“Squirrel Girl stories are Squirrel Girl stories”: Ryan North on the Making of The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl

Today brings the end of The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl, while yesterday brought by very long feature on the making and magic of that series. Within the latter piece were a whole lot of quotes from series writer Ryan North, and because he gave me so much and I only had room for a portion of that, I wanted to continue the book’s celebration by publishing his interview in full.

Within it, we get into his personal history with the character, the development of the series, the importance of the computer science angle, the power of family to the series, and a whole lot more, as it’s a deep dive into everything that went into that long-running title. It’s a whole lot of fun even though it was more designed as an informational interview to feed into an article, but North – per usual – knocked it out of the park and made the whole thing entertaining as heck. So give it a read, and stay tuned for one last Squirrel Girl-centric piece, which will likely be dropping on Thursday.

From Marvel Super Heroes Vol. 2 #8, art by Steve Ditko

I know you researched the character a lot once Wil Moss asked you to pitch, but what was your awareness of Squirrel Girl before that?

Ryan North: Not a lot! I knew that she was someone with squirrel powers, but I’m not even sure I knew about the unbeatable aspect to her reputation. I was basically going in cold! I was lucky that there wasn’t a lot of Squirrel Girl books to read at that time, so I could, over the course of just a few hours, read every single comic that Squirrel Girl had ever appeared in. That’s a rare treat when you’re working on an established character! Usually you’re reading the highlights and the recent stuff and hoping you’re not going to contradict something that came before 30 years ago, because you literally can’t sit down and read every single comic that, say, Spider-Man has been in. Though now that I say that, I should mention that Chip Zdarsky read every single comic that Spider-Man had been in for his “Life Story” series, so I guess I just had it easy! SORRY CHIP, YOU SNOOZE YOU LOSE.

Wil asked you to pitch on this book, and it was definitely an unexpected project at the time as the character had never had her own comic or really even much depth built into her. She was mostly a gag character. What appealed to you about this opportunity, and how similar was your original pitch to what we eventually read? Did it go through any unexpected permutations as you and Wil worked through it?

RN: What I initially pitched was an all-ages series that you wouldn’t need to know a lot of Marvel history to enjoy. And I pitched it because I thought it was a good idea, but also because I initially didn’t have a huge well of Marvel knowledge to draw from. So it was both a good idea AND a clever and self-serving idea.

The first pitch was basically all about Squirrel Girl and Galactus: there were no supporting characters, no Nancy, no Chipmunk Hunk, just these two main characters doing their thing. And I sent it into Wil and he wrote back and said “Great, but who are the other people in her life?” and I was like “Oh right, right, yes that WOULD be what a competent writer would do”. The only element that really didn’t make it into the book was this: there was initially going to be a cool “solving mysteries on campus” element. I wanted to show Doreen doing good and solving crimes both in and out of costume and kinda lean into some fun mystery stuff. But then Gotham Academy came out and did that solving mysteries on campus thing really well and I loved it, so I made the easy decision to drop it! I hadn’t gotten much further than thinking “hey it’d be cool if she solved some campus mysteries” so there wasn’t really much to undo there.

The only big change came after I’d sent in my first script. In the final comic that was published, there’s a bit where Doreen tries to figure out how she can stop Kraven the Hunter, and she imagines a bunch of different scenarios: should she stuff squirrels down his pants? Should she blind him with squirrels so that he walks into a pole? And then she decides to talk to him. In my original draft, she just stuck squirrels down his pants and then beat him that way. And Wil read it and told me that he always saw Doreen as someone who’d help people with their problems, and I tell you, it was like reading the answer sheet at the back of the book. Of COURSE that’s who Doreen is! So I told him to never speak of that draft again and quickly sent over the new scene, where she DOES address his root problem, which is what ended up in the book. It’s crazy that something to fundamental to who Doreen is – that’s really come to define her – was this empathy and understanding she brings to everyone… and it wasn’t there when we started out. But as soon as I had that note I could instantly see who Doreen was and was acutely embarrassed by that earlier draft that had this weird non-Doreen in it. When she finally arrived, it was fully formed.

Oh, and there was one more change: she was originally going to be in school for computer science, but at one point I’d changed it to English, because I was worried it was a little self-serving to have her study what I’D studied in school – it’d be almost TOO easy to write, right? No research required. But that phase only lasted a day and then my wife told me that I was being insane and it was way better for her to study CS than English, and she was RIGHT.

A look at Erica Henderson’s (first) new Squirrel Girl costume

As noted before, Doreen was sort of a blank slate before then. Did that allow you and Erica to really take control of the character and define her in an atypically significant way?

RN: Oh, for sure. Erica did sheets of different character designs, just all sorts of jumping-off points, all from scratch. She told me her first question to Wil was “can I change her costume”. And Wil told me that I could feel free to take or ignore anything that had been established before: she could be in school, she could be just starting school, or she could’ve graduated and was off in the world now. It was really open and freeing, and it gave us all the space and trust that was needed to do something different with her!

One of my favorite random things about the series is seeing the kids but particularly little girls who either write in or have their parents write in about their love of Doreen’s adventures. I know making this a comic for everyone was a deliberate effort by you and the rest of the team. Was that reflective of your personal approach to character and comics, or was that more because it just seemed to fit who Doreen was?

RN: I was coming off my work on Adventure Time, and Erica and I both wanted to make a comic that was all-ages: not “for kids”, but literally for everyone. So it was intentional to have that accessibility built-in, to make something that could be someone’s first comic ever (a huge privilege) but to also have things in it that would appeal to people who’d been reading comics since forever ago. And Squirrel Girl was in a great position for that: she’s fun, even her name is fun to say, and it gets across this idea of “you’ll enjoy this”. So I guess to answer your question, it was a little of both!

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