A short graphic novel of 122 pages, Giant is nonetheless an entrancing thing, set against the spectacular and changing 1930s skyline of New York. Mikaël might not deliver the love story we were expecting but what he gives us instead is a thing of absolute beauty and a stunning tonal piece of a unique time in US history.
It’s New York in the early 1930s, a place of intense poverty but also one of incredible opportunity, where immigration is easy and the city has become a melting pot of different cultures.
It’s also a city that’s growing skywards, with brand-new skyscrapers being built by men strong enough and brave enough to work on them. Amongst the beams and the hot riveting, these men work and live hard lives, where death is never far away – one death every ten stories is the average in these conditions. After all, we’ve all seen the famous photo of construction workers eating lunch on a beam, haven’t we? Although Giant does pour at least a little scorn on this, it’s nonetheless a well-paid and incredibly dangerous job up there.
And it’s a death that sets things into play in Giant. One mystery man, a quiet, strong, Irish colossus of a man is working to build the Rockefeller Centre and he’s given the task of writing to tell the wife of a recently deceased colleague the bad news.
But for reasons we only really find out at the end of the story, this fearless man just can’t bring himself to send the young widow the tragic news. Instead, he begins writing to the widow as her husband, borrowing a washed-up journalist’s typewriter to do so, and sending young Mary Ann money every month along with the letters telling her a lie of a life that isn’t his to tell.
But when the replies to his letters dry up, he’s left wondering just what has happened to the woman and her family.
That’s the basic story of Giant, a book that’s something that’s almost a romantic drama played out amongst the stunning beauty of the New York skyline.
I say almost because Mikaël plays it out as a pretty obvious romance story throughout, yet twists it enough to make it far more realistic and believable than the movie fare this could quite easily have been.
It doesn’t take much for you to work out where Giant’s story is going, the reasons for the Irishman coming to America, the aura of silence and sadness that surrounds him, and what’s happening with the young widow and her family when the replies dry up. And that’s perhaps the biggest flaw with Giant, where every new development, whether it’s the reporter turning up on the site, the actress diva next-door neighbour, the offended Italians, they all just exist to slot tab A into tab B and keep the story going.
But, having said that, it’s a problem that shouldn’t put you off the book, as the actual storyline is somewhat secondary to the overall mood that Mikaël creates so well in Giant. It’s a book that tells of the loneliness of the immigrant, the unbearably hard life that these men and women had at the time, and by some wonderful use of his artwork, Mikaël gets so much of that across without the storyline really mattering all that much.
It’s an affecting and thoughtful book that reads wonderfully well. But it’s the art that truly grabs you, right from that very first image on the cover.
Although frankly, from that cover, I was actually expecting something black & white or with a completely minimalist palette. I wasn’t expecting what we do get, which is one of muted yellow/brown tones, but damn, it’s gorgeous to see on the page.
I mean, look at this NY skyline shot…
The other thing I wasn’t really expecting was the figure work of Mikael either. A mix of very modern US work and Manga stylings with one very strange effect of making the title character look like a very, very tall Wolverine – that takes a few moments to get over.
But, once you do come to accept the somewhat unusual mix of styles, something else jumps out at you, or at least jumps out to me. And it’s found in Mikaël’s New York scenes, those rain-filled streets, even the lettering to an extent – it’s rather reminiscent of the magnificence of the great Will Eisner. Because for every figure shot that took a while to get used to, Mikaël gives us something like this…
See what I mean? Here’s a blow-up of that middle panel that will really convince you…
As the book goes on, you get more and more of these beautifully done panels and pages of observation of the New York streets of the time. They’re stunning things and really add to the overall mood of quietness and sadness that permeates Giant.
Yes, it might be a very predictable book, albeit with that slight twist in the end that downplays the whole love story aspect of it all, but it’s also a book that really gets under your skin. Mikaël does a great job of developing the storyline, gives us some nicely fleshed out supporting characters, and keeps things looking stunning all the way through. It’s not perfect by any means, the issues with the all too obvious storyline and the way that new characters are merely introduced as bodies to hang the next phase of the story off are there still. But, as I say, it’s a book that’s every bit as much about mood and tone as it is about the storyline of the main character.
And as such, Mikaël does indeed deliver a mood piece, a reflective, slow-moving, relaxed tale of what it may have been like to have been alive in those times, watching the skyscrapers rise from the ground, wondering about the, all too often short-lived, lives of the men who worked amongst the beams in the sky. His artwork is the true star of Giant, bringing a life and a reality to the world he’s portraying whilst also setting the tone so wonderfully well.
Giant by Mikaël, published by NBM 2020. Originally published by Dargaud in 2018. Translation by Matt Maden, lettering by Calix Ltd.