COMICS: John Reviews “I Kill Giants” by Joe Kelly and JM Ken Niimura

I Kill Giants

I Kill Giants

If you’ve been reading the big comic news websites (as I have), you’ve probably heard tons of praise heaped upon a miniseries from Image Comics called I Kill Giants, written by Joe Kelly and illustrated by JM Ken Niimura.  After reading the collected trade paperback this weekend, I can honestly tell you that this book deserves every single word of praise it has been given and then some.  It is a truly spectacular work of sequential art fiction, one that transcends its genres (fantasy/drama/YA) and even its medium to stand on its own as an incredible story about youth, friendship, family, grief and (of course) giant-killing.

I Kill Giants is the story of 10-year-old Barbara Thorson, a fifth-grader who is mature far beyond her years, yet chooses to devote most of her attention to a “fantasy world” where she battles fearsome giants with her magic hammer, Covaleski.  This is no game for Barbara, though, as she diligently and stoically spends hours researching giants, preparing her weapon, and setting traps.  When a new student named Sophia befriends Barbara (and ends up in the crosshairs of Taylor, the school bully who already makes Barbara’s life miserable) life becomes more complicated for the young giant-killer.  [EDIT: For those keeping score, I Kill Giants follows the Bechdel rule.  In fact, very few male characters are given any page time at all, and are rarely even mentioned.]  Her problems with Taylor force the school to send her to a therapist, who believes that the giants are Barbara’s way of dealing with much more serious problems at home.  As situations both at home and at school escalate, the lines between fantasy and reality blur, and the story’s conclusion leaves everything ambiguous enough to satisfy both fantasy fans and skeptics alike.

It is in this blend of fantasy and reality that I Kill Giants truly excels (and takes advantage of the comic book medium, where the fantastic is more common than the mundane.)  The best fantasy stories use their fantastic elements to make the story feel more real, or at least more emotionally powerful.  IKG seamlessly blends the perspectives of both Barbara and those around her so that, while you want Barbara’s ideas of giants and magic hammers to be real, you can just as easily believe that they are defense mechanisms put up by a child in the face of serious trauma.  The drama and action build so well in the story that the climax is as epic as a Peter Jackson movie (or a Geoff Johns comic,) and Kelly’s characters are so well-realized that I found myself completely emotionally invested in them.

Kelly and Nimura’s dedication to the project is on full display on every single page.  The characters are absolutely unique, both conceptually and visually.  Barbara is a ten-year-old girl who wears bunny ears as part of her regular wardrobe, yet looks absolutely unflappably serious in them.  Her enemies, both real and fantastic, tap into the essential collective impression of the overwhelming nemesis (be it the school bully or the unstoppable god of death.)  In general, Niimura’s art style has an almost dreamlike quality to it, as though everything in the background and framing is drawn to evoke the emotional beats of the story.  There are some clever tricks to reinforce Barbara’s perspective and avoid spoilers for the shocking reveal near the climax, including the use of black bars over certain topics that Barbara’s therapist brings up during their sessions (which both keep the reader from knowing and show Barbara’s inability to confront the issue.)  [begin publisher-related rant]My only complaint regarding the presentation of IKG is that Image printed high-gloss paper, which I feel is best suited to other types of books.  I would have preferred a matte or uncoated paper stock similar to the one Image used for the Power Up graphic novel (review coming soon) instead, but it’s a minor quibble and I would rather a book of such quality be printed on too high a grade of paper than too low of one [end rant].

There are more than a few references to other fantasy and real-world properties throughout IKG, but I only managed to notice a few.  Barbara explains that her hammer (its existence itself a double homage to the hammer of Thor, the Norse thunder god and to various anime series where petite young women wield gigantic hammers seemingly pulled out of thin air) is named Covaleski after the famous Phillies pitcher who was nicknamed “the Giant killer” after winning three consecutive games against the Giants.  The bit that got the biggest chuckle out of me, though, was the fact that Barbara does most of her research on giants by consulting Role-Playing Game manuals, even going so far as to commandeer the “war room” in her local hobby shop.  I wouldn’t be surprised if there were many more references for the avid fantasy reader to notice, though never so obviously that they distract attention from the scene in which they appear.

Let’s not mince words here: I Kill Giants is one of my first must-read trade paperbacks of 2009.  It’s an most emotionally honest and close-to-home tragicomic that, like Barbara herself, uses fantasy to make reality a little bit easier and more exciting to bear.  Run, don’t walk to your local bookstore or comic shop and pick up a copy today, or face the wrath of Barbara’s mighty war hammer Covaleski!

Barbara wields the mighty Covaleski.

Barbara wields the mighty Covaleski.

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