I’ve spent many months talking about the joy I get from reading The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl, including Ryan North’s writing and Derek Charm’s very different (compared to previous artist Erika Henderson’s), but very delightful art and the brilliant optimism of the entire comic. They have done galactic story arcs, tight, local stories, all charming, all supportive of a team that works together for the greater good. Never before, however, have they done a full issue with no dialogue.
I’m honestly impressed at how cleverly this issue was done. It brought back memories of Hush, the entirely silent episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Look, the comic is great. You know that. North had Squirrel and the whole crew down perfectly and Charm captures the cartoonish nature of superheroes while dealing with real issues that affect people on the margins of society. After Charm’s first full story arc wrapping up successfully, a one-shot with a unique concept is a perfect buffer issue. Leave it to North and Charm to not treat it as a buffer issue.
The plot is pretty straight-forward: spooky, matronly ghost shushes all of New York City, superheroes try and fix the issue. The real story here is the treatment of both the ghost and Squirrel Girl by the mainstream heroes who, not being able or willing to communicate, fail over and over again. Brute force isn’t always the answer. As an educator, Doreen understands that sometimes the answer isn’t kicking butts, but eating nuts and kicking peer-reviewed research!
I’ve retyped this paragraph half a dozen times. Here’s what I think North is getting at and why I’m having such a tough time writing about it: Doreen’s attempts at solving the problem are ignored by powerful men and I’ve never experienced that. I haven’t. I am just about at the nexus of privilege in America. There is a message in this comic that I empathize with but can never fully experience. Believe me, I’m ok with that, but I’m increasingly upset that anyone else does. Doreen’s solution to the problem is unconventional, even for her, but the reason it works may just be because no one can shout her down. She plows forward with her plan, heedless of those around her, powerful men of privilege and succeeds.
I know there are people with increasingly loud voices who will – assuming they even read this comic or notice the subtlety of the story – try and claim all kinds of things about it, North, and Marvel Comics for even addressing this, but I look at Doreen and I see women I know, women who need an opportunity to be heard. I’m truly upset at Ant-Man, Dr. Strange, and – most of all – Iron Man. He knows better, or should, at least. He knows what Squirrel Girl is capable of and getting in her way in some macho display of bravado sets aside any sense of treating her as an equal. She clearly is not, at least, in their eyes. When push comes to literal shove, the heroes of New York ignore her. They ignore – and later scoff at – her unorthodox methods, despite how often they work on a galactic scale. Women are often told they must speak up for themselves, be more assertive, but yet here are Doreen and Nancy, prevented from speaking up at all, run over by men who have more power than they do. Even the ghost herself is treated as a problem that can be punched out of existence, rather than someone who has a problem that needs to be solved.
If someone not in the Avengers treated Squirrel Girl this way, he’d be the villain of the issue. But Tony Stark? Stephen Strange? Still heroes. Maybe Doreen is just being too emotional or over dramatic. Maybe she should just buck up and understand that this is how things are. Maybe toxic masculinity is just boys being boys. Maybe this is a shout out to the women who have been passed over, ignored, and pushed aside when they should have been listened to and followed. I’d follow someone who beat Galactus by being kind. Shouldn’t Iron Man?