Four times, on four separate trips, I meandered through the aisles of bookstores, I Kill Giants, by Joe Kelly and Ken Niimura, atop my stack of “possible buys,” and four times I walked out of the store without it, opting instead for something more “reasonable” from my to-read list—namely, sequels to books I’d recently enjoyed.
On the fifth trip, perhaps because my fiancée wasn’t present to limit my purchase to two paperbacks, I left the store with Joe Kelly’s seminal story in-hand. Upon finishing The Road (review here), I yearned for a more digestible tale, and a standalone graphic novel fit the bill. Now, I only wish I’d read it sooner.
Protagonist Barbara Thorson sports bunny ears to her fifth-grade classes, often buries her nose in a book at the worst possible time, and picks fights with the school bully. She explodes off the page with gusto, thanks in large part to Ken Niimura’s artistic expertise. Author Joe Kelly quickly and easily establishes her as a misfit—she’s wildly absorbed in fantasy worlds, and typically veers off into her psyche without paying much attention to her real-life surroundings. “I kill giants,” she says to her mocking classmates. “Hey, that’s the title of the book!” I say as I read the line.
Barbara’s story builds in a modular fashion, and the details—small at first, in-your-face by the end—hint at a deep trauma. She becomes so violent and vitriolic that she lashes out at her newest (and, presumably only) friend, Sophia. Her home life, tenuously managed by her older sister, brings out the darkest sides of everyone involved.
Diving deeper nears spoiler territory, but one key message emerges from each sector of Barbara’s life: she must kill one particular giant to deal with her mental turmoil. It may be metaphorical to an outsider, but to Barbara, it’s very real.
It’s hard for me to separate I Kill Giants from similar meaningful experiences in my life, and I think that connection vastly inflates my appreciation of the story, both in terms of how it’s presented, through the eyes of someone trying to cope, and in terms of how effortlessly each idea jumps off the page. My reading of Kelly’s beautiful story sparked memories of my own hardships, making the book just that much more impactful. That certainly won’t be the case for everyone, but I firmly believe that most readers will find something to enjoy here.
Kelly dances through heavy themes gracefully, delving into realms of self-harm, grief, death, and violence with a grace that rivals similar genre pieces. While reading I Kill Giants, I was often reminded of similar passages in Patrick Ness’ A Monster Calls. The two books seem inevitably intertwined, if only because of their steady treatment of difficult topics.
Kelly’s characterization matches his thematic prowess, at times surpassing it. Every character feels real and unique. More importantly, I sympathized with each of them on some level. Barbara’s sour attitude, despite its obvious cause, makes her unlikable in many ways, so finding solace in secondary or even tertiary characters comes easily, backed by Kelly’s steady hand and Niimura’s deft brushstrokes.
On that note, though, it is a bit hard to justify Barbara’s outright violence, especially during the story’s first third. Everything makes sense when the book’s big “mystery” is revealed; however, Barbara’s actions are rude and dangerous, and she rarely encounters any punishment. By the end, this all makes some sense based on the life events that drive Barbara into a dark place, but when the rest of the novel so effortlessly ebbs and flows within the boundaries of what is right, wrong, and just okay, this feels like a big miss. For example, hitting a guidance counselor in the face would elicit some sort of repercussion, so when Barabara does it and it’s cast off as grief or depression with zero reaction, it’s a narrative issue.
I Kill Giants moves at a perfect pace, weaving and bobbing through a blinding array of concepts without ever missing a beat, but also taking ample time to grapple with important thoughts. Every off-the-cuff line of dialogue, every inch of every panel, and every punctuation mark serves a purpose. Nothing feels out of place, and the narrative velocity of Joe Kelly’s writing stays consistent throughout. It’s a rare accomplishment, particularly considering how easily a graphic novel can race to tie up loose ends or linger on one thought for too long. I Kill Giants finds the balance and flaunts it.
Minus a few disjointed narrative moments, I Kill Giants is a masterwork of graphic fiction that navigates tumultuous topics with ease and serves as a testament to fantastic storytelling.
Rating: I Kill Giants – 9.0/10