Last week I mentioned the liminal quality of fantasies like I Kill Giants. But that’s one of several reasons why I have a particular fondness for that graphic novel. Another reason is that Jack the Giant-Killer is one of my favorite fairy tale heroes. So I like seeing stories that play on that character and that story. I’m not particularly fond of the violence (though the original Giant-Killer stories are quite unrepentantly bloody). No, I love them because they are stories of vastly under-qualified heroes (or heroines) facing down a foe that is viscerally far more powerful and so much bigger than themselves. The giant is always stronger. The giant is capable of squashing them underfoot like a bug. But the Jack character, through cleverness or guileless determination, is able to win out.
(One could argue that knights fighting dragons fall under a similar trope, but I love dragons and so stories about them getting run through aren’t typically in my wheel-house. I’d always rather be riding a dragon than slaying one.)
Jack is an everyperson hero; he is neither king nor knight, he’s not the chosen one, and maybe he earns a magic gift or two along the way but in the end, it all comes down to him. There’s something pretty amazing about that. And there’s so many ways to explore this character: Jack shows up in stories all the time, because that’s the nature of the everyperson hero. Anyone can be Jack. Is he a guileless fool who wins through sheer earnestness? Is he a clever trickster who fools his enemies into getting hoist by their own petard? Is he riding on that fine line where you’re never quite sure?
Once you understand the archetype, it’s pretty fun to try to spot Jack characters. I mean, there’s the obvious plays on the fairy tale: Crazy Jack by Donna Jo Napoli, or Jack Horner in the Fables graphic novel series, or Jack from the musical Into the Woods (my personal favorite). But what about Homer Simpson, or Captain Jack Harkness, or Bilbo Baggins? Are these Jack characters? And how can we stretch and play with our definition of “everyperson hero”? Finding Jack in our stories soon becomes the world’s biggest game of Where’s Waldo. Just look for the befuddled would-be hero thrown into circumstances so much bigger than they expected. Look for the clever twinkle in their eyes, or their earnest bravery in the face of the unknown. Look for the person armed with almost nothing except their heart and their mind, who is nonetheless able to overcome giants.