After some family turmoil, Becca and her newly-single mom relocate to Piedmont, a wealthy enclave in the San Francisco Bay Area. Becca dreads having to make new friends in a school where she obviously doesn’t fit in. Luckily, after rescuing a bubbly girl named Marley from a period accident, she is pulled into a powerful high school clique. Once she proves her worth, Marley, brusque Amanda, and HBIC Arianna take Becca in and reshape her into their image. At first it’s a change of wardrobe and slang, and then it’s inducting her into their werewolf pack.
Once Becca’s fangs come in, the story kicks into high gear. High on life and the blood of misbehaving boys, Becca and her new friends run wild across the Bay. But with the feds chasing after the line of bodies they leave behind and a new romance blooming between Becca and one of her besties, Arianna’s dominance begins to fracture. And that’s when all hell breaks loose.
First things first: this is not a story about good girls gone bad. There is no redemption arc or hero’s journey. Squad is populated by morally gray characters who make choices – good, bad, and otherwise – that they’ll have to live with for what’s left of the rest of their lives. Becca wants to be the kind of person who can stare down a sneering man and say, in a voice deep with confidence and attitude, “We are the weirdos, mister.” Because she doesn’t know how to do that on her own, she attaches herself to girls who do. Bravery by proxy, as it were. But power doesn’t change a person, it just makes them more of what they already are. It takes her a while, but eventually the layers of blood and bad-assery wear off and the truth of what her girl gang is doing shines through.
Maggie Tokuda-Hall packs the subtext with nuances and intersectionalities. The girls all take pleasure in punishing bad boys, nice guys, and frat bros, but they each experience those kills differently. They also each experience their roles in the group differently. Amanda, Arianna, and Marley have wealth and privilege that Becca doesn’t, but Becca and Amanda also have to deal with the pressure of being young women of color (Black and Asian American, respectively) in predominantly white spaces. Becca has the added layer of being queer.
The spaces Becca and Amanda are fighting to gain and keep access to were not designed for them. Even the pack as led by Arianna has clearly defined rules for how to exist, and they don’t take into account either of their different lived experiences. Marginalized readers who live/work in predominantly white spaces will pick up on how Tokuda-Hall shows the subtle ways the majority exerts control, especially through microaggressions and gaslighting. She also shows how those stressors can trickle down from parent to child as Becca’s mom unintentionally tries to teach her daughter how to get along and conform because it’s what she needed to do to survive when she was Becca’s age.
The world isn’t made for us outliers and deviants like Becca or for girls with big voices and wills of iron like Arianna. As Becca learns, there are two ways to exist in a world that wants to crush you into submission: claim power by taking it from others or learn to ask for what you need. Taking power is far more tempting for her than building and enforcing personal boundaries; it’s the easier choice until suddenly it’s not. By then, it may be too late to change her mind.
Lisa Sterle is the perfect artist to bring Maggie Tokuda-Hall’s story to life. Her style is realistic but with a slightly cartoon-y bent. The panels tend to have solid background colors instead of dense details, which allows Sterle to punch up the emotion based on which colors she chooses. She also tends toward bold, bright colors, from dark jewel tones to brilliant candy colors to lurid splashes of neon. There are lots of cues to help new readers along, like how Sterle switches from white gutters (the space between the panels) to black at major turning points in the plot. The lettering is clean and simple to read, and the speech bubbles are placed in an easy-to-follow structure, both of which will be a big help for readers new to the comic format. I could’ve used some additional font formatting like bold and more italics to get the tones of the speech across better, but that’s a minor quibble.
Squad is one of the best YA fantasy graphic novels I’ve read in ages. It doesn’t get mired in mythology or magical explanations. Maggie Tokuda-Hall and Lisa Sterle are more interested in what happens when a group of girls decide to use their teeth instead of smile demurely, to use their claws instead of folding their hands on their laps, to take lives instead of letting others dictate theirs. It’s a fun, quick read and a fresh, brutal take on teen werewolves.
Squad is published by Greenwillow Books.
Author’s note: It’s worth mentioning that I commissioned a piece of art from Maggie Tokuda-Hall that is now tattooed on my ankle. I reviewed one of Maggie’s books long before the commission and felt that I was able to put the same attention and examination to this post-commission review. I’m certain I would’ve loved this graphic novel with or without the ink. Not that true objectivity exists anyway…
Alex Brown is an Ignyte award-winning critic who writes about speculative fiction, librarianship, and Black history. Find them on twitter (@QueenOfRats), instagram (@bookjockeyalex), and their blog (bookjockeyalex.com).