The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl is a comics title that’s always been in love with the lore and history of comic books and super heroes; often to a greater degree than many of its fans will be. I’m pretty sure everyone who read The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl #1 (the first one) would have immediately begun singing the Squirrel Girl theme song to the tune of the Spider-Man theme song. But how many of us had to hop on Youtube to know the tune to the Iron Man cartoon theme song that #7 (again, the first one) references?
That song gets another mention in THE UNBEATABLE SQUIRREL GIRL BEATS UP THE MARVEL UNIVERSE, a comic that is so ensconced within the lore and history of Marvel comics that its very title is a reference to one classic graphic novel (The Punisher Kills the Marvel Universe) and its basic premise calls back to a different classic run from within Marvel’s history (The Clone Saga). So for someone who didn’t even know that Iron Man had a ‘60s cartoon, the idea of reviewing this graphic novel may seem a bit presumptuous and I don’t doubt that I’m missing a lot of its cleverness. But here’s the thing: For all that? The real thing this comic is about is the history of Squirrel Girl herself, and a tension between the character’s history and her ongoing series.
A quick synopsis: THE UNBEATABLE SQUIRREL GIRL BEATS UP THE MARVEL UNIVERSE is a 113 page original graphic novel written and drawn (as always) by the inestimable Ryan North and Erica Henderson respectively. Squirrel Girl and her superhero team of Chipmunk Hunk & Koi Boy, along with less-super but still heroic squad mates Nancy Whitehead and Tippy-Toe, are invited to Stark Tower to see Iron Man’s new and as-yet untested invention. Inevitably, things go awry, Squirrel Girl is accidentally shoved into the machine, and two Squirrel Girls emerge — Our familiar Dorren Green, and new Squirrel Girl Allene Green. (Allene turns out to be Doreen’s middle name, because of course it is.) The two Squirrel Girls come to blows three days later, and we’re ready for at least one of them to enact the scenario promised by the title.
As we’d expect, the writing is breezy and enjoyable, filled with lovely in-jokes buried within panels, reinforced by amusing footnotes and featuring strong character work on just about everyone. North seems particularly energised by the chance to do longer-form arcs within the graphic novel format and relishes the more relaxed pace. (A brief interlude involving an activity page and a fight scene is beautifully paid off a few pages later; a particularly meta gag that may have felt too intrusive within 22 pages but is well worth the time within over a hundred.) And of course, he delivers on the title’s promise: He creates a preposterous yet weirdly credible scenario by which Squirrel Girl defeats every single character of the Marvel Universe. (It does call back in a way to a particular story beat of The Punisher Kills The Marvel Universe.) Overall, it’s not his most amusing work within the Squirrel Girl franchise, but it is entertaining nonetheless.
Henderson’s art continues to be a perfect match for North’s style — while it’s been unjustly criticised by many for its pointedly cartoony exaggerations of both body and facial movement, she knows when to rein it back in to let an emotional punch land and when to push it to accentuate North’s frenetic storytelling. I couldn’t imagine this series without her, and that’s as true for ‘BEATS UP THE MARVEL UNIVERSE as anything.
Thematically, though, what carries the most weight is the reason for the conflict between the two Squirrel Girls. And it is here, I feel, that North is really making his stand on why he feels Squirrel Girl is a relevant and important character for the Marvel Universe, while also acknowledging that to make her be relevant in this fashion, he’s had to fundamentally reinvent the character.
Let’s step back. Squirrel Girl was introduced to the Marvel Universe in 1992 by Steve Dikto and Will Murray. Her conception in this original story is clear: Her powers are unusual and not obviously useful, but she unexpectedly punches far above her weight and defeats Dr. Doom. However, it was not until 2005 and Dan Slott’s 2005 Great Lakes Avengers mini-series that her character appeal became solidified in this way: Squirrel Girl’s mythology developed around her beating incredibly powerful Marvel villains in surprising ways with clever uses of her limited power set. It was this reputation that created the title for the new series, The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl.
But… well, that’s not the Squirrel Girl we’ve got. Squirrel Girl of the past was a combatant. While her defeats of villains were creative and surprising, they none the less fit the standard bill of a ‘superhero fight’. By contrast, North’s comic (freed from the expectations of the superhero genre by slipping instead into the comedy genre) sees Squirrel Girl as less combatant and more problem-solver. Sure, she may never lose, but she’d rather nobody else had to either. She’s a master of compromise and finding ‘third way’ solutions to intractable problems.
And this forms what is really the clever crux of THE UNBEATABLE SQUIRREL GIRL BEATS UP THE MARVEL UNIVERSE — Squirrel Girl’s clone isn’t evil. She’s just the Squirrel Girl of earlier books, given a bit of a psychological deconstruction along the way. And North is arguing that this shift between the two is pronounced, so much so that the two are unable to avoid coming to blows. (Although, given the nature of Doreen Green, naturally it will not end in blows.)
North’s writing becomes most passionate on this point — He believes in the values that his Doreen Green espouses; of compromise and lateral thinking. The comic never deviates too far from its comedic tone but finds time to make that message clear. It criticises dogmatism and argues instead for tolerance and moderation of belief. (In a weird way, it’s oddly topical within the midst of this particular US presidential election season.)
Thankfully, the comic does not belabour this meta-narrative too heavily. It’s more interested in creating Allene’s clever beat-ups and allowing Doreen the chance to show off her lateral thinking skills in hilarious fashion. But there is a brain underneath the silliness, and it’s what has elevated The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl before and what continues to do so here.