Joe Kelly’s 2009 graphic novel I Kill Giants isn’t a young adult phenomenon like Ready Player One. It’s a YA cult classic. It’s an excellent book. It’s about to be a movie and, after that, who knows? Kelly’s protagonist, precocious fifth-grader Barbara Thorson, might be on the verge of international superstardom. She is, after all, an impressive young woman. Bullied at school and discontent at home, Barbara secretly protects her rural town from evil giants no one else can see. When the giant threat intensifies, Barbara rises to the occasion even as her erratic behavior pushes her loved ones and family away. It’s a parable about emotional labor and maybe hormones and possibly sadness and also very much a monster thing. Think of it as The BFG gone horribly wrong.
Gone horribly wrong is not new territory for Kelly, who made his bones breaking the clavicles of baddies in Deadpool and Daredevil. That work definitely informs I Kill Giants, which is purposefully violent while also seeming — even if it sounds odd to say — kid friendly. Kelly, who is also one of the creators of the animated kids series Ben 10 and founders of its production studio, Man of Action Entertainment, walks a tightrope very well. In fact, he dances up there.
Fatherly spoke with Kelly about his creative process for I Kill Giants, using vulgarity as a tool, and what parents can get out of the new movie adaptation, which stars Madison Wolfe and Zoe Saldana.
What was the initial inspiration behind I Kill Giants?
My daughter was probably about six around the time that I started the project. A lot of it had to do with seeing what she liked. At that age, she was very precocious, and I liked imagining what she might grow up into. I knew I wanted to build a strong female protagonist, but the stuff that Barbara grapples with in this story are largely things that I went through as an adult.
Having created TV and comics for both adults and kids, what’s different about writing for either audience?
With stuff that’s really flat out for kids, like Ben 10 and other work from Man of Action, you just shift gears. It’s a different set of tools. On the one hand, you might think it’s easier. But kids are super smart, and they can get things very quickly. You want to treat them as you would any other audience member. We never write down to kids. We’re always looking for what’s a new way we can do a gag that you’ve seen 100 times. You want to try to push yourself. You could get bored with Deadpool pretty quick if it was just cursing and shooting. It’s the same with kids’ entertainment. It’s just different tools, and none of them have very sharp edges.
You are a super talented vulgarian, which is at least in part why your work on Deadpool is so memorable. When you write for younger audiences, how do you step away from those tools and all that fun language?
I like that ‘skilled with vulgarity’ is a compliment. I wear that badge with pride.
I never actually thought of I Kill Giants as a young adult book. It was just this story. One of my favorite sub-genres of storytelling is adult stories with kid protagonists. There aren’t that many. It’s challenging because you don’t want them to be too sweet. But if you put a kid through challenges that are too intense, then it can rub audiences the wrong way. With I Kill Giants, I just wanted to cut down on my dialogue count. It was an exercise in not doing Deadpool-level dialogue.
What is it that draws you to characters – like Barbara or Deadpool – that don’t have much of a filter on what they say?
I found those characters really liberating. As a writer, I do a different kind of arithmetic in how they would express themselves, or not express themselves. What does that mean? Well, somebody like Deadpool obviously wears everything on his sleeve; the subtext comes from what he says versus what he actually does. That’s when you really get into the heart of who this guy is. And with kids, that line becomes slightly thinner and much more interesting. Because then, if they do have those layers, that’s a really crafty kid. That’s a cool character to spend time with.
It’s interesting that Barbara’s arc isn’t quite a coming-of-age. It feels more like her trying to be a kid in the face of adult struggles.
She’s doing what she thinks is the mature way to approach the situation. It’s about being forced to confront the reality of how you’re supposed to behave. She’s confronted with a need for acceptance and a need for a big fat reality check. She’s confronting the giant, both metaphorically and in real life. She’s given back her childhood in some ways. I don’t think the leap that she makes is backward; it’s almost parallel. It’s more like a right-sizing of age.
What are you excited for parents to get out of I Kill Giants?
I really hope that parents watch the film with their kids. When Giants was first published, I actually read it with my daughter, who was 9 at the time. I think that it can be a really valuable tool to discuss some things; feelings that kids have, when they feel powerless, and when they’re empowered. What they do to give themselves power, how they can find power. And that they’re not alone in facing these problems.
Would you ever return to the world of I Kill Giants?
We did actually talk about a sequel for a little while. And I came up with something that was really bleak, but it was a story that I didn’t think needed to be told. It was Barbara as an adult – it was a solid 20 years later – and it went to a place that I don’t know that I wanted to take this character. I felt like it would not be the future that she earned after going through what she goes through in I Kill Giants. In this short form, in this one glimpse or snapshot of her life, the story in and of itself made sense.