Once upon a time, Mom bought li’l three-year-old me a copy of Web Of Spider-Man #12 at the grocery store. So began a lifelong love affair with the character Spider-Man, the medium of comic books, and the world of superheroes. When I turned sixteen my comic budget turned towards gas money. But then, four years ago, I decided to return to my local comic shop and something magical happened. I rediscovered an old love and found something I never expected in The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl. This month Ryan North (writer), Derek Charm (artist), Rico Renzi (colorist), Travis Lanham (letter), and Wil Moss (editor) – with a surprise dash of Erica Henderson (artist) – have brought this remarkable title to an end. That leaves me with a lot on my mind. How do I say goodbye to something that’s come to mean so much to me?
There will be no significant spoilers for the final issue/arc here, just lots of feelings :).
While discerning what to fill my pull list with once back at my local comic shop (Kamala Khan as Ms. Marvel and Jane Foster as Thor were guaranteed as they prompted my return to comics), I was intrigued to hear Ryan North was writing for Marvel. I discovered his Dinosaur Comics online a few years before and was immediately hooked. I’d never read something with such a unique voice and wit. It was brilliant. I’d never seen such an intelligent comic before. It didn’t talk down to the reader and was bold enough to reference/use/teach complex concepts too. It did all this without ever sacrificing humor. In fact it was so funny, in part, because it was so smart. I spent months reading every comic on the site and have eagerly awaited each new one ever since.
So when I heard this author was writing for Marvel I had to check it out! I was, admittedly, a little surprised to hear he was writing a character called “Squirrel Girl.” I’d first heard of Squirrel Girl a few years before from my friend Theresa in a conversation discussing her son’s Marvel Encyclopedia.
Theresa – “There’s a lot of interesting stuff in it. Did you know there’s a Squirrel Girl?”
Me – “Wait…what? Squirrel Girl?? Really?”
Theresa – “Yes, she’s a member of the Great Lakes Avengers.”
Me – “There’s a Great Lakes Avengers???”
My skepticism aside, I checked it out. Reading The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl was life-changing. I know it’s easy for a statement like that to seem hyperbolic. But you’ll have to take me at my word when I say I mean it with the utmost sincerity. This title now falls into a small category of books so significant to my worldview and emotional journey they serve to divide my life into the periods of before and after I read them.
Paulo Coelho’s The Alchemist. Daniel Quinn’s Ishmael. Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander. Marcus Borg’s Meeting Jesus Again, For The First Time. Thich Nhat Hanh’s The Heart Of Understanding.
All held messages that moved my heart, mind, and soul – messages I’ve carried with me every day since reading them, messages I’m better for holding in my heart.
Ryan North, Erica Henderson and Derek Charm, Rico Renzi, Travis Lanham, and Wil Moss’ The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl has joined this list. And for the first time since 1986, when someone asks me who my favorite superhero is or what my favorite comic book is, I no longer say “Spider-Man” and “The Amazing Spider-Man.” Now the answer has definitively become “Squirrel Girl” and “The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl.”
How could it not? I’ve written – both on this site and in a paper I presented at the 2019 PCA/ACA conference on popular culture – of how brilliantly this title subverts the Myth of Redemptive Violence (a concept they reference in issue #47 – ahhhhhhhhhhh I almost died when I saw it!!!). This is the idea that violence can ever bring about a good end or anything other than just more violence and destruction. I love comic books and superheroes. I have for most of my life. But I’ve really wrestled with how they unabashedly endorse the Myth of Redemptive Violence since returning to comic reading in 2015.
Then along comes The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl and it actively and intentionally shows violence isn’t the way to save the day. No, Doreen Green meets every villain she encounters with compassion, empathy, and the desire to make a new friend. From Kraven the Hunter to Galactus to the Skrulls and on and on and on to ghosts and angry clones and Frost Giants and even Doctor Doom no matter how many times she faces him, her first move is always to talk to them with sincere openness. Authentic communion, relationship, trust, and love – Doreen’s “power of friendship” – these are the most powerful forces of transformation we have.
With many of the foes she’s faced over her fifty-eight issue run, this approach worked and Doreen found friends and allies in the most unlikely of places. For those who don’t accept her friendship, she defeats them by using her mind as opposed to her fists. Doreen doesn’t just use her mind but The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl models the importance of education for its readers too. This title has referenced everything from Galileo’s Square-Cube Law to Robert Frost’s “Stopping By Woods on a Snowy Evening” (side note: the scene with this poem in issue #45 was one of most beautiful moments I’ve ever seen in a comic book and may be my all-time favorite work Derek Charm did on this title (I say “may” because it’s all so good (including their all silent issue, #36))). It teaches you as you read while encouraging you to learn more. The heroes of this title all love to learn and because of their knowledge, they can save the world.
Maybe that’s the best way to encapsulate the one-of-a-kind brilliance of The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl. I have read thousands of comic books in my life and I have never, ever seen on that honestly teaches its readers how to save the world. For most comic stories, as the reader, I’m a passive viewer of the world-saving events and no matter how much I love the hero(es) of the comic, I can’t really emulate them. Sure, I can strive to follow Cap’s courage or model Spider-Man’s sense of responsibility or whatnot but I can’t do what they do. I can’t bench press a building or watch bullets bounce off me or heal from any wound or sense danger before it hits or fire optic blasts from my eyes or any of that. As a result, as entertaining as it may be to read stories like this, they can’t really show us how to make the world better because those sorts of superhuman powers aren’t real. And if they were, I worry our world would be as filled with city-leveling battles as most superhero comics are.
While we certainly see Doreen’s power set and some cool superhero action set pieces in The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl (there is an epic battle in the final arc), they are never held up as the resolution to the conflict nor what makes Doreen special. Indeed, as the plot of the final arc of The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl shows, even her most fearsome foes realize she keeps beating them because of something else. What makes Squirrel Girl unbeatable is something we can all do in our daily lives – she radiates empathy, compassion, welcome, trust, forgiveness, a passion for knowledge, and a deep and abiding love for everyone who crosses her path.
No matter how many radioactive spiders, gamma bombs, cosmic rays, super soldier serums, Psyche-Magnitron explosions, Terrigenesis experiences, or mutant genes you want to reference, there is NOTHING more powerful than LOVE. Period. Full stop. That’s all she wrote. And The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl has been courageous enough to show us this truth in every single issue, from her first #1 to her second #50.
If we are courageous enough to follow in her footsteps, then we can really save our world.
All of this makes me proud to have experienced this comic. It makes me proud to share it with friends who’ve passed it on to their children – for some friends, it’s the first comic they’ve ever read with their kids, as Web Of Spider-Man #12 was for me with my mom all those years ago. It makes me proud to have introduced this character to many members of the audience at the PCA/ACA conference last year. It makes me proud when my Squirrel Girl t-shirts lead to conversations with random strangers wanting to know more about her. And it certainly makes me proud to teach The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl as part of a new course that explores the intersection of comic books and social justice – a course in which this title will feature prominently for as long as I teach it.
A few short years ago I didn’t even know Squirrel Girl existed. Now I sincerely can’t imagine my life without this book in it. I cried reading each issue of this final arc. I cried because The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl was ending but I also cried because of how beautiful this title was and how much it means to me.
But while I may be sad it’s ending, this is part of it’s beauty. Nothing lasts forever. One of Buddhism’s most central truths is all life is impermanence. When we look closely, we see this is true and in that finitude we find meaning. With The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl we had fifty-eighty brilliant and beautiful issues with nearly the same creative team on each and every one. That’s almost unheard of in the world of comic books! In those issues, they told the story they wanted to tell and are ending when they want to as well. Honestly, I’d rather this group of creators give us an ending as poignant and powerful as this series has been all along than see it go on without end for fifty-plus years in the hands of ever-shifting creators with ever-shifting visions. Letting go can be hard. But it’s part of life. And what they’ve given us with The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl will always be with us, as will Squirrel Girl (all points Ryan North addresses with a profound elegance in the final issue – something I’ve never seen a comic writer do before).
Doreen Green’s adventures will continue on in other titles and in the hands of other authors. So we’ll see her there, even though she’ll be different. But we’ll always have these titles to return to and so, in that way, this version of Doreen Green will always be there for us too, whenever we need her.
So really, there’s no need to say goodbye. And that’s part of the magic.
To everyone who’s been involved with The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl in any way, shape, or form from day one, thank you, from the bottom of my heart, for all of it. Every issue, every page, every word, picture, color, line, thought, feeling, and idea – it was so sincerely born from the heart, which is why it could touch so many hearts. I’ve never read anything like this before and I’m not sure I’ll ever see it’s like again. But that’s okay. Art has the power to stay with us long after we’ve first consumed it, shaping our heart and soul, forever.
This iteration of The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl may have come to an end but she will live on forever, in these issues but also in the hearts and minds of all who read her comic. Most importantly, she will live on in our actions. I think, at the end of the day, this is how we really show our love and respect for this title, for this character, and for all The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl has meant to us.
This is how we do this revolutionary title justice. We live with courage all Doreen Green modeled, to the best of our abilities, each and every day.
It’s only fitting I allow Doreen Green, the Unbeatable Squirrel Girl, to have the final word in the form of a few of her tweets that opened issue #47, the beginning of her final arc:
If you’d like to read more things I’ve written about Squirrel Girl, may I suggest the following?
“Squirrel Girl’s Subversive Genius” – my first piece on this brilliant title, looking at how it subverts many comic book tropes and elevates the genre in the process (it was the loose basis for my PCA/ACA paper)
“The Greatest Kraven Story Ever Told” – this piece examines how The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl’s take on Kraven the Hunter, as far as I’m concerned, serves as the definitive vision of this character
“Squirrel Girl’s Earliest Era” – a post in which I read and discuss all the Squirrel Girl stories before Ryan North and company took over the character to get a sense of who Doreen was before this iconic run