As a superhero comic, The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl is unique for a number of reasons: the millennial humor, the distinctly non-sexualized female protagonist, the lighter tone, and the sheer quantity of squirrels, to name a few (some of these elements are discussed more in depth in an earlier blogpost). All of these elements make Squirrel Girl a different type of comic with its own importance, but perhaps what sets Squirrel Girl apart the most in today’s superhero comic landscape is its approach to violence and focus on the empathy and humanity of its characters.
Superhero comics are typically built upon violence, centering on epic battles between heroes and villains. In fact, there’s a long-standing trend of particularly dark and gritty superhero comics gathering wide acclaim (Alan Moore’s Watchmen and The Killing Joke, the original The Dark Knight Returns batman comic run and later DC film trilogy). Many of these darker takes are widely praised specifically for their realism (in an interview here, The Dark Knight trilogy director, Christopher Nolan says the aim of his adaptation was the ground the story in humanity and realism). While these ultra violent comics may have their place, The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl takes a radically different path, and perhaps one that feels more human than any gritty realism creators conjure up.
In an interview,, The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl author Ryan North discusses the powerful empathy of Squirrel Girl:
“It [North’s original draft of Squirrel Girl’s fight with Kraven] worked, but it was a “standard” superhero victory – at least as standard as Squirrel Girl gets. Our editor Wil Moss told me that he always saw Doreen as the kind of person who helps people with their problems, and it was like looking at the back of a teacher’s manual where all the answers are. I told him to ignore the draft I sent him and read a new one I’d send over real quickly, and in that version – the same as in the published one – Squirrel Girl and Kraven work it out, instead of fighting.
That’s been a defining aspect of Squirrel Girl ever since – her ability to listen, to empathize – and while that was there in the first issue, it wasn’t there at the first draft of the first issue!”
(Read the full interview here)
As evident in North’s words and The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl Vol. 1, what makes Squirrel Girl so powerful is not primarily her mad fighting skills or army of squirrels, but her empathy and willingness to connect to the foes she faces off against on a personal level. Her battles are not traditional battles, and her victories not traditional victories. It’s plain to see what a dramatic departure this is from other superhero comics, especially when putting The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl side by side with other comics featuring the very same villains in wildly different scenarios.
The first major villain Squirrel Girl faces off against in her solo comic is Kraven the Hunter, traditionally a foil for Spider-man. Kraven’s probably most well known for his appearance in Kraven’s Last Hunt, a widely acclaimed 1987 Spider-man storyline. The gist of the story goes something like this: Kraven supposedly kills Spider-man, Kraven beats up a lot of people wearing the Spider-man mask, Spider-man digs himself out of his grave, Spider-man comes out victorious in the ensuing, and Kraven kills himself (a decision that garnered some criticism despite the comic’s overall acclaim). Clearly, this comic and The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl have very different tones and aims, so my intent in bringing up the contrast is not to compare the quality or validity of the two, but instead to bring into consideration how Squirrel Girl completely reframes pre-established superhero stories and characters in a dramatic way.
The bright color palette and cartoonish style of Squirrel Girl help create the light tone of the overall comic. Because of this, as well as the comic’s humor and frequent ridiculousness, it’s easy to dismiss Squirrel Girl as juvenile or not worthy of being seriously considered and discussed as a superhero comic. But to dismiss Squirrel Girl as having little value beyond being fun (which it certainly is) is a mistake.
There’s something radical about making kindness and understanding superpowers. Squirrel Girl posits that light-heartedness, fun, and empathy don’t always have to be sacrificed to create a world that’s real and complex, and that highlighting a superhero’s humanity doesn’t always have to mean their guilt or depression or general moodiness. Squirrel Girl asks us to consider humanity through kindness, and in doing so sets itself apart and creates a new framework for telling superhero stories, one that feels particularly refreshing in our modern media landscape.
Despite being part squirrel, Squirrel Girl might be one of the most human superheroes out there.