I began reading The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl because I love Ryan North’s Dinosaur Comics. When I heard he was writing for Marvel, I had to check it out. I instantly fell in love with the comic and I’ve been so impressed with what I continually find in its pages that I’ve chosen Doreen Green as the subject of the paper I’m writing for this year’s PCA/ACA National Conference on Popular Culture. As I began my research, I figured I’d read the comics featuring Doreen before she began to kick butts and eat nuts in The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl. I wanted to get a handle on how her character has evolved in the authorial hands of Ryan North and artistic hands of Erica Henderson and now Derek Charm. I was expecting a one note joke character but I was happily surprised by what I found!
As should go without saying, none of these portrayals of Doreen Green have the richness or depth we find in The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl. Her first appearance opposite Iron Man is a one-shot and her roles in both Great Lakes Avengers and New Avengers are part of a larger ensemble – the latter being more cameo-driven than anything else – so her continuing development as a character wasn’t the main point of any of those narratives. However the seeds Ryan North would cultivate into our Doreen Green, the Unbeatable Squirrel Girl, were far more present than I expected! His awareness of her character, coupled with his particular voice and vision, create a unique experience in The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl – a character utterly unlike any I’d seen before yet still managing to feel like her growth is an organic progression from these earlier titles.
Naturally, I began with Squirrel Girl’s VERY FIRST APPEARANCE. She was created by Steve Ditko and Will Murray and debuted in Marvel Super-Heroes #8 (Vol. 2) in December of 1991. She’s fourteen-years-old in this story and looking to be Iron Man’s “fighting pard” because “Every hero should have a partner. Don’t you know that? Besides, I like you. You’re my favorite Avenger.” So, as Tony Stark is testing his Collision Avoidance Radar in his Iron Man armor flying through the woods, Doreen jumps down on his back. It’s worth noting he’s unable to shake her off and, as his boot jets fail, she manages to bring down Iron Man on their very first meeting :). But that’s not her only impressive feat!
She tangles with Doctor Doom on her way to meet Iron Man so Doom naturally shows up for revenge. (Let’s take a moment to note she casually brushes off Doctor Doom on her own.) In the battle, Doom incapacitates Iron Man but Doreen and her squirrel friends – led by Monkey Joe (no Tippy-Toe yet) – take down Doctor Doom, as the squirrels swarm him and chew apart his armor. It is, according to Iron Man, one of Doom’s “most inglorious defeats” ever.
Her character is quirky, funny, and not violent or abrasive at all. We also see her understanding of the importance of community in telling Iron Man everyone needs a partner. But she’s largely a comedic foil to Iron Man, a kid who doesn’t really know what she’s doing. It felt like she was to be more of an annoying/joke character than anything else. Maybe? I don’t know. Maybe I missed what Ditko and Murray intended. But I thought it was a cute story all the same :). And I could see how this Doreen’s enthusiasm and inventiveness could grow into the girl we meet in The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl.
On the character note, perhaps what surprised me the most was how UNBEATABLE Squirrel Girl really is! I guess I always thought when Ryan North chose “unbeatable” for her solo title, it was a) to be funny using that for a character like Squirrel Girl and b) a nod to her plucky optimism and how, with that sort of attitude, nothing can stop you. And, okay, that’s true. But reading what she’s done even before Ryan North had her stop Galactus all by herself, I realized she’d racked up quite an impressive list of victories! In the hands of her creators Steve Ditko and Will Murray, as well as Dan Slott and Fabian Nicieza, she’s taken on the best Marvel has to offer!
So she enters the Marvel Universe by taking down Iron Man and beating Doctor Doom twice, right? During her time with the Great Lakes Avengers (more on them below) we see Doreen has also single-handedly beaten M.O.D.O.K., the Mandarin, Giganto, Terrax the Terrible, and Thanos. I’m serious!
So, I guess we now know why Squirrel Girl has yet to enter the Marvel Cinematic Universe. They’ve spent ten years building to the epic battle where the Avengers and Guardians square off against the Black Order and the Mad Titan himself. It seems like it would have been waaaaaay anticlimactic for Thanos to show up and immediately be taken out by Squirrel Girl on her own which she has totally already done. Okay, to be fair, Tippy-Toe helped her in most of those victories…but still, I think people would’ve been completely surprised and maybe even a little letdown if “the most ambitious crossover ever” that was Avengers: Infinity War was actually just a fifteen minute short film where Thanos shows up, the Avengers panic, and then Doreen and Tip easily save the day.
OR…would it have been the best superhero movie ever?? For better or worse, now we’ll never know.
She’s also single-handedly defeated Fin Fang Foom, Baron Mordo, Korvac, and Ego the Living Planet. It’s just how Squirrel Girl rolls, I guess. Perhaps my favorite of all these encounters is in the Deadpool/GLI Summer Fun Spectacular. Squirrel Girl walks right into Castle Doom and tells Victor she’s using his time machine. I love how Doom doesn’t stop her, totally annoyed and a little intimidated by how she’s beat him in the past.
She’s tangled with – and handedly defeated – two of Marvel’s toughest heroes too. Before Ryan North and Erica Henderson would give us the wonderful original graphic novel The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl Beats Up the Marvel Universe, Fabian Nicieza and Brian Michael Bendis had already shown us Doreen could take down Deadpool and Wolverine without breaking a sweat.
So “unbeatable” is the PERFECT way to describe Doreen! I love, love, love that Ryan North took what was already sort of the hallmark of her character and expanded it. And these victories fit so well with the overarching message of The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl too. I write often of how this comic has my undying love and respect for being bold enough to subvert the myth of redemptive violence and show us a hero who saves the day with empathy, compassion, understanding, and the willingness to listen. The villains she can’t befriend, she defeats with her intellect instead of her “sweet punching skills.” In so many of her pre-Ryan North victories, we don’t see how she defeats the villains. We’re just told she has or, as with Thanos above, it’s a cutaway shot and we see her victorious. This means we don’t have a canonical representation of her always punching and kicking everyone into submission.
We do see her defeat Doom using her mind (and her squirrel friends) to disable his ship and his armor. And Doreen helps the Thing defeat the Bi-Beast – a major Hulk villain – by exploiting the fact that he has two noses. She has the squirrels bring the worst smelling garbage they can find. The overwhelming odor causes everyone to plug their nose…except the Bi-Beast has two noses and only two hands while the Thing has one nose and two hands…leaving him one hand free for the knockout punch! Now this is far from the scientific and philosophical methods Doreen routinely employs in The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl but we see she was always one to use her head, something Ryan North has brilliantly developed.
So yes, Squirrel Girl is “unbeatable.” And then as we learn more about her we can read that knowledge back into these past stories and see how symbolically awesome all of these victories are! Who’s the only hero in the Marvel Universe who can defeat Doctor Doom, M.O.D.O.K., the Mandarin, Giganto, Terrax the Terrible, Thanos, Fin Fang Foom, Baron Mordo, Korvac, Ego the Living Planet, Deadpool, and Wolverine all on their own? Why it’s also the one who models empathy and compassion at every turn. Because those traits are what truly make us unbeatable and lead us to authentically save the world.
The most aggressive Doreen appears in any of these stories is in the pages of Brian Michael Bendis’ New Avengers. With Luke Cage and Jessica Jones leading the Avengers and also new parents, they seek a superpowered nanny to care for their daughter. Doreen Green ends up being just the superhero for the job!
It’s worth noting, it’s in New Avengers where we see Squirrel Girl presented at her most “stereotypically sexualized.” One of the most praised aspects of The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl is how Erica Henderson rendered a fun, fashionable superhero who also has curves and realistic proportions. She wears all sorts of cute clothes – both as Doreen and as Squirrel Girl – without being objectified. This is something Derek Charm has thankfully kept alive since taking over the art on the title. While not as fashion conscious as Erica Henderson, Steve Ditko didn’t present Doreen in a hypersexualized way in her inception nor did Paul Pelletier in Great Lakes Avengers. The majority of the New Avengers artists didn’t either. Yet Mike Deodato, a regular on the book, traditionally tends towards a hyper-sexualized vision of women and while his work is nowhere near as objectified as it was in the ‘90s, that trait is still there. Doreen’s costume always covers her entire body but the shape of her body and the way she stands and moves in his panels is much more sexualized than she is traditional depicted. It’s not as terrible as it could be but it’s not the realistic body image that’s received so much well-deserved praise.
During the “Fear Itself” storyline (in New Avengers #15 to be specific) Doreen races across the city when a high tech Nazi force under the command of the Red Skull invades New York. Desperate to get to Danielle to protect her, she cuts a wild path through the city leaving anything standing in her way in pieces. With Danielle safely in Doreen’s care, Jessica is then free to go fight alongside the Avengers. There is no question Danielle will be safe in the arms of Squirrel Girl. This – the fact that Doreen would boldly and unceasingly take down any and all threats to protect an innocent child and the fact that she’d love and be great at being a babysitter – is something that feels completely in line with the character we meet in Ryan North’s comic too. (Incidentally it’s also a part of Shannon and Dale Hale’s BRILLIANT YA novel Squirrel Girl: Squirrel Meets World…but that will be the story for another post :).) Try and tell me what follows isn’t one of the most b.a. sequences you’ve ever seen in any comic book ever. You can’t, can you?
Outside of the body image issue, there were only two thematic notes I found a bit uncomfortable and/or incongruous with the Doreen Green I’ve come to know and love in The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl. First is the tone of Dan Slott’s Great Lakes Avengers. This series is comedic but dark. The fact that a team member dies (brutally) every issue is the main running gag. It’s all very zany but it’s certainly not an all-ages title or a comic kids should ever read (EVER). The opening page of every issue has Squirrel Girl offering a PSA of sorts underscoring this fact.
Despite the narrative’s darkness in tone – the wild violence and deeply inappropriate humor – Doreen’s character still has the core of who we meet in Ryan North’s comic. She is still caring, compassionate, optimistic, willing to help anyone, and sees the simple joy in life. I wouldn’t call her naïve or innocent – at least not in a cloying way. But she isn’t jaded, angry, or edgy. She is certainly the brightest spot in the GLA.
Second, is the romantic relationships Brian Michael Bendis offers in New Avengers. Doreen has a crush on Daredevil after he helps save her and Danielle and she flirts with him pretty directly. This doesn’t feel as authentic as the more honest/awkward attempts at romance Doreen has in The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl but it’s not too bad. Much of the incongruous nature, I think, comes from how Deodato depicts her body language. Having a crush on an older guy is okay and she’s in college. Heck, look at Reed and Sue! There has to be at least fifteen years between Marvel’s power couple. And it’s not even like a relationship happens here! It’s just a flirty crush. But the way she stands around him and the way he draws her body in her costume makes it seem…off from the Doreen we find everywhere else.
While the Daredevil thing is awkward more in its depiction than the actual idea, it’s the Wolverine thing that’s really uncomfortable in nature. After Jessica and Luke hire Doreen, they’re introducing her to the rest of the Avengers. Then Wolverine shows up and it’s obvious they’ve been together and it did not go well.
What makes this so uncomfortable has more to do with Wolverine’s character than Doreen’s. Again, an age difference in a couple isn’t a major thing. And Bendis certainly writes a hilariously awkward scene, a scene that too many of us have lived our own versions of (perhaps more than once). BUT the Wolverine/Doreen thing is just too creepy to be easily read over or enjoyed, no matter how familiar (and it isn’t even drawn by Mike Deodato). Doreen is taking college classes in New Avengers so that means she’s eighteen or nineteen. Wolverine, given how his healing factor slows his aging, is 100+. But the creepiness comes not so much with the age difference as with how Logan’s always been the X-Man to play the father/brother/mentor role to young girls, from Kitty Pryde to Jubilee. The idea that he’d hook up with Doreen when she’s a teenager makes everything about him – and those iconic relationships – seem way too creepy Woody Allen for me.
It would appear just about everyone – Brian Michael Bendis included – came to the same conclusion because (outside of one more half joke) it’s pretty much never mentioned again anywhere. I think that’s a wise move by everyone involved.
BUT Fabian Nicieza gives us an incredibly adorable story about Doreen’s first kiss! In a short story called “First Kiss,” we learn she has a huge crush on Speedball. He’s making an appearance at a mall in Milwaukee and Doreen goes to see him. She stops a C-level villain who wants revenge on him and, after Tippy-Toe makes sure Speedball’s manager hears about it, Speedball stops by to thank her. He kisses her too! It was super cute.
Nicieza returns to this relationship in the Deadpool/GLI Summer Fun Spectacular when Doreen seeks out Speedball after hearing what happened to him during the Superhero Civil War. Overcome by grief over the deaths he caused, Robbie Baldwin abandoned the identity of Speedball and became the masochistic antihero Penance. Well Doreen shows him – with the reality of the events, especially in the world of comics – there’s really no reason for him to brood. This too, fits with who she is in The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl. It’s hilarious but it’s also an act of healing anchored in an honest, empathetic, and optimistic perspective.
So, outside of an awkward romance, the Doreen Green I found in all these comics had the heart, optimism, and enthusiasm I love Squirrel Girl for. In The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl, Ryan North would take the light that shone from this quirky character and let it radiate like star. I wouldn’t say reading these comics is in any way, shape, or form essential to appreciate The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl (they weren’t for me! I fell in love with the title on its own). Nor would I recommend anyone interested in getting to know Squirrel Girl start with these titles – if you want to meet Doreen Green, you should do that in her own title. Still, it was a lot of fun to see where a character I’ve come to love so much began and it was great to learn just how UNBEATABLE she truly is.
If you’re curious what I read as I wrote this and/or would like a comprehensive list of all Squirrel Girl’s appearances before The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl, I began with the trade paperback The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl & the Great Lakes Avengers. This included her first appearance in Marvel Super-Heroes #8 (written by Steve Ditko and Will Murray), Great Lakes Avengers #1-4 (Dan Slott), GLX-Mas Special (Dan Slott), I ❤ Marvel: Masked Intentions (Fabian Nicieza), Thing #8 (Dan Slott), Cable & Deadpool #30 (Fabian Nicieza), Deadpool/GLI Summer Fun Spectacular (Fabian Nicieza and Dan Slott), Age of Heroes #3 (Dan Slott), and I Am An Avenger #1 (Alex Zalben). Then I sought out Avengers: The Initiative #’s 19 and 25 (“Secret Invasion” and “Dark Reign” tie-ins respectively) although she only appeared on one panel in each (Dan Slott). Then I read New Avengers #7-13, 15-16, 19-21, and 33-34 (Brian Michael Bendis). Given my research, I am pretty sure these are all of Squirrel Girl’s appearances before The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl arrived.