I Kill Giants
Written by Joe Kelly
Art by J. M. Ken Niimura
Barbican Comic Forum
00000000 / Kraken
This comic slays me. Everytime I read it I find it almost too much in terms of it’s emotional devastation. Not only does it kills giants but it kills me too.
Yeah I’ll admit that it doesn’t really do anything all that new. In fact all the elements are so shop-worn that reading it almost gives you the feeling that you’ve read it before. There’s the humble best friend. The overgrown bully. The understanding adult who just wants to help. And in the centre the kickass hero who no one understands but will keep fighting the good fight to her dying breath because she’s the only one who can. I mean – the whole thing feels like one of those kids movies you’d get playing on ITV on a lazy Sunday evening back when you were a kid. All you need is a bag of crisps and a cup of hot chocolate.
(In fact oh wait there is a film – cool. I haven’t seen it but I wonder how it compares to the book?).
Part of me was a little reticent to set this as a Book Club book. I mean as far as I know it’s not that well known and I don’t know if anyone has any really strong feelings about it (well wait that’s not true – I do think it’s really great and beautifully done and would be surprised to hear from anyone dissing it but you never know lol). But it is a book that seems to show up in libraries a lot and for once it’s definitely a book that I’d recommend to people for read…
Also in light of the (ahem) Batman conversation we just had it’s interesting reading I Kill Giants and being able to hold it up and say: well yeah here you go – this is a story that’s actually about things you know? It’s something that’s able to pull the magic trick of telling you one thing whilst actually telling you about something else. And if you want to get really meta about it it’s also a story about the art of turning things into stories. Barbara herself (amongst other things) is an expert storyteller – not only for other people (she’s a revered Dungeon Master) but also for herself. The reality of life gets too much and so she retreats and covers it all up with something else: something bigger and stranger and more exciting that also (funnily enough) is also easier to deal with. And well yeah – maybe that’s what stories and comics are ultimately always about? A kind of deferment of the real. Displacing the things that you can’t face and making them into something else that you can?
And well yeah escapism that subtlety critiques the idea of escapism is always my favourite type I think.
I will admit upfront tho that yeah J. M. Ken Niimura’s artwork is a little bit of an.. aquired taste that does take a little bit of getting used to. It’s just kinda harsh and spiky in a way that means sometimes (squints) it can be a little difficult trying to work out what’s going on… But the strength of the story means that once you get used to it it’s mostly fine. (In the version that I reread for this he does a shout out to Chris Ware and Dave McKean and well yeah – I’m really not seeing their influence at all lol – but maybe that’s just me?).
Also the ending is maybe just a tad too sappy and resolved – but then I guess that’s what a good story right? Gives you a feeling of satisfaction and closure and the feeling that everything is ok that you’re so rarely afforded in life. I could also hear the John Williams soundtrack playing inside my heart…
But hey – what did you think?
I’m the other way round – seen the film but never read it. Looking forward to it, I really enjoyed the film.
OK, I’ve read the comic now. I think I prefer the film, though the comic was really good. The major difference to me was in terms of tone – the comic was a lot more… comicky, faster-paced, high-energy, a little goofy compared to the film’s more subdued tone. That’s totally a personal preference, though, and I could totally get people feeling the other way. I’m impressed by how faithful the film was to the comic, given how these things normally go. The main change is getting rid of the little fairy characters, which… eh, they mostly just serve as someone for Barbara to exposit to, no great loss.
I love the story, I agree it’s a great example of what we were talking about last time with Batman, about a story being about more than just itself. I absolutely adore the slow reveal about Barbara’s mum, and the building crisis as her escape deeper into her fantasy falls apart, how human it all feels.
The art, too, really works for me – It’s all super manga, which is… eh… but it’s still amazingly done. I was really noticing how nice the layout and composition were, how much variety there is in page layout, and so on and then
Boom, look at that big boy! That is how you show scale, how you make the titan utterly dwarf Barbara without her getting lost in the shot. Notice how the eye jumps straight to Barbara (being the lightest, most contrasting area, and framed by the legs) and then gets led upwards by the rain and lightning, so we get the effect of looking up, and up, and up at this monster, and we still don’t reach the top!
(That page made me make little happy noises, I’ll admit.)
Barbican Comic Forum
It’s an interesting point of view isn’t it, Principal Marx?
As somebody who’s experienced the long-term sickness and death of loved ones too many times than I care to remember, this blub-fest tugs on my heartstrings perhaps a little more than most. I had the misfortune of accidentally first reading this book around the time my dear old mum passed away after a long-term illness, years ago now… that serves me right for blindly jumping into books without any prejudgement! I think it was possibly one of the worst things I could have done to myself at that time. Like being walloped in the chops with a big old Coveleski. But it definitely made me feel an empathy for Babs, faced with that brutal hopelessness.
Joel mentioned that in light of the Batman conversation we just had it’s interesting reading, and I couldn’t agree more, but perhaps for different reasons. I think what this book does really well is explain the need for escapism and fiction in children’s lives (for clarity, I count myself in that readership). The need for escapism when as Barbara so deftly puts it “the currency of the day was hopelessness”. This is, of course, one of the themes of our last conversation on the Bat That Dare Not Speak His Name. What does he teach us, we asked (“strength and resilience perhaps?”)
Let’s look at Barbara’s relationship with her alter ego, the hammer wielding Giant Killer. I’m interested by this, right, so I asked my old chum Google what he thought. He suggested an article written by Erica Pelavin, a therapist in California allegedly, who said hero play “allows children to feel in control and invincible at a time when developmentally they might be feeling just the opposite”. I think this notion can be carried over to adults as well as children. Defo for me, but I’m a bit like Petay Pan! Freud would say that escapism is a catharsis that allows you to express your feelings and dispel negative emotions to replace them with positive ones: a way to mentally and emotionally escape from the world when it gives you a shitty hand. Yeah, that sounds about right.
And this is all about dat superhero life ain’t it? I mean, Barbara’s pretending to be a kind of superhero isn’t she? Like an annoying bunny-eared Thor. But it’s not literal is it? We all get that the giants are metaphors, right? Barbara battling with her emotions is played out with her fictional battle against these big-ass monsters.
Another child psychologist (seriously Google, you’re on a roll), Dr. Alison Bryant, says that “Superhero play lets kids imagine and see that one kid really can make a difference. Even while playing out a scenario as an imaginary superhero, they’re seeing a change within themselves”. Basically, it gives them a kind of agency. And why should kids get all the fun?
I’ve always found it amazing how the power of fantasy can spill over into the real world and I for one think that’s a marvellous thing. That’s why I don’t like to shit on superhero narratives too much and I cringe when they get perverted into monstrous versions of themselves. Think about what you’re doing to poor Barbara!
It’s interesting, I attended the S.M.A.S.H. event this weekend and I saw this guy Frazer Irving talking about irrevocable harm caused by progressive writers to characters in a panel on censorship. He was talking about how he always wanted to write an erotic story about Hulk fucking but that he knew deep down it would cause irreparable harm to the character so he said that he would never pitch it (much to the dismay of the panel). He then put that into context by saying that when he was a boy Batman was a hero, then Miller came along with Dark Knight and turned him into a sociopath. Everybody thought it was the best thing ever at the time, fuck yeah, but I think his point was that this was an irreversible changing point. Batman can now never go back to being the hero he was, he said, because the idea of him being a sociopath is now locked into his ideology. I won’t dwell on Batman too much, but you can see where I’m going with this in the context of I Kill Giants. We could easily pull out the flaws in Barbara’s character and put I Kill Giants in the nope camp.
It’s a great read. It kills me too. The film not so much. I got to enjoy the book more this time around so I’m glad it was on the list. From a storytelling perspective I think that it’s a masterclass in allegory and a great discussion on hero worship and power tripping fantasies. They’re not all so bad are they?
Ouch, my heart!
Like many others on this list, this book hits me where it hurts. It’s a totally universal human experience: when faced with something that is going to cause us pain and against which we are powerless, the brain either fabricates or seeks out narratives for us to act out where we have some control and sense of agency. Kids do this, adults do this, you can even help a dog get past his fears by first exposing him to a situation where he feels confident and in control before asking him to face his fear. That we are in command in these situations is of course entirely an illusion, but it provides temporary comfort and our minds are so well hardwired to follow the path to that comfort.
I sometimes think our entire lives are versions of this illusion. I mean, if you start to think about the structure of the universe in any meaningful way you quickly arrive at the conclusion that for no good reason our universe is exquisitely tuned to the creation of complexity and carbon-based life specifically. Like, if you shave one hair off the scrotum of Planck’s constant the entire universe goes spiralling off into a vortex of negatively curved gravity and muonic dissonance and tears us all to little bits the size of confetti. A ticker tape parade of gore. Human powerlessness is baked into our existence, we totally need the comfort of the control delusion.
Of course, the author doesn’t just leave it at that – He acknowledges we need the control delusion, but also that we tend to be somewhat aware of the delusion, and when we realise the futility of it, it kind of breaks us:
There’s a kind of magic in how easy it is to identify with Barbara which I find particularly relevant given the recent conversations on this forum regarding identity politics, and representation and diversity. It’s totally irrelevant that Barbara is a teenage girl, right? The author and illustrator seem to be playing with this. I’m curious to know if that’s why Barbara’s eyes are so often obscured by her big glasses, and why she appears with various animal ears throughout the story? Similarly, she’s kind of racially ambiguous and sexually androgynous. It’s like, because they want her to be this vessel for our own experiences of fear and powerlessness, they don’t even decide on a definitive species for her which allows this fluidity in her visage just so you know she could be anybody.
I’ve got a few lingering questions about this book, like is Barbara an outsider by nature or is the author trying to convey the idea that trauma pushes us to the fringes? And also they point out at least three times that Barbara is into “boy stuff.” Is that to help with the whole outsider identity or did I miss something there? I actually really like the short, sweet happy ending of this book, it’s completeness is satisfying. It’s like Sibelius’ 7th – a complete symphony in 20 minutes, if a bit platitudinous. Full disclosure, I think I was actually listening to A Tribe Called Quest while I read this, which proved a perfectly cromulent accompaniment should you be looking for one.
And I do love this panel, this is like basically every comic book nerd I’ve ever met:
What did people make of the pixies (fairies, sprites, whatever – the little folks) in the comic, by the way? Their removal was the biggest single change I could see from the comic to the film. I guess a lot of that would be because of the SFX budget, but it also had the effect of making Barbara seem less entangled in her fantasy world – rather than a constant thing with them everywhere, her fantasies become a more occaisional thing of only really the giants.
Just a quick reply to what Owen wrote about “The need for escapism” and the Bat That Dare Not Speak His Name (I thought the Long Halloween was finally over – I guess I was wrong lol). I would say that the big important difference between Batman and I Kill Giants is that Barbara’s story shows us and explores lots of the reasons and motivations and outcomes for “the need for escapism and fiction” while every Batman both just is the escapism. It’s like the difference between watching a doctor treat a disease vs just looking at the disease itself you know? Batman is just a symptom of a general trend while Barbara helps us to understand why.
In reply to Proton’s post about the “control delusion” – I mean: isn’t it only a delusion if you think you’re in control in the first place? I would humbly suggest that if you do your best to understand how the world works then maybe the issue of control isn’t such an important one. In fact isn’t that the place where the story ends? Barbara realises that she can’t control the fact of her mother’s illness and she can’t ignore it / try to push it away and instead she just has to – accept it. In fact I think that’s how most good stories tend to end – with somesort of acceptance. I mean that’s what therapy is all about – no? Understanding and acceptance. Maybe that would be the best Batman book – Bruce coming to accept that he can’t change the fact of his parent’s death and that “a never-ending war against crime” is just a matter of transference and instead he should maybe put the toys away and work on some self-care or something.
Re: Barbara’s “racially ambiguous and sexually androgynous” state and how it concerns recent conversations about “identity politics, and representation and diversity” (COUGH COUGH) well yeah – totally. This of course is one of the beautiful things about comics – because often you’re only dealing with a few lines on a page there isn’t really that much to get hold on in terms of who someone is in terms of the deep features of their identity / racial background etc
Scott McCloud talks about this stuff a bit in Understanding Comics (to refer back to a book that we looked at the start of the year):
I guess this is while the art style of I Kill Giants does bug me a bit – I do like the way it means that Barbara kinda exists in this undetermined state that allows for that kinda amplification. Altho actually maybe (and this I think it always my core point) when it comes to stories it doesn’t really matter? I mean we’ve already had lots of people on this thread saying that this book got them right in the feels (myself included) and I don’t think any of them are teenage girls – but even so: you relate because it’s a good story well told that gets it’s teeth into deep and personal stuff and that’s what’s important. Everything else is just – window dressing.