The under-estimated power of Unbeatable Squirrel Girl

Every time I tagged along into a comic shop in the past few years, The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl would catch my eye. But picking it up would have made me A Person Who Reads Comics and I wasn’t ready for that kind of commitment. So when I well and truly fell down the hole this year, Squirrel Girl was just behind Wonder Woman on the list of stuff I was really excited about. Look at that cover. I want to hug it.

Unbeatable_Squirrel_Girl_Vol_1_1

Squirrel Girl, alias Doreen Green, is a computer science student who has a big fluffy squirrel tail, the proportionate strength and speed of a squirrel, and the power to commune with squirrels. She fights crime with her squirrel friend Tippy-Toe, before meeting some friends at college who happen to have their own superhero identities – plus her roommate Nancy Whitehead, an eccentric but otherwise normal girl who likes cats better than people.

The series itself turned out to be pretty much what I was hoping for: a fun, friendly, all-ages comic that doesn’t let its relentless cheerfulness get in the way of an excellent plot. So far I’ve read volumes 1-3 and a standalone, The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl Beats Up the Marvel Universe. There are two more trade paperbacks out, plus another one due in October.

It can get a little confusing because Marvel did a relaunch thing in 2015, so there’s volumes 1 and 2, and then volume 3 Squirrel, You Really Got Me Now is actually volume 1 post-relaunch. Everyone is re-introduced and Doreen has a new costume but most things pretty much continue the way they were before. So you can start at volume 3 with no prior knowledge, though I recommend kicking off with volume 1 Squirrel Power to get the full story and because it just is great.

Squirrel Girl herself was actually created in 1992 by Steve Ditko and Will Murray, who wanted to do something lighter than all the dark and edgy stuff that was going on at the time – which is something I can get behind. From her first appearance, in which she teamed up with Iron Man and took out Doctor Doom, she’s had a reputation for being surprisingly powerful. She had a run in the mid-2000s with a team of intentionally lame superheroes called the Great Lakes Avengers, but she’s popped up only sporadically since then until Unbeatable Squirrel Girl launched in 2015, drawn by Erica Henderson and written by Ryan North. I’ve been tapping my foot waiting for the next issue, but it’s finally coming out today!

I’ve been a fan of Ryan North since I discovered Dinosaur Comics in my uni days. Somehow he still finds time to keep it regularly updated and consistently fresh, even though he now does a ton of stuff – he’s written Adventure Time and Jughead comics and published two books, including a choose-your-own-adventure, with a third on the way via Kickstarter. He’s won Eisner awards for those two comics, and this year Squirrel Girl got one too! Dang!

I have this theory that Dinosaur Comics was one of the originators of a particular tone of voice that’s now spread across the internet. You saw it in webcomics like Questionable Content back in the day and its latest iteration can be found on the /r/wholesomememes subreddit – lots of gosh! dang! frig!, very upbeat and unselfconscious. North uses it to deal with everything from Batman to deep philosophical concepts, or occasionally both at once. That distinctive voice and his internet-born fingerprints are all over Unbeatable Squirrel Girl – right down to how the characters’ Twitter accounts really exist, presumably run by North himself.

My hands-down favourite arc in my reading so far has to be Squirrel Girl’s tangle with Galactus, devourer of planets – she deals with him by getting to know him, in a very Wonder Woman way, and figuring out the endlessly funny reason why he keeps coming back to swallow Earth when its heroes beat him every time. Second favourite is the time travel arc which kicks off the relaunch, in which Doreen uses the power of computer science to save the day without computers.

galactus

As one of the letter writers featured in the back of the books points out, USG has a lot in common tone-wise with Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt. It also has a lot in common with Deadpool – not in terms of blood and guts, of which there’s little to none, but in a leaning-on-the-fourth-wall kind of way. Whenever a supervillain appears, Doreen checks her handy pack of Deadpool-made identification cards. It’s like they had me in mind when they wrote it.

deadpool card

On a separate note: much has been made of Erica Henderson’s choice to give Doreen a thicker figure than your average female superhero, but what I found refreshing about it was the fact that within the comic, it’s a non-issue. Squirrel Girl’s body shape is mentioned exactly once, by Doreen herself, in the context of hiding her tail.

butt

Thereafter, no one’s body is ever commented on again. Same goes for the diversity of the supporting cast. It reminded me of the way the Wonder Woman movie didn’t waste time talking about feminism – it just went ahead and showed women in charge, and the power of it resonated in us. Squirrel Girl doesn’t need to have a Very Special Episode about race or body image: why would she, when she lives in a happy world where not even jerks who suck care about her looks?

This is, I think, the best thing about Unbeatable Squirrel Girl. Genre fiction – SF, fantasy, superheroes – has the power to show us our potential. That could be a dystopia that serves as a warning, or a Star Trek that tries its best to dream bigger even while shackled by the conventions of its time. But one of the most powerful things a genre writer can do is to show us freedom. To fight injustice in our own lives, we have to be able to imagine a world free from that injustice. We need stories about the fight to give us strength, but we also need stories that give us a glimpse of the world we could achieve to remind us why we’re fighting.

Those stories also nudge the rest of us to consider that things don’t have to be the way they are. That’s the real power of opening your mind. That’s what Wonder Woman did for me, and it’s what Unbeatable Squirrel Girl does too. It’s so important, especially for the 13-17 year old age group for which it won its Eisner award. We need those kids to see that world in fiction and grow up wanting to make it real.

Next up: this New Comic Book Day also marks the conclusion to Shea Fontana’s run on Wonder Woman, so I’ll be collecting my thoughts on what I fell in love with, what didn’t work, what you need to know going in and what everybody else is wrong about!

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2 comments

  1. You’re so right at the end there. I think about this so often in the context of queerness. Having it presented in a situation where it is not treated as something wrong and it’s just shown to be a good and accepted part of life is so incredibly encouraging and empowering.

    Liked by 1 person

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