Joe Kelly Talks Escapism, Loss And Dungeons & Dragons for I Kill Giants’ Fifth Anniversary [Interview]
Joe Kelly and J. M. Ken Niimura’s I Kill Giants is one of the best and most honest depictions of a child’s reaction to loss in the comic book form. Barbara Thorson, our heroine, is precocious, prickly and daring, devoted to her career as a giant killer. Actual, mythical giants, she insists -- beasts only she is able to keep at bay with her legendary warhammer, Coveleski. After a long day of being the weird kid in fifth grade and researching giant lore (in Dungeons and Dragons manuals), she returns to a harried household living within the shadow of terminal illness. Her guidance counselor pleads with her to address her issues head on, to abandon her fantasy life -- but Barbara stands firm, maintaining that her work is essential. The truth lies somewhere in between.
Stories about of grief are tricky, and quickly made maudlin when a child enters the mix. But Barbara is real child, reacting the way real children do to trauma -- and Kelly isn’t afraid to err on the side of brattiness. She is hopeful, steely, caustic and lonely, and because of it, the story shines.
With the deluxe fifth anniversary edition of I Kill Giants on sale this week, ComicsAlliance spoke with writer Joe Kelly about escapism, loss, diverging from his superhero and adventure writing, and of course Dungeons & Dragons.
ComicsAlliance: I Kill Giants deals heavily with escapism, especially into swords-and-sorcery fantasy. This is a criticism often levied at comic book fandom, yet Barbara is also empowered by her use of fantasy lore. Was this a conscious connection? When does escapism go from healthy to harmful?
Joe Kelly: I wanted certain elements for Barbara's character to make her feel realistic, but it wasn't a conscious grab for our hardcore comic audience. Escapism is one of our evolutionary traits as human beings. Be it sports, film, video games, the arts -- we have a need to pursue "other realities" as a medium through which we can process our feelings and the rigors of "real life". For me, the only time escapism becomes a bad thing is when people disassociate completely from reality. The two compliment one another, they can’t exclude one another.
CA: I Kill Giants has a very distinct look to it -- raw, whimsical, and reminded me of everyone from Osamu Tezuka to Hergé. How much input did you have in it, as the writer? Did you have a certain look in mind from the beginning?
JK: The look is 100% the genius of JM Ken Niimura. I met Ken in Spain and he'd just published a book of short stories in a wide variety of styles. When I asked him about IKG and showed him the script, he agreed to do it, but only f he could draw in "a manga style". That was never on my radar for the book, even though I'm a huge fan of manga, so I asked him to show me what it might look like. I was hooked instantly. Ken is a meticulous designer, but he uses a loose and fluid line style. It makes for a tension on the page that you don’t find in most comics -- and was perfect for IKG.
I also always give him credit for the iconic rabbit ears! Barbra originally had a tangle of red hair, sort of like Merida in Brave, but since we were doing B/W Ken said it didn’t really do anything for him, and had this alternate suggestion. It was such an awkward and perfect choice, I fell in love immediately.
CA: How much did you draw on your own childhood while creating Barbara? Did you have an interest in fantasy?
JK: Of course!I played D&D, read comics, had all of the Star Wars figures and I loved the Shannara books among many other fantasy novels. I did it all. Barbara’s a lot tougher than I was as a kid, though, for sure.
CA: Children's responses to death are rarely explored in fiction. Typically they're the backdrop to adult grief, or a prop to make things even sadder. Was writing a child protagonist at all a response to this lack? Do you think children grieve particularly differently than adults?
JK: The story came together because of where I was in my life at the time -- I had young children and my father had just beat his first bout of complications from diabetes. It was the first time that I ever had to think about the mortality of my parents, and that immediately translated to thinking about my own kids and their reactions to death. Children certainly respond differently to grief, they have fewer references and different tools. In some cases, they may be even more resilient than adults, but that’s me being an armchair psychologist.
CA: What did you imagine the audience would be while writing this book and what kind of audience did you encounter when it was released? I loved it as a 22-year-old, but it struck me that I would have really appreciated it if I'd read it as a kid dealing with the death of a loved one.
JK: I rarely think about the audience when I’m writing unless the project is age specific -- a children’s book, for example. So this was just another story I wanted to write. Since its release, I’ve been amazed by the breadth of readers who have come up to me at a con: from teenagers to forty-somethings and everything in between. It’s been amazing.
CA: I Kill Giants is quite different from most of your other work, such as Ben 10, Generator Rex, Superman, and so on. Can you tell us a little about the early inspiration and process of making the book? Was it a challenge?
JK: It became a challenge as the project rolled on. As I mentioned before, the idea struck me because of my dad and daughter -- in fact I outlined the whole book on a yellow pad in a physical therapist’s waiting room waiting for my dad to practice walking on his newly-artificial leg. The writing went very quickly, and then it took a while before I met Ken. A few years, actually. By the time Ken started drawing, diabetes was creeping up on my father again, and this time it didn’t end with a leg. I was polishing dialogue on the book as my father was (unbeknownst to anyone) about to be hit hard and fast by diabetes. He died as the series was coming out. Reworking dialogue after his funeral was extremely difficult, but also informed the book in a profound way.
CA: In portraying an ornery young girl obsessed with D&D and baseball, you really covered new ground in American comics. Did you create Barbara to be iconoclastic and stand out in the comics landscape, in terms of gender diversity and the way women characters are written and depicted?
JK: I created Barbara specifically to tell this story. Her strength, attitude and style were all critical to the universe of IKG. While I am very proud to think of her as an iconoclastic character on the gender landscape, that wasn’t a driver for her development. I love writing all sorts of characters, and through my career some of my female characters have been accepted more readily than others -- but again, I don’t take that reaction into account when I write. I create the character I need.
That said, I am very aware of diversity issues in our medium, and I do try to make sure that all of my characters are as strong and distinctive as they can be.