It's way too early to be making "Best of…" declarations, but five months into 2009, we've seen enough of this year's crop to make some educated guesses. And I wouldn't be surprised to see "I Kill Giants," the trade paperback collection of Joe Kelly and Ken Nimura's seven-issue series, make some Top 10 lists by year's end. It will certainly be a book that I'll reflect back upon at year's end when I'm assembling my own list, and though it's too early to tell whether it will make the cut by the final days of December, it's certainly one of the best comics I've read this year.
I had read the first chapter of this book back when it was originally published in serialized form last year, but a variety of circumstances prevented me from reading the rest of the story as it originally appeared. I liked the first issue well enough to keep an eye out for the eventual trade paperback, and I was glad to see that it appeared only a few months after the series concluded back in January of this year. Sometimes I read a collected edition and think, "oh, I should have been reading that all along" (that happened with "Phonogram," for example), while other times I'm glad to read it all in one satisfyingly complete chunk (like my "Fables" marathon reading sessions).
"I Kill Giants" is an excellent comic, but I'm glad that I read it as a collected edition. It's a powerful piece of storytelling.
The title of the book refers to the declaration made by the protagonist, Barbara Thorson, a Dungeons & Dragons-playing oddball who carries around a hammer called "Coveleski" inside a heart-shaped purse. At first, we aren't sure whether or not this is a girl who has lost touch with reality or if there are indeed enormous supernatural forces at work in the world. She wears animal ear headbands, for one thing, a fashion choice that automatically makes her oddly untrustworthy, and how could a tiny, bespectacled girl with a tiny little hammer stand up to the giants she supposedly defends the world against?
It seems unlikely that she's speaking literally. The giants, we assume, must be some metaphor for the struggles in her life, and her behavior must be the result in some epic delusion caused by her persecution at school. Yet, such assumptions prove to be wrong, as Kelly and Nimura weave outrageously fantastic aspects into the adolescent struggles of this young woman as she tries to navigate school and a tragic home life.
"I Kill Giants" features refreshingly idiosyncratic artwork, the kind of art which seems as if Nimura stands at arm's-length from the page and gracefully attacks each panel with pen and brush, creating more energy in a single composition than most mainstream artists achieve in a complete issue -- it may look odd at first, even a bit raw compared to the over-rendered superhero art that dominates the market, but Nimura's perfect blend of monstrous fantasy and uneasy reality make this comic a visual treat from start to finish.
But what I love about "I Kill Giants" even more than the artwork is the way Kelly brings the elements of fantasy into the narrative without taking away their metaphorical potency. Barbara may indeed have an absurdly huge magic hammer by the end of the book, and the monsters may indeed be real, but they also operate on a symbolic level, representing the struggles Barbara faces inside her own home. And the finale, which I won't spoil here, is emotionally moving in a way that few comics can ever achieve.
Rarely has the anxiety of adolescence been so well presented, and in such an engaging, magical way, as it appears in "I Kill Giants." If the stylistically-similar "Scott Pilgrim" is the cool kid in the magical realist lunch room, then "I Kill Giants" is the weirdo with the furtive look who sits by itself, confident in what it is, and all the more potent for the secret knowledge it possesses.