Why 'I Kill Giants' Deserves a Place in the Comics Canon

I Kill Giants - Cover
(Photo: Image Comics)

I Kill Giants is celebrating its 10th anniversary this year, and it is turning out to be quite a celebration. Writer Joe Kelly and artist J.M. Ken Niimura’s comic has been adapted into a film starring Zoe Saldana and Madison Wolfe, available now, and is receiving new editions at Image Comics commemorating both the anniversary and adaptation. This upcoming weekend writer Joe Kelly will be featured at a special screening in Denver as part of the DiNK Comics & Art Expo to discuss the comic with fans at the Alamo Drafthouse.

For the unfamiliar I Kill Giants is the story of Barbara, a middle school girl who escapes to a fantasy world where she is a giant slayer when faced with impossible problems in reality. It details both Barbara’s reconstruction of overwhelming difficulties through the lens of fantasy, as well as the perspectives of her family, teachers, and friends as they try to help her in this difficult time. It’s a story about grief, escapism, and growth, one that has garnered a cult following amongst comics readers since its release alongside plaudits like the International Manga Award and Gaiman.

One decade after its first issue debuted, it’s time for a critical reassessment of I Kill Giants. This isn’t simply another successful Image Comics series that was optioned by Hollywood. It has found a foothold in classrooms, libraries, and local comic book stores that make it clear this story is truly something special. As much as anything from the 21st Century, I Kill Giants is deserving of consideration in the canon of comics storytelling. Here’s why.

I Kill Giants - All Ages
(Photo: Image Comics)

An All-Ages, Evergreen Story

The very suggestion of a canon for any medium implies that some stories don’t age. When we look at theatre, it doesn’t matter whether it’s Shakespeare from almost 500 years ago or Arthur Miller’s work from just over 50 years ago, they are written in a manner that allows them to stand the test of time. That is the case with I Kill Giants, apparent after only 10 years. There are plenty of examples of comics that have managed to crumble in that very same period of time. References to pop culture and current events, incredibly off-base predictions, or the use of technology that no one even recalls (sorry Zune fans) make these stories increasingly distant by the day. Barbara’s story captures a feeling that could be at place in the 1950s as much as the 2010s though. It is a tale of school and family that doesn’t require specific markers to make sense. Instead its core concepts all capture what it means to be timeless.

I Kill Giants also goes the extra mile in presenting this timeless quality in a manner that is accessible to almost every conceivable reader. As a true all-ages comic, it uses language and plotting that allows an 8-year-old to take as much from the story as their grandparents might. That is a key distinction from a children’s comic, as a comic for children could be read by an adult even if it’s not intended for them. This is one that offers plenty of insight into its core themes no matter your age. Children and adults are equally likely to shed tears, even as they make different connections. Not only is I Kill Giants still relevant after 10 years, but it is a comic that offers new layers every 10 years.

I Kill Giants - The Giant
(Photo: Image Comics)

Abstraction in Cartooning

One of the most important elements in I Kill Giants is how J.M. Ken Niimura constructs the conflicting worlds of Barbara’s fantasy and a far more recognizable reality. The comic establishes its own style from the very start, portraying classrooms and a household in Niimura’s unique style. This is what makes the eventual revelation of the giants that much more impressive. They fit into the world both as an essential component of the comic and a visual metaphor for bigger ideas. The looming figures come to represent death as well as any character or symbol in literature. Rather than describing them in prose though, it’s their size, shape, and color that count most.

This is one part of the comic that the film adaptation can only hope to imitate. Niimura’s style offers a level of abstraction that can only exist in comics and cartooning. His characters are naturally exaggerated, which makes the transitions between what is obviously real and what is imagined seamless. There are no barriers constructed by CGI or green screen creations. What is done is something that can only occur in the comics medium as what is know is redefined through the eyes of an artist on each new page. The effect is truly astounding, especially as the series reaches its climax with some truly daunting depictions of storms and giants. That unique use of the comics medium is one more key element as to why I Kill Giants belongs in the canon as much as any work in the 21st Century.

I Kill Giants - Themes
(Photo: Image Comics)

Themes That Matter

No matter how well a work exceeds its period of creation or presents the unique capabilities of its medium, those two factors don’t justify canonical consideration. What ultimately matters is the essence of a story, what it is really about. This is where I Kill Giants truly excels. Ask 100 people who have read the comic before and at least 90 of them will describe it to you as a tearjerker. That’s not because it plays on melodrama, but because it taps into something essentially human. Barbara is a unique character, but her conflicts address a universal human experience. I Kill Giants is a comic about grief and the randomness of death, something we all can relate with eventually.

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Across the course of 7 issues, Kelly and Niimura explored themes related to loss and treated the emotional concoction with all of the complexity it deserved. There is anger and denial and so much more as Barbara deals with the doom hanging ever closer to her family. The creators also pose alternate points of view, understanding that struggle from more and less mature outsider perspectives. The end result is a complex understanding of what it means to lose someone.

That story is invaluable. Whether we are working through our own grief or trying to understand someone else’s, I Kill Giants functions as an empathy machine. It provides us with new angles and metaphors to comprehend one of the most important and terrible parts of life. This is a comic that uses every tool at its disposal to show its readers something absolutely essential. That is why it simply must be a part of our modern comics canon.