Empathy, Footnotes and Family: The Story Behind The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl, Before It Ends

I can tell you the exact moment I knew The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl was something special. It was in the fourth issue of the title’s first volume, as Squirrel Girl and her trusty sidekick/best friend Tippy-Toe (who is a squirrel, of course) face off with Galactus on the moon. We’ve been building to it, and predictably, it’s a one-sided affair…

Favoring Squirrel Girl, of course.

The first and last but also not last page from The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl #4, art by Erica Henderson and Rico Renzi

The first page of the issue doubles as its last, with Squirrel Girl and Tippy-Toe triumphantly taking a selfie above the defeated body of Galactus. Roll credits – literally, as it jumps into the letters column on the second page – and have a nice day. Except, you know, it wasn’t the end, with 19 pages still to go in the issue and the entire story to be told. But that decision to show victory and then jump to the letters column off the top was indicative of something that stood out about this series even from the start: the only rigidity within it was its unrelenting rejection of superhero norms, whether that means atypical story opens, outside-the-box problem solving, or footnotes within the story. That made me love it, as did the rest of the issue, which was basically a chill hang between Doreen (aka Squirrel Girl), Tippy and Galactus on the moon instead of…whatever an actual fight between Galactus and Squirrel Girl would be like.

However, I have to mention this: before I loved it, I was deeply skeptical of the The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl. When it was first announced – as I wrote in the very first review I ever published on SKTCHD – there was a part of my brain that thought it was outrageous Marvel would even publish a Squirrel Girl series. “This isn’t what a Marvel superhero is,” I might have thought then. She was a one-note gag character famous for beating the most super of supervillains off panel. How dare they publish this series when they could be giving me more of something I considered superior, like my precious Nextwave?

But over its 58 issues – with its final issue dropping tomorrow – and single graphic novel release, this series proved itself every bit as effective at rejecting the superhero premise while simultaneously perfecting it as my beloved Nextwave was. I was right when I said that Squirrel Girl wasn’t what a Marvel superhero was; she and her series were more important than that. They were the perfect representations of what Marvel could be. And that, my friends, was a far more interesting and rewarding idea than just going with the usual playbook.

So on the last day before there’s no more of this wondrous, unforgettable, truly unbeatable series, I wanted to look back on The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl with the help of the people who made it what it was. Without Ryan North, Erica Henderson, Derek Charm, Rico Renzi, Wil Moss and friends, none of this would have been possible. This series needed a crack team who could find the nut in the acorn that was Squirrel Girl, and it found the one that could do just that. To celebrate that, we’ll be looking back on how this series came together before examining what exactly made it special, with insight from the bulk of the creative team along the way.

Once upon a time, the idea of Squirrel Girl getting a solo series was an outlandish concept. Before her solo series, she was seemingly little more than a joke regularly worked into issues of Great Lakes Avengers or, more bizarrely, the nanny to Luke Cage and Jessica Jones’ daughter during Brian Michael Bendis’ time on New Avengers. Whenever there’s a character like that, they need an evangelist to become something more. The genesis of The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl starts there, as this character had its advocate in the form of one of Marvel’s longest-tenured employees.

“It was Tom Brevoort’s idea to give her a solo book,” series editor Wil Moss told me. “He and Dan Slott had featured the character in a number of stories over the years, and I think Tom had been waiting for the right moment to do something bigger with the character.”

The title still needed approval, and to give direction to the pitch, artist Erica Henderson was asked by Moss for a drawing of the character. That was also an effort to gauge her interest in the project if it ever came to be.

One of the early pieces for the character Henderson did

“I got an email asking if I wanted to work on a Squirrel Girl book,” Henderson said. “He, and I assume Brevoort, were pitching it internally still. So this was actually more of a, ‘Would you want to do a Squirrel Girl book if we can make it happen?’”

For Henderson, the appeal to this project was undeniable. But it wasn’t in relation to the character or idea, really. It was a foot in the door, and one she had been waiting for.

“What attracted me honestly was that this was a big job,” she said. “I’m not going to lie. It was real work in a field that I’d been very slowly breaking into.”

Once the project was approved, it needed a creative team. Moss had previously worked with writer Ryan North on a five-part Young Avengers story in Original Sins, an anthology mini-series, so when Brevoort suggested North for Squirrel Girl, he was all about it. While sometimes the right team can take time to find, this was not the case here. As Moss noted, “it was honestly that easy,” as it was just a conversation between him and Brevoort to finalize Henderson and North as the picks. Moss viewed each creator as having essential characteristics to making a Squirrel Girl title work.

“I liked how Ryan treats all the characters he writes with respect,” Moss said. “We knew Squirrel Girl was perceived by a lot of people as a joke character and thus would need someone who would counteract that assumption. Plus, the guy is crazy inventive and funny.”

“With Erica, there was just an undeniable enthusiasm and charm in her art that felt right for the character,” he added. “And I knew, even from working with her on just that two-page story (Editor’s note: From Original Sins as well), that she put as much thought into her art as Ryan put into his writing, so on a gut level I felt like they’d make a good match.”

From there it was finding a letterer – initially Clayton Cowles before Travis Lanham took over and handled the bulk of it – and a colorist for the title. The latter ended up being one of the rocks for the series: Rico Renzi. At the time he signed on, he was acting as the creative director for HeroesCon on top of his role as a colorist. That consumed a lot of his time, so when Moss offered him an Avengers title, he had to pass because a team book would be too time-consuming. The next day, Moss made him an offer he couldn’t refuse.

“He sends me Ryan’s outline and I believe a few of Erica’s first character design attempts. I was so taken with the bounce of Erica’s drawings and the great combination of Marvel-style action and humor in Ryan’s pitch that I knew right away I had to be a part of this thing!” Renzi shared. “Funny superhero books don’t seem to last long at Marvel/DC so I figured I was signing up for around 12 issues.”

The cover to The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl #1, art by Henderson

Thus, The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl was born, at least in theory. Now they just had to make the comic about a character who had very little development over her 23-year existence. She was still a mystery, even to the core creators who would be working on her title.

“I think I had actually, for some reason, read the first story. The Ditko, Will Murray one,” Henderson said about her awareness of the character. “So I knew about that and then I just had a general sense of the running gag of the character where she gets pulled in and off screen defeats someone.”

“I was basically going in cold!” North shared. “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!”

Having little experience with a for-hire character can be a problem for creators…unless there isn’t much to work off of to begin with. In that case, it’s something much different. Squirrel Girl – or Doreen Green, as she’s known to her friends – was a blank slate, and someone whom North, Henderson and the rest of the team could define on their own. That was essential to the book becoming what it was, as it allowed this team to find the best answers for the character.

“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?’” North said. “And Wil told me that I could feel free to take or ignore anything that had been established before.

“It was really open and freeing, and it gave us all the space and trust that was needed to do something different with her!”

Henderson shared that her and North were aligned from the jump, despite not knowing each other before then, saying “we just clicked instantly.” That allowed the pair to develop Doreen’s world and fill it out with interesting new characters like her college roommate Nancy Whitehead and assorted other pals like Chipmunk Hunk, Koi Boi and Brain Drain.

“There was a lot that was just sort of came purely from Ryan and I, even in terms of who Doreen Green is because that part of it hadn’t been explored all that much,” Henderson said. “We were making up our own people and telling those stories, but still getting to play with those toys because you had all the other Marvel characters just running around in the background.

“It was kind of the best of both worlds.”

North’s original pitch was for an all-ages series that would be welcoming to readers of all varieties, at least in part because it wouldn’t be too steeped in Marvel continuity. That worked for two reasons: one, North thought it was a good idea, and two, he “inititally 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.”

From The Unbeatable Squirrel, art by Henderson and Renzi

The first story in the pitch was the same at the core as what was eventually released – Squirrel Girl versus Galactus – but there were pieces missing. It was just those two characters “doing their thing,” according to North. There was no Nancy, no Chipmunk Hunk, or anyone else that filled out Squirrel Girl’s world and made it real. Moss quickly noted the absence, as North told me.

“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.’”

Early on in the pitch, there was going to be a regular “solving mysteries on campus” element, per North. That’s a very Doreen kind of thing to include, but it was scrapped when Gotham Academy arrived on the scene with a similar angle. Another key change was her major in college, as North changed it to English because he was concerned it was “a little self-serving” having the character study what he did in school. That flipped back to the subject that made it into the book and something that was a key characteristic within the story – computer science – when North’s wife rightfully told him he was “being insane.”

The biggest change from the initial pitch was maybe the most significant moment of its development phase, though. It’s another tweak that came from Moss. In the first issue, Doreen faces off against Kraven the Hunter on campus, and in the original script “she just stuck squirrels down his pants and then beat him that way.” That is…definitely not what happened in the comic, and we have the series editor to thank for that.

“Wil (Moss) 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,” North said. “Of course that’s who Doreen is! 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,” he added. “When she finally arrived, it was fully formed.”

Early on, Henderson and North “decided to go with a version of the character who was younger,” the artist told me. With little definition to Doreen’s age outside of her introduction as a 14-year-old, Henderson said they chose their own track at least in part because trying to jam her history into “a single chronology is insane.”

That allowed for two key elements to be there from the jump. There was that “all-ages” nature that North spoke to, as Doreen’s youthfulness made it a bit easier for that to work. This was an intentional effort to make the title easy to dive into even if The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl was someone’s first comic ever. The other was having her in college made the aforementioned computer science element a shockingly useful tool to differentiate her from her heroic peers, as a substantial part of what made Squirrel Girl unbeatable was her brain.

“It gave a fun way for Doreen to use the stuff she’s learning in school to save people,” North said.

Once Henderson had defined the look of everyone, one of the biggest things she had to do was sort out how to tell the stories based off North’s scripts. While noting she doesn’t meaning this as “a huge diss” and that she’d talked to him about it before, she said North didn’t have a visual sense locked in, so sometimes she’d have to rework his scripts to make beats pop more. A good example came in the first issue when Doreen yells “Put the squirrel down!” at Kraven. Originally it was one panel.

“To give it the kind of presence that that moment needs, I made it three panels where it was, ‘Put.’ ‘The squirrel.’ ‘Down.’” Henderson told me. “If you read it as one sentence, it comes out as, ‘Put the squirrel down.’ If you break it up, you create that beat that would happen if you make someone read it in a different cadence.”

From The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl #1, art by Henderson and Renzi

Those kinds of things were important to the series working as well as it did, and North’s flexibility and Henderson’s rare gifts as a visual storyteller helped it become what it was. Renzi’s colors helped immensely too, as he always excelled at bringing this world to life while controlling our emotions in the process. His goal was to complement Henderson’s work above all.

“When we first started I think I was trying to color Erica as close to the way she colors herself as I could manage,” Renzi said. “I think the colors on the earlier issues ended up somewhere between Fleischer Superman and Spider-Man and his Amazing Friends cartoons. As the series went on and especially when (eventual series artist) Derek (Charm) took over the colors became pretty streamlined and clear.”

With the book locked in and its identity figured out, both from a writing and visuals standpoint, it was now upon the readers to see if it was an idea that would last. Remember, Renzi hypothesized this was the kind of project that would last 12 issues. He would usually be correct. That was even the internal belief to a degree, as Moss said the thinking at Marvel was “let’s try it and see what happens.”

“Expectations weren’t high,” Moss said. “It was when we went back to press on #1-5 and got encouraged to do something fun with the covers for the reprints — which led to the ‘EATS NUTS KICKS BUTTS!!!’ covers — that I knew the book wasn’t going anywhere.”

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