By Ryan North, Erica Henderson, Tom Fowler, Brandon Lamb, David Malki & Ricco Renzi
“And [Squirrel Girl] you must pardon my brazenness in saying this, but your tail is as intoxicating as it is captivating.”
Pretty much any week a new installment of The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl hits the stands, it is a strong candidate for Week’s Finest. Month in, month out, few other Marvel titles can equal its combination of humor, action and wild imagination. Writer Ryan North and artist Erica Henderson imbue the series with a distinctive flair all their own. This is a book with a unique voice, which is utterly endearing. Plenty of lesser titles would have flagged by now, unable to maintain the momentum of so much zaniness. Yet, Squirrel Girl and her companions keep chugging along, ready to face down any obstacle. Which is good, as this week, Squirrel Girl has, inadvertently, gotten herself into quite a pickle.
#8 culminated with Doreen Green (aka Squirrel Girl) going on “the worst date ever in time.” Doreen had accepted a date from Brad on the basis of his dating profile name: Hawkjock. Turns out instead of being a secret superhero like herself, he is actually a superhero truther. What could be more awkward, right? How about Mole Man suddenly burrowing through the earth’s crust in order to try his luck one more time at exacting his revenge on the surface world? Yeah, that would do it.
One of the hallmarks of North’s writing for this series is his ability honor the legacy of the Marvel Universe while also embracing its wackiness. North’s attention to the formal bearing of Kraven the Hunter and the flamboyant ego of Doctor Doom satirize and illuminate the characters simultaneously. North does something similar this week with his portrayal of Mole Man. On the surface North’s Mole Man is the standard modern approach to the classic villain, highlighting the quirks of personality which have sometimes become rout. One brilliant stroke of North’s is emphasizing the age of Mole Man, which hovers around 100. North peppers Mole Man’s speech with dated slang, such as schoolmarm & fisticuffsmanship. While in one sense such choices highlight his ridiculousness, in another it draws attention to his humanity. Instead of distancing the reader from the villain, it brings them closer, enriching his character beyond short guy who can command monsters.
Empathy in general is a prominent component of the series. More than once Squirrel Girl has defused a situation through words instead of punches. She possesses a natural compassion, which is one of her charms. She uses it again this week, convincing Mole Man that the perceived slights against him were simply the unintended consequences of well-meaning actions. Mole Man accepts this argument. He accepts it a little too well in fact. Soon he is down on one knee asking Squirrel Girl to be his “Mole Ma’am.” So, yeah, guess this night could get even more awkward after all. As with the dialogue this plot twist allows the readers to view the narrative through relatable perspectives (feelings of loneliness/creeped out by that way too clingy guy). North deepens the story without losing any of its humor.
This sensibility carries over into the artwork. For the splash page proposal moment, Henderson portrays a wide range of emotions. The formal earnestness of Mole Man is counterbalanced by the petrified embarrassment of Squirrel Girl. Doreen’s gestures are perfect: hands held over mouth, which is turned down in a teeth baring frown, while her eyes are startled wide. In the background, two of Mole Man’s monsters offer differing reactions of their own. One has a huge grin on his face as if to say “yo, you got this bro,” while another holds his breath in suspense for the lady’s reply. This type of playful inventiveness is representative of Henderson’s work, which is full of quirky details (the best this issue is probably the police’s “Super Villain Shenanigans—Do Not Cross” yellow tape). She also continues to prove herself equally at ease with action sequences, lending them a vibrant, dynamic feel.
In addition to Henderson, there is one page by guest artist David Malki. Malki illustrates Mole Man’s narration explaining his vendetta against the surface world in general and Squirrel Girl in particular. Riffing on North’s dialogue, Malki fills the page with anarchistic objects from the turn of the century (penny farthing bikes, a phonogram). Malki then goes a step further by employing an art style more at home in the magazines of 1916 then 2016. It is a striking choice which brings alive Mole Man’s tale while using the art to convey his personality. Meanwhile, Malki fills the page with the same whimsical sense of humor found in the rest of the issue. In such a way, Malki’s art is rooted in the narrative, allowing the shift in styles from Henderson to Malki back to Henderson to flow entirely smoothly.
This natural dynamic between words and images serves the series well, bringing it to life in all its endearing charm. I have said this before, and I shall say it again: from the beginning this series was something special. Squirrel Girl was one of the freshest visions to debut last year and six months into 2016, it shows no sign of sophomore slump. And thus it is This Week’s Finest.