I Kill Giants
I’ll admit that I’m a bit of a heathen when it comes to stories that I enjoy. I love stories with action and adventure and am totally fine with mindless brain candy. If I enjoy any ambiguity, it’s largely in the ways that people respond to situations, how they cope with dark spaces and thoughts and interact with others who either support or confront them. I tend to get frustrated with stories that expect me to read a lot into them or remain vague. There are a few exceptions and none more so than the story that I read for this week’s article. I Kill Giants is an intriguing blend of fantasy and reality about a teenaged girl trying to find a way to cope with a life that isn’t exactly ideal. Written by Joe Kelly and illustrated by J.M Ken Niimura, it tells the story of Barbara Thorson, troubled girl and giantkiller. This single arc story is comprised of seven issues that were originally published in 2008 by Image Comics. It has been nominated for several awards and is consistently picked as one of the best graphic novels, particularly for teens. It is a story of both action and adventure and subtler questions of reality and how to cope with terrible things that combines allegory and reality until the reader can hardly tell one from the other.
Barbara Thorson is what’s generally referred to in a kind way as “troubled.” According to some of her classmates and neighbors, it’s really more “batshit insane.” She carries around a small bag which she claims to contain a hammer that allows her to kill all kinds of giants who occasionally try to come and kidnap residents of her coastal city. Instead of paying attention in class, she’s constantly reading and talking back to both teachers and principals when they try to call her on it. And she doesn’t get along any better with kids her age. Instead of wanting to watch movies or talk about fashion, music or gossip, Barbara reads books about giants, runs Dungeons and Dragons games with her brother and his friends and spends half of her time talking to the fantastical creatures who aid her in her giant killing adventures. When a new girl named Sophia shows up at school, she tries to befriend Barbara and gets pulled into the battle not only against giants but also bullies, a school psychologist and understanding how Barbara can have her feet in two very different worlds. As the story progresses, it becomes more and more clear to the reader that things at home aren’t exactly ideal. As her old sister Karen and her new friend Sophia try to understand her and even try to get her to talk to the school counselor, Barbara has to decide how to handle the rougher sides of her life as well as the giantkilling and the reader must decide how much of Barbara’s perspective is reality and how much is fantasy to protect her from harsh truths.
As I mentioned earlier, I’m not a big fan of stories which rely on a lot of analysis or reading into it to understand the core themes and structure. I Kill Giants was different. This is the first story in a long time that felt like it was pulling my heart out of my chest, stomping on it and making me love it. When you read I Kill Giants, you spend half of the story wondering how Barbara can be so stubbornly attached to the fantastical world of giant killing when others are trying so hard to help her and then the second half of the story is such a beautiful examination of the darker truths of life that you can’t help but feel for Barbara. While there are plenty of stories written about (and for) young adults that examine darker themes, very few of them do so as beautifully as I Kill Giants. The art style tends toward a sketched, almost manga style with not a lot of intricate detail for the first half. Then, when the giants finally make an appearance in the second half, the art style becomes a lot darker, heavier, with the giants as intensely imposing figures against the background of present day city life. It’s a brilliant way to heighten the tension and the importance of what Barbara’s dealing with and makes the message of the story that much more impactful. Barbara’s a misfit and a weirdo with an acerbic tongue that keeps just about everyone at distance. She remains baffling for a fair portion of the story but that makes the final moment where the reader understands her almost a shock. I don’t want to spoil the story for anyone who hasn’t read it before so I won’t talk too much about some of the themes in the story, I’ll just say it’s one of the most surprisingly lovely stories that I’ve read in a long time. Not afraid to admit that it had me crying by the last two issues.
Some stories sneak up on you and just steal your heart away. I’ve read stories that tried to deal with dark or heavy themes in an allegorical or vague way and which only succeeded in annoying me by being ham-fisted about it or being so vague that I had no idea what the hell I’d just read. In I Kill Giants, Joe Kelly and J.M Ken Niimura tell the story of a girl dealing with more than anyone that age should have to and do it so beautifully that you don’t realize how it’s stealing your breath and attention. If you can handle a main character who has to grow on you and a story which never really lands on fantasy or reality, I Kill Giants is absolutely a must read. I honestly can’t speak highly enough of it and will place it among my very favorites.