The Book Report is a reading series that promises to deliver exactly what it promises: reports on books by the people who’ve read them. In this installment, Kwame Opam writes about the graphic novel I Kill Giants.
I’ve chosen to write my report about a favorite graphic novel of mine, which I’ve been informed is a bit of a departure from the traditional book report. It’s called I Kill Giants, written by Jim Kelly and illustrated by J.M. Ken Nimura. Quoting the esteemed Amazon.com, the work can be described as follows:
Barbara Thorson, a girl battling monsters both real and imagined, kicks butt, takes names, and faces her greatest fear in this bittersweet, coming-of-age story called “Best Indy Book of 2008” by IGN.
With this made clear, you should also know this going forward: that I’m a 27-year-old black nerd with a love of Young Adult fiction about “kicking butt” and “taking names.” Naturally, I’m not especially good at either of these things. I’m a journalist. As such, I drink a lot and, I’m sorry to say, I actually liked the last season of The Wire. But when I picked this book up, it spoke to me because I found I share so many of the same delusions. The wanting to be bigger than myself. The failing, often spectacularly, at it. And the needing to tease out little moments of triumph where and whenever I can.
Barbara Thorson, despite her apparently Nordic ancestry, is just a 5th grade kid. She doesn’t wield the great hammer Mjolnir. Instead, she — in her mind, at least — carries the warhammer Covaleski (named after legendary Chicago Cubs pitcher Harry “The Giant Killer” Covaleski, a reference I had to look up on Wikipedia) which she carries in her purse. She plays D&D, is constantly bullied, and has a terrible home life that’s left her angry and closed off. She fights giants as a way of fighting off her problems and talks to a troupe of fairies that follow her wherever she goes. But she never backs down, and is quick with the kind of barbs that would cut mortal men down. Or mortal 5th graders anyway. There is, of course, more than a hint of sadness here, of desperation, but I don’t want you to think that I relate to this character because I suffered the same childhood. Not at all. But in other, more closely felt ways apart from maybe my ongoing reliance on therapy because this is New York and I can admit that sort of thing publicly, I see this character in me right now. And it makes me wonder about when we finally decide we’ve “come of age.”
Having supped on a steady diet of comic books for most of my life, I live and love my personal fantasies. On most days, headphones on on the way to work, I carry an imaginary sword on my back. I’m not kidding! Sometimes it’s a flaming sword, sometimes I’m the one on fire. I imagine my sword can cut through anything. Other times I’m a member of a company of mercenaries, fighting wave after wave of enemies. Sometimes I can fly. In my dreams, I can save or destroy the world. In my dreams, I am great.
When I was a kid, my father, a doctor and avowed Ghanaian nationalist, had a saying he loved to repeat, especially when he travelled. It went something like, “Tomorrow, I march on England. And the King and Queen shall polish my shoes.” He’d deepen his voice a few registers, and chuckle ominously. It was a laugh, but I admired him for it. There was such gravity to it. It took me 20 years to ask where he got the line, to which he casually responded “Hitler.” I never got proof that was actually ever said anywhere in history, but it stuck with me all the same. My father had a thing about greatness. About being great. About being descended from kings and conquerors in addition to cocoa farmers. Our task, as his kids, was to conquer something. Especially if it showed those white people next door something they didn’t see coming.
I wasn’t always great or good even. I didn’t always succeed. I’ve always taken failure hard, and I’ve failed often. And it weighs on me, still. It’s a family thing. And as my father used to say, “Don’t be like your mother.”
Barbara’s mother, we eventually find, is terminally ill, her sickness darkening much of the action in the novel. The mere mention of her casts a shadow on her daughter, already tasked with the heavy responsibility of protecting the world from the giants threatening it. She can’t even enter the room where her mother is, hooked up to machines scarier than any monster she’s ever face. My mom is luckier but I wouldn’t call her lucky. She’s manic-depressive, with something else lurking there that we all fear but can’t seem to name. The kind of thing that means we resign ourselves to saying she’s not all there. There’s a sadness to her now that’s so different from the mother I try my best to remember. My parents met in their prime, both immigrants and both med students living in New York City in the 1980s. Mom was the shit, though, or so I’m told. She knew all the books. She aced all the tests, and could fix people years before Dad could. She was generous and happy and… together. I remember in 1996, after the blizzard, we went to the Poconos just because that’s what you did in America. I look back and can only think, to be like that…
And then something snapped. Mom and Dad started fighting, about so many things. Mom stopped caring as much and sunk deeper into of herself. Dad, in his bitterness, came home less. Money was lost. We didn’t always eat as well as we should have. Barbara’s father was long gone, but mine was still around. Just enough to remind us that things were broken and he’d fix it, goddammit it and goddamn everything else. The truth was, my mother was always a little ill, but for 10 years she stopped hiding it. I remember wondering, if I’m supposed to be great, what am I supposed to be if all I have is myself and their example? What is it even all for if you can lose everything? Who will fix me if I break?
These days I understand the unfairness of it all. I know my parents a little better and can appreciate their frailty. But if you asked me what I wanted out of the next 5, 10, 20 years, I’d answer with “Just let me be good enough to not be scared of losing it all.”
By the end of I Kill Giants, Barbara must face off against the King of all Giants, the greatest threat she’s ever faced. The sky opens, and He appears. Or that’s what we see through her eyes. She summons Covaleski, her great war hammer, leaps into the air, and strikes her enemy down in one swift, earth-shattering stroke. You can almost feel the ground crack from that final blow. The world — or her small town — is saved, though she’s almost lost in the battle. A whole day passes, and the news reports her as missing. It turns out the giant came with a message. “Embrace life,” he says. “You are stronger than you think.” And for her, she can at least come to terms with her problems and who she is. She returns, and embraces her mother, who, as time passes, eventually dies. But Barbara’s brave and moves on. She can finally put her fantasies to rest. She can put her hammer down. That’s that whole coming of age thing.
But she’s only 10. And I wonder what is Barbara Thorson is like at 27? Is she like me, still scared but just better at carrying it? Have her giants returned, only now they’re giants named Bills and Ex-Lovers? Did she come of age only to get older? Is there really no resolution? I decided it’s probably a lot harder than that. Maybe Covaleski answers her call when she needs it. So I take up my sword everyday and think of my father. I’m fairly certain I’m not great yet, but I’m pretty good. I can admire my mother and think she can get better because life hasn’t ended for her. That I’m lucky and maybe one day I can fix her. And I can fail, but I can look my father in the eye and own my failures. And in my dreams, I quote Churchill.
Sure I am that this day – now we are the masters of our fate; that the task which has been set us is not above our strength; that its pangs and toils are not beyond our endurance. As long as we have faith in our cause and an unconquerable will-power, salvation will not be denied us.
And it’s enough.