By Tim Maytom
Giant Days is a brilliant, weird, funny comic about three girls living together at Sheffield University in the UK. Created by John Allison and drawn by talents including Max Sarin, Lissa Treiman and Whitney Cogar, the series has been going strong for several years now, and has amassed a rightfully devoted fanbase.
As it’s set in England, though, and because Allison has such strong instincts as a writer, there are a lot of jokes and references which might fly over the head of the international audience. And as a Christmas Present, we’re heading back into Christmas past with guest annotator Tim Maytom! Tim, from your vantage point watching on the Moon – what happened in the 2016 Holiday Special?!
The issue begins with a much more cosmic scope than we normally get from Giant Days, as we are greeted by Day-Zee, a space-dwelling version of Daisy Wooton that shares several visual similarities with Uatu The Watcher. Uatu was created by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, and introduced in Fantastic Four #13. He serves as a cosmic observer, constantly watching but forbidden to interact, and typically shows up in Marvel comics to lend events a momentous air.
His side hustle was as the ‘host’ of What If?, where he introduced readers to alternate realities where a single change resulted in often-catastrophic alterations to the Marvel universe. Much like Uatu explored what would happen if Wolverine was the lord of the vampires or Conan showed up in 70s New York, this issue takes place in an alternate Sheffield where Daisy, Esther and Susan hadn’t become friends.
It’s important to have a side hustle, but I’m glad Day-Zee chose not to monetise it. That way leads to…. well, Shelfdust. – Ed.
We also get our first glimpse at our alternate version of Esther and her parents, just before the cruel hand of fate (or Day-Zee) intervenes to divide our core cast.
A floating Day-Zee provides the premise of our issue, with a slightly more wordy but grammatically correct “What would have happened if…” Despite the changes that have been wrought on this version of the universe, we can see that some things remain constant, such as Granny Wooton’s love for Daisy and the presence of a man with an acoustic guitar on a university campus.
We also get parallel Daisy, lugging her steamer trunk towards the halls of residence while Esther waves goodbye to her parents.
Our pivotal moment arrives as Day-Zee intervenes, preventing Esther and Daisy from meeting. How will events unfurl from here?
The girls that Esther encounters here were first seen in John Allison’s self-published first issue of Giant Days, covered on Shelfdust by Claire Napier here. In that issue, Susan describes them as “hard faced bitches with expensive paid-for educations” and, just like here, they attempt to draft Esther into their League of Head Girls (Esther having been a Head Girl back in Tackleford). Their names (and respective fighting styles) are Anna Trevellian (Team GB captain, Taekwondo), Min Otomo (Drunken Master), Nita Kapoor (No Style) and Kelsey, who has neither a surname nor a fighting style.
Esther references Tackleford, her hometown and setting of Scary Go Round and other John Allison works. Tackleford is indeed close to Leeds and the home of Gary the Horse, an often-mentioned but seldom-seen figure whose achievements include a jewel robbery spree in 1960.
When you live somewhere in Yorkshire that nobody has heard of, “it’s close to Leeds” is the only way to describe it to Southerners.
Our alternate version of Susan makes her first appearance, desperately trying to get some sleep (at 3 in the afternoon) and getting introduced to Esther under less-than-ideal circumstances. So much for first impressions…
The “death list” being put together by the girls seems to be somewhere between Mean Girls’ ‘burn book’, which contained hurtful comments about their schoolmates, and Richard Nixon’s enemies list.
Sinkholes, also known as cenotes, swallets and shakeholes, are no joke. They are found worldwide, with most caused by the chemical dissolution of carbonate rocks or suffosion, when loose soil is washed into fissures and joints in the underlying rock. A 2015 report by the US Geological Survey found that they caused at least $300m of damage per year in the US alone. Once, in my hometown, one swallowed a bus.
Day-Zee mentions Saturnalia, the ancient Roman festival and holiday that honoured the god Saturn. Saturnalia typically occurred on 17 December, although later expanded to cover the following week as well, and involved gift-giving, partying and a general carnival atmosphere in Roman cities and settlements, with gambling permitted and masters providing table service for slaves. Many of the customs of Saturnalia influenced modern Christmas traditions and other midwinter festivals, especially in western Europe. For example, masters serving slaves evolved into employers waiting on servants on Boxing Day, and gambling evolved into extremely competitive games of Trivial Pursuit.
Esther’s new friends mention advising her to line her stomach. Eating before imbibing alcohol means that alcohol takes longer to get into your system, and also gives the enzymes present in your stomach more of a chance to get to work on the booze, lessening the load on your liver. However, scientific studies have shown that folk remedies like simply drinking a glass of milk before moving on to alcohol has little to no effect. Much wiser to save the milk for later and make yourself a White Russian.
“Borfing” appears to be a drink-induced vowel swap of “barfing”, rather than any regional slang. Certainly don’t look it up on Urban Dictionary.
“Hockey” in this case refers to field hockey, as opposed to the ice hockey that Americans may be expecting. While field hockey is regarded primarily as a women’s sport in the US and Canada, it is considered unisex throughout most of the world. A UK university team is likely to include many a burly gent, hardened from years of falling over on astroturf.
Contrary to Kelsey’s advice and numerous literary metaphors, you cannot actually sleep when you are dead.
Wait, so what do you do?!
Leggings have grown in popularity in women’s fashion, first seeing a boom in the 60s and more recently as part of the athleisure fashion trend. There is considerable debate over whether they are appropriate as clothing on their own, with a 2016 poll of Glamour magazine readers finding that 61% thought leggings should only be worn with other items covering them. We here at Shelfdust say wear what makes you feel good.
Esther references “Just Say No”, the advertising campaign that served as part of the United States government’s “War on Drugs” in the 80s and early 90s. The slogan was created and championed by First Lady Nancy Reagan, and shows including Punky Brewster and Diff’rent Strokes produced episodes centred on the campaign in an effort to reach young people.
The campaign also reached the UK, where it was popularised by the BBC’s 1986 “Drugwatch” campaign. Children’s drama Grange Hill included a storyline where Zammo McGuire became addicted to heroin, and the cast performed a cover of the US campaign song, reaching the UK top ten despite being truly terrible.
Anna shortens Esther’s name to a single syllable/letter “Ess”. Buffy the Vampire Slayer has taught me this is a sign that a character will act as a corrupting influence, as Faith frequently does it to Buffy during early appearances.
Esther’s ‘friends’ have indulged in the classic drunk student activity of stealing a traffic cone, with Nita and Anna expanding their haul to include multiple cones and what appears to be a temporary barrier. Section 22A of the Road Traffic Act 1988 makes it illegal to interfere with traffic equipment, and stealing a traffic cone also falls under section 1 of the Theft Act 1968. However, a canny lawyer may argue that the law states theft includes the “intention to permanently deprive” others of the item, and who really wants to keep all those cones?
AH LOVE CONES SHUGAH
Esther still has her photo of The Boy, who she broke up with 11 days after arriving at the University of Sheffield in the core Giant Days timeline. Presumably, similar events unfolded in this alternate universe, possibly even speeded along by the influence of her new friends.
The caption informs us that this scene takes place at 4.00am, but Esther’s clock radio appears to show 00.00, suggesting that she may be a 12 o’clock flasher.
Our first appearance of McGraw, and the alternate nature of this timeline is reaffirmed by his full beard, as opposed to standard moustache. Additional facial hair is common among residents of parallel realities, from Mirror Universe Spock to the Darkest Timeline Study Group.
McGraw claims that Daisy’s tormentors were raised by wolves, traditionally used to criticise people with poor manners or uncivilised behaviour. Ironically, the OG “raised by wolves” pair are Romulus and Remus, the legendary brothers who founded Rome after being suckled by a she-wolf. Clearly, being raised by wolves did them no harm.
Daisy’s love of Enya is well-established in the main series. While Winter Feelings doesn’t appear to be an actual release, the Irish singer-songwriter’s discography does include the festive EP Sounds of the Season: The Enya Collection, which was renamed Christmas Secrets in Canada, and a festive album called And Winter Came…
Susan is clearly unaware of the ancient student method of keeping refrigerated goods chilled without a fridge, which involves placing items in a carrier bag and hanging it outside your window in cold weather. As student residences have become better equipped and closer to habitable spaces, such desperate methods have fallen out of use, thankfully.
Alternate Ed Gemmell appears, sadly lacking additional facial hair, but apparently in some form of relationship with Susan in this timeline. Sadly, this Ed invokes “Not all men…”, an expression used to counter generalisations about men’s behaviour that is often used to deflect from uncomfortable topics, such as sexual assault or in this case, overly-loud Enya. The phrase has rightfully evolved into an object of mockery online.
Ed refers to “Yuletide”, another pre-Christian winter festival historically observed by the Germanic people. Yuletide, or Yule, has connections to the Norse god Odin, the folklore motif of the Wild Hunt and Anglo-Saxon pagan festival of Mōdraniht. Yule traditions include the Yule Log, Yule singing and Yule Goat, all of which have been incorporated into modern Christmas traditions, and Yule and similar terms are still used to describe the Christmas period, especially in Nordic countries and Estonia.
Susan’s “multi-faith” ornaments also include a Hanukkah menorah, a nine-branched candelabrum which symbolises the eight nights of the Jewish holiday. Susan’s menorah also includes a Star of David, another widely recognised symbol of Judaism.
The board of holiday specials at the coffee shop includes references to the Yule Log, as well as figgy pudding, the traditional winter cake made of honey, fruits, nuts and alcohol that is best known for its inclusion in the lyrics of “We Wish You a Merry Christmas”.
Also referenced is the Krampus, a half-goat demon from Central European folklore who serves as an assistant to Saint Nicholas and scares children who misbehave. Best known in Austria, Bavaria, Croatia, Slovenia, Hungary, Czech Republic and part of Northern Italy, the legend of the Krampus has become better known globally in the 21st century, presumably thanks to some kind of expensive viral marketing campaign.
Moustache wax should be applied when your moustache hairs begin to intrude into the corners of your mouth, as an alternative to trimming or shaving. Beeswax is a common base in many moustache waxes, which are essentially a stiff pomade used to train the growth of a moustache and hold errant hairs in place. Most waxes also include oils that act as natural conditioners for the hair, to keep it as luscious and strong as McGraw’s appears to be.
Tim these annotations are too informative, Shelfdust’s readers weren’t prepared for this.
A rare Giant Days nod to Americans here, as Ed refers to his shared class with Esther as “Lit 101”. Most British university classes do not use the numbering model of their US equivalent, although the idea of a “101” class as an introductory unit for beginners has become widespread enough that Ed might be using it colloquially. In American university courses, the first digit corresponds to the year of college when the course is traditionally studied (1 for freshman, 2 for sophomore, 3 for junior, 4 for senior, and 5 and up for graduate-level courses). The second digit may correspond to a particular subject or to a department, and the third digit is a sequence number within a series of courses on the same subject. “Lit 101” should not be confused with “Room 101”, the torture chamber from George Orwell’s 1984, although you will possibly read about the latter in the former.
While they will prove (tragically) to be full of liquid on the next page, Ed’s gymnastics with his takeaway coffee cups may qualify him for the #EmptyCupAwards, the tongue-in-cheek campaign by TV critic Myles McNutt to improve unrealistic acting with empty coffee cups.
“What’s occurring” is possibly a reference to Gavin & Stacy’s breakout character Nessa, who has this as her signature catchphrase. Bang tidy Welshism, isn’t it?
Ed is sadly pantsed by Kelsey, a form of practical joke and bullying common amongst school children and students. In Britain, it is commonly known as “debagging” at the Oxford and Cambridge universities, after the loose-fitting baggy trousers known as Oxford bags. In the North, where Ed’s pantsing incident occurs, it might be called “dekekking” or “dekecking”, from the local slang of “keks” for underwear.
If Susan wishes to take her noise complaint to the local council, Daisy’s Enya will only be at risk if it counts as a ‘statutory nuisance’ in the Environmental Protection Act 1990. This means it “unreasonably and substantially interfere(s) with the use or enjoyment of a home or other premises” or is likely to cause an injury. Susan potentially has a case here, but diplomacy may prove a better option.
Tim how many regulatory guides did you read for this article
A “hag” is a term for a wizened old woman, or some kind of supernatural creature taking on the appearance of such a woman, often found in folklore. Hags are often malevolent, but the term is fairly broad and can also include shapeshifting deities such as The Morrigan or Badb who are neither wholly benevolent or malicious. Hags are often associated with bodies of water including the sea, and often pull in children who get too close to the water. In Dungeons and Dragons, the Sea Hag is the weakest form of Hag, with a Challenge Rating of 2 in 5th edition.
The Golden Mean, also known as the Golden Ratio, is symbolised in mathematics by the Greek letter phi (φ or ϕ). It’s often represented by a Golden Rectangle or logarithmic spiral, and has been used by artists and architects throughout history to proportion their works, believing it to be aesthetically pleasing. It can be seen in artwork including Dali’s The Sacrament of the Last Supper, as well as in the design of the Great Mosque of Kairouan and many buildings by Le Corbusier. I tried to source a higher resolution copy of Ed Gemmell in his underwear, purely for the purposes of checking if it does use the Golden Mean, but was sadly unable to confirm Min’s conjecture.
Esther’s pale skin and black hair make her easily identifiable as a typical goth, even when Susan is barely familiar with her.
The trope of throwing things into volcanoes, and especially human sacrifice via volcano, is largely a Hollywood invention. One of its earliest uses comes in the 1932 film Bird of Paradise, where Luana, played by Dolores del Rio, jumps into a volcano to save her lover from a curse by volcano goddess Pele. In reality, volcanoes rarely resemble the popular conception of a hollow cone with a handy lake of molten lava bubbling within. In fact, in Indonesia, where locals commemorate folk legends by throwing food, livestock and money into the crater of Mount Bromo, some practical (if foolhardy) individuals have been known to venture in afterwards and collect the assorted offerings, like a high stakes version of fishing pennies out of a wishing well.
Isn’t there also a film where they try to throw Tom Hanks into one? I can’t remember why. Maybe it was as punishment for making “The Terminal”.
The Christmas Armistice was a series of widespread unofficial ceasefires along the Western Front of the First World War around Christmas 1914. Only five months into the war, hostilities had lulled as leadership on both sides reconsidered their strategies. In the week leading up to Christmas Day, French, German and British soldiers crossed trenches to exchange seasonal greetings, talk and even exchange gifts. There were joint burial services, prisoner swaps, carol singing and, in one of the most memorable images of the truce, a football game.
Daisy’s interest in tapestries likely stems from her chosen degree of archeology, and can only be heightened by her presence in Sheffield. Until 2014, the University of Sheffield displayed an 18th century tapestry of Diana rescuing Arethusa from Alpheus in its main Council Room. The tapestry was made by the famous Beauvais factory in France in the 1720s, and was looted by Nazis during World War II, in much the same way that Daisy’s Christmas tree was stolen (possibly).
Even in this strange alternate version of Giant Days, some things remain constant, like the passive aggressive notices covering the communal kitchen area.
Esther’s canned custard is most likely Ambrosia, a popular British brand. The Ambrosia Creamery was opened in Lifton, Devon in 1917, providing dried milk powder for infants and WWI soldiers. Their canned Devon Custard was first produced in 1969, and is now one of their flagship products alongside Ambrosia Creamed Rice. Technically, Ambrosia Custard isn’t actually custard as it contains neither eggs nor egg products, but try telling that to most Brits.
I still can’t believe it’s not butter, just personally.
Effluvia (singular: effluvium) means an unpleasant or harmful odour or discharge. It comes from the Latin, meaning “an outlet or flow”. You can probably do the maths on how that relates to bad smells.
Esther is a keen boxer and used her pugilistic skills in the first Giant Days story to beat up the League of Head Girls who she’s befriended in this issue. Her gloves appear to not have been used in a while in this timeline, a sure sign of moral corruption.
Grape Nuts is a breakfast cereal developed in 1897 by C.W. Post, a competitor of John Harvey Kellogg. They were marketed as a natural cereal and “food for brain and nerve centres”, which sounds pretty good if you ask me.
My nerve centres LOVE food!
The formal ball being prepared for here was originally seen in Giant Days #5, and first mentioned in #4. As explained in the Annotations for that issue, black tie events are usually pretty rare in UK universities unless you attend Oxbridge institutions. McGraw can be seen in the background, hard at work preparing the stage in yet another display of his rugged masculinity.
“Rubes” are gullible country folk, with the origins coming from the early 19th Century, when “Reuben” was apparently a common name for a young country lad. This is presumably before the invention of the sandwich of the same name.
The Black X-Mass the Head Girls is going to is named for the Black Mass, the Satanic version of the Catholic Mass ceremony. As an affirmed goth, Esther is likely aware of this connection, but I suspect the party would not be nearly as Satanic as she’d like.
Esther’s dilemma over whether the head girls are naughty or nice may be a nod towards the festive season, putting Esther in the role of dear old Santa Claus.
Giant Days is not the only place where scrapbooking has been used for evidence collection. Remember: photocopies are not admissible as memories.
Esther’s tutu was also previously seen in the first ever Giant Days, although there it was paired with boxing gloves as she dispatched the Head Girls using her fighting skills.
Cider and blackcurrant is a classic University beverage, often upgraded to the dreaded “snakebite and black” by pouring a glass of equal parts lager and cider. There is some confusion over the legality of such a “cocktail” and, while not technically illegal, there are many bars that would refuse to serve it, if only to avoid mopping up puddles of purple vomit every Saturday morning. While cider and blackcurrant is a much safer choice, it also seems to carry an association with goths in many places, so its use in Esther’s scheme may have tipped Nita off that it wasn’t Anna’s drink.
A Fendi mini peekaboo clutch will currently set you back between £2,490 and £4,350 on their official UK site, and is apparently “the perfect combination of sumptuous materials, unrivaled craftsmanship, and thoughtful touches”. At that price, it getting filled with purple cider would certainly be worth throwing punches over.
The Head Girls also referred to Daisy as “Lollipop” in the first Giant Days, another sign of their consistent awfulness.
“Hayseeds” is another derogatory term aimed at rural folks, in this case a US insult that comes from the 19th century saying that country people “have hayseed in their hair”. The Head Girls also refer to the other students as “norms” (meaning “normal people”) and “randos” (meaning “random people”), in a stunning display of concentrated elitism.
“Go off” should not be confused with “Got off”, the past participle form of “getting off” aka making out. “Go off” is more in the firework sense, i.e. light me up and watch out!
Many universities have an open plaza that forms the central hub of student centres, shops, restaurants and social spaces. It’s usually referred to as the square, the quad or, as Susan does here, the quadrangle. Quads vary widely depending on your academic institution – in the US, they are typically wide open spaces with trees and widely spread buildings. At Oxbridge colleges, they are often small squares of grass entirely surrounded by medieval buildings, while in the UK’s postwar universities, they are often more modern spaces, with lots of concrete and some form of seating. In any form, they are an excellent venue for violent confrontations.
These annotations should be in a book, to be honest. I normally just point out the Steven Universe references and go for a nap.
As mentioned early, the Head Girls are indeed competent combatants, having each had to master a particular fighting style as part of their duties. While Esther was able to dispatch Anna in our true timeline, Nita’s “no style” (which is in fact all styles of fighting at once) proved too powerful, and Susan had to set fire to her hair extensions to take care of her.
Anna deploys “So fetch” here, confirming that these are the Sheffield version of Mean Girls. Fortunately, McGraw is on hand to take direct action to ensure that fetch never ever happens.
“Bogans” is slang from Australia and New Zealand referring to unrefined or unsophisticated people, typically men. The origin of the term is unclear (although it may be linked to the Bogan River in western New South Wales) but it became widespread in the 80s. More recently, it has become employed more positively among young people, as a mark of pride in being rough around the edges, but I’m pretty sure Kelsey is using it in the more traditional sense here.
Nita accidentally gives Kelsey the more advanced form of pantsing – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QsCXp4aC17Qthe shark attack.
“White knighting” is internet slang for a man coming to the unsolicited defence of a woman, often in the hopes (or assumed hopes) of romantic favour. While McGraw would indeed make for a dashing knight in shining armour, he quickly explains on the next page that his intervention has been long planned and has nothing to do with the evening’s events.
Susan’s complex relationship with McGraw and her struggles against the patriarchy are both well documented in Giant Days’ primary timeline.
And the alternate timeline is revealed to be nothing more than a figment of Daisy’s concussed imagination, with a reference to another classic “all just a dream” story in the form of The Wizard of Oz. Sadly, this issue didn’t feature Susan as a cowardly lion or Esther as the world’s most stylish tin woman.
Among the holiday paraphernalia included in the “Happy holidays” panel are dreidels and menorahs for Hanukkah, the traditional red, black and green candles of Kwanzaa, pomegranates, which are associated with Christmas in Greece and neighbouring countries, and a jack o’lantern-style bucket, presumably for Halloween.
Also included are Christmas crackers, a tradition in the UK and Commonwealth countries. These brightly coloured cardboard tubes typically include a (usually very bad) joke, a small prize and a paper hat, and make a loud ‘crack’ when pulled thanks to a device a bit like a cap gun’s cap. As a child, I assumed Jughead from Archie was wearing a paper crown from a cracker, but it turns out his crown-looking hat is fabric, and has no festive meaning.
Thus concludes the main story of our festive special, but don’t despair, as there’s another tale that needs to be told…
Giant Days Holiday Special 2016
Written by John Allison
Drawn by Lissa Treiman
Coloured by Sarah Stern
Lettered by Jim Campbell
Tim Maytom is a writer and critic who has spent a lot of his time thinking about The Wicked and The Divine. You can find more of his writing here alongside Alex Spencer – and you can follow Tim on Twitter here!
This post was made possible thanks to the Shelfdust Patreon! To find out more, head to our Patreon page here!