Review by Karl Verhoven
“Until you’ve plunged a broadsword into their arteries and felt the hot wet spray of victory wash over you, intoxicated by the steaming perfume of spilled entrails, you really have no right to judge me”. By any standards this isn’t the best response to a head teacher to whom you’ve been sent, but when combined with the principal’s design being a homage to Finnish film director Aki Kaurismäki it’s a fair indication that I Kill Giants is like no other graphic novel you’ve read. Yes, that’s a bold claim, particularly when writer Joe Kelly is primarily associated with superhero comics. What he’s created here, however, in terms of graphic novels, merits the term ‘unique’.
Fifth grade pupil Barbara is a square peg in a round hole. Intelligent, individual and not afraid to express an opinion, she’s also damaged. We don’t learn why until well into the book, but her response to adversity is denial. She immerses herself in a fantasy world where the arrival of giants is imminent, and only she can see the signs, so prepares traps and safeguards, with the ultimate sanction being the magical hammer she calls Coveleski, which is hung around her neck in a pouch. As the story continues, the symbolic layers are unpeeled.
This is an intensely personal story on Kelly’s part, as the basis of it occurred to him as he accompanied his father who was undergoing hospital treatment. Kelly notes the entire story came to him simultaneously, and very little altered with the refinement process, which is extremely rare. His construction of Barbara is meticulous. It’s been the case in all genres that characters intended as sympathetic spunky outsiders instead come across as smug and judgemental, and there’s a hint of that when we meet Barbara, but it’s rapidly diffused. By the quote opening this review, in fact. As we learn more about her via observation and the attempts of the guidance teacher and a new neighbour to connect, Barbara’s complexity seeps out, and while she’s deliberately difficult, sympathies never evaporate.
The book closes with both creators defining the creative process, first by text accompanying JM Ken Nimura’s design sketches, then by a series of amusing one page strips. When commenting about his methods Nimura prioritises what he refers to as “a good reading rhythm”, and that’s apparent from his earliest pages. His approach is sketchy with some wild lines and exaggerations, but everything is there on the page to pull the eye from one panel to the next. That’s not to say he isn’t capable of startling spreads, and on closer inspection the sketchiness disguises an extraordinary delicacy in places. Don’t skip those one page strips at the end either.
I Kill Giants begins as Juno, but by the end Kelly has created the graphic novel equivalent of the perfect chick flick. It’s compulsive, affecting and heartwarming. Don’t be afraid to cry.