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CSBG Archive

Comics You Should Own – I Kill Giants

Yes, it just finished in January, but such are the vagaries of our alphabetical system!

I Kill Giants by Joe Kelly (writer) and JM Ken Niimura (artist/letterer).

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!

19 Comments

I’ll have to read the entire writeup later (I’m *supposed* to be working), but I simply want to second the “comics you should own” label for I KILL GIANTS. One of my favorite comics in … ever.

Looking forward to the TPB of this one….

I often like Kelly, and I like the look of the art. Plus, you usually get it right with your stuff one should own, so I’m definitely going to get this in trade. Is Four Eyes as good, or not quite?

I enjoyed this series as well. I may be tempted to buy it again when its collected…plus the graphic design of the covers are eye catching…between the title and that, it was that extra push for me to check it out. The first issue of Four Eyes was entertaining…for the life of me…I can’t find the second issue anywhere…

Four Eyes is good, but only two issues have come out, so it’s too soon to tell. The art is beautiful, and the story – so far – is quite cool. I only hope it lasts long enough for Kelly to tell his complete story!

LOVED i kill giants

Another one for the list, I suppose.

It’s a long list. Egads…

I live to make you spend money, Bill!!!!

Really like Joe Kelly!
will be on the lookout for a discounted copy of this someday…

I also highly recommend I Kill Giants. Easily one of the best comics from last year.

Joe Kelly has done some good work in the past, but nothing he has done is better than this mini-series. I loved this book and pushed the first issue on a number of folks, who then went on to buy the rest of the series. It’s among the best comic books I’ve read in years. I can’t wait for the trade to come out so I can start sending the whole series to my family and friends.

Okay, so this is REALLY late, but I just read I Kill Giants today and loved it. I only have one thing that stands out as being a bit off to me.

Taylor. The bully. They’re all fifth graders. In an elementary school. Taylor is in fifth grade too (as we see her at the start of the next school year in the same school, Birch Elementary). So what’s up with that? Do they really make ten-/eleven-year-olds that buxom these days? It’s been awhile since I was in fifth grade, but none of the girls in our school matured that fast. So was Taylor a mistake? Or made more robust by Barbara’s imagination?

Hm, one more thing. What do you make of the panels/pages that have the lightning hammer insignia stamped in? (The last sample page you post includes this motif.)

Dane: I’m not sure about the hammer insignia. Only Kelly and Niimura know!!!!

That’s an interesting point about Tyler. Maybe she got left back and she’s 12? I do know that I’ve been reading a lot about kids hitting puberty earlier these days because of hormones in the food, so maybe that’s it. I tend to think it’s just Niimura exaggerating how big she is to make her scarier, but I wonder if there’s more to it …

@Greg – Oh, cool. Being so late to the party, I didn’t know if anyone would ever see my comment. Thanks for responding :) You may be right about the earlier hit of puberty. I work with high schoolers and juniour highers on a fairly regular basis and there have been a few seventh grade girls that quite clearly have hit that change. I just didn’t know if it were reasonable to expect that of fifth graders too. *shrug*

By the way, you’re absolutely right about the book being worth a re-read. As I was handing the book to my wife to read, I casually flipped through and landed on one of the pages in which Barbara was home alone and she hears the terrifying scrawl of her own name echoing through the house. I flipped again and landed in the midst of the episode after her beat-down in which she’s warning Sophia of the certain peril lurking around the corner in her house.

And suddenly, it all made sense. Powerfully crafted stuff there. I’m not usually a fan of books/movies that withhold key information until the end, only allowing someone to properly absorb the story on a second read-through. But in this case, it felt more like value added to me and so i was okay with it.

I finally read this, and it’s a phenomenal book, but man… you give away FAR too much in this review, as the tension between Barbara’s worldview and the “reality” of the world is really a huge part of the first read of this series, as you mention above.

I can’t imagine reading this in serial format though, as I likely would have dropped it after issue three or four. It really comes together and reads quite well as a single volume.

The ending had me weeping like a damn baby.

stealthwise: I do try not to give too much away, and everyone has a different opinion as to whether I do or not. While I was writing this, I was trying to work out how much to give away and what to conceal, and it’s always frustrating because I felt that if I wrote less about it, the entire post would be much shorter and it would be more “I think this is cool; trust me.” I try to strike a balance, and I think that something like I Kill Giants works perfectly well even if you know some things going in. I’ll keep trying, though!

In my original reviews, I felt kind of the same way as you do, although I thought it turned a corner in issue #3. I enjoyed the first two issues, but it didn’t seem like anything great. Then it took off, and you note, becomes emotionally wrenching. That’s why I think reading this in trade (or all at once, if you have the issues) is the way to go – I would hate to see that a lot of people dropped it after the first two issues, because they missed the greatness to come.

I don’t think Greg gave away as much in this review as the solicitations/reviews (not sure where I read some of it) as the book was coming out did. I knew one of the big reveals before I read this, and it did hurt as to my enjoyment of the book. I thought the blacked out words were an ingenious way of showing the “lalala I can’t HEAR you” quality that Barbara brought to the issue.

And I love your explanations of the names. It took this review up a notch.

I believe that the lightning/hammer motif as shown in the last page above was just the indication for “end of chapter”, since it was on the last page of each one.

Whenever you get back around to G, you should look at Doug TenNapel’s Ghostopolis. One of the best GN’s I’ve read in awhile.

Travis: Of course, I asked Kelly about the names last year, and he didn’t have any deeper meanings about them – I think he said they were the kids of a relative (his nieces, maybe?). I choose to ignore that and believe that somewhere deep in his unconscious his choice of names was important.

I’ve only read one thing by TenNapel and thought it was okay. Is Ghostopolis overtly Christian? The only thing I’ve read by him was aggressively Christian about halfway through, and while I don’t really care if you want to be aggressively Christian, I’d rather know it up front than have it come out of nowhere. If Ghostopolis is upfront about it or not concerned with Christianity at all, I might have to give it a look.

Other than the book dealing with an interesting afterlife, there is a significant Christian element to it, but you can kind of gloss over it. It’s not the most important element of the book, but it’s there (having to do with the afterlife — actually, until you brought it up, I had glossed over the Christian bit in my own mind, as it probably is the weakest element of the story). But overall, the story is funny, romantic, action-packed, and can switch gears between these on a dime without seeming forced. I’m going to read it again soon, but it just struck me as really good on first read.

I think the name thing just shows that there can be more to the story than even the author intends. I remember reading the CBR interview with Callahan when his GMozz book came out and he talked about having to face the “you’re reading too much into it” charge. Tim basically said, hey, it’s there, I just SHOWED you it’s there. Just because it wasn’t intended doesn’t mean it’s not there.

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