Some days, the world can feel like a hellish, apocalyptic wasteland dominated by naysayers, gatekeepers, and trolls feasting on proclamations by Bros In Charge who decry diversity initiatives as failures despite all evidence to the contrary. But every once in a while a glimmer of hope sparkles on the horizon, and in this case it comes in the form of a young woman with a bushy tail.
Ryan North and Erica Henderson’s Squirrel Girl is unbeatable when it comes to fisticuffsmanship as well as black clouds of gloom and doom. There’s no nefarious deed nor foul mood her chipper, go-get-‘em, open to compromise attitude can’t defeat. With the squee-inducing news that a Squirrel Girl-led New Warriors TV show is in the offing, now’s the perfect time to get caught up with one of the best ongoing superhero comics on the shelves right now.
Squirrel Girl, aka college freshman and amiable Canadian Doreen Green, has been in the Marvel ‘verse since her debut in 1992, but North and Henderson’s The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl marked her first solo title. She’s one of those rare Marvel characters who isn’t a mutant, alien, Inhuman, or scientifically enhanced, but due to crazy pregnancy adventures she ended up with squirrel-like abilities and proportional strength. At the start of North and Henderson’s utterly delightful series, Doreen enrolls at Empire State University in New York City as a Computer Science major. Soon, with the help of her squirrel sidekick Tippy-Toe, she and her roommate Nancy Whitehead (aka a human woman with the dual powers of both being a girl and “being really competent at computers/life” who has an adorable cat named Mew), Koi Boy (aka Ken Shiga the “protector of the scales of justice”), and Chipmunk Hunk (aka Tomas Lara-Perez the “defeater of punks and other junk”) tackle the twin challenges of the criminal underworld and getting good grades. Basically, when she’s not learning about computers and programming languages or checking out Nancy’s Cat Thor fanfic she’s kicking butts and eating nuts.
Quick side note: because of the inanities of Marvel’s overabundant universe-ending events, Squirrel Girl had two #1s in 2015; the two series run chronologically and don’t suffer any All-New, All-Different Marvel-related revisionism, so this review will cover the entire run as a whole rather than as separate entities.
Squirrel Girl deals with some of Marvel’s deepest back catalogue villains like Nightmare, Mole Man, Bonehead, and Hippo (real name: Mrs. Fluffy Lumpkins, and yes, I swear that’s pre-SG canon), as well as major players like Galactus (who owns a really cool looking silk robe) and Doctor Doom (who is such a dork that he invented his own programming language using only the word DOOM). Her preferred choice of battle? Butt-kicking, obviously, but she only resorts to punching people into submission after exhausting all other options. Compromise and talking out your problems is a surprisingly good way to stop baddies. Did the Fantastic Four ever save earth from being devoured by an ancient evil with the power of friendship? Can Spider-Man say he turned an enemy good by introducing him to vegetarianism? I didn’t think so.
On a thematic level Doreen’s story is truly, madly, deeply intersectionally feminist and inclusive progressive stance. Doreen would much rather help a baddie see the error of their ways than lock them up in jail; in fact, she converts several villains to the side of good simply by being willing to listen to their plights. But she also doesn’t let herself be taken advantage of. Unbeatable Squirrel Girl tackles head on the trials of 21st century romantic relationships, internet dating, the dreaded “nice guy,” and sexism with a depth and fortitude you might not expect in a comic that opens every issue with a pseudo-Twitter feed full of previous issue recaps, nut puns, and Tony Stark’s failed attempts at the freshest memes.
But the best part for me is the one-two punch of female friendship and self-confidence. Doreen and Nancy have one of the greatest partnerships in Marvel history, and their friendship works because they both trust, like, and respect each other and themselves. All of North’s characters – Doreen, Nancy, Tomas, Ken, and even Tippy-Toe, among other recovering criminals – accept themselves for who they are and believe they’re worthy of respect, and offer the same to others. Those who can’t offer basic human decency learn their lesson the hard way.
But it’s not all heady themes and social commentary. Above all, Unbeatable Squirrel Girl is damn funny. There are several running gags that keep cropping up, things like Doreen constantly referring to Deadpool’s Guide to Supervillains trading cards to learn her enemies’ weaknesses, Koi Boi’s terrible fish puns that only work when read rather than spoken, Squirrel Girl stealing the Iron Man suit, Kraven the Hunter calling her “Girl of Squirrels,” Howard the Duck’s inability to type on a phone, the names of the restaurants at the Avengers food court, superhero theme songs sung to the tune of the Spider-Man song, Beast forever referring to himself as one of the original X-Men, Squirrel Girl busting through windows to fight bad guys, and Mary’s obsession with building doomsday devices. The rest of the series is peppered with crackerjack quips with hilarious payoffs. Oh, and if you loved that issue of Matt Fraction and David Aja’s Hawkeye where Lucky takes the lead, you’ll love #15 where Mew, with Pizza Dog’s help, saves the day.
There couldn’t be a better artist to capture the relentless delight of Squirrel Girl than Erica Henderson. Not only does she ace diverse body types – from short and muscular Doreen’s callipygian badonk (thanks to her tail tucked into her pants) to tall and angular Nancy’s ever-changing hairdos – but racial diversity as well. Her artistic sensibilities are perfectly geared toward a series as cartoony yet earnest as Unbeatable Squirrel Girl. There’s something remarkable about an artist that can balance flamboyant theatrics and energetic fight sequences with quieter moments of calm companionship.
Henderson’s vivid facial expressions and variety of body types is matched only by the brilliant sound effects crafted by Travis Lanham and Clayton Cowles (replacing Lanham in issue #12). Did you know that the sound of a knocked-out Deadpool being tossed onto a pile of other knocked-out superheroes is “plopp” and that when illustrated it’s a lovely bubblegum pink color? You’re welcome. Lanham and Cowles do a great job as per usual. The dialogue is easy to track across panels, and the sound effects a joy to behold. Rico Renzi’s colors are as bright and cheery as Doreen herself. Henderson favors clean, uncluttered backgrounds, and Tom Fowler’s inks give just enough definition to keep the panels simple instead of plain.
If you like to read comics on a digital platform, let me warn you right now against using Guided View on Unbeatable Squirrel Girl. At the bottom of nearly every page is some narrator text, usually from North but sometimes from other characters. That text isn’t crucial to the plot, but it’s always funny or interesting – he sticks a lot of real CS and science factoids in there as well as punchlines to in-panel jokes. And for some inane reason, they are left out of Guided View and are only viewable through the standard display.
One of the many great things about Unbeatable Squirrel Girl is that new readers could jump in at any arc and still be able to follow along. As a continuity geek, I always recommend starting at the beginning, but really you could jump in at issue #17 (the start of the latest arc) and not miss much. Each story arc is relatively self-contained but with enough callbacks, in-jokes, and character development to sustain ongoing readers. SG teams up with lots of famous heroes, including Iron Man, Ant Man, the Thors, and Howard the Duck, and relatively unknown villains, but North always gives just enough intel for newbies to keep up with the longtime fans. North set out to write a series that would be accessible to new readers of all ages, and he’s definitely succeeded.
Those unsure about committing to a series with at last count 27 issues should start with the standalone graphic novel The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl Beats Up the Marvel Universe!. While it takes place between issues #11 and 12 (although it wasn’t published until after 12 because comics), you don’t have to know any backstory other than the series is about a girl with squirrel powers who likes “punching criminals until they stop doing crimes.” The graphic novel does exactly what it says on the tin. She beats up every Marvel superhero, some several times. She even beats up herself. It’s a fabulous fling and a perfect introduction to a series with quirky characters, twisty plots, and crackling dialogue.
In North and Henderson’s hands, you’ll never have to worry about devolving into the umpteenth event or turning beloved punchers of nazis into secret nazis. Doreen Green is the perfect way to get your caped crusaders fix without drowning in longboxes, backstory, or grimdark. The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl is the ideal complement to Ms. Marvel, Moon Girl and Devil Dinosaur, The Unstoppable Wasp, Patsy Walker, A.K.A. Hellcat!, and the late and lamented Mockingbird. It’s a fun-for-all-ages, STEM-happy, friendship-centric series that does comics better than even some of the longest running titles.
Writers: Ryan North, Chip Zdarsky, WIll Murray; artists: Erica Henderson, Jacob Chabot, David Malki; color artists: Rico Renzi, Erica Henderson; letterers: Travis Lanham, Clayton Cowles; inkers: Tom Fowler, Jacob Chabot; trading card arts: Maris Wicks, Kyle Stars Chris Giarrusso, Joe Morris, Matt Digges, David Robins, Chip Zdarsky, Doc Shaner, Anthony Clark, Hannah Blumenreich, Michael Cho, Joey Ellis, Chris Schweizer, Brandon Lamb, Eloise Narrington; other artists: Zac Gorman, Steve Ditko, Andy Hirsch, David Malki, Kyle Starks, Erica Henderson, Joe Quinones. Marvel published the first issue in 2015, and #19 released April 12, 2017.
Alex Brown is a teen librarian, writer, geeknerdloserweirdo, and all-around pop culture obsessive who watches entirely too much TV. Keep up with her every move on Twitter and Instagram, or get lost in the rabbit warren of ships and fandoms on her Tumblr.