Aaaahh! This is it! This is my 100th post on My Comic Relief. Yay!!! To mark such an important occasion, I want to take a look at the one comic book that’s become truly indispensible to me. If, for some reason, I could only read one comic book a month, Ryan North and Erica Henderson’s The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl would be it. There’s no contest. No other comic is more enjoyable or more important to me. I could think of no better way to celebrate hitting 100 posts than by celebrating why I love this brilliant comic so much.
I want to start as simply as possible. I read The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl when I just want to laugh and be happy. No other reading experience (comic or otherwise) brings me as much joy as The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl. I laugh out loud multiple times every issue (making it embarrassing (but still totally worth it!) to read in public). Squirrel Girl is just plain fun. The world is full of darkness; I seek the light in the art I consume, as much for enjoyment as for inspiration. And The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl always delivers. It just makes me happy! Too often we undervalue pure joy in our lives but I recognize and appreciate the beautiful gift Squirrel Girl brings each month.
Next, in a genre with multiple companies offering literally hundreds of ever-changing monthly choices, there is nothing out there like The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl. I read a lot and The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl is one of the most unique books I’ve ever found. I’ve always loved to read. In a super nerdy admission, Jeff and I used to partake in a Summer Reading Challenge, keeping track of the number of books/pages we read all summer. The only reward was our accomplishment! In all the novels, comics, memoirs, biographies, plays, and nonfiction texts I’ve ever read, I’ve never stumbled across anything that feels remotely like The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl.
Ryan North has such a distinct written voice/style of humor. I’ve loved his Dinosaur Comics for years! I get endless enjoyment from his choose-your-own-adventure versions of Shakespeare. His characters always have richly defined personalities – especially in The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl. The dialogue feels like it moves at a rapid-fire pace too, which I love! (Or at least that’s how it reads in my mind.) The banter effortlessly shifts from the impressively academic to the awkwardly human to the truly tender too. It all comes together seamlessly to form a hysterical and heartfelt experience. I don’t just enjoy reading about Doreen Green and her friends. I want to hang out with them too! Ryan North also gives me a lot of dialogue and narration. He even includes hilarious, tiny little “alt text” captions at the bottom of most pages! Comic books are expensive. I resent spending $3.99 for a book where the hero says one or two words on a page that’s just filled with fight scenes. I want a story! I want real characters! I want interaction! And Ryan North always gives me that.
Erica Henderson has created characters who are visually vibrant, welcoming, and radiate as much life as the narrative does. I always feel under qualified to try and talk about the technical aspects of the visual art in a comic book, but I know there isn’t another artist in the hundreds of comics I’ve collected who makes me feel as warm as Erica Henderson does when I open her book to enter the world she creates. I wish I had the language to more properly express this! And in a culture that insidiously uses unhealthy body image constructs to further the near-omnipresent objectification/oppression of women, I value Erica Henderson all the more. She depicts Doreen, her roommate/best friend Nancy, and all the strong, intelligent, thoughtful women in this comic as real women with real bodies, complete with curves. They wear clothes that are fun and functional, but not the fuel for male sex-fantasies.
Together, Ryan North and Erica Henderson have created a character in Doreen Green who is a brilliant role model to all who experience her. She is smart, strong, funny, independent, empathetic, presents a realistic body image, and never sees anyone as “an enemy.” Looking at the world from this perspective, Doreen solves her problems with acceptance, understanding, friendship, and her intelligence. As computer science majors, she and Nancy are also women living and thriving in STEM fields! Importantly, Doreen shows young girls that they can be all these things too. But her ability to serve as a role model certainly isn’t limited to girls. Boys enjoy and learn as much from Squirrel Girl as girls do. (I mean, obviously, look at me!) There’s no character/comic book more aware or relevant. With her approach to conflict resolution, Squirrel Girl (who always reminds us of her sweet punching skills while actually relying on her mind more than her fists) is the only superhero out there who is always entertaining while also always illustrating the real way to counter what’s wrong in our world.
The first step in countering these problems is an awareness of the culture we live in, so we may do all we can to make it better. This is something The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl does very well. As we see below, she teaches such a lesson to none other than Galactus in (her first) issue #3 when he is describing the Power Cosmic to her.
This was one of the moments when I realized I was reading a comic unlike any other out there. The exchange is hilarious…but also important. As Barry Davis (my favorite high school teacher as well as my teaching mentor (and an all around good guy)) taught me, when people are laughing they let their guard down. When they let their guard down, it’s easier to teach because people are open when they’re enjoying themselves. So while we’re laughing, Squirrel Girl is teaching. We need to be aware of and careful with our words because words have tremendous power. It’s an incredibly important message and we learn it so quickly we don’t even realize we did.
Here’s where we come to the wonderfully subversive genius behind Squirrel Girl. To be “subversive” is to undermine or challenge an establishment/institution/etc. Obviously the nature of Squirrel Girl – a strong, intelligent female with a real body type thriving in a STEM related major and being presented as the norm – in and of itself is subversive in our culture. But she also challenges some of the most problematic concepts we find in comic books and shows us a better way. In so doing, it creates a better comic book.
I’ve written (a lot) about my lifelong love of comic books. And I’ve also written (a lot (I mean, this whole blog is an example)) of the joy I’ve found in returning to comic collecting. But my biggest struggle since returning to this genre hobby amazing, life-consuming obsession is the Myth of Redemptive Violence. This is the dangerous fallacy that violence can, in any way, create real solutions to the problems in our world. We live in a world that takes this myth as reality and, as a result, we live in a world of war, capital punishment, gun violence, physical/emotional/sexual abuse, and so on. As much as I love my monthly comic reading (and the great films they produce), more often than not they endorse the fallacious idea that the way to solve a problem and, ironically, make the world safer is to punch bad guys until they stop doing bad things. This doesn’t work (citation: all of recorded human history). Violence doesn’t stop violence. It can’t. Violence only begets more violence. We need look no further than our nightly news to see the dangerous results of believing in the Myth of Redemptive Violence.
Squirrel Girl however subverts all of that, beginning every encounter with anyone from the perspective of becoming their friend. In her first issue she encounters Kraven the Hunter as she’s moving into Empire State University. Doreen tells Tippy Toe, “Wait…maybe the question isn’t ‘How do I beat him?’ Maybe the question is, ‘Dude, why are we even fighting in the first place?’ What does Kraven want?” She then tells Kraven, “Hold on, hold on! I don’t want to fight you. Just let me talk for a second okay?”
She points out that his “evil” actions come from the fact that he can’t get the life he thinks he deserves so he’s frustrated. Then she directs him to underwater monsters he can hunt without harming anyone while also feeling validated. Kraven excitedly takes up the challenge. Squirrel Girl doesn’t defeat Kraven in battle. She empathizes with him and helps him find a new purpose in life. And with that, a new superhero and a new way of doing superhero comics, was born.
She does the same thing when she battles Hippo the Hippo. She listens to him and then actually helps him as opposed to fighting him. This is how we affect positive change in the world!! This is what it means to be a hero!!
Doreen even believes in her ability to compromise and connect with Dr. Doom. She is an incredible example of unwavering hope and faith in the potential for everyone to transform.
Squirrel Girl – “I don’t want us to fight, okay? And okay, yes, I was trying to steal your time machine just now, but only to end this peacefully, Doom! There must be some way we can both get what we want!”
Dr. Doom – “Doom desires nothing less than world domination, and unless you wish for the same, there can be no common ground.”
Squirrel Girl – “Come on, once I found common ground with Galactus. Galactus, dude! I’m sure there’s something we can do here.”
Dr. Doom – “Hah. Galactus is a child, unable to focus on anything but his next meal. He is chained to Maslow’s ground floor, dominated by the same basic needs Doom has conquered, just as he will conquer such pathetic ‘gods’!!”
Squirrel Girl – “Dude, did you just namecheck Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs in a friggin’ fistfight?”
Okay, how can a book with that final line of dialogue not be the best comic book ever?? And the hope she has in peacefully resolving her conflict with a villain as evil as Dr. Doom is what makes Squirrel Girl such an important superhero. With all due respect to Luke Skywalker, Squirrel Girl shows us the real power or hope!!! It continues:
Imagine how much better the world would be if we all honestly believed and acted as Squirrel Girl does? Her vision is the only way to truly begin building a better world. We see this when she encounters Mole Man as well.
Squirrel Girl – “Dude, it’s obvious you’re upset, but I hope you can see any hardships I inflicted on you were unintentional. And Harvey, if that has been my effect…well, I’m really sorry.”
Can you believe that?? She takes responsibility for her actions and works to make amends. Again, how much better would our world be if we were all like this? If we could all be as honest, humble, empathetic, and sincere as Squirrel Girl? This is what an honest-to-goodness superhero looks like. Weird powers and great punching skills are in every single comic book, but this…this is something special. Mole Man recognizes her unique nature too.
Again, how much better would our world be if we all used Squirrel Girl as our role model? It’s beautiful!
The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl doesn’t just show us how to honestly resolve conflict but it also champions the value of education. This book is uncompromisingly intelligent. Brain Drain (who is an AMAZING character by the way) takes over protecting New York City while Doreen, Tippy Toe, and Nancy go to Canada to vacation with Doreen’s mom, Maureen.
First, the dialogue and visuals are hilarious. Second, they’re accurately referencing ennui!! This comic casually and correctly references computer science concepts, Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, ennui, the Social Contract Theory, the principles of nihilism, and even Physics concepts like Galileo’s Square-Cube Law. And this happens all the time. This comic rewards the informed/intelligent reader with all these fun little nods while simultaneously teaching people who don’t know these concepts about them! I really credit comic books with beginning to build my vocabulary as a child. I loved to read, with Mom or on my own, and if Spider-Man used a word I didn’t know I looked it up so I could understand what Spidey was saying. The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl pushes its readers to learn more and more so they can appreciate the narrative more and more. In an age of increasing anti-intellectual sentiment, it’s refreshing and empowering to see a comic that isn’t afraid to be so smart.
For the enemies who refuse to compromise, Squirrel Girl always defeats them with her mind. When she faces Swarm (in a legit comic book version of a choose-your-own-adventure story!!!) she does so by learning that bees can’t fly when they’re wet. She’s also able to defeat Whiplash because she understands that, if you aren’t grounded, you can’t get electrocuted. In structuring their stories like this they are showing learning is fun, vitally important, and something to be proud of!
In all these ways, Ryan North and Erica Henderson subvert the traditional approach to “comic book superheroes” with The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl. And, in so doing, they’ve created the one comic I can’t live without. As a teacher, Doreen’s perspective – her empathy, her intelligence, her joy – is what I wish for all my students. Heck, this is what I wish for everyone. All of our lives would be greatly enriched if we could be a little bit more like Squirrel Girl. And our world would become a far brighter, more beautiful place in the process. So let’s try to read The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl a little more and strive to learn what she has to teach us. Then we can begin to live the love she models as best we can. After all, that’s what real superheroes do.
[This is it! This is the 100th post and it’s a very special moment for me. Thank you, thank you, thank you so much for reading and for making my thoughts and discussions a part of your day! I’ve come to love everything about doing this so much. I can’t wait to start working on the next 100 :). If you didn’t catch the other amazing comics I featured in my Countdown to 100, you’re welcome to take a look and see why I’m in love with Ms. Marvel, the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, and explore what Kalie and I said about Ghostbusters too.]