derrick Waldron—ostensibly because of it was discovered that he won his previous fight due to an illegal strike, but really because “EFC fans aren’t ready for a gay champ”—and with no coach and no team ready to take James on, his left with no choice but to turn to the only person he can think of who knows what situation he’s in: Xavier Mayne, the man who killed his father.
A reluctant Xavier eventually agrees to help James fight his way back to the top and, hopefully, win that middleweight belt once and for all. He’s also got his own demons to deal with, and the weight of what happened so many years ago weighs heavy on his mind. But maybe if he can help James—not just to win his fights, but to avoid making the same mistakes that Xavier made—he can finally lay those ghosts to rest.
Related: For a more light-hearted martial arts comics, Karate Heat is worth checking out. Here’s our review of volume 1.
Through this setup, Kill a Man holds no punches in confronting the homophobia that’s still so prevalent in the world, and especially in the world of sports. The EFC may be a fictitious organisation, but it’s not hard to imagine its real-world equivalents having the same reaction to the possibility of a gay champ—saying the right things and talking positively in front of the camera, but knowing that it would alienate a huge section of the fanbase and doing everything behind the scenes to prevent that from happening.
In the same way, Kill a Man looks at the difficulties of coming out, especially when you’ve grown up with a family as hostile towards queer people as the Bellyis. James’ life would have been so different if he hadn’t been raised to hate “those people”—to hate himself. And with no one to turn to, at least until he meets Xavier, James really has no way of figuring out how to be who he is.
Again, Kill a Man is unflinching in all this. It presents the ugly reality of a homophobic world, with all the slurs and hatred that comes with that. Coupled with a story mostly driven by James’ desire for revenge, it’s a violent, bleak, depressing book. Al Morgan’s art really drives this home: heavy shadows, sharp lines, limited use of colour, and lots of angled shots that show the unbalanced state of James’ world. There’s plenty of energy in the fight scenes, but they’re not what I’d call “exciting” in the way that an action comic’s fights usually are; rather, they emphasise the violence and the desperation of the situation.
But there’s a glimmer of hope in there, too; ultimately, Kill a Man is about finding peace, with the world and with who you are, and about challenging the homophobia that it depicts.
Kill a Man written by Steve Orlando and Phillip Kennedy Johnson, illustrated by Al Morgan, lettered by Jim Campbell, and published by Aftershock Comics. It’s available now in digital and print formats.
A review copy was provided to Shindig by the publisher.