Right now, the hottest superhero in the Marvel Comics universe is not male, does not wear a cape and was not bitten by a radioactive spider.
The hottest Marvel superhero has a tail, an overbite and wears acorn earrings. She is called the Unbeatable Squirrel Girl, and her calling cry as she leaps into action is “We’re here to kick butts and eat nuts!”
It is always heartening to see a large and respected media company dedicate resources to squirrel-centric entertainment, but one must ask: How the heck did this happen?
And how did the character become a feisty emblem of squirrel, er, girl power?
It started in October 2014 when Wil Moss, a Marvel editor who has overseen popular titles starring Thor and Ant-Man, approached Ryan North, a Toronto-based comics writer, and asked, If we tapped you to resurrect Squirrel Girl, what would you do?
The character was introduced in 1991, a creation of writer Will Murray and artist Steve Ditko, co-creator of Spider-Man. Since then, Squirrel Girl has appeared in various other Marvel comics, mainly to stress how silly the whole notion was.
Among her unique — and dubious — attributes were the proportional speed and strength of a squirrel, the ability to talk to the animals and a rather ungainly tail. Somehow, Squirrel Girl was able to vanquish classic Marvel villains such as Dr. Doom, but it always happened off-panel, meaning readers never knew how exactly she did it.
“The joke was she was unbeatable, which on the surface is ludicrous,” Ryan said.
But the more Ryan pondered Squirrel Girl, the more he knew he wanted to be involved.
“The way I pitched it to Marvel was, ‘I want to do a comic for people who don’t follow comics,’ ” he said. He was teamed with artist Erica Henderson, and their first revamped Unbeatable Squirrel Girl comic book came out in January 2015. Slate called her one of the best pop-culture characters of the year. Two paperback compilations of strips have been published and a third — titled “I Kissed a Squirrel and I Liked It” — is in the works.
“The book has definitely done better than any of us expected,” Wil said.
In civilian life, Squirrel Girl is Doreen Green, a freshman computer-science major at a New York City college.
Ryan picked computer science because that’s what he studied.
“Also, it was nice to see a STEM student who wasn’t a dude, who wasn’t Tony Stark,” he said.
Doreen has a pet squirrel named Tippy-Toe and a roommate named Nancy who quickly susses out that she’s living with a superhero.
The comic books often begin with a page full of Squirrel Girl’s Twitter feed, where she trades quips with Tony Stark (a.k.a. Iron Man) and Tippy-Toe (who says little more than “CHITT CHUK CHITTT”).
It’s tongue in nut-stuffed cheek.
Squirrel Girl’s approach to fighting evil is unique.
“It’s like a puzzle,” Ryan said. “How do you face it with just squirrel powers? Being able to have a bunch of squirrels have your back at any one time is a great power to have.”
In one episode, Squirrel Girl temporarily assembles a suit made of living squirrels to vanquish a bank robber. In another, she persuades Galactus not to devour Earth by telling him about a planet full of nuts that he can consume to satisfy his hunger.
Ryan said: “Her first instinct is not to beat someone up. It’s: ‘Maybe we can talk. Can I help?’ She looks for empathy and compromise more than solving problems with her fists. This is kind of revolutionary in superhero comics. Look at Batman and Superman, punching each other all the time for no good reason. Squirrel Girl is inclined to have a conversation first.”
Of course, that may be the least squirrel-like thing about her. In the real world, squirrels are not known for their diplomacy.
Where Squirrel Girl has earned the loudest raves is in the way she looks. “Comics, it’s fair to say, have not had the greatest luck with body diversity representation,” Ryan said. The typical heroine is a skinny supermodel “with breasts as big as your head.”
But artist Erica has created a Squirrel Girl who isn’t sexily pneumatic. She said she draws Squirrel Girl “thicker.” This is especially true when Squirrel Girl is trying to be incognito. It’s hard to hide a big, bushy tail that’s been stuffed into the seat of your pants.
Like most of us, Ryan once took squirrels for granted. They were just cute creatures that were part of the background. Not anymore.
“Now, as I’m out for a walk with my dog and a squirrel runs by I think, ‘Oh right, I’ve got work to do.’ ”
For previous columns, visit washingtonpost.com/johnkelly.