In anticipation of ‘Marvel’s New Warriors,’ meet fan-favorite Squirrel Girl.
This year a team of teenage heroes will reach new audiences in Marvel’s New Warriors. Created in 1991 as a lighthearted reaction to superheroes who’d grown too serious, Marvel’s New Warriors introduced us to an endearing group of teen heroes who normally didn’t get a lot of time in the spotlight dominated by heroic Avengers and Uncanny X-Men. Although Squirrel Girl was never a part of the comic book team, she has been tapped to be a part of the young crew in the upcoming Marvel’s New Warriors TV series.
Squirrel Girl is a relatively obscure Marvel character, if you don’t follow comics. However, she’s tremendously popular among comic book readers, who’ve long been clamoring to see her as part of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. So why the huge fandom? Maybe because Squirrel Girl’s a lot like the folks who read comics themselves.
Created by writer Will Murray and artist Steve Ditko, Squirrel Girl was 15 (“Well, 15 next July, actually, but who cares about dumb stuff like that?”) when she went on her first outing in The Coming of…Squirrel Girl. In the introduction, we see a superhero who’s also a fan of superheroes. Murray said, “I based Squirrel Girl…on a long-ago girlfriend who read comics and was into critters.” Like her young fans, Squirrel Girl is an unabashed fan of superheroes, carrying packs of hero/villain cards with her that identify strengths and weaknesses.
Squirrel Girl’s dream is to be Iron Man’s sidekick, even though “Iron Man is a solo act.” There’s a great amount of humor as she tries to astound him with her abilities — just as you’d expect of any goofy kid out to impress an idol. As she lists her “mutant” abilities, Iron Man shoots down each skill in turn, listing other superheroes who have the same talents.
On its face, it does seem ridiculous: a superhero who can do anything a squirrel can do (she even stashes nuts in her utility belt). But it’s not as ludicrous as you’d suppose, considering one of the world’s most popular heroes of all time “does whatever a spider can.” Squirrel Girl can jump, climb and hop with the proportional strength and agility of a squirrel. She also has sharp claws and knuckle spikes, powerful teeth for chewing, and a tail. And if that’s not enough, she can also talk to squirrels and effectively marshal them into an attack force. And now you might be asking, “What can a squirrel army do?” But remember: this is a universe where even Ant-Man comes out on top.
But it’s the next point that really makes Squirrel Girl stand out.
At first glance, Squirrel Girl may look like a throwaway character — a joke, poking fun at Marvel comics themselves. Her cheerfulness, optimism and need to please may even be reminiscent of early Robin from DC. The difference is that with Squirrel Girl, Marvel turns the tables — she wins by consistently being underestimated.
Squirrel Girl is powerful. While Tony Stark is out testing some experimental armor, she introduces herself by bringing him down! (“I just wanted to show you how rough and tough I can really be.”)
And if that’s not enough, she also employs her quick thinking. When Doctor Doom comes to destroy Iron Man, she manages to easily defeat him, engineering a plan with her rodent friends and rescuing Iron Man in the process.
Squirrel Girl lets us laugh at Marvel, bringing the “comic” back to comic books, but she also represents a stand-in for the kids reading comics themselves. And then she proves she’s no joke by bringing down some of the most powerful supervillains in the Marvel Universe.
Major comic book companies have always worried whether female characters will resonate with audiences. Toxic masculinity has long informed mainstream comics, which in turn perpetuate it. Many female characters in comics are hypersexualized: supposedly powerful women are the size of supermodels, doing battle wearing hardly anything at all. (What tactical advantage does a cleavage cutout afford?)
In contrast — and it may be because she’s a minor — Squirrel Girl was not introduced as a sex object for the young male gaze. Her outfit completely covered her body.
Working in a male-dominated occupation, Squirrel Girl is rarely taken seriously. But again and again, she proves to be extremely powerful and intelligent. Her wit and guile allow her to save the day, but they also lampoon the testosterone-fueled exploits that normally defeat the antagonist. Say what you will about the detective skills of Batman, but his conflicts usually end with a punch. By contrast, Squirrel Girl thwarts Galactus’ plans to eat Earth just by talking to him.
After The Coming of…Squirrel Girl, other than a few cameos, the character really wasn’t seen again at Marvel for almost a decade. In 2005 Dan Slott took a number of characters who’d popped up a few times as comic relief (due to their humorously useless powers) and created the miniseries Great Lakes Avengers.
The characters of GLA, realizing they aren’t very effective on their own, go on a hero drive to add to their team, but the only person they manage to recruit is Squirrel Girl. She’s her ever-plucky self and proves more loyal to the GLA than they deserve.
It’s here that Marvel demonstrates that Squirrel Girl is one of the most powerful characters in its universe. She elicits thanks from S.H.I.E.L.D. agents and defeats supervillains M.O.D.A.K. and, most famously, Thanos. She even has a place in the Civil War story line, defeating Deadpool not by overpowering him but by using her smarts along with her claws to make such minuscule cuts that his healing factor doesn’t kick in.
In contrast with the GLA, who are completely ineffectual, Squirrel Girl is shown to be a full-fledged superhero. And by defeating the most dangerous bad guys in the Marvel Universe, this young girl was more successful than most of the men who’d preceded her.
Because fans adored her, Marvel launched a solo series in 2014 — The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl. Not only is the superhero/previous babysitter for Jessica Jones and Luke Cage now 18, but she’s also going to college to study computer science.
Critics have praised the series for both its humor and its empowering portrayal of the beloved character. However, if you really want to know why the series and its main character are so adored, all you need to do is read the letters printed on the back of the Eisner Award–winning issues. Young women applaud the author, Ryan North, for writing a fun, quirky, geeky, real character they can identify with — and a talented, smart, strong woman they can look up to. They thank the artist, Erica Henderson, for giving them a woman who doesn’t fight crime in her underwear. And they relate to a cheerful character who can succeed as well as or better than her male colleagues. The fact that Marvel gave Squirrel Girl her own series, a rare female-fronted book, proves they realize not only little boys dream of growing up to be superheroes.