Squirrel Girl started as a joke, a character so implausibly silly that you had to laugh at her even in her victories. But, a funny thing happened after the character got her own series: people started laughing with her.
Way back in 1991, one of the men who co-created Spider-Man introduced Squirrel Girl in a loopy one-off story. Steve Ditko had long been a recluse by that point, so any mainstream Marvel output by the legendary creator was worth paying attention. Still, the goofy teenager who wanted to be Iron Man’s sidekick came across as a slightly saccharine callback to the publisher’s Silver Age glory days.
Sure, she’d defeated Doctor Doom...
but anybody beats anybody else when they’re written to. Nevertheless, this seemingly throwaway character didn’t just fade away into obscurity. She showed up in other humor-centric titles like Great Lakes Avengers, eventually winding up adjacent to the mainline Avengers teams as a nanny for Luke Cage and Jessica Jones.
One of the running jokes that’s followed Squirrel Girl has been her string of victories over heroes and villains who’ve long been established as some of Marvel’s most fearsome personages. Used to be that these feats got referred to in an offhanded way—”yeah, I heard she spanked Ultron”—but readers have gotten up close looks at some of these encounters in her ongoing series The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl.
Written by Ryan North, with art by Erica Henderson, colors by Rico Renzi and lettering by Clayton Cowles, the series’ first collection is out this week and puts the first four issues between one cover. The best thing about Squirrel Girl is how it embraces the inherent absurdity of just about any superhero concept. If we’re supposed to soberly buy into the idea that Peter Parker gets spider-powers after getting bitten by an irradiated arachnid, then we have to do the same for Doreen Green’s big furry tail.
North gives a warm, metatextual hug to all of the tropes and minutiae of comics fandom and it makes Squirrel Girl more uplifting than any other superhero title on the landscape today.
Take the “Deadpool’s Guide” collectible cards that she refers to for info on bad guys she faces. As a device, they link her tangentially to the mega-popular wacky mercenary known for breaking the fourth wall. But, since collectible card sets haven’t been a thing in superhero fandom for years, they also ping on a nostalgia that stretches back to a time when a Captain America movie seemed like an impossibility. Those cards swoop from yearning to fulfillment, saying to readers “hey, look how good we’ve got it now! We can make fun of ourselves and love ourselves at the same time!” While the heroine was on a quest to get to the moon to stop the world devourer Galactus, Iron Man villain Whiplash destroyed Squirrel Girl’s rare Galactus card. She kicked his butt and moved on but you felt her loss. Our present enjoyment of cool self-aware superhero stuff comes on the backs of clunkier but still-beloved predecessors.
Squirrel Girl loves her own superhero-ness and it’s clear that her creators do too. Exhibit A: the neutralization kit whipped out by bank-robbers when Doreen comes to foil their theft.
It’s a signifier of old-school superhero formulation, where every superhero had to have a dramatic WEAKNESS codified into their mythos. But it also winks at the way that things have changed, floating the idea that super-old Steve Rogers might be stymied by an old-by-now Game Boy.
The book is improbably, unflappably confident in its own voice, going so far as to fold in cheeky marginalia (seen above) that extends gags as the action moves on. There’s no self-loathing in the Squirrel Girl character and series. You get the sense that Doreen Green is doing exactly what she wants, exactly what she’s supposed to be doing. She was born like this. Yes, she’s a mutant, but it’s more that she’s unburdened by that psychological baggage that became a prerequisite for metahuman altruism. You don’t have to have had something bad happen to you to want to help others. You can just want to help other people, even if it’s by talking to them.
Squirrel Girl’s secret power is the ability to get people to listen to and, then, like her. Considering that violence is the default mode of interaction in superhero comics, that’s an important distinction. The talk therapy doesn’t always work, though, in which case she’ll command a squirrel to shove itself inside a bad guy’s mouth.
Thankfully, Squirrel Girl doesn’t come off like a hopeless naif. She’s sassy, talks trash, and shows an awareness of the weight of her actions. But Doreen still geeks out when some “borrowed” Iron Man armor parts start transforming into a bespoke set around her “89% curvier” body.
The tortured internal angst that’s become a hallmark of latter-day superhero storytelling doesn’t show up here and the overall effect winds up feeling joyous and unexpectedly poignant. After her encounter with the giant entity who eats planets, the personage once known as Galen gave her a memento.
I choked up a little when I hit that page.
As is the nature of line-wide publishing programming, Marvel’s current Secret Wars event is going to result in a different landscape when all the reality bending is done. For a few tense weeks there, the fate of The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl was unknown. It seemed like the same ol’ bleak market realities would be pushing yet another quirky cult book off a cliff into oblivion. But Marvel’s announced that the book will be getting another volume, so fans will get more Doreen for a little while longer. Squirrel Girl is cool. Galactus gets it. You should, too.
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