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Fundamental Comics: ‘I Kill Giants’ and the Joys and Pains of Shared Catharsis

“Fundamental Comics,” a monthly editorial series that introduces readers to comics, graphic novels, and manga that have been impactful to sequential art medium and the comic book industry on a foundational level.  Each month, a new essay will examine a familiar or less-known title through an in-depth analysis, exploring the history of the title, significant themes, and context for the title’s popularity since it was first released.



I Kill Giants
Writer: Joe Kelly
Illustrator: JM Ken Niimura
Foreword: Chris Columbus
Publisher: Image Comics
Publication Date: 2008
No. of Issues: 7


Introduction

Less than an hour. That’s how long it took for Joe Kelly to outline the entire story for what would become I Kill Giants. He was waiting, legal pad in hand, for his father to finish a physical therapy session. His father was diabetic, complications from which had cost him one of his legs. For obvious reasons, the loss of a parent was at the front of his mind.

From “Behind the Scenes,” in the afterword of the I Kill Giants collected edition:


Writing is different for every person who’s ever put pen to paper. For some, it’s a brutish, painful, bloody act of labor. For others, a methodical archaeological expedition where bits of the whole are dusted off day by day until a civilization is revealed. After over a dozen years doing this professionally, I still don’t know what my 'method' is, unless you count guilty procrastination and overwriting as 'method.' However, I can always tell when a story is alive for me -- because it literally claws its way through my guts and brains, consuming all other thoughts until I let it out in one furious burst. Invariably, when I get that feeling, I know I’ve uncovered a story I can tell the hell out of.

I Kill Giants was exactly that sort of story.


It took several years before IKG could evolve from a dozen handwritten pages of notes into what it would become, a critical darling of a miniseries. Joe would lose his father along the way; he passed in 2008, the same year that I Kill Giants began publication. (In the interest of full disclosure, I refer to Joe by his first name, because that’s how I know him. Joe has been a friend, a mentor, and an employer of mine since before IKG first saw print.)


The Plot of I Kill Giants

SPOILERS BELOW

Barbara Thorson is something of an outsider, an adolescent with no seeming interest in the things that excite other girls her age. They wear belly shirts and worry about celebrity hook ups; Barbara plays D&D, antagonizes her siblings and classmates… and, of course, plots ways to kill giants. She works diligently on Coveleski, the purse/mighty warhammer with which she plans to smite her foes, and she sees and speaks to fairies, her only obvious friends until three people enter her life.

Taylor is the bully about town, and she becomes positively fixated on Barbara and her eccentricities, which brings out Barbara’s singularly piercing wit. Miss Molle is the new school psychologist who takes just as much interest in Barbara’s antisocial behavior, albeit with a more benevolent intent. Then, there is Sophia. Sophia is the new girl in search of a friend, and she sees in Barbara that same need.

Giants aren’t the only thing that Barbara fears, and, indeed, she doesn’t seem to fear giants so much as she opposes them. But there is a monster of sorts in her house, a monster that calls to Barbara, and this monster frightens her to her core.

According to Joe Kelly:


In a weird way, it’s Juno meets Pan’s Labyrinth.


Barbara struggles with the problems posed by these people in her life as she struggles with the monsters that may or not be in her imagination… or maybe the monsters really are there, they just aren’t as she sees them.

The monster in her house is her mother, and not an evil stepmother, but a mother dying from a cancer that Barbara simply cannot make herself face. The giant that is coming, the giant that Barbara wants to stand up to…is her mother’s impending death, made over into something Barbara understands and believes that she can fight.

Fight it she does, when their smallish town is hit by a once-in-a-century storm, that is when the giant comes, and Barbara, already in the middle of fighting with Taylor and Sophia and Miss Molle, rises to face it… and is swept away.

Barbara returns in the aftermath, somewhat the worse for wear, but having gained the sort of wisdom that heroes gain when they are forced to face their demons. Yes, she struck and felled her giant, but it will not die, because she cannot save her mother. It tells her, instead, that she can face her mother, because she is stronger than she thinks.


Critical Analysis

IGN gave I Kill Giants “Best Indy Book of 2008,” describing it thus:

With so many major events and developments in the world of superheroes, it’s easy to overlook or run out of money for the little guys, the books that bother to look outside the realm of heroes and villains. And unfortunately, that’s where some of the industry’s greatest titles live. Take I Kill Giants for example, a stellar mix of geekdom, Calvin & Hobbes and drama. [sic] This series doesn’t have color. It doesn’t feature epic battles in space or on Earth (in the mind is another matter). It doesn’t work with the most conventional art style. But these 'shortcomings' are what make the series such a breath of fresh air. It dares to be different, lost in its imaginative solitude, much like its sympathetic main character. If there’s one book that demands you sacrifice a typical purchase, it’s this one.


I Kill Giants was also listed as one of the ten best comics of 2009 by New York Magazine’s Dan Kois and one of the top ten great graphic novels for teens by the Young Adult Library Services Association. IKG won the Gold Award at the 5th International Manga Award in 2012 and was voted the second best foreign comic book by Japan’s Gaiman Award.

In 2017, Comic Book Resources said that IKG was “…in no uncertain terms, one of the best comics of the last decade.” In many ways, they go on to suggest that the series actual centers escapist fantasy, the unquestioned purview of modern comics, under its thematic eye.


It’s a series that presents escapism as a double-edged sword: there’s nothing inherently wrong with avoiding the harshness and unpleasantness of reality, but there’s a limit.



Relevancy Today / Why #StoriesMatter

The first time I read I Kill Giants, I was reading it as a fan and a friend. I was close enough to Joe that he shared where it had come from with me, maybe not before he talked about it in interviews online, but certainly one on one. At the time, I had only the barest understanding of what loss… of what fear of loss… was. I mean, I’d lost a grandparent in high school, and that had been tough, but… well. I didn’t know.

Upon my first read, I felt like I had a connection to loss that I hadn’t had before, and I did, but it was purely a cerebral understanding. I didn’t plug into it fully because I couldn’t. How could I?

Since then, I’ve suffered… well, I was going to say unimaginable loss, but this comic very clearly proves that it CAN be imagined, because it was coming from a place not of loss, but of fear of loss. Joe Kelly was writing about the fear of a loss he had not yet suffered, but he was facing the eventuality of that loss.

I read I Kill Giants very differently now, but I continue to reread it. My wife has the same diabetes that killed Joe’s dad, and we’ve had some terrifying close calls. I’ve wept alone in the hospital parking lot when I didn’t know whether or not she was gonna make it. I’ve held her while she was afraid for her life. (SPOILER: She’s in the other room watching Real Housewives of Orange County, so we’re okay for the moment.)

The weird thing is that rereading I Kill Giants helps. Revisiting Barbara’s story and her fears makes me feel a little less alone under the loneliness of circumstances.

How can a story matter more than that?


Other Points of Interest

Well, if you’d heard of I Kill Giants before reading this essay, odds are good that you heard about the movie starring Madison Wolfe and Zoe Saldana. Chris Columbus, director of the first two Harry Potter films, was the first engine behind getting the movie made, although he didn’t end up directing it. (That task fell to Anders Walter who did a delightful job with it.) Rotten Tomatoes has been mostly kind, giving it a 77% rating.

One of my best friends lost his mom a few years back, and, like me, he found IKG oddly comforting. It helps to be reminded that we’re stronger than we sometimes think.




Last modified on Thursday, 26 November 2020 01:03

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