This is the paper about Squirrel Girl that I gave at Wiscon last weekend. It was a lot of fun to write and to present.
I Don’t Need Luck, I Eat Nuts: Squirrel Girl and Female Comics Fandom
Miami University (OH)
SLIDE 1 Let me begin by asking you, who is the most powerful superhero in the Marvel Universe? If you say the Hulk or Thor or the Silver Surfer, you are wrong. The answer is Squirrel Girl. SLIDE 2 She has defeated villains like Dr. Doom and Thanos with nothing but her bare hands. She has never lost a battle and she probably never will, because she’s awesome. SLIDE 3 Now this character probably sounds like a joke to you, and she is, but she also has serious things to tell us about superhero comics and their audiences. Previously, Squirrel Girl was a character intended as a satire on the superhero genre, and she was only funny to existing fans of superhero comic books, who were largely straight white men. But in her new series, Unbeatable Squirrel Girl, she’s turned into more of an affectionate joke that can be shared both by existing fans and by new readers, and for that reason, she’s become a central part of Marvel’s recent efforts to expand the reach of the superhero genre.
So the context for this paper is that until very recently, superhero comics have been a primarily male-dominated genre. As I argued in a recent article on the Hooded Utilitarian blog, the comics industry, as a whole, has recently made major strides toward diversification, specifically in terms of appealing to women as well as younger readers and to readers of color. Right now six of the top ten books on the New York Times bestseller list for Paperback Graphic Books had at least one female creator, and last week it was nine out of ten. SLIDE 4 Graphic novels like Persepolis and Fun Home are staples on university syllabi. The one exception to this trend has been superhero comics. Marvel and DC comics still tend to be created mostly by and for men, and the comic book store continues to be a primarily male environment. SLIDE 5 However, at this situation is changing. Marvel, and increasingly also DC, have sought to reach out to new audiences, including female readers and people who got into comic books through the Internet, and those categories overlap. And Squirrel Girl is interesting as an example of these shifts in the target audience for the superhero genre.
To explain this, I need to describe Squirrel Girl’s past history. Squirrel Girl is Doreen Green, a teenage girl who has buck teeth and a bushy tail and the ability to speak to and command squirrels. She was created in 1991 by Will Murray, who is famous mostly this reason, and Steve Ditko, the co-creator of Spider-Man and Dr. Strange. She first appeared in a 1991 story where she teams up with Iron Man and unsuccessfully asks to be his sidekick, and then she battles Dr. Doom and wins defeats him by summoning a horde of squirrels to attack him. SLIDE 6 And the title of this presentation comes from what Squirrel Girl says when Iron Man wishes her luck. SLIDE 7
If this story looks and sounds kind of stupid, then it is. And in 1991, it blatantly contradicted the dominant tone of Marvel comics. At the time, Marvel’s core audiences were teenage boys and older men who had been reading Marvel comics their entire lives. These audiences wanted superhero comics to be serious. Due to the influence of Watchmen and Dark Knight Returns in the ‘80s, superhero comics in the ‘90s tried to be grim, dark and violent. SLIDE 8 Marvel’s biggest-selling characters at the time were murderous vigilantes like Ghost Rider and Punisher. SLIDE 9 Also, Marvel’s creators as well as their readers were obsessed with internal consistency. When you bought a Marvel comics, there was an implicit warranty that it fit into the same universe as every other Marvel comic and that it didn’t violate continuity or misrepresent the characters. Marvel comics were supposed to be Serious Business. Therefore, the Squirrel Girl story stood out like a sore thumb because it was silly and because it contradicted the established character of Dr. Doom – he was supposed to be this terrible villain and yet he was defeated by a buck-toothed 14-year-old girl and a horde of rodents. It was an embarrassing scene that both Marvel creators and fans would prefer to forget – kind of like the story where the Thing and the Human Torch wear Beatles wigs, SLIDE 10 or the story with a villain who erases people. SLIDE 11 These stories were published in the ‘60s when Marvel took itself less seriously and had a broader target audience. By 1991, Marvel’s audience was defined in such a way as to exclude the sort of readers who would have thought Squirrel Girl was funny. And this is probably why she did not make another significant appearance for the next fourteen years. She was buried, like so many acorns.
But comic book writers have as good a memory for old characters as squirrels have for buried nuts, and so in 2005, Dan Slott revived Squirrel Girl for his miniseries Great Lakes Avengers. SLIDE 12 Now briefly, Great Lakes Avengers was a piece of self-parody on Marvel’s part. The Great Lakes Avengers were a group of joke characters who were created by John Byrne in 1989, and Dan Slott used them to make fun of the negative tendencies of post-‘80s superhero comics, including excessive violence and obsession with continuity. For a couple reasons, Squirrel Girl fit perfectly into this effort. First, her lighthearted, wholesome attitude allows her to make fun of the excessive violence and grimness of the comics of the period. And in this sense she acts as a mouthpiece for the author. This series breaks the fourth wall, so Squirrel Girl is aware she’s in a comic book. SLIDE 13 And she does things like complain about the unrealistic portrayal of women in superhero comics or the excessive level of violence. For example, in issue 3, Squirrel Girl looks at a comic book and says “Oh my, this poor lady! I think all her internal organs got squeezed up into her chest.” In the next issue, when her squirrel sidekick Monkey Joe is brutally killed, Squirrel Girl says “Don’t you get it? This is a comic book and comic books are supposed to be fun.” And she continues: “Who would do that and put it in a comic book? Who’d want to read about somebody dying like that?” SLIDE 14 Oh, and also it turns out Monkey Joe was killed by someone walking on his brain, which is a specific reference to a contemporary DC comic called Infinite Crisis where the Elongated Man’s wife is killed in the same way, and this is so subtle that even I didn’t get it. SLIDE 15 Now the humor here depends on the reader’s knowledge that excessive violence and sexist portrayals of women were endemic to superhero comics at the time. In other words, these jokes are only funny to you if you already read superhero comics and you are also annoyed at their graphic violence or their depictions of women with impossible proportions. The implied audience here is people who grew up reading superhero comics and who are annoyed at the direction the genre is taken.
Now Dan Slott also uses Squirrel Girl to tell another kind of joke that also appeals primarily to existing fans of superhero comics. Half the fun of superhero comics is their narrative consistency. The Marvel and DC Universes are giant shared universes where events in one title influence events in other titles, and that means maintaining consistency across the universe is important. Part of that is maintaining the relative power of characters. The other half of the fun of superhero comics is debating which character is the most powerful and which character could beat which other character up. So Dan Slott makes fun of that by exaggerating Squirrel Girl’s ability to defeat much more powerful villains, which was first demonstrated when she beat up Dr. Doom. In the GLXmas Holiday Special Squirrel Girl single-handedly defeats Thanos, off-panel, and Uatu the Watcher confirms that this is the real Thanos and not a clone or a Life Model Decoy. SLIDE 16 The joke here is that Thanos is one of the most powerful villains in the Marvel Universe, and not only did he just get beaten by a teenage girl and her pet rodents, but the fact that this happened is an official part of Marvel Universe continuity. So Dan Slott is using Squirrel Girl to make a mockery of the narrative logic of the Marvel Universe, and again, this joke is only funny to people who already understand that narrative logic.
So to summarize, when Squirrel Girl was created, she had no target audience at all. When she was reintroduced, her target audience was existing fans of Marvel comics. Now the current Unbeatable Squirrel Girl series marks a new direction for the character because its target audience is people who aren’t already fans of superhero comics, specifically including women and/or people who discovered comics through the Internet. Because of that, Squirrel Girl demonstrates how Marvel is transforming the superhero genre by broadening its appeal.
Now in the first place, Squirrel Girl is notable for its appeal to Internet fandom. All the previous Squirrel Girl comics were created by people who had worked primarily in superhero comics. Unbeatable Squirrel Girl is written by Ryan North, who comes from a very different comics tradition; his other best-known works are his webcomic Dinosaur Comics and his Choose Your Own Adventure version of Hamlet. SLIDE 17 I don’t know as much about the artist, Erica Henderson, but her official biography states that she’s worked primarily in video game illustration and on non-superhero comics like Atomic Robo and Adventure Time. Now Unbeatable Squirrel Girl reflects the creators’ interests in digital and Internet culture. At the bottom of every page of every issue there’s a hidden message in barely readable text, which is essentially the same as the alt text in webcomics. The comic contains other references to Internet and video game culture. The cover of issue 4 is a deliberate homage to Marvel vs Capcom, SLIDE 18 and the actual issue begins with a fake Tumblr feed. The creators even manipulate the currently common practice of distributing preview pages from upcoming comic books over the Internet. In the preview of issue 4, there’s one page showing Squirrel Girl sitting on top of Galactus’s prone body and saying “Well, gosh, that wasn’t so hard after all!” SLIDE 19 And then the two pages after that are the letter column. Now when this issue was previewed on sites like comicbookresources.com, the preview included just these three pages. Customarily the letter column appears at the end of a comic book, so if you read the preview, you would think that this page here is the last page and the comic book ends with Squirrel Girl beating Galactus. But actually the preview pages are the first three pages in the comic, so the comic begins with Squirrel Girl beating Galactus and the rest of the comic comes after the letters page. I’ll pass around the comic book so you can see what I mean. The point is, this joke is only funny if you first read the preview of the comic book on the Internet, and then read the actual comic book.
So in order to get all these jokes, you have to be familiar with video games and Internet culture and other digital phenomena, and you also have to be reading comic books digitally, whereas in the previous Squirrel Girl comics, the humor basically just assumed knowledge of other comic books. That means the implied reader of this comic is someone who’s very media-savvy. And the protagonists of the comic are highly media-savvy themselves. You may have noticed that when Squirrel Girl was sitting on top of Galactus, she was taking a selfie. The other major character in the series, Squirrel Girl’s roommate Nancy, is a fanfiction writer who writes stories where her cat becomes Cat-Thor, Cat-God of Cat-Thunder. SLIDE 20 So Squirrel Girl is one of several recent Marvel titles that have included extended references to digital culture. And this is significant because in the past, Marvel was completely out of touch with the Internet; a notorious example of this is the scene in Civil War: Frontline where an interviewer asks Captain America if he has a Myspace page. SLIDE 21 But with titles like Unbeatable Squirrel Girl, Marvel is reaching out to people who discovered comics not by visiting comic book stores but through Internet spaces like Scans_Daily and Tumblr, and this opens up the comic to new and diverse groups of fans. In this context it’s also relevant that in terms of the artwork, Unbeatable Squirrel Girl has much more in common with cartoons like Adventure Time than with typical superhero comics, and this means Squirrel Girl is more appealing to new readers than to people who are used to the typical Marvel house style. On comicbookresources.com, when the first issue was previewed, people complained about the artwork precisely because it didn’t look like a standard Marvel comic, but that’s the whole point. By using this style of artwork, Erica Henderson is able to attract fans of intellectual properties like Adventure Time that have much larger audiences than comic books.
But the other way that Unbeatable Squirrel Girl tries to attract a new audience is because it takes the character seriously, and again, this makes it a major departure from past Squirrel Girl comics. Under previous writers, Squirrel Girl’s unbeatability was a joke. Dan Slott decided to emphasize Squirrel Girl’s ability to defeat villains like Modok and Thanos because he wanted to make a mockery of the Marvel Universe – he was basically saying, look, fans, you think these villains are so powerful and awful, well, it turns out they can be beaten by a bucktoothed teenage girl with idiotic powers. And Squirrel Girl didn’t win these battles legitimately, she won because of authorial fiat, that is to say, she won because the writer said so. When Squirrel Girl defeats Thanos, it happens entirely off-panel and there’s no explanation of how she did it. By contrast, in Unbeatable Squirrel Girl, Squirrel Girl wins because she deserves to win. She may just be a squirrel, but as she reminds us repeatedly, squirrels are pretty savage creatures, especially in large numbers. SLIDE 22 But on top of that, even though Squirrel Girl could just beat people up, she thinks it’s more important to make peace with them. In issue 1, she gets rid of Kraven the Hunter by convincing him to go hunt undersea monsters instead of Spider-Man. In issue 4, she quote-unquote “defeats” Galactus, the most powerful entity in the Marvel Universe, by convincing him that instead of eating Earth, he should go eat another planet that’s covered with delicious nuts. So this version of Squirrel Girl is a truly formidable character and she’s unbeatable because she uses her brains and her emotional intelligence as well as her squirrel powers. And she’s also depicted as a committed and responsible and intellectually curious person. She decides to study computer science in college instead of squirrels, because she already knows everything about squirrels and she doesn’t just want to be Squirrel Girl, she also wants to be Ensuring Consistency Across Distributed Database Systems Girl. She’s also comfortable with her body, despite not having the sort of physique that’s become stereotypical in superhero comics. Maybe the most widely shared panel of issue 1 on social media was this one, in which Squirrel Girl disguises her secret identity by stuffing her tail into her pants, so she “appear[s] to have a conspicuously large and conspicuously awesome butt.” SLIDE 23 As Kelly Thompson writes, “Squirrel Girl is also not drawn to look “traditionally beautiful” … her body shape, height, and even her haircut are totally atypical for “pretty” and idealized comic book heroines. It’s actually kind of amazing that the book gets away with it and I love everyone involved all the more for just going for it.” So I would argue that in all these ways, Unbeatable Squirrel Girl is a subversively feminist superhero title in the sense that it takes what was previously a joke character and turns her into a genuine role model, an example of positive female representation that a broad range of readers can identify with.
But in a larger sense, the reason Unbeatable Squirrel Girl expands the scope of the superhero genre because it unabashedly accepts the silliness of the superhero genre. Because even though this comic takes Squirrel Girl seriously, this is still a humor title. It features things like a giant human-sized squirrel colony punching people. Now Great Lakes Avengers is also a humor title, but its humor is fundamentally negative. It emphasizes the embarrassing nature of the superhero genre and it makes the reader feel ashamed of reading it. This is a common theme in parodies of comic book fandom, although there are others, like Evan Dorkin’s Eltingville Club, that are far harsher. SLIDE 24 The difference with Unbeatable Squirrel Girl is that it accepts the fundamental silliness and implausibility of the superhero genre and suggests that this is a good thing and that reading superhero comics is not something anyone should be ashamed of. And this is important because it shatters the prejudice that superhero comics are only for basement-dwelling nerds. Ultimately the message of Unbeatable Squirrel Girl is that a girl with squirrel powers is neither more nor less silly than a man who dresses up as a bat, and that the one is just as valid as the other.