I have spent the last week wondering what comics or topics to devote this week’s column to. After considering a few different options, I’ve opted to go ahead and review my favorite comic currently being published: The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl. I wasn’t initially sure if I should write about my favorite comic right off the bat or save it for later, but after reading the most recent issue this morning, it was at the forefront of my mind.
The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl is published by Marvel Comics, and its creative team is spearheaded by Ryan North (writer), Erica Henderson (artist), and Rico Renzi (colorist). Each issue begins with a recap page in the form of a mock Twitter feed that includes a quick blurb to get the reader up to speed. As the blurb says, the titular star of the book “has all the powers of both squirrel and girl.” She has a tail, all the proportionate speed, agility, and leaping abilities of squirrels, and can talk to squirrels as well. In battle, she often asks for the aid of her squirrel friends, who then leap upon supervillains with resolve and fury.
While Squirrel Girl’s moniker and concept may strike some as silly at first glance, one would do themselves a disservice to write the book off immediately. That’s not to say the book is not silly. Each issue is full of jokes, but the series’ humor is often refreshingly intelligent and niche, such as when comedic gags are delivered in the form of computer science equations. Even when the book delivers simple rhymes and puns, it does so charmingly. Squirrel Girl, who often states that she’s out to “eat nuts and kick butts,” has a contagious sense of optimism and enthusiasm that jumps off the page and into the reader’s own mood.
The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl’s main strength comes from its sense of fun. I sometimes feel like we’re living in an artistic time period where things that were once groundbreaking now feel like clichés. While comic books have often been seen as children’s things, the last thirty years or so have seen an increase in “grim” or “gritty” graphic narratives. It’s become clear that comic books are not just for kids, and that the medium can be used to convey stories intended for adults, stories containing mature themes that could never be found in G or PG-rated content.
All of the above is good, of course. Comic books as a medium CAN thrive with adult audiences in mind. Many of my favorite comic books that I am currently following wouldn’t generally be considered suitable for children, whether it be for their blatant sexuality (Midnighter and Apollo), gore (Glitterbomb), or heavy political themes (Black Panther). But that doesn’t mean that all comic books have to be made with only adults in mind. I have nothing against the concept of antiheroes, or the addition of shades of grey to stories that were previously dominated by black and white visions of morality. The Golden Age of comics back in the late 30s and into the 40s was largely characterized by its use of characters and plots so one-dimensional that there were no layers to distract from their status as propaganda. Captain America’s first appearance, for instance, was punching Adolf Hitler square in the jaw.
I’m glad that comic books have progressed beyond that simplicity. I’m also thankful for titles that tackle adult themes skillfully, and do not make me feel as if the content has been dumbed down for a younger audience. But that doesn’t mean I want every comic book I ever read to leave me pondering philosophical questions once I have finished reading it. Sometimes I like reading for entertainment without having to worry about a storyline filling me with existential dread. The grim has become so widespread as to hardly feel subversive at all anymore. Gritty plotlines now feel more like the norm and less like genre-busting forays into the unknown.
When I’m looking for a more joyful read, The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl is my go-to. Make no mistake, I don’t intend to describe it as some sort of “comic from yesterday.” Its cast of characters all have fully realized personalities and characteristics. Its pages continuously defy comic book conventions and play with formatting and narrative devices in new and interesting ways. For example, the bottoms of most pages contain lines of text by the author which frequently address the reader directly and address the comic’s contents from a meta perspective. While these lines are a fun touch that I do not see in any other title I am currently reading, it is perhaps worth noting that they are reminiscent of classic silver age Marvel comics. Back in the 60s, writers (particularly Stan Lee) would often address their “dear readers” directly in text boxes.
Perhaps The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl’s strengths come from the ways in which it blends the old with the new. While many aspects of the comic, such as its meta author-to-fan interactions, aren’t exactly new, they are used in a way that feels fresh nonetheless. By drawing upon old-school techniques in the midst of a medium dominated by modern trappings, TUSG stands apart. It’s one of those pieces of media that can be fully enjoyed by both children and adults. The subject matter isn’t such that parents would object to their children reading it, and the writing and art are not such that the parents would object to reading it themselves. The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl is a rarity in the current mainstream comic book market: a fun, intelligent all-ages title.
Much of the title’s humor come not only from Squirrel Girl and her nut-themed puns, but from the supporting cast. One of my favorite standout characters from the series is Brain Drain, a brain in a jar fixed atop a large robot body. His floating brain aesthetic is classic , and the fine touches to his design are marvelous. Brain Drain has a classic heroic domino mask atop his head-jar, as if he has an actual face to conceal. His dialogue also provides a great example of the way the comic incorporates humor that even adults can enjoy. In the middle of pages occupied by squirrel and nut-themed puns, Brain Drain waxes poetic about his nihilistic world view: “There is only so much we can do, our metal and squirrely fists against the wall of totalitarian authority.” By contrasting it with the rest of the book’s contents, The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl manages to make pure nihilism into something silly and fun.
The comic’s brand of fun results in a deep appreciation from readers across all age groups. Each month, TUSB’s letter page features comments from decades-long comic book readers, as well as children talking about how much they love Squirrel Girl. The book has printed pictures of numerous kids in Squirrel Girl cosplays, as well as many notes from parents about how glad they are that their young daughters have Squirrel Girl for a likable, positive female role model. Again, I do not mind that most comics are for adults, but I am glad that there are still some series that children can enjoy along with their parents, and The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl is chief among them.
TUSG is also refreshing in terms of the diversity of its cast. As well as having a female lead, the book’s supporting cast is racially diverse and even includes one of the few frequently recurring transgender characters in mainstream comics, Koi Boi. (TUSG does not discriminate: there are enough animal themes and puns for everyone!) Koi Boi’s gender identity is never a major plot point and that’s okay. Not all attempts at diversity need tackle social issues head-on with weighty commentary. Rather, there needs to be a diversity to diversity itself. There is something to be said for an all-ages title that includes more than just straight, cisgender white people and does not feel the need to justify its departure from norms. When I was a kid reading comics, there was no Koi Boi. There was no matter-of-fact, unapologetic trans representation in media. I could not even turn on the television and find gay characters who were not defined by their sexuality, much less trans characters whose storylines amounted to much more than tokenism.
Of course, as previously stated, the things that The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl stands in contrast to are not necessarily bad. There is a place for adult-themed comic books, and for comics that speak directly to racial and sexual issues. There is a need for those sorts of books. But there is also a need for media for young children where characters are simply allowed to be. As much as important societal issues need to be addressed, there is also a power in unapologetic normalization.
As important as serious discussion of societal injustice is, I long for a time where more diverse casts of characters won’t be as shocking, and coming out won’t be so notable. That’s not to deny the importance of diverse characters in media, but rather to highlight how white-washed and straight-centric our current media are. As I look to the future, The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl brings me joy in the present. With its optimistic heroine, pervasive sense of joy, and thoughtful attention to the craft of comic-making, it’s my favorite monthly comic being published right now. You can find it monthly at your local comic shop, or in paperback collected editions at your local bookstores.
Leaping away squirrel-style ‘til next time,
Eric Cline is a gay poet, 2016 Best of the Net nominee, and the founding editor-in-chief of Calamus Journal. His debut chapbook, “his strange boy eve”, was published by Yellow Chair Press in September 2016. He tweets @ericclinepoet.