Fur She’s A Jolly Good Fellow: Doreen Delights in ‘The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl’ #1
The closest thing Marvel has to a pure superhero, the return of Squirrel Girl with a new ongoing series from Ryan North, Erica Henderson, Rico Renzi and Clayton Cowles is very good news indeed. First seen in a classic Steve Ditko story where she canonically proved herself to be stronger than class 100 cyberwizard Doctor Doom and smarter than the +40 intellect of Tony Stark, the character has taken on cultish status over the last few years. The basic idea is: no matter how tough a character says they are, or their fanbase wants them to be, this teenage girl with Squirrel Powers is always going to be tougher.
It’s a lovely little satire of the ‘rumbles’ mentality comics fandom can have sometimes, putting a young, enthusiastic optimist at the top of their pile whilst the roided-up goliath monsters tremble before her nutty powers. It also proves to be a compelling hook for this first issue of her improbable solo series, which is delivered with some style by a creative team who are clearly having fun with the book. Artistically, especially, the book has a particularly distinct look, and one which twists the typical Marvel aesthetic into something new and peculiar.
Colorist Rico Renzi is the unassailable star of this opening issue. His colors, right from the start, throw the reader into an alternative version of the Marvel Universe where you can imagine Kraven the Hunter wandering round random colleges like a skeev, and life is a little broader. Henderson tends to use a lot of blank backgrounds in the comic, to stand a particular character out from the rest of the world, and Renzi throws on green and yellow filters across each of these backgrounds, wherever possible. This gives off an uneasy effect where everything stood behind Squirrel Girl seems off-kilter and hazy, like it barely exists. It creates a dreamlike effect which floats through each page of the issue and allows the comic to skew in some silly directions.
Henderson’s artwork often warps the perspective so characters bend and turn in ways that break the laws of gravity, and this fish-eye effect also serves the purpose of further pushing the Unbeatable Squirrel Girl away from reality. Just as Javier Pulido or David Aja play to realism in anatomy to emphasize the abilities of their heroes, so Henderson plays to unrealism, and the off-putting effect is really distinctive and effective in making Squirrel Girl seem out of the ordinary. The artistic team, first and foremost, are where the comic thrives.
Henderson's costume designs are also fun. She takes parts of Squirrel Girl’s established look and jettisons them entirely, making her look more like a real person – and a young girl – than she ever has before. Not since Ditko has there been such a reminder that these feats are being performed by a teenager, rather than a full-grown woman. She’s not got the usual hourglass body of a superheroine, and her happiness to simply be herself continues the character on her decades-long charm offensive. She hasn’t got any issues with her body: she’s proud to be who she is. It’s not commented on in the issue, but made clear from the artwork, and it’s a hugely likeable aspect of this story.
Henderson also puts Kraven in these tiny little booties which are absolutely fantastic and possibly worth buying the issue for alone.
There will be those who don’t like Henderson’s style. The book is very much not in line with any particular house style that might be assumed to Marvel, and in fact seems like a deliberate attempt to bring in the unique artistic aesthetic which brought so much success to Lumberjanes. There’s a lot in common between the two series, with Henderson’s artwork ranging into cartoonish overstatement when the joke requires it to. She keeps things consistent, and mostly manages to prevent the comic from being too broad.
North’s script is a little slight at times, with the majority of the issue centred around a protracted fight/debate between Squirrel Girl, her pet squirrel Tippy-Toe, and Kraven the Hunter. This goes on a little long, and the interaction veers from entertaining to overextended in alternating moments. For the most part, the energy stays up, and Henderson/Renzi make sure the story is always enthusiastic. This is quite a slim opening issue, though, and doesn’t quite fit the page count – there feels like there should be more jokes in the book than there are, and there should be a little more weight to the series as a whole.
For example - the supporting cast aren’t as interesting as Squirrel Girl herself, and don’t really register particularly in this first issue. Her roommate doesn’t seem like a particularly interesting character, and serves more as a plot device to set up some (fun) jokes than anything else. Similarly, Squirrel Girl bumps into a few other people throughout the issue, most of whom feel a little bland right now. You have Squirrel Girl and Tippy-Toe as a double-act, and everybody else just sits in their orbit.
That’s perhaps not the sort of criticism readers will care about, when they have a comic where Squirrel Girl fights Kraven the Hunter whilst chatting to a group of belligerent rodents. As I say, the artwork knocks you off-guard very quickly, and all the very silly aspects of the series North introduces as the book goes on pass by undetected. You don’t realise just how ridiculous and fun the comic is until you reach the end, pause, and think back over just exactly what you’ve just read.
What Marvel have here is a book which doesn’t have any particularly lofty goals. It sets out to tell a simple, fun little story, and does so with flair. There is an argument that the first issue feels somewhat slight, but it’s a slight delight at that.