[Monday Reading] Portrayal of Terminal Illness in Graphic Novels “I Kill Giants” and “The Inflatable Woman”

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It's Monday! What Are You Reading

Myra here.

It’s Monday, What are You Reading is a meme hosted by Jen from Teach Mentor Texts and Kellee and Ricki from Unleashing Readers (new host of Monday reading: Kathryn T at Book Date). Since two of our friends, Linda from Teacher Dance and Tara from A Teaching Life have been joining this meme for quite awhile now, we thought of joining this warm and inviting community.

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As we do our research finding books that fit our current reading theme, I am surprised to note how there seems to be a number of graphic novels that deal with such gritty themes, and these two in particular depict terminal illness.


fullsizerender-15I Kill Giants

Written by: Joe Kelly Illustrated by: JM Ken Niimura
Published by: Image Comics, Fifth Anniversary Edition 2016 ISBN: 1607069857 (ISBN13: 9781607069850). Literary Award: Lucca Comics & Games for Premio Gran Guinigi Miglior sceneggiatore (2011)
Bought a copy of the book. Book photos taken by me. 

Fats has done quite the extensive review on this graphic novel – along with a few others she termed as Gut-wrenching Stories about Brotherhood, Family, and Isolation, so I would probably not add too much on it. This also came highly recommended by one of my higher-degree teacher students last year, and with good reason.

Barbara Thorson is an angry kid – she is downright rude, very difficult to like, and with a clear propensity for violence. She makes a mean and very effective Dungeon Master, and clearly she is a smart girl. Yet, school is the last thing on her mind as she succeeds in alienating everyone who comes close to her, or even scratches the surface of her pain – her school counselor, being one prime example of this:

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Given her bottled-up rage, I was imagining all sorts of atrocities that she may be living through – and so finding out what was driving her to her breaking point proved to be anticlimactic for me; add the fact that the storyline had very strong resonances with Patrick Ness’ A Monster Calls which broke me. While this resulted in softening the overall impact of the narrative, what worked for me the most here was Barbara’s interactions with her counselor as could be seen in the image above, and the one below:

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Way too often, counselors are portrayed as incompetent or clueless or too non-committal to really care. Mrs. Molle breaks away from that mould and the interaction between her and rage-filled Barbara rang with authenticity. I think what moved me even more was reading Joe Kelly’s author’s note at the end of the story as he shared what he was going through as he was writing the story. It was deeply affecting to read about Kelly’s own pain that served as his inspiration for Barbara’s story, and allowed him to craft this beautiful truth: “We’re stronger than we think.”

The Inflatable Womanfullsizerender-29

Written and Illustrated by: Rachael Ball
Published by: Bloomsbury, 2015 ISBN: 140885807X (ISBN13: 9781408858073)
Borrowed from the Jurong West Public Library. Book photos taken by me. 

I read this book late last year, and as thick as it was at 543 pages, I read it through in one sitting. This is a truly riveting read, not always very easy though, as it shows this female protagonist named Iris Pink-Percy being diagnosed with cancer early on in the book, with the bulk of the story portraying her treatments, her ensuing depression, and her eventual rehabilitation in the end.

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What struck me first and foremost about the book is that it is largely in black and white, with colour only added in later for effect – adding on to the somber, unshakeably-dark, and all-pervasive brooding mood. It also fearlessly speaks of the unspeakable in such huge letters, in an almost larger-than-life kind of magnitude as you can see in the image above – as the illness takes over Iris’s entire world.

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Another thing that really hit me hard about the story is Iris’s solitary life, her seemingly-thankless job at the zoo taking care of the animals, the one hippie-looking friend who cares about her, and her closest living relative – her Grandmother who accompanies her to the hospital, only to end up being looked after by Iris. There is also the online boyfriend who technically does not count as Iris’s entire identity is built on a lie. I suppose everything from the seemingly-worthless job, the imaginary boyfriend, the dire aloneness – all serve to paint in full the dreary and miserable existence that is Iris’s life. Yet despite that, the reader still gets to feel that there is much, much to live for.

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I thought that for a graphic novel that tries to give image to fear, sharpen its edges, shade its contours – it was fearless by owning the essence of its vulnerability, embracing the uncertainty, characterizing the corridors of decontamination as Iris gradually guides herself back to recovery and reconstructive surgery.

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The images are stark, visually arresting, and infinitely effective. When I read the Author’s Note, it does appear that Rachael Ball, herself, suffered from breast cancer – so she has an endless reservoir of grief to draw from.

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I believe we have truly come a long way in graphic novels and literature in general – from a time when even discussions concerning ill health are considered taboo, as they might invite misfortune – to painting pain a brilliant shade of pink as you can see in the image above. Rachael Ball’s narrative, art, and her insertions of poetry (Neruda, no less) – I found to be really well-crafted and true. Definitely a book you should check out.

7 Comments on [Monday Reading] Portrayal of Terminal Illness in Graphic Novels “I Kill Giants” and “The Inflatable Woman”

  1. The Inflatable Woman sounds very unique. It seems like it would spark a lot of different emotions. You’re right about graphic novels. Using this form to write about such a serious and important topic does show the power of that genre.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Thank you for sharing these books. I shared March this week and had the same feeling about graphic novels reading it. Any adult who thinks this form is only for little kids hasn’t been paying attention.

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  3. Both of these reads sound intensely powerful. When I was a teenager and had a mental health crisis the hardest part for me was the intense shame I felt – I was weak, I was a failure – these kinds of things weren’t supposed to happen to intelligent girls from good families. All of my friends knew what was happening, but because of social taboos no one talked about it or admitted it. It was terrible, and I can only hope that by raising awareness and connecting people with sensitive, honest, powerful books we can help fight these destructive taboos.

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  4. I’m just getting into graghic novels, and reading Paper Girls by Brian K. Vaughan. I’ll definitely be looking into The Inflatable Woman. It sounds so powerful!

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  5. Thank you so much Myra. Just reading about these books breaks my heart a bit.

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  6. I have been intensely interested in every book from this theme you’ve shared so far. So glad you’re doing this.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. graphic novels have definitely impressed me with the subjects they’ve been tackling.

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