Vaughan & Chiang's "Paper Girls" Builds a Familiar Yet Disconcerting World
Image, 7 issues (#1-7), cover dated July 2008-January 2009.
I’m really going to try not to SPOIL anything below, because this is so recent, but I might have to give away a few things. I can say that I will not give away the major plot points. So swear I!
I called this book the second-best mini-series of 2008, so it’s not surprising it ends up on this list, but I still had to re-read it to make sure I wasn’t deluding myself. I wasn’t. It’s as good on a second read-through as it was reading it in serial format, as re-reading it lets us look at some of the more interesting things Kelly and Niimura do to bring Barbara Thorson’s world to life.
One of the big problems I have with coming-of-age stories is that they’re so similar. There’s always a precocious protagonist who’s too smart for school (and whose teachers just don’t get); a perilous situation at home; a non-existent social life unless it’s true geek stuff; some awkward fumblings with sex at an entirely inappropriate age; some recreational drug use; and finally, some kind of epiphany by which the protagonist accepts who he or she is. Usually there’s a patina of pop culture, so that the protagonist comes of age with whatever “cool” music happened to be the thing when it occurred. It’s fairly dull, to be honest. Not all coming-of-age stories are like this, of course, and those are the ones that rise above the sludge and become truly noteworthy. I Kill Giants is one of those. On the one hand, Kelly makes his protagonist typically precocious – she’s a fifth-grader who reads taxonomy textbooks in class – and the teachers and administrators at her school typically uncaring (the only real problem I have with the book is that her teacher and principal are complete caricatures). She plays Dungeons & Dragons, avoids the perilous situation at home, and has a non-existent social life. Kelly, however, quickly subverts those clichés and takes this to places most coming-of-age stories don’t. He does this by introducing the giants.
Barbara hunts and kills giants, as she tells us early in issue #1. Of course, the adults in the book don’t believe her, or believe she’s using the giants to cover up her real problems (this is the view of the sympathetic school counselor, Mrs. Molle). Of course, the kids don’t believe her either, except for Sophia, a new kid who desperately wants to be Barbara’s friend. Sophia is necessary, of course, as a way for Barbara to explain herself to the reader, and this she does. There is also a bully, of course, who leads a posse around school and torments both Barbara (who fights back) and Sophia (who doesn’t). Kelly does a nice job setting up the story in the first two issues before everything goes sideways in issue #3 and the comic really takes off. As we are comic book readers, we’re conditioned to accept fantastical elements in our fiction far more than the characters are (this is a problem even in superhero comics, where people who can burst into flame or fire lasers from their hands are always doubting alien invasions or demonic possessions), so we accept that Barbara really does fight giants, even if the setting of the book is remarkably mundane (the story takes place in an unnamed town on Long Island). In issue #3, however, we begin to question our judgment and Barbara’s sanity, and the turn in the book’s tone is stunning. Barbara is no longer a petulant fifth-grader who doesn’t suffer fools because she’s engaged in a noble pursuit. Suddenly, she becomes someone with real problems, from what happens when she opens the purse in which her giant-killing hammer is stored to her treatment of both Mrs. Molle and Sophia. It’s in this issue that we get confirmation that something is seriously wrong with her home life (we had only suspicions before). Kelly brings this up by a clever device that is usually annoying. When Mrs. Molle speaks to Barbara about her situation at home, some of the words – the ones that would give it away – are blacked out. On the one hand, this is an annoying dodge by Kelly – he knows what’s going on with Barbara’s family, but is deliberately withholding that information from the reader. But it fits in with how Barbara perceives the world. The blacked-out words become, ingeniously, static. Barbara simply doesn’t hear them – they are black holes into which coherence disappears and all that comes out is dissonance. It’s part of what’s disturbing about the issue – is Barbara truly insane? we wonder, because after being quirky in the first two issues, she becomes dangerous in this one. We believe that if giants exist, she would be capable of slaying them.
Kelly keeps this tension throughout the comic. It’s not a spoiler to write that a giant (actually a titan, and Barbara explains the difference between them) does show up, but Kelly does a nice job putting doubt in our mind – is it really a giant, or something that springs from Barbara’s tortured mind? We assume, when the story begins, that Barbara is going to fight a giant, and so this doubt deepens the confrontation and makes it more than just a battle between an 11-year-old girl and a monster – it becomes a battle for a soul; whose soul it is, however, also makes this a more interesting story than it originally appears. The giant is the least of Barbara’s worries, as it turns out.
I Kill Giants is deeper than it appears in several places, not just with Barbara’s dilemma with the giant. Names, for instance, are very important in the comic. Obviously, Barbara’s last name, Thorson, speaks volumes. She carries a hammer, like Thor, and kills giants, which Thor was known to do as well. But her first name, Barbara, is interesting as well. “Barbara” means “foreign” or “strange” – “barbarian” is derived from the same root, obviously – and our heroine is certainly that, at least according to those around her. She is The Other, the girl who doesn’t like girly things, the girl who’s a rigid Dungeon Master, the girl who knows baseball lore. Nobody knows quite what to do with her, not her older sister, not her friend, not even her guidance counselor. Barbara, as the foreigner in a relatively “normal” suburban world, must navigate the problems of the world alone, with only one thing to guide her (I’ll get to that). She is beyond the pale, so to speak, in the wilderness where naked fairies play and weird creatures abound and titans rise from restless waters. She names her hammer “Coveleski” after Harry Coveleski, a pitcher for the Phillies who, at the age of 22, defeated the New York Giants three times in five days late in 1908, costing the New Yorkers the pennant (which went to the Cubs, who then won the World Series – currently, the last one they’ve won) and earning the nickname “Giant-Killer.” It’s a clever name but also shows that Barbara remains an outsider – she not only knows baseball, but ancient baseball as well. Her guide as she attempts to decipher what’s going on in her life is wisdom, which she slowly gains over the course of the series, and of course, her only friend is named Sophia, which means “wisdom.” Sophia acts as Barbara’s foil to a certain degree, getting her to explain all about giants (which helps the audience, of course), betraying her when she thinks Barbara has done the same to her, and gaining the courage she needs to stand up to the bully and put herself clearly on Barbara’s side. Sophia is the unwitting catalyst in Barbara’s transformation – when she betrays Barbara, Barbara wants revenge, and Coveleski fails her. It is a sacred weapon, and Barbara needs to see that before she can fight the titan. Sophia helps Barbara by showing her that hiding everything about yourself from your friends ultimately leads to despair and loneliness. Even the minor characters get interesting names. The ridiculous principal is named Marx, a comment less on the philosopher than the comedy troupe, while Barbara’s older sister (and caregiver) is named Karen. “Karen” means “pure,” and although I’m not sure if Kelly intended to give her a meaningful name as much as he did Barbara and Sophia (and I’m not even sure how much he did with them, but there’s no doubt they’re more intentional than the others), it’s interesting that Karen, although not exactly “pure,” is a beacon in Barbara’s life and a rock for her, if only her younger sister would see it. In the aftermath of Barbara’s fight with the titan, Karen shows how important she’s been in our heroine’s life, and although the reader hasn’t hated her before this, after the fight she becomes more lovable.
Atmosphere is very important in the book, and Niimura is magnificent at that. I Kill Giants is a mythological story to some degree, so Kelly steeps the book in mythic symbolizers and counts on Niimura to bring them to life. Despite the cartoonish style that Niimura brings to the art, it’s very disturbing in places, clashing nicely with the normalcy of the suburbs. Barbara herself, with her rabbit (or other animal ears) sticking from the top of her head, is slightly out-of-sync visually as well as emotionally with the world. Niimura makes her a bridge between the normal world and the world of giants, as she stands on the edge, watching the harbingers of the giant’s arrival stroll unhindered through the world, invisible to others, and bears witness. Barbara’s fear of what’s going on at home is brought to life well, and when Sophia unwittingly stumbles across it, the terror Barbara feels is palpable, mostly because of the way Niimura sets the scene and leads to a big reveal. By tapping into this myth, Kelly gives Niimura fertile ground. Water and weather are very important in this book, as Barbara reads the signs in the skies and Niimura makes cloud formations terrifying omens and creates a bay that seethes with life as the titan approaches. The battle with the titan in issue #6 is one of the best fights I’ve seen in a comic in a long time, as Barbara grapples with the giant and the elements, and Niimura gives it a kinetic insanity that leaves the reader breathless. It’s a terrifying fight, because we know what Barbara’s fighting for (or at least we think we do) and when the giant speaks, we realize that Kelly has been leading us on, and now we have to reconsider what we thought about Barbara and her obsession. The titan takes on even more mythic attributes, as it represents not a thing to be defeated, necessarily, but a thing that cannot be defeated. Kelly gets to this through the writing, but Niimura does a marvelous job turning the giant from a creature to fear to something different in just a few panels. In the aftermath of the battle, Niimura shines in the quieter aspects of the book too, including a beautiful page that shows Barbara finally coming to terms with her chosen profession.
As a sheer adventure comic, I Kill Giants works well. As a coming-of-age story, it rises above others because of the way Kelly chooses to write the dilemma of growing up. These two elements make it a worthy book, but what makes it brilliant is the way Kelly digs deeper into the psyche of Barbara and shows us how close to the edge she, and by extension all of us, are. Is Barbara fantasizing? Others in the comic would say no, but perhaps they’ve tapped into the same psychosis that she has. If she is fantasizing, then Kelly gives us a perfectly good reason why. But at the same time, he reveals that perhaps there are dark things out there in the night, and we need someone like Barbara to stand at the threshold keeping them back. It’s important to note that Kelly never definitively says if Barbara is fantasizing or insane or really fighting giants. Ultimately, it doesn’t matter. What matters is that she has a battle to fight. How she fights that battle makes her who she is, and makes this, truly, a Comic You Should Own.
As I mentioned, the serial just finished in January, so a trade is not out yet. It has been solicited, however, and according to Image, it will be out on 13 May. Put it on your shopping list! Or just dig up the back issues! Or just peruse the archives for more stuff you really ought to own!
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