Giant Spoilers Ahead: It’s impossible to talk about Joe Kelly and J. M. Ken Niimura‘s 2007 series I Kill Giants without outright spoiling the entire thing.
At the 2017 Toronto International Film Festival the long awaited adaptation of Joe Kelly and J. M. Ken Niimura's 2007 series I Kill Giants finally debuted. While the amount of reviews for the film can be counted on one hand (with fingers left over) the film is directed by Anders Walter (who won Best Live Action Short Film at the 86th Academy Awards), and is described by The Verge as being “particularly assured and remarkable.”
Knowing the adaptation does the original justice is great news. I Kill Giants is, in no uncertain terms, one of the best comics of the last decade. In the span of seven issues, Kelly and Niimura craft an incredibly poignant story that tackles grief, denial and loss. It’s a series that presents escapism as a double-edged sword: there’s nothing inherently wrong with avoiding the harshness and unpleasantness of reality, but there’s a limit. You can only run from your problems and the real world for so long.
Barbara Thorson is not like other students. While her classmates talk belly shirts, Britney Spears-inspired haircuts and movie award shows, Barbara’s nose is buried deep in her Dungeons & Dragons Dungeon Master rulebook. She’s too smart for her own good so she keeps to herself. She’s an outsider, a weirdo. You probably knew a kid like Barbara in high school (you might’ve even been that kid).
She also hunts and kills giants.
She doesn’t relate with her classmates because she thinks their interests are superficial and trivial. Barbara has serious and important work to do, namely protecting the town from invading giants. It’s serious business. If not for her, giants would’ve devoured the town a long time ago.
Kelly and Niimura blur the line between fact and fiction, where you're never quite sure of the reality of what's depicted. The sprites and fairies she interacts with also interact with other parts of the world, and it's not as though "Character Can See Magic Creatures Others Can't" isn't an uncommon trope, but Barb seems to be the only one who sees them. Is Barbara just a weird fifth grader with an overactive imagination, or is she actually able to see a world that no one else can? We’re seeing the world from her perspective, and it’s her steadfast belief in the fantastical that make us believe in them too.
Kelly doesn’t give us the truth until the penultimate issue, and it’s a revelation that hits like a truck. The giants, fairies and other magical creatures that only Barbara can see don’t exist. They’re an escapist fantasy she’s created because her mother is currently dying of cancer. The only giant here is the looming spectre of death.
People deal with grief in different ways. Finding some form of escapism is one of them. Life can be unpleasant, so it's natural to want to escape to a safe place. That place can be anything – a book, a movie, an album or even a fantasy world of your own creation.
There’s nothing inherently wrong with escapism, but constantly running from your problems isn’t a solution. It's unhealthy. It just creates more problems in the long run. Barbara becomes too disconnected from reality and she suffers for it. She literally tries to fight a tornado because she thinks it’s a Titan (a giant that makes regular giants look tiny) and almost loses her life because of it. In her head, the Titan has come to take her mother, so the only way to save her is to strike the colossal beast down.
The more Barbara opens up to the world, the more vulnerable she becomes. If she closes herself then the world can’t hurt her. It’s easy to push people away than let them in. Every attempt Ms. Molle, the school’s new psychiatrist, makes to help Barbara open up is met with sarcastic hostility. There are a few moments where she does drop her guard, but Barbara quickly returns to her shell and becomes aggressive, striking Ms. Molle at one point. She doesn’t connect with her other classmates, because it’s hard to care about the new Oslen Twins movie when your mother is dying. She’s only in the fifth grade, but Barb’s had to grow up much faster.
Barbara cannot deal with the reality of the situation, so she blocks it out. As her brother and sister talk about their mother, you can feel the air being sucked out of the room. Niimura’s art loses its detail and shading becoming only scratchy pen lines, while his lettering devolves into black scribbles (the latter is recurring when characters try to talk about Barb's mom). She doesn't see her mother as a frail women in bed calling for her daughter but as a grim spectre that hisses her name. She can't even make it up the flight of stairs, preferring to sleep in the basement.
While speaking to Ms. Molle, Barbara discusses the existence of giants. “A giant comes to a place and takes everything from you,” she explains, “and when it’s done it’s like whatever made your life good was never there.” Ms. Molle asks her if she’s afraid of them, with Barb telling her she isn’t and that, “If I’m strong enough. If I stay focused and I’m worthy I can stop death itself.”