Friday, January 9, 2015

The Pull List: The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl #1 Review

I'm not going to even be discreet about this in any way: I absolutely loved the first issue of The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl. It's hilarious, bizarrely self-aware, and dammit, yes, it is 100% feminist without having the call itself just that - but I'll get back to that in a second.

No spoilers after the cut!

The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl #1
Siya Oum* Variant Cover
Via Comic Vine
I'll admit I was dubious about the whole concept when I first read about it in Previews World, and I wasn't even remotely familiar with the source material, so I had no idea who all these people were who were apparently clamoring for her return. I was even hesitant to purchase it, but since I no longer work at the comic book shop** back in Louisville (recent transfer to Columbia, SC), I didn't really feel comfortable just walking into a new comic store and plopped down to preview the book myself. Plus, the place I'm probably going to end up shopping at bags and boards all of their new comics prior to putting them on the stands (although I'm sure they'd have no issue with me taking them out if I asked them), so I graciously paid for this week's comics and drove home to read them. And I was in no way disappointed.

Ryan North's tenure on Adventure Time definitely shines through the whole issue: the witty dialogue, the not-really-a-plot-but-actually-there-is-one succession of events, the friendship with a squirrel, etc. The supporting characters, like Doreen's roommate Nancy Whitehead and Tomas who wears a T sweatshirt (just in case he forgets?), have their own distinctive personalities (Nancy's list of things to get put on her shitlist made me laugh aloud), and I look forward to seeing them develop as the series continues. And can I just say how much I adore Erica Henderson's art? Maybe it comes from falling in love with She-Hulk and Adventure Time, but I can appreciate not-so-realistic artwork way more than I could before. It's definitely cartoony, sure, but in all honesty, could you see Squirrel Girl being drawn any other way? It also fits with the whole idea of feminism that I mentioned above, which I promise I'll get to.

This series - well, the first issue, anyway - is on par with the fun level of Captain Marvel, and anyone who knows me well knows that is one of the highest compliments I can award something. Doreen is spunky and has a sense of responsibility akin to Peter Parker's Spider-Man but without the self-loathing. She's also so incredibly comfortable with her body, and her wits are her strongest feature. Her handling of Kraven in the finale is surprisingly intuitive, something akin to the My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic and Sailor Moon. And no, that is in no way an insult. I wish that more comics would take alternative routes to defeating the bad guys, although it seems relegated to comics that are geared toward women or younger adults.

And this is where I get back to the feminism thing. Nowhere in the entire book did anybody mention the word, and I can't recall that it was discussed by the author or artist, but The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl has the F-word flowing through it. First, she's not a passive observer, and while she does use violence as a way to defeat the park muggers in the first few pages, she can just as easily switch to resolving an issue by using her words. I almost think that she prefers this method, seeing as she merely wants to help people, similar to Ms. Marvel's Kamala Khan. Second, Doreen's self-confidence, in both her body and her abilities, is empowering. It's amusing when she describes her own ass as "conspicuously awesome," but you so rarely see women in movies, TV, or comics complimenting their bodies in front of a mirror that it is a much more important image than it seems to be. Henderson's portrayal of Squirrel Girl is also a factor here: she isn't drawing Doreen to be an obvious sex symbol. She is supposed to be a role model for young and adult women as someone who can exist in the world without being an object of desire for both the male characters and male readers - without having to forsake that body confidence and self-love.

Third, Doreen is going to college to expand her education and chose a fairly male-dominated field: computer science. Why this isn't being discussed more is kind of baffling to me, but here it is: Squirrel Girl is a BAMF. Not only does she have strength and agility, she has the smarts - and like I said above, the confidence - to essentially say, "I'm going to be invaluable." And I love her little statement after she reveals her choice of major to Tippy-Toe:
"Tips, higher education is about bettering yourself, and I already know literally everything about squirrels. I'm Squirrel Girl. I'm not Achieving Consistency Across Distributed Database Systems Girl. Well ... (with a determined smirk) Not yet." 
And fourth, like I began to say in the above paragraph, it seems like, once someone (aka a dude) hits a certain age, he is expected to pick edgier titles like Batman or Crossed, and he is constantly threatened by mockery if it's discovered that he enjoys something like, oh, I don't know, the soon-to-be-released Jem. I once talked to a former coworker of mine about why I loved the My Little Pony comic series so much, and once I finally got him to admit that there are other ways to tell a story than the traditional comic book fare, he actually conceded that My Little Pony may have its merits, although he would never read an issue in public. The thing is, it's supposedly written for girls and young children (unless you talk to a Brony, which may open up some very uncomfortable doors for you, depending on who it is) and is therefore unsuitable for an adult (insert male as the qualifier here). True, The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl is definitely lighter in tone, but that doesn't mean that incredibly deep messages can't be discussed in them. Dirt and grit do not a mature story make. As a matter of fact, I think taking the dark tone can be the easy way out; your hero sees no other options than his or her fists or bombs or whatever, and so your readers, no matter how impressionable they may or may not be, can start to see the world that narrowly, as well.

Based on this first issue - and like I predicted in this week's Pull List - I am already adding The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl to the Definitely To-Buy portion. Everything, from the art to the writing to the marketing to the teeny messages at the bottom of each page, makes this quite possibly one of the best first issues I've ever read, and yes, it is on par with last month's Bitch Planet. I felt the energy coming off of the pages and found myself genuinely loving reading about a girl who has a squirrel tail***. You know what, that's putting it mildly. I was inspired by this book. I want to have Doreen's self-assured attitude; I want to apologize to every squirrel I've purposefully scared away; I want to dress up as Squirrel Girl for Halloween; I want everyone to read this series and then talk to me about how much they love it. Basically, Silk and Spider-Gwen better knock my socks off because the bar has been set.

* Hey, Marvel, if you can just give Siya Oum her own book, that'd be great. I love her style and use of color, and even though her characters are always beautiful, it's in a naturalistic way that doesn't make it seem like it was drawn for male-only consumption.
** Just so you guys know, I probably am only going to be doing one review per week for the next few weeks, just until I get settled. While the move wasn't as stressful as it could have been, I'm doing a lot of arranging and putting away - plus working on some of my own stuff which I'll begin to preview here in February - and that can get exceptionally tiring. Apologies!
*** For those of you who don't know, I have a fairly contemptuous relationship with squirrels, ever since one stole my brownie in Disney World.
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