Be true to yourself. This adage is a stand-by in American culture. As a way of understanding the individual human self, it rests on the presumption that who we are is contained inside of each of us, and that we betray our true natures when we respond to the influence of others. However, there are ways of thinking about the self that sees our relationships to others not as threats to identity, but as the fulcrum of who we become. This latter perspective has animated my reading of Joe Kelly’s and JM Ken Nimura’s Image mini-series I Kill Giants, which completed its seven issue run in January.
(Spoilers to follow)
In their main character, Barbara Thorson, an alienated, socially awkward and, we learn, emotionally hurting, 5th grader living on Long Island, New York, Kelly and Nimura offer an opportunity to explore alternative, relational notions of identity, as opposed to the hermetic view favored by the mainstream of pop culture.
Readers first see Barbara performing a blood ritual with a heart-shaped purse. The scene then shifts to a classroom on career day. Barbara is keeping herself apart from the rest of the class, reading a book instead of participating in the day’s events. When she steps out from behind her desk she has long, stringy hair, uneven bangs, rabbit ears on top of her head, and a long t-shirt with a stylized skull on the front. She proclaims that her disinterest in career day stems from that fact that she already has a career finding hunting, and killing giants.
Barbara is a smart, but weird kid. However, her weirdness does not simply emerge from some fundamental strangeness to her being. It can be related, at least in part, to circumstance.
That she doesn’t feel like one of the popular, ‘normal’, girly girls she rides with on the bus seems to stem in some measure from the fact that she doesn’t easily look like one of them, either. More deeply, her sense of dislocation, of having bigger things to worry about, is related to a home with parents who initially appear to be absent (true in the case of the father, only partially true in the case of the mother).
For all her talk of killing giants, Barbara is also afraid of being alone in the house. By issue five it is revealed that what Barbara fears is not being alone in the house so much as being alone with her terminally ill mother.
How Barbara carries herself can be seen as a performance meant to keep others at a distance. Her self-proclaimed identity as a giant killer is a means to avoid confronting her mother’s condition, while simultaneously presenting her with a challenge that she can imagine resolving. In both instances, it is her relationship to others that influences her choices. Her props, the books she carries around, her heart-shaped pouch that she calls “Coveleski”, her animal ears, these are the means by which she expresses her self, her desire to be apart, and her wish to live in a world where she can master her mother’s illness.
The relational nature of Barbara’s sense of self is visualized in part by having references to her mother blotted out in conversations where she is mentioned. This choice is one way of showing that Barbara’s ‘weirdness’ is not simply her ‘being herself’, but is her responding to others and to her mother’s condition. She reacts by shutting out references to the underlying object of fear so as to replace it with the giants, especially the dreadful titan.
Writer Kelly and artist Nimura also show Barbara’s negotiation of her identity by blurring, even erasing, the barrier between her imagined world of giants — and fairies — and the outer, material world of everyday life. In some panels, the fairies appear as outlines, but still, apparently, in the landscape of the mundane and not just in Barbara’s dreams or imagination. In other panels, they appear fully resolved. The titan when it finally appears is a full-bodied vision of terror. The fear prompted by the appearance of the ultimate giant is reflected not just in Barbara’s face, but in other characters’ as well.
By placing Barbara’s fantasy visions in the contexts of the everyday, the reality, and relation of one to the other, is legitimized. For Barbara, the world she lives in, the world that shapes who she is, is the product of both outside, with the fear and stress of her mom’s cancer, and inside, with the daunting, but manageable threat of giants.
As the final issue begins, the titan turns out to have been a freak tornado, and Barbara is feared lost at sea. Among those missing her is Sophie, a new kid at school with whom Barbara develops a halting friendship. Having survived the tornado, and having the support and acceptance of Sophie, Barbara finally confronts her mom’s illness and, ultimately, death.
One way to end this story is for Barbara to normalize, implying the repair of a damaged self, and no more need to talk of giants or to wear funny accessories. While the final pages are, significantly, drawn without the asymmetrical panels that mark the rest of the series, rather than make their protagonist ‘normal’, Nimura and Kelly give her fantasy life new meaning, making it part of her bond with Sophie.
What makes Barbara a compelling character is the sense that she is rich with possibility. She both desires to be an outsider and to be accepted by others. She is both a scared elementary school kid and a giant killer. She lives both in her imagination and in the ‘real’ world.
Her true self is neither singular nor tucked away inside her head or soul, but is multiple and intertwined with the larger world. We needn’t substitute our daily fears with the supernatural to understand what it means to adopt different identities for different purposes and to feel both tied to and apart from others, but in Barbara’s case, it helps. I Kill Giants is a beautiful story of being true not to oneself, but to one’s selves.