Or why Unbeatable Squirrel Girl fails as a Squirrel Girl comic, but succeeds as a superhero comic.
Squirrel Girl was a deeply underrated, fascinating character. I use the past tense because Squirrel Girl can no longer really be considered “underrated.” Unbeatable Squirrel Girl, now on its sixth issue, has sold incredibly well. So well that the first and second issues have both simultaneously just released an unusual third reprint, with the third and fourth issues now on their second reprints. But this Squirrel Girl…is she really Squirrel Girl?
Unbeatable Squirrel Girl has so many nods to canon and continuity, from Squirrel Girl’s origin as a 13 year old who wanted to be Iron Man’s sidekick to her history of unusual and off-panel defeats of some of Marvel’s greatest villains, yet it blindly ignores previously important facets of Squirrel Girl’s character throughout the ages: Squirrel Girl was part of the Great Lakes Avengers, Squirrel Girl was the nanny for Luke Cage and Jessica Jones, Squirrel Girl was already attending college in the Bendis penned New Avengers series (in which she also had had an unspecified relationship with Wolverine). Ultimately, the pieces of canon that writer Ryan North (and, to a lesser extent, artist Erica Henderson, who has included subtle nods to canon, such as a poster of Doreen’s longtime crush, Speedball) chooses to ignore are the items that made her fully fleshed as a character. Yes, Squirrel Girl still retains her unusual power and unexpected victories, but many of the traits that made her more defined as a fictional “person” have been blatantly ignored.
However, that’s not necessarily a bad thing; Henderson and North are reforming Doreen Green, and creating a new Squirrel Girl. Even visually, very little of the original Doreen Green is retained in the Unbeatable Squirrel Girl series (she has more pronounced buck teeth, is no longer a brunette, and no longer has her inexplicable mime-inspired eye makeup), but the same could be said for the Squirrel Girl that Slott used in Great Lakes Avengers in comparison to her original incarnation (her eye makeup changed, she lost the big buck teeth, she become older and more conventionally attractive).
Even the tone of Unbeatable Squirrel Girl is a derivation of more “traditional” Squirrel Girl comics. North focuses on comedy, and surrounds Doreen Green with equally wacky characters (Bass Lass, Koi Boi, Chipmunk Hunk). Normally, this would be a disservice to the character: Squirrel Girl, in a way, is a lot like Deadpool. When she is surrounded by typically serious teammates or a seriously toned title, she becomes a unique focal point that brings levity and breaks up the monotony of an otherwise dark series (think Cable and Deadpool). But, if she is surrounded by similarly goofy archetypes, then the uniqueness and “specialness” of her can easily be lost; the thing that separates her from other characters, and allows her to offer a different perspective on the tone of the series, no longer exists.
Squirrel Girl started, not as a joke, but as a desire for writer Will Murray to bring the levity of the Silver Age back into dramatic early 90’s comics; Don Slott expanded on that concept and made her into a substantial character that had comedic aspects, but also criticized the grim-dark atmosphere of the modern comic industry (and doing so by breaking the fourth wall); Brian Michael Bendis retained her optimism and enthusiasm, but highlighted her a young woman figuring out who she is and what she wants to be. Treating Squirrel Girl as a “joke” character negates the entire point of her character and creation. North and Henderson aren’t actually making Squirrel Girl a joke, they are simply embracing the idea of humor and joy in comics and presenting something disparate from modern “adult” comics fare.
Unbeatable Squirrel Girl is an incredible all-ages superhero comic, something that Marvel, up until recently, has kind of lacked in their main line. Ultimately, the title is not about the Squirrel Girl I discovered and love; it’s about making an odd character accessible to the massed. Unbeatable Squirrel Girl is a comic for anyone. You don’t have to know continuity, but the nods to the Marvel Universe make it fun. You don’t have to know Squirrel Girl as a character, but the creative team pays homage to her history, while inventing a new interpretation of her. Titles like Unbeatable Squirrel Girl and Groot are tapping into a demographic Marvel had primarily ignored, and is offering a jumping in point to kids and adult alike who are more interested in quippy Whedon-style content akin to the MCU, than the dark realism that has been so pervasive in the comics industry since the 90’s.
Unbeatable Squirrel Girl ultimately isn’t a comic about Squirrel Girl; it’s a comic about being a young woman navigating life. It’s full of friendships, humor, and unbelievable heroics. While it may not feature the version of my favorite furry-tailed heroine that I love the most, it features a character who is relate-able and accessible to everyone. When comics are accessible, that’s something worth celebrating about; and anyway, you can’t beat Squirrel Girl!