The movie I Kill Giants – adapted from a graphic novel of the same name written by Joe Kelly and illustrated by Ken Niimura – is a sprawling adventure about a loner teen named Barbara who retreats into a fantasy world in which she battles menacing giants that may or may not be in her head. Sitting on an intersection of fantasy and real-life issues, the movie is being hailed for its strong messaging, and for its phenomenal female-led cast which stars Madison Wolfe and Zoe Saldana.
Translated into live-action by director Anders Walters, the movie keeps the spirit of the comic intact. But what inspired the look of this story? We speak to its co-creator and illustrator Ken Niimura.
From fearsome, fantastical giant beasts to the gritty yet cutesy image of Barbara, I Kill Giants seems like a dark genre, but when you dig deeper, you can see that’s influenced by quirky pop culture. For illustrator Ken Niimura who’s “always been quite a nerd”, much of his character references come from a wide range of his pop culture influences: comics, video games, board games and even role paying games.
Niimura – who’s half Spanish and Japanese – is influenced visually by both Japanese manga and European comics since his childhood days, so when it came to illustrating I Kill Giants, “it’s something like Hayao Miyazaki meets Jean-Jacques Sempé”. It’s fitting, since both Miyazaki and Sempé also draw from childhood influences to create their unique viewpoints. Other references include Taiyo Matsumoto as well as anime like FLCL.
Being a video game nerd does have its perks – Niimura’s take on the giants is modelled on the likes of games like Shadow Of The Colossus and Dungeons & Dragons. Barbara’s giant-fighting hammer (the Coveleski) was inspired by Warhammer.
When it came to illustrating Barbara, his influence veers into cosplay with the bunny ears – popular with young girls in Japan – which makes the character stand out and gives her feisty character a youthful edge.
As Niimura’s first long-format comic, it took him almost a year to design and prepare the comic, and around 7 months to actually draw it all. “Comics are an amazing medium, but they require knowledge in writing, design, composition, character design, acting, background design and drawing among others, so it really takes a lot of time and effort to master it all!”
For someone who was discovered by renowned comic writer Joe Kelly – who wrote the story for I Kill Giants – while he was still finishing art school, his talent speaks for itself. I Kill Giants was compiled into a graphic novel in 2009, and has since been nominated for an Eisner Award, inspiring a legion of rabbit ear-wearing fans.
If you liked the flavour of I Kill Giants, you can read Niimura’s latest work, Umami online for free. It’s a mixture of food and high-fantasy, the story of a kingdom in trouble, and… two cooks that will save the day.
“I wanted to make a story about underdogs (not unlike I Kill Giants), and have always found that cooks are always the forgotten characters in any of these high-fantasy stories – cooks are only there to serve the main characters on their way to save the world, but actually never get the spotlight. I wanted to create a story where for once, it was the cooks that saved the world.”
[UPDATE] Umamai has been nominated for ‘Best Digital Comics’ in 2019’s Eisner Award!