I think it might be more difficult for graphic novels to walk the line between the poignant and the maudlin than other media. Or maybe it’s just not something most of us have come to expect from “comics,” even those of us reared on Calvin & Hobbes. They tend to either be primarily fun, or stylish, or serious, or whatever else. My favorite stories are those, like Calvin & Hobbes, that blur the lines between imagination and reality, and if they can push the emotional envelope at the same time–without going too far toward the aforementioned maudlin or shlocky–then I’m enamored.
I Kill Giants is about a young girl named Barbara whose imagination and role playing takes over her waking life. Obsessed with protecting her home from fearsome giants and titans, she sets traps on the nearby beach and carries around in a heart-shaped handbag a tiny rock hammer which she believes capable of transmogrifying into a mighty war hammer (which she has christened Coveleski, after an obscure Phillies pitcher nicknamed “The Giant Killer”).
Barbara wears rabbit ears to school, and prides herself on being a ruthless Dungeons and Dragons dungeon master. She has friends but none particularly close, and so when a friendship buds with the her new neighbor (who is, by default, not a social outcast, and by experience not much of a geek like Barbara), Barbara struggles to know exactly how to approach the relationship. Bullies hound Barbara, and even when her new friend comes to her aid, or the school psychologist offers her authentic compassion, Barbara struggles to concede any real trust in another person.
Of course, armed with the mighty Coveleski and battle hardened in skirmishes with giants, Barbara is little concerned with the bullies’ threats. She stands up for herself and fights back, and when overwhelmed she hides at home, under a table draped in a sheet and decorated like some sort of cave fort. Home outside this small refuge, it seems, offers little respite from stress.
Barbara is a superbly rendered character (in both the writing and the art). Like many children, she yearns for a place of solitary place of safety, while at the same time she struggles to come to terms with her loneliness. She and her brother are cared for by her older sister, barely an adult herself, who appears constantly frazzled and overwhelmed. The father, we overhear in a few establishing panels, ran out on them, and the mother is conspicuously absent from the story for the majority of the book.
Enter the giants that Barbara is obsessed with vanquishing. A metaphor turned real (perhaps, or at least real enough to consume a child’s life), the approach of the giants push the story to its climax, and swell Barbara’s emotional bubble to a bursting point. You’ll put the story’s pieces together well before the book finishes spelling them out, but nonetheless the book delivers its payload deftly.
Niimura’s art style, both cartoony and atmospheric, is perfectly suited for Kelly’s fun yet touching story. This is a truly great graphic novel that deserves as many readers as it can get.