Feminism and Realism in John Allison’s Giant Days

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Amongst the barrage of “best of” comics lists that closed out 2015, I was delighted to see John Allison’s Giant Days pop up in multiple places. The comic follows three friends—Esther De Groot, Susan Ptolemy, and Daisy Wooton—as they navigate their emotionally and academically tumultuous first year of university (a.k.a. college, for the Americans like me!) They face conflicts that range from farcical, like Esther’s attempt to live a zero-drama life for three days, to more emotional, like Daisy’s questioning of her sexuality. These three women have stolen many hearts, and the comic’s popularity prompted Boom! Box to extend its initial six issue run to twelve issues.

Giant Days

The Giant Days Volume 1 TPB.

As someone who entered the world of mainstream comics through indie and alternative comics, I find Allison’s trajectory particularly interesting. Allison is a veteran webcomic artist—his first comic, Bobbins, landed in the Internet in 1998—who has been operating outside the periphery of mainstream comic publishing until a couple years ago, when he began releasing Bad Machinery collections through Oni Press. The Boom! Box imprint is a fantastic home for a creator who has been writing female-led stories for over a decade, but I still wondered if Allison had had to make any compromises when starting to fully work with a publisher.

When I reached out to Allison and asked if there had been any battles involved in order to pursue feminist themes in the comic, he explained that he’d never been asked to edit content. While he doesn’t claim the label of feminist for himself, Allison does “…believe in a fair shake for everyone regardless of gender or race. Class, and entitlement, interest me a lot more.”

I was intrigued to learn that Allison didn’t explicitly have feminist themes in mind while writing. His interest in class issues are very clear in his work—especially in the current Scary Go Round arc, which has Shauna clashing with her formerly incarcerated brother—but his comics have consistently appealed to feminists like myself. His comment made me recall another comic that followed three very unique female friends as they laughed, fumbled, and supported each other through the treacherous time that is college—Magnolia Porter’s Bobwhite. Porter’s comic ran from 2008 to 2011, and in the blog that followed Bobwhite’s final strip, Porter explained that she initially began writing the story

[…]because I wanted to write about girls who I felt were missing from the kind of college movies and TV shows I was watching. Girls who didn’t have life magically figured out… who couldn’t always get what they wanted and made mistakes as often as they made good decisions. Girls who I felt resembled myself and the people I knew.

Ivy, Marlene, and Cleo - the stars of Magnolia Porter's comic, Bobwhite - meet for the first time.

Ivy, Marlene, and Cleo—the stars of Magnolia Porter’s comic, Bobwhite—meet for the first time.

While Allison has never been a twenty-something girl figuring out her identity, he’s created a story that also strives for this goal of realism. For example, in issue three, Esther discovers that she’s been featured on a website called Bantserve. Bantserve crudely singles out and objectifies women at the college through listicles with titles like, “Fresh Meat: The Twenty-Five Hottest First Years.” When she opens up to the Dean about feeling humiliated, he shuts her down and calls it “just a bit of fun.” To help the disheartened Esther, Susan strikes back hard—she rats the website’s creators out to their mothers, who promptly storm into the school to hand the boys their misogynist asses.

While three middle-aged women storming a law lecture to scold their children is a tinge absurd—although, helicopter parenting can get pretty intense—the story has a familiar ring. Even at my hippie liberal arts college, there was a party thrown my first year that, somewhat jokingly, was organized by older students looking to creep on new first years. College institutions notoriously turn blind eyes to dangerous parties and similar situations that encourage men to objectify and even assault women. When Esther stormed the Dean’s office, I was completely unsurprised by his reaction, and admired Susan’s craftiness in going outside the system to seek revenge. Allison, like Porter, is writing real women, and that means that feminist, queer and other issues are along for the ride.

Esther's monster boots, by Lissa Treiman and Whitney Cogar.

Esther’s monster boots, by Lissa Treiman and Whitney Cogar.

Artists Lissa Treiman (Issues 1-6), Max Sarin (Issues 7-current), and Whitney Cogar (colors) reinforce the realism with which Allison writes his characters. Whether it’s Susan’s cozy sweaters and plaid button downs, Esther’s literally monstrous heeled boots, or Daisy’s many Friday Night Lights inspired costume changes, the girls’ clothing never fails to match their personalities. There is an incredible amount of consideration and care put into every pair of shoes and headband, and it makes the world of Giant Days more engaging and believable.

With realism comes dark themes, but Allison keeps the comic light by maintaining a humorous tone throughout. Issue 6 forces Susan to realize that the opportunity to go to college is a privilege not everyone has, but the lead-up to this confrontational moment is made silly by Esther’s drama field and McGraw’s use of a very ineffective lock pick. Similarly, Daisy’s somewhat rough experience of coming out to herself is bracketed by a hilarious storyline about young, semi-confused Tumblr feminists deciding McGraw is pure evil. This formula of absurdity plus realism allows Giant Days to reach readers who may have a difficult time accessing stories told in a rougher manner. The tone also gives the comic its delightful charm.

Giant Days—and Bobwhite—teach a very important lesson: issues like sexism, racism, and homophobia are not hot topics to be included in a story in order to appeal to a niche audience. They are real things that affect real people’s lives, and comics of all kinds can and should tell complicated stories with feminist themes. It’s much easier to suspend disbelief when the diversity of the real world is represented on the page.

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About Author

Alenka Figa is a queer, feminist, wannabe librarian. She spends her days teaching people how to attach things to their email, watching Steven Universe, and twittering nonstop about comics and her cat at @alenkafiga.

4 Comments

  1. It’s really depressing how much this comic is overlooked. I dunno where you’re looking, but Giant Days rarely has any buzz in my circles. I love Lumberjanes and Ms. Marvel as much as the next reader, but like anything else popular, one shouldn’t let it overshadow other good works.

    • I prefer Allison’s webcomic art to that of his partners for this comic. Additionally, the Giant Days departure/spin-off arc wherein he severed it from the universe of Bobbins/Scary-go-Round/Bad Machinery was one of the single most disappointing things Allison ever published on his site. Quite frankly, I don’t give a shit what happens to Esther anymore, and she was the only connective tissue that linked this to his prior work.

      I’m also not really interested in purchasing physical comics by the issue, which is why I was always such a fervent fan of his webcomic in the first place. The whole “print comic” feels like a step backwards. I am glad to see Allison getting recognition though!

    • Hi! I linked to a couple lists in the first paragraph (see “multiple places”) but I should note that I mostly follow indie/webcomic/zine focused people on social media, so that is the kind of stuff that tends to pop up in my circles. I feel like everyone and their mother does a “Best of Year” list, too! My comments on the attention Giant Days is receiving are coming from a very subjective place. Woo bias!

  2. Whatever he’s standing for, John Allison has got my vote. I do not begrudge the man this great opportunity to branch out into paper media and think Lissa Treiman’s art was a perfect complement to his writing, which in this series is even more double plus superb than ever. Treiman has the makings of a really, seriously great cartoonist.