For Christmas I asked for a bunch of comics. I’ve done this a couple times before, but usually it ends up that I only get a couple of the books I requested. This year, Rachael took me totally seriously, and I received a stack of beautiful sequential art to work my way through.
One of the new books that I requested was The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl, which has gotten some positive buzz as a really silly, upbeat comic about the adventures of Squirrel Girl as she learns to navigate college life.
First, some background: Squirrel Girl originated at Marvel as a joke character in the early 1990s who was used in stories pretty sparsely. She has all the proportional strength and speed of a squirrel, as well as an encyclopedic knowledge of all things squirrel related.
Also, she’s beaten Dr. Doom (the real one, not a Doombot!), Thanos, and Galactus, making her one of the most powerful heroes in the Marvel Universe. Naturally these all come from humorous stories, but one of the fun things about Marvel continuity is that if a book isn’t explicitly stated to be a What If scenario or taking place in an alternate timeline, then it defaults to being part of the fabric of the main universe, whether future writers ever acknowledge it or not.
So, yeah, Squirrel Girl’s an insanely powerful hero who happens to focus mostly on street level crime.
Anyway, the volume that I’m looking at today is the first collected trade for the series, Squirrel Power. This volume collects issues 1-4, which encompass Squirrel Girl’s introductory issue (featuring a one off story about her encounter with Kraven the Hunter on her first day of college) and the three issue arc of her race against the clock to save Earth from Galactus, and also includes a reprint of her first appearance from 1990 in an Iron Man story by Will Murray and Steve Ditko (Ditko is credited with plotting, pencils, and inks, while Murray is credited with the story’s script) where she defeats Dr. Doom.
The tone of the series is set right off with Squirrel Girl’s introduction via a fight in Central Park with some would-be muggers, whom she trounces while singing her personal theme song (set to the tune of the 1960’s animated Spider-Man theme). Ryan North establishes that even when facing evil, Squirrel Girl is a hero who remains incredibly chipper and a little goofy. Erica Henderson, the series’s artist, uses an exaggerated cartoon style that emphasizes that everything happening here is going to be very lighthearted with a minimum of angst or melodrama (also helping that out is North’s habit of placing tiny joke captions at the bottom of most pages that riff on the events happening on panel). It’s a delightful introduction, and the attitude on display in these first few pages never lets up (the book is so committed to being funny that even in the trade, where letters pages are usually omitted, each issue has its letters pages reproduced so that when the reader hits issue 4, which opens with a gag about Squirrel Girl defeating Galactus entirely off-panel, the letters page is right there as a buffer before hitting the rest of the issue like it was produced in the original printing and it doesn’t feel out of place in context of the format).
Besides being delightfully cartoonish, I’m really taken with Henderson’s art because she makes a point of producing a variety of body and face types, and she’s unafraid to depict Squirrel Girl as a curvier superheroine (North and Henderson even incorporate a joke in the first issue about Squirrel Girl, in her plain clothes identity as Doreen Green, having the appearance of a “conspicuously large and conspicuously awesome butt” when she stuffs her tail in her pants to hide it). The letters pages, which I already noted are included to make a major gag in issue 4 land smoothly, also help show the positive response readers have given to Henderson’s art, which she notes is just a product of her imagining that any superhero with a primarily physical powerset should be stockier than normal. Besides body diversity, there’s also pretty solid racial diversity, as the two new supporting characters introduced in the book (which has a remarkably small cast once you factor out cameos from other established Marvel characters) are Black and Latino.
Perhaps the most notable feature of Squirrel Girl in this first volume is the remarkable number of times she resolves conflicts nonviolently. Yes, there’s plenty of action where she pummels nameless criminals, and she does a fair bit of acrobatics when facing off against the supervillains who appear, but in the case of the three major enemies she faces, she wins by having a conversation rather than punching stuff (the third time she can’t have a conversation because the guy’s kind of unreasonable, but her plan for subduing him is still pretty awesome and unharmful, though a little gross). This is phenomenal because one of my big complaints about superheroes in general is that beating bad guys up is kind of a default mode of problem solving. Squirrel Girl’s powers even revolve around physicality, which lend themselves to punchy resolutions, but instead of simply overpowering or outsmarting her opponents, she looks to find common ground and try to understand what they want so she can help them achieve their goals without hurting others. I’m not sure how often this kind of storytelling will come up in the future, but it’s really refreshing to see it here.
Overall, I think The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl is a great book, and I’m looking forward to reading the next trade whenever I can get my hands on it.