Every two weeks, Big Issues focuses on newly released comic books of significance.
This week, it’s Giant Days #54 and Giant Days: As Time Goes By, written by John Allison with art by Max Sarin, colorist Whitney Cogar, and letterer Jim Campbell, and The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl #50, written by Ryan North with art by Derek Charm and Erica Henderson, colorist Rico Renzi, and letterer Travis Lanham. These two finales spotlight how these acclaimed series have helped cultivate the new generation of readers that emerge in the past decade. Note: This review reveals major plot points.
The comics industry got a little darker over the last few weeks with the finales of Giant Days and The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl, two of the most reliable sources for pure joy on the page. While their origins are very different—Giant Days is an extension of the world John Allison created with his Bobbinsverse webcomics, while Squirrel Girl is a reinterpretation of existing corporate IP—the two books overlap narratively and structurally as they tell the stories of young people making their way through higher education. In Giant Days, Esther DeGroot, Susan Ptolemy, and Daisy Wooten go through three years at the University of Sheffield, developing friendships, romances, and rivalries that are some of the richest relationships in comics. Squirrel Girl takes a much more spectacular approach to college life, following Doreen “Squirrel Girl” Green and her squad of squirrelfriends as they defeat bad guys by empathizing with their problems, applying their computer science education, and occasionally throwing some punches.
Debuting just a few months apart at the start of 2015, these series have experienced similar trajectories over the last four years. They both started with shorter trial runs that picked up enough steam to keep the books going. Giant Days was originally planned as a six-issue miniseries but was promoted to an ongoing. Squirrel Girl’s first eight-issue volume debuted before Secret Wars temporarily ended all of Marvel’s ongoing series, and it performed well enough for Marvel to bring it back for a second volume. Both series thrived in collected editions, arriving at a time when the industry was seeing a huge influx of young female readers thanks to the breakout success of Raina Telgemeier’s graphic novels. They were both nominated for Eisner Awards in 2016; Squirrel Girl would win in 2017 for “Best Publication For Teens,” and Giant Days would win twice in 2019 for “Best Continuing Series” and “Best Humor Publication.”
Four and a half years is a great run for an ongoing series in the current marketplace, and part of what makes these books so special is their serialization. Comics for middle grade and YA readers have shifted to original graphic novels as the primary format, but Giant Days and Squirrel Girl committed to monthly issues and made exceptional use of that structure. Both Allison and Squirrel Girl writer Ryan North came up through the world of webcomics, developing storytelling sensibilities built on one-page gags. They both understand the value of the page as its own singular unit, building to a punchline that leaves the reader feeling satisfied before turning the page. For Squirrel Girl, that punchline often comes via a footnote at the bottom of the page, a place where North can be as irreverent as he wants. There’s a fullness to individual issues of these books that you don’t find in other ongoing series, and readers were given a steady supply each month for half the decade rather than waiting months for new graphic novels.
Giant Days ended back in September with issue #54, an outstanding conclusion to the ongoing series that reaffirmed the affection these characters have for each other and their university town. Giant Days #54 is the proper series finale while As Time Goes By functions as an epilogue, taking readers back to the overtly fanciful tone of the very first Giant Days story written, drawn, and self-published by Allison (collected in the Giant Days: Early Registration paperback). That introduction had much more of a Scott Pilgrim energy, with Allison breaking from reality for a climactic action sequence that included a moment where Daisy floats through the air by using “the power of yogic flying”. Allison quickly abandoned that whimsical conceit, realizing that it was far more interesting to show how these heightened personalities interact with each other in a relatively grounded environment. Giant Days would always be over-the-top, but rather than using fantasy, Allison relied on artists Lissa Treiman (issues #1-#6) and Max Sarin (most of the rest) to bring that extra amplification through the emotional storytelling. In As Time Goes By, the book goes back to its original zaniness, a fun way of highlighting the craziness of working life compared to being a student.
One night during my sophomore year of college, a friend and I witnessed a group of sorority girls in the midst of an “ugly face” photo spree on the train. So used to smiling the same way over and over, they relished the opportunity to break from the routine and contort their faces in new ways. This was before Instagram and the rise of the selfie, the photos taken on flip phones and digital cameras by sisters who would erupt in laughter when they moved across the train to show off the pictures. Of course, these were still sorority girls. They weren’t going for Jim Carrey levels of facial exaggeration. Their version of “ugly face” was the kind of face you made all the time. The face you make when you realize your roommate’s food has spoiled in the fridge. Or when you read a passive aggressive note on the kitchen counter. Or when you try to stay awake in class after an all-nighter.
The sorority girls defaulted to expressions of disgust, annoyance, and exhaustion, the kinds of emotions that people aren’t rushing to post on their social media feeds. These are the emotions that Max Sarin adores, and most of the laughs in any given issue of Giant Days come from the way Sarin manipulates the characters’ faces, taking the “ugly face” to its most exaggerated point. In Giant Days #54, Sarin uses this skill to carry emotion across scenes as Esther ends her university experience riding a wave of contempt toward her parents, who have just freaked out upon discovering the back tattoo she got as a first-year. As she puts on her cap and gown, Esther glares with her eyebrows furrowed and teeth bared, biting her lower lip. As she accepts her degree on the next page, she’s still wearing that same expression, the victory spoiled by her parents’ judgment.
Squirrel Girl isn’t as entrenched in the college experience as Giant Days, but it does hit on some major university themes: discovering your identity, expanding your social circle, gaining and losing mentors. Squirrel Girl #31 in particular is an incredibly touching celebration of the bond between roommates, a tribute to the relationships that shape you after you leave your childhood home and start living independently. The book’s final issue explores similar ideas, although it moves into more metafictional territory as the creators say goodbye to the character that had a huge impact on their lives.
When Squirrel Girl and friends are about to perish at the hands of a truly terrifying group of supervillains, Galactus appears to save the day, taking Doreen on a trip to the moon where they discuss inevitable changes to come in the future. Galactus becomes the mouthpiece for North in this scene, telling Squirrel Girl how much he enjoyed the time they spent together before he uses the power cosmic to rewrite history so that the events of this series don’t contradict with what Marvel is doing with these characters elsewhere. Artist Derek Charm and colorist Rico Renzi bring a lot of tenderness to this conversation, with Charm using the drastic size differential to emphasize how the power of Doreen’s heart is much larger than her physical form.
The cover for Squirrel Girl Vol. 1 #1 shows Doreen imagining herself being propped up on the shoulders of the Avengers, the ultimate goal for a young superhero still carving out her place in the world. For the series’ final cover, we see Doreen sitting on the shoulders of Kraven the Hunter, surrounded by all the friends she’s made in this book. Her reality is so much cooler than anything she could have dreamed for herself in the past, and this cover encapsulates how both the character and the comic have evolved in the last four years. Original Squirrel Girl artist Erica Henderson returns to the series to draw a musical montage at the end of this issue, highlighting key moments from this run while offering readers a few last visual treats like Mr. Sinister getting his head smashed in with a coffee mug and Squirrel Girl taking Thanos to therapy.
In Giant Days #54, there’s a small moment in a comic shop that speaks to the decade’s big shift in the comics audience. The entire staff of Danger Nebula assembles to say goodbye to their beloved coworker, Esther, and welcome Hayden to the other side of the counter. “Behold the welcoming new face of comics!” Esther says as she salutes the young, non-binary employee. With the publication of Smile in 2010, Raina Telgemeier built a gateway for millions of new readers who were increasingly encouraged to read more graphic novels by teachers and librarians. This has essentially created a new generation of comic readers who came up outside of superheroes. There are some superhero titles that have attracted that audience—Squirrel Girl, Ms. Marvel, DC’s new lines of middle grade and YA graphic novels—but if those readers don’t want to read superhero stories, there are thousands of other options.
This scene at the Danger Nebula ends with Hayden asking Esther why the Red Hulk doesn’t have a mustache when General Ross clearly does, which Esther treats as the ultimate taboo in a jab at overly sensitive superhero readers that can’t handle anyone poking holes in their inherently ridiculous stories—the kind of readers who can’t fathom the idea of Squirrel Girl befriending Galactus or rehabilitating Kraven the Hunter. For a long time, those readers were the gatekeepers of the industry, pushing newcomers away because they didn’t know enough about the dominant genre. There are more kinds of comics and ways to read them than ever before, and books like Giant Days and Squirrel Girl have made the industry more welcoming, showing readers that comics can be enjoyed by anyone and everyone.