Kelly, Joe; JM Ken Niimura (2010), I Kill Giants, Image Comics
Yes, it’s a cop-out to assail those who don’t like a book you love with claims that they didn’t really open up to it, didn’t really engage with it, yadda yadda. Yes, it’s true to say that it’s probably not really a good book, if it only works for the very emotionally open reader. But, preemptively, that’s exactly the argument that brewed in my head when I finished I Kill Giants and thought about a review. It’s a simple fact: you are not allowed not to love this book. There is much in the book that is excellent, especially the artwork which is just stunning. The writing is, except for exactly two panels near the end of the book, always at least solid, more often great than not. But as a whole, I feel it needs the reader to respond to the way it tugs at his or her emotions in order to cohere and deliver a finishing wallop. This is an amazing book, yet as I finished it, I feared that not everyone might think so (although no-one in their right mind would call it a bad book per se). This is something that is true of a lot of fantastical, young adult or romantic literature: unless you accept their terms and read them with an appropriate openness, they won’t work. But even if you happen to not love this book as much as I did (and everybody should), you cannot fail to recognize all the excellent qualities of the book. I Kill Giants is a graphic novel, published as a limited miniseries with seven issues from July 2008 until January 2009. A collection of all issues was then published by Image Comics in 2009, which runs to 184 pages and is a gorgeously designed object. The writer is seasoned comics veteran Joe Kelly who has written all kinds of stuff, from mainstream Marvel issues (Spiderman, JLA and others) to I Kill Giants and the similarly original and odd Four Eyes. The artist is the extraordinary JM Ken Niimura, who’s relatively new to the industry. This, in fact, is his first published full graphic novel, I gather from an appended interview. The result of their cooperation is a magnificent, marvelous book that I cannot praise highly enough and that you are not allowed to dislike.
Graphic novels are always the result of both a writer’s and an artist’s input and a change of artist can mean a change in style. Writers can control the look and feel of a graphic novel only to an extent, and when they do dominate the artist, as Brian Wood does in his DMZ series of books (see my review), the result is often weak. And a writers’s efforts, as Millar’s in the early Ultimate X-Men issues, can be weakened by an artist who’s a bad fit or second-rate. On the other hand, a great artist can save even sagging, sentimental writing by transforming it into a great, affecting visual narrative. This is, in part, what happened with I Kill Giants. Joe Kelly is not a bad writer, and much here, especially the dialogue, works very well, but the novel’s concept isn’t, to be honest, terribly original and Kelly grapples with the difficulties arising from trying to keep artless sentimentality as far as way from the book as possible. This book, without giving too much away, deals with a kind of grief, one could say. In the appended interview, Kelly tells us that he experienced a somewhat similar situation himself, and it shows. Roughly two thirds of the book are intent on finding and exploring an apt metaphor for the protagonist’s emotional duress, but the closer we get to the end, the more loose Kelly’s reins are on the explicitness of the emotions his books discusses. This culminates in two positively cheesy panels full of well-meaning, daft, life-affirming advice. Niimura doesn’t complement Kelly here, he saves him from his worst instincts. All that said, I have to repeat and affirm that I was very moved by the book. Joe Kelly undertakes a balancing act here, as far as his writing is concerned, and throughout most of I Kill Giants, he pulls it off. The protagonist’s journey away from fear and into the light of day, friendship and family is always convincing, and, at certain points, truly powerful. Stories like this have been told before, but it’s Kelly’s achievement that we care enough for this specific pointy-eared protagonist in order to read this story nor as one of many but as a special story, the moving story of Barbara Thorson.
Indeed, Kelly’s skill at evoking his protagonist Barbara Thorson, bringing her to life before our eyes, is the most praiseworthy aspect of his writing, and the only place where he is not dependent on Niimura’s art to make it all work well. Kelly assembles a broad array of scenes, dialogue and juxtapositions that help us to see Barbara not merely as an oddity, but as a very specific, flesh-and-blood person, a girl that life has dealt a harsh hand and that decides to batter away at the dark force that invaded her home and her heart. As we meet her, she sits, hidden behind a bed-sheet, on which she has drawn violent mythical fight scenes, planning her imminent fight against the giants. Because Barbara Thorson, as we learn a few pages later, is a giant-killer, carrying a hammer with her in a pouch, reading books on giants and conversing with invisible angels. Always ready to pounce and defend the world against giants or, even worse, the fearsome titan. Barbara is a natural storyteller. She has no difficulties inventing giant-killer stories and planning the upcoming fight against oversize opponents, in part because even before she was entrusted with this mission, Barbara was a storyteller of heroic battles: Kelly’s heroine is a Dungeons and Dragons (D&D) Dungeon Master. D&D is a fantasy role-playing game that requires a high degree of imagination. A group of friends sits around the table, each of them an actor in a story that is completely concocted by the dungeon master. They act and react, but the environment, the monsters, quests and rewards are invented by the Dungeon Master. D&D has a thick rule book, but it’s the Dungeon Master’s reading of these rules that ultimately counts. He or she is the highest authority as to the specifics of the story, the world and the mechanics of fighting and living in that world. One very telling episode has Sophia, friend of Barbara, look for her in a comic book shop, where Sophia learns that Barbara commands a deep respect among fellow fantasy devotees. These skills, this kind of commitment to narrative and imagination is then transferred into real life and Barbara’s fight against giants. But Kelly is smart enough not to disparage and minimize her mission by treating it as pure invention.
Instead, he projects her obsession onto the real world, like a second, diaphanous layer. In this, Niimura’s art is more than a great help. Niimura’s vision of Barbara’s world, both the one she seems to inhabit alone and the one she shares with others, is stunning in its poetic power. The art does several things. There are, on the one hand, transparent objects, small little winged critters, like chubby little fairies, which appear to be scrawled onto the real world. They are related, the reader soon realizes, to the millions of sketches and drawings that Barbara has undertaken, not just on the bed-sheet of the first panel, but later, as well. The giants that Barbara sets out to kill do not make an actual appearance for most of the book, there’s no need for Barbara to invent or imagine them. For us they only exist as actual drawings, the accuracy of which is hard to judge. So in Niimura’s depiction of Barbara’s worlds, drawings as inventions and imaginary (or not so imaginary) beings and forces coexist uneasily, and each often intrudes on the other’s turf. As part of a graphic novel’s discussion of art and the imagination, Niimura offers a powerful plea for the strength of imagination to infuse our daily lives with, well, life, due to changes in perception. Barbara’s imagination is her own, the drawings and sketches are her own. She doesn’t trade cards or paint figurines, she draws from scratch, and the insights into herself or life that she gains are her own, strong convictions, scooped from her own plentiful source. Very early in the book, she stands up, derisively, to a motivational coach, because she doesn’t need his narrow, dull, restricted grandstanding. This is not to deny that she has problems that she needs to deal with, but listening, waiting, encouraging turns out to be the best way to help her. Barbara doesn’t need an educational fiat, a psychological, medical or pedagogical sanction of her way of dealing with things. Both Kelly and Niimura stress this aspect, but it’s really Niimura’s art that impresses it most on the reader who might skip some of Kelly’s overwrought language, his hokey, ‘meaningful’ dialogue near the end. A lot of panels, or even whole pages, would have worked better with no words at all. Almost the whole last fourth could have been easily shorn of dialogue and would have been much improved upon.
There is one last aspect of Niimura’s art that is worth mentioning. I talked about how he mixes drawings and a perception of the world. But he also mixes imagination and reality. In the interview in the back, he tells us that in working out a version of Barbara Thorson that he liked, he suddenly started adding hats and large rabbit ears. Kelly kept his manuscript as it was, despite the added ears, so that the dialogue or story never reflects Barbara’s odd hare-y ears, which has the effect of adding a constant level of surrealism to the book. There is no clear division between what’s real and tangible and what’s imagined. There are rationalizations, and explanations aplenty, especially for the more outrageous phenomena, but I think (and some people I know disagree) that the book never really takes sides. Motifs and explanations are fragmented and scattered all over the book, as rivaling mythologies, such as the many different evocations of meteorology. In fact, some scenes appear to make this point almost explicit: it is not about some vaguely objective facts of nature, but about how you read them, within which cultural and personal context you situate certain phenomena, what you are prepared to accept as explanation and what you are not. Niimura works heavily with visual hints and clues and it’s been awhile since I read a graphic novel that used the resources of its genre this exhaustively, that made it so clear that this is not a deviation from ‘regular novels’, that a story like this needs the images Niimura provides, that it is completely dependent on its visual aspect, and what’s more, Niimura’s highly successful in doing so. But not to downplay Kelly’s work. He does his part in adding layers of dream and imagination, for example in casting the whole story in a mythical light. You see, Kelly manages to both present the events of I Kill Giants as an episode in Barbara’s life, as well as a kind of destiny, a mission that her life is formed around. Even her name, designing her a son of Norse God of Thunder, Thor, is connected to that mission (and to the weather/myth ambiguity near the end)
In fact, Kelly assembles a whole subset of items and references that connect Barbara’s story to Norse mythology. Thor fought giants, as well, and he did it with his trusty hammer Mjöllnir, which was, like Barbara’s weapon, of variable size. I suspect that some of the intrigue, traps and upheavals in Barbara’s story have a parallel of sorts in one of the various versions of Thor’s story. This is all very plain but effective, as is another parallel established by Kelly: the American myths, like Baseball history. Barbara’s hammer is named after Harry Coveleski, a Major League Baseball pitcher who, during his time on the Phillies, earned himself the nickname of “The Giant Killer”. The mythical qualities of the American obsession with Baseball have been pointed out quite a few times, most recently perhaps by Michael Chabon in his book Summerland. Baseball, Thor and Barbara’s art and appearance are all mixed in this heady, emotionally powerful book, which shows us a person, enmeshed in cultural, mythical and social contexts who draws on her imagination, on her art to cope with personal problems. This is a very strong recommendation. You may not be as moved as I was, but you can’t miss the craft of Niimura’s art and the overall strength of the writing. Niimura’s work here stunned me, and it will stun you, however you react to Joe Kelly’s sadly uneven writing. This is a very, very good book, made by two masters of their trade. Given the fact that Niimura’s career has only just begun, this book is also a promise of great things to come. In my opinion, I Kill Giants is a masterpiece, but even if you disagree, you’ll still be admiring a lot of it.