Giant Days: How John Allison's Wonderful Series Avoids the Pitfalls of YA Literature

The loosely defined but prosperous genre of youth oriented, socially progressive, humor comics has never been my thing. I’ve tried comics like Ms. Marvel, Young Avengers, Lumberjanes, Gotham Academy, Rat Queens and the rebooted Archie among many others with varying degrees of success and failure, but I’ve never felt much connection with the material. Often the drama feels melodramatic and artificial while the obvious references to youth culture (Tinder! Texting! Apps!) felt phony and awkward. One problem is that these books don’t speak to my specific experience or tastes, but I also found a certain lack of storytelling craft that makes them hard to enjoy.  And then last week, I picked up a volume of John Allison’s ‘Giant Days’ and discovered a charming and witty young adult book that manages to tell great stories within the structure of a young adult humor book. GIANT-DAYS-7After main-lining about 12 issues of Giant Days I had to consider what makes Giant so much better to me than other books with similar concepts.  In trying to describe the strengths of the series, I end up talking about ‘strong but flawed characters’, ‘realistic relationships’, ‘great humor’, and ‘snappy dialogue’ in a way that turns me off all over again. So many of the qualities Giant Days has are the selling points of the whole genre. Frankly on the surface it is just another silly YA drama about dating and bickering young people. The qualities that make Giant Days different are subtle and precise, but important. In general, I think Giant Days is a singularly smart take on young adult humor with a number of aspects worth taking a closer look at.

Giant Days is the story of three freshman college girls who become friends first by convenience and then through the mutual neediness familiar to anyone who has been lonely on a college campus. There is Esther DeGroot, a pretty but drama-prone Goth, Susan Ptolemy, a self-styled asocial cynic, and Daisy Wooton, a wide-eyed former home-schooler. The first mark in the books favor is the setting. Instead of setting his stories in the wildly overused setting of a public high school, Allison sets things in the world of a college.  And he does so smartly; not treating college as a formative dramatic time, but instead as a melting pot of confused, immature weirdos who care about the little ridiculous relationships and jokes that make most real friend groups tick.

Image-1-2Never is this specificity more pronounced than in the characterizations of the three leads. Esther could very easily be an archetypal brainless beauty, whose shallowness is only interrupted on occasion to keep her from being thoroughly unsympathetic. But in Esther is more nuanced than that, coming off as a fundamentally smart, caring person, whose attractiveness and egotism (with a hint of insecurity) make her a well-intentioned loose-cannon. Susan Ptolemy stands in even greater danger than Esther of becoming a cliché, as her cynicism and overt dislike of college society makes her appear the detached, ironic loner personified by the cartoon 'Daria'. But no, Susan, as it turns out, is as much a mess as anyone else. Her high intelligence and low-key hostility masking an emotional fragility that is touchingly realistic, not to mention funny.

But I want to give special mention to the third girl, Daisy Wooton. When issue one of Giant Days opened with a joke about Daisy's sheltered homeschooled life, I was apprehensive. I grew up homeschooled and while there's a reason for the over sheltered homeschooler cliché, I've seen it too often in a bit too mean-spirited a manner. But to my relief, Daisy isn't a one-note joke somehow stunted by her upbringing; she's a sweet, hardworking friend with slightly too rosy take on reality. It's hard not to love Daisy's off-kilter but extremely sincere grasp on reality, but she never drifts into exaggerated parody.  In one standout moment, Esther and Daisy compare notes on their social lives growing up, where it turns out Daisy had lots of friends while Esther was fairly sure she was Amish. I love this conversation. I've had this conversation.

Image-1-3This fundamental kindness and honesty Giant Days has about its characters extends outside the main trio to the fringes of the cast where carpentry obsess McGraw, crush-beset Ed, and a host of others become sympathetic, warm characters in an astoundingly short amount of time. And the flip side to Giant Days' humanity, is that no character is allowed to be free of flaws. Having become inured to a youth culture that frowns on 'judging' anyone's actions as bad, I was surprised to see the negative characteristics of the main characters thrown into such stark relief. Esther's flirtiness and, let's face it, occasional sluttiness is never portrayed as a good trait, even if it is played for laughs. Similarly, Susan's bristly, obsessive persona and Daisy's neuroticisms are evenhandedly observed as real problems, which make the characters unique and endearing.

Many good authors have trouble writing young people. The likes of Joss Whedon (or more specific to comics, Brian K. Vaughan and Kieron Gillen) write characters who never stop delivering sarcastic take-down and witty one-liners to the extent that all the character start to sound overwrought. Other writers belabor the dramatic side, making each interaction fraught with emotion and angst. Giant Days, as you might predict at this point, goes a slightly different direction. Allison's approach to the gang's dialogue isn't naturalistic, it is warm and strange, eschewing self-indulgently sharp banter, for the amusing blabber of good friends.  The girls say things like "The problem with nerds is that they're clever. Look at the glasses." which have exactly the right mix of silliness and observation. The way the characters interact is stylized, but it's stylized as an extension of the unique voices of each character.

Image-1-4All this talk of craft and characterization likely makes Giant Days sounds like a far more serious affair than it is. It's a fundamentally comedic book, with no issue ever becoming so serious that it's devoid of some sense of humor. This is an invaluable quality in a book that deals primarily in young adult relationships. Taken with much seriousness, stories like this devolve into dating melodrama of the sort that plagues high school stories (and possibly high schools themselves, I wouldn't know). But Allison writes college how I think it really is, as an exciting but ultimately not hugely significant gathering of young people.

And the book is truly funny. I can't remember the last time I laughed out loud at a comic, but a sequence depicting a pigeon stealing Susan's sandwich got me. John Allison is veteran of almost two decades of webcomics (I was four when he put up his first strip that I know of), and his sense of comedic pacing seems to be a natural continuation of his work there.) and each page rises and falls with its own jokes and flow like a single page of a webcomic might. Each issue in Giant Days is a self-contained story, which coupled with the pacing, makes for an issue that feels cohesive and substantive--an invaluable quality for any comedy.

At this point, I've gone much too long without talking about the art. All of the comic's architecture would not work without an art team that can nail the humor and create an engrossing world. Enter Lissa Treiman, a Disney storytelling artist with a serious knack for charming character designs.  The cartoonist Skottie Young, of Marvel Babies fame, wrote once about wanting to design characters you fall in love with instantly, in the very first panel, before any writing comes into play. Treiman's designs have this quality, a fundamental likeability that I honestly find hard to quantify. Bushy-haired, round-faced Daisy, angular mustachioed McGraw, and all the others are instantly sympathetic and fully formed despite being designed simply.  My best try at describing it is that somehow Treiman's work simply radiates joy.

In constructing the world of a comedy book, an artist has the unenviable task of balancing the need to be funny with the need to create a fully realized story space.  It isn't an accident that so many comics with overtly humorous elements skimp on the backgrounds or wildly stylized their worlds. Treiman instead simply takes her character design aesthetic and applies it to the rest of the world. Giant Days is a thickly lined, detailed world that manages to be streamlined in all the right ways. Whitney Cogar's colors similarly strike a nice balance between brightly clean and nuanced.  It may be a cartoony book, but it's a singularly cleanly designed cartoony book.

After the sixth issue, when the book became an ongoing series, Treiman turned the art duties over to a new artist, Max Sarin (though she stayed on to illustrate the covers). Sarin's work is undeniably lesser --he does have a tendency to skimp on backgrounds and the details are less sharp--but it's still quite good and manages to work off of what Treiman set up nicely. The biggest issue was, for some reason, the inking which went from thick attractive lines to ones that were noticeably thinner and less streamlined. This has been remedied recently by the addition of Liz Flemming as inker. So even while I miss Treiman a little, I've warmed up immensely to Sarin. Frankly if he had been the original illustrator I likely would be heaping praise on him without qualification.

Image-1-5The single biggest quality that separates Giant Days from its young adult ilk is its dedication to telling substantive stories. Take for example how Giant Days touches on social issues.  Many young adult books grandstand about hot button social issues in order to seem relevant and important. More intelligently, Allison portrays certain issues as complicated and proceeds to tell interesting stories about them. The most notable example is Daisy's coming out story which happens early on in the series. Daisy has a crush on her lesbian friend who rejects her timid advances. Esther confronts the friend for 'leading Daisy on' only to be reasonably rebuffed on the grounds that presumptive to think the friend should be something other than just friends. It's an insightful moment of candor that goes beyond trying to pick a side or prove a point and say something about how all people treat each other.

I'd love to sum everything up with a grand statement about the craft and quality I see in Giant Days, but that's frankly not quite fair to the book. While those elements make it work, the effect is much simpler and for me of late, rarer. Reading Giant Days makes me happy. Cracking open a 22-page story is a chance to hang out with characters who delight me in a world I look forward to revisiting again and again. Giant Days remains of a genre I will rarely actively seek out, but it also stands as evidence that the right creative team can render something that feels fresh in any genre through high-caliber work. But enough chatter. Go give Giant Days a shot.