Every two weeks, Big Issues focuses on a newly released comic book of significance. This week, it’s The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl #26. Written by Ryan North and Erica Henderson with art by Madeline McGrane, Chip Zdarsky, Tom Fowler, Carla Speed McNeil, Michael Cho, Rahzzah, Anders Nilsen, Jim Davis, and Rico Renzi, this special “zine” issue highlights the value of bringing creators from outside of superhero comics into the genre. This review reveals major plot points.
Superhero comics could genuinely evolve if publishers were committed to breaking away from the conventions of the genre, and both DC Comics and Marvel have experimented with projects that hire alt-comic creators to offer their off-kilter, experimental takes on established characters and concepts. With the decline of superhero comics and the rise of independent graphic novels in the ’90s, DC Comics took a chance on Bizarro Comics, a 2001 graphic novel featuring short stories by cartoonists like Jessica Abel, Ivan Brunetti, James Kochalka, Tony Millionaire, and Craig Thompson. It won the Eisner Award for Best Anthology, and in 2005, DC released Bizarro World, which brought even more new voices to the DC Universe to showcase the versatility of the superhero genre in the right hands.
Four years later, Marvel Comics would follow the lead of the Bizarro books with Strange Tales, an anthology miniseries that similarly had creators from outside of superhero comics putting their own spin on Marvel properties: Jason delivered a deadpan version of Spider-Man with his signature anthropomorphized animal characters; Nicholas Gurewitch gave Marvel heroes the Perry Bible Fellowship treatment; Stan Sakai turned Hulk into a samurai. The book was an exhilarating showcase of talent that revealed new facets of these familiar superheroes, and like Bizarro Comics, it was followed by a sequel, Strange Tales II, that expanded the lineup of cartoonists. (The Bizarro and Strange Tales titles are both included in this 2013 Inventory of instances in which alt-comic creators tackled superheroes, including modern Marvel classics like Jonathan Lethem and Farel Dalrymple’s Omega The Unknown and James Sturm and Guy Davis’ Fantastic Four: Unstable Molecules.)
The spirit of Strange Tales lives on in The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl #26, an issue presented as a zine curated by Squirrel Girl, featuring works by various Marvel characters to raise funds for a library damaged in a recent superhero fight. Unlike the aforementioned anthologies, most of the stories in Squirrel Girl #26 are written by Ryan North, who teams up with eight different artists for short comics that take many forms with drastically different styles. Working with a wide array of creators inspires North to think outside the box with his scripts, and he takes advantage of his collaborators’ strengths to pack this issue with impressive stories.
The zine begins and ends with artist Madeline McGrane setting up the premise, and the stylistic similarities between McGrane and Squirrel Girl’s regular artist, Erica Henderson, make for a smooth entry into this special installment. It also indicates that this book’s usual look is closely aligned with its lead hero’s artistic perspective. Both McGrane and Henderson embrace cartoonish exuberance in their work, reflecting the lighthearted nature of North’s stories while also making this series very attractive to younger readers. Along with Rahzzah, Anders Nilsen, and Jim Davis, McGrane letters her shorts, which reveals how lettering can reflect character and alter the mood of a comic.
The only comic not written by North is a sensual Howard The Duck story by Henderson, who reunites with her Jughead collaborator and former Howard The Duck writer Chip Zdarsky on art. It starts as a typical P.I. yarn with a beautiful woman walking into Howard’s dark office, but then quickly morphs into an unfiltered Howard fantasy in which the two of them make out. It’s one long gag about what it would look like to be intimate with a humanoid duck, which includes a lot of panels of them kissing, but also of them making duck faces and eating a burger Lady And The Tramp-style in a shout-out to Jughead. This comic channels the weird, erotic sense of humor of Zdarsky’s work on Sex Criminals, and it sets the stage very well as the first comic from one of the zine’s non-Squirrel Girl contributors.
With “Brain Drain’s Olde-Tyme Feel-Good Inspiration Corner,” North teams up with occasional Squirrel Girl inker Tom Fowler to show what a nihilistic human brain trapped in a robot body considers to be a pick-me-up. Brain Drain is consistently one of the funniest characters in Squirrel Girl thanks to how his gloomy perspective contrasts with the book’s cheery optimism, and while he’s trying to understand how to be uplifting, he hasn’t fully grasped the concept. For example, he knows that baby animals often make people happy, but he doesn’t get that baby spiders will have the opposite effect. This comic highlights Fowler’s talent for expressions, and he mines a lot of emotion from a character with a challenging design. Body language becomes very important, and Fowler makes excellent use of the shape of the brain and the placement of the eyes to evoke emotions without typical facial features.
Brain Drain’s tale is one of two that explore deeper philosophical material, but North’s Wolverine comic with Anders Nilsen goes in a much more heartwarming direction. Detailing an encounter between Logan and a downed Sentinel that has developed empathy for its former targets, this story embraces the reflective, understated tone of Nilsen’s independent work. It begins with Logan sitting on the Sentinel’s head shotgunning beer from a can, emphasizing the grounded, human side of the hero. In a small but very important touch, the current Wolverine, Laura Kinney, signs her name at the bottom of the last panel, indicating that this comic was written by Laura as a tribute to the man who gave her life. Laura’s his clone, but she had a father-daughter relationship with Logan when he was alive, and this story reveals how Laura’s view of Logan differs from how he’s usually portrayed.
Normally, Wolverine would waste no time destroying a Sentinel, but when faced with the possibility that this killer robot has rejected its programming, Wolverine decides to give it the benefit of the doubt. When reports of a monster attack come in on Wolverine’s radio, the Sentinel tries to convince Logan to crawl into his body and use it as a mech suit. Wolverine thinks that this is all a trick setting up an inevitable trap, but then he takes a moment to ask himself if he can sidestep his feelings and work with someone whose kind he once despised. The X-Men’s entire mission is built on the hope that humans will one day live in peace with the mutants they hate, and Wolverine decides that it’s worth running the risk of drowning, burning, or being impaled if there’s a chance that the Sentinel is truly willing to help. Nilsen brings a quiet serenity to the panels of Wolverine pondering this predicament, which heightens the triumph of the final page showing Wolverine and the Sentinel flying into action.
Spider-Man is the focus of three different comics, starting with a “The True Story Of Spider-Man” as told by Kraven The Hunter. North’s script takes advantage of the bright retro quality of Michael Cho’s artwork, and the energy of Silver Age Spider-Man stories is used to amplify the humor. Spider-Man has minimal cartooning talent, so he responds to Kraven’s comic with a piece of notebook paper that has some stick figures accompanied by defensive text and a photograph taken by Peter Parker. That photograph (illustrated by Rahzzah) will later be used for “A Spidery World,” a collage comic by Squirrel Girl’s roommate, Nancy Whitehead.
North’s Loki story with Carla Speed McNeil is the most formally inventive, a spiral-shaped exploration of Loki’s character that can be read in two opposing directions. It’s a clever representation of his duplicitous nature, and like the Brain Drain comic, it relies on McNeil’s mastery of expressions to sell the concept. She has the benefit of working with a character who has a nose and mouth, and she imbues Loki with a smarmy quality that makes it difficult to accept anything he says at face value. The spiral movement of this page is amplified by Rico Renzi rotating through the color wheel for the panel backgrounds. Later in the zine, Renzi takes over art duties for “Juggernut Vs. Bat-Squirrel,” a comic that imagines Tippy Toe as Batman.
“Galactus Gags” is the biggest surprise of Squirrel Girl #26, with Garfield creator Jim Davis joining North for eight comic strips that apply the Garfield formula to Marvel’s resident planet-eater. (Davis’ son is a fan of Squirrel Girl, which was likely a deciding factor for him contributing to this book.) Silver Surfer fills the Jim role with Galactus as Garfield, and this dynamic is particularly delightful given the apocalyptic seriousness of Galactus’ character. This entire issue is a testament to North’s ability to adapt to different comic book structures, and he crafts some adorable and amusing strips for Davis, who masterfully reimagines his signature characters with Jack Kirby’s iconic designs.
Squirrel Girl #26 ends with fictional letters from readers of Squirrel Girl’s zine, which has made its way into the hands of characters like Groot, J. Jonah Jameson, and Tony Stark. Unlike other issues of Squirrel Girl, the pages of this zine don’t have extra jokes printed along the bottom, so North throws in a bunch of text-based humor in the letters column. The best bits here directly address the publishing world: Jameson is presented as a dinosaur editor angry about the lack of diereses, and Stark embodies the For Exposure Twitter account when he complains about having to pay for art. It’s the perfect ending, providing one last example of how North brings a sense of humor to every aspect of superhero comics.
Many of Marvel’s current writers and artists got their start in the industry with creator-owned comics, but the individuality and style of those independent works can get lost in the transition to corporate-owned superheroes, where editorial restrictions often place limits on creativity. Squirrel Girl #26 shows the value of letting go of those restrictions and giving creators the freedom to let their distinct voices be heard, and readers who want to continue seeing superheroes filtered through an unconventional artistic perspective should seek out next month’s X-Men: Grand Design. Written, illustrated, colored, and lettered by Hip Hop Family Tree creator Ed Piskor, Grand Design breaks down the X-Men’s outrageously convoluted timeline in a similar manner as Piskor’s history of hip-hop music. It’s a fascinating creative experiment that combines Piskor’s love of the X-Men with his bold, consistently evolving cartooning. Hopefully it will sell well enough that Marvel will trust alt-comic creators to follow their unique instincts instead of falling into tired superhero patterns.