'Unbeatable Squirrel Girl' Creators Explain How to Beat Up the Marvel Universe (Kind Of)

Ryan North, Erica Henderson and editor Wil Moss talk about the creation of Squirrel Girl's first original graphic novel.
Courtesy of Erica Henderson/Marvel Entertainment

For years, supervillains have tried to take over the world and defeat every single superhero in the Marvel comic book universe, whether it's Doctor Doom, the Red Skull or Ultron. In a new graphic novel released this week, one character finally manages to make that dream come true — but it's not who fans might expect. Well, unless they've read the title The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl Beats Up the Marvel Universe!, of course.

The stand-alone graphic novel sees one of Marvel's biggest breakout stars of recent years take on everyone from Iron Man and the Avengers to Doctor Strange, Spider-Man and Magneto and (spoiler!) win. But why has Doreen Green gone on this surprising rampage? Heat Vision talked to those responsible — writer Ryan North, artist Erica Henderson and editor Wil Moss, the team behind the regular series — about the success of the monthly Squirrel Girl comic, why a graphic novel made sense and just how someone could manage to beat up the entire Marvel Universe, anyway.

Erica and Ryan, How did you both end up working on The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl? The character had been around for years, but she was more of a fan-favorite in-joke than the fully fleshed out character you've made her into.

Erica Henderson: The series has the most boring origin ever: Ryan and I both got emails from Wil asking if we'd like to work on a Squirrel Girl comic.

Ryan North: The email Wil sent me was basically, "hypothetically speaking, what would your Squirrel Girl comic look like, if you were writing Squirrel Girl?" It was very open, and it was like, OK: Let's make it this ideal all-ages book so that everyone can read it, not just kids, not just adults, let's make it really accessible for people who don't really know the Marvel universe. In my pitch, I made it really smooth and pitched it as accessibility and anyone can read it, let's keep it really open, but the secret was that I didn't have that encyclopedic knowledge of the Marvel universe. But I got there!

Henderson: Because the first emails from Wil were pitching internally, Ryan and I didn't know each other, it was, "We might be doing this book, and it'll be Squirrel Girl." I had no idea what the tone was supposed to be, or what kind of book this would be. I just sent four pages of very different Squirrel Girls and Squirrel Girl outfits. I actually initially asked if I could change the costume because I didn't want to draw that same costume again.

Wil Moss: I just want to say, I didn't approach any other creators for the series. I had worked with Ryan and Erica before, and I knew all along that they were who I wanted for this book. [Both North and Henderson make touched "Awwwwwwwww" noises.]

Henderson: It was funny thinking back to the first things I got from Ryan — there were a bunch of different ideas, wasn't there a lot of Squirrel Girl, Girl Detective? It was all over the place.

North: It sure was! [Laughs] What I thought would be fun would be Squirrel Girl being this computer science student, working in STEM, because you don't see a lot of characters there, never mind female characters. Also, I studied computer science, so it's not too hard to write. [Laughs] I'm making it sound like I'm the laziest writer in the world. I do actually do good work! And it's hard! And I'm worth it!

The core of the character is that she's someone who's there to help people. She has superpowers, but you can't solve every problem by punching it, and she's totally there to explore ideas that don't involve punching someone in the face. And that idea, I think I have to give credit to Wil for that, because in the first draft of the first issue I sent him, I had Squirrel Girl confront Kraven and I think I had her stuffing squirrels down her pants or something, and Wil wrote me back and said, this is good, but it could be better if she tried to solve his fundamental problem, and that was like reading the answer key in the back of the teacher's book. I was like, "Of course, that is absolutely who Doreen is."

Were you surprised by the response the monthly comic has received? It's gone far beyond a general "Hey, we really like the idea of Squirrel Girl!" People are really responding to the personality of the book, and of Doreen Green and the different characters.

North: You always hope a book's going to be a success. I don't think I've ever written a book thinking, "This will be bad and no-one will like it!" The success is more gratifying than surprising, in that sense. It's funny you mentioned the thing about the personalty, because when I was writing the first issue, I had these images of Squirrel Girl that Erica had drawn, these different designs, up on my second monitor because they had such personality. When I got stuck, I just looked at that and thought, "Oh, I know what this character would do," because it was all there. They had such personalty that it was easy to build off of that.

Moss: I've worked on a couple of books that I thought were firing on all cylinders and really working, and they went out there and didn't find an audience. It's really rewarding and surprising when a book actually finds the audience it deserves. We threw the book out there but didn't know if the right people would find it. We started getting letters by the truckful from readers of all kinds that were connecting with this.

Henderson: I don't think we were expecting that we'd done something bad and people were going to hate it, I think we were worried that we'd done something good and no one would see it. We liked what we were doing, but we had no idea what was going to happen.

The response was strong enough to prompt Squirrel Girl Beats Up the Marvel Universe!, a full-length graphic novel spinoff by the same team from the regular series, which is almost unheard of for a superhero title.

Moss: The reason that we did the graphic novel is because the book is getting a lot of success in the trades. We're getting book fairs at schools across the country, they order a lot of Squirrel Girl. Squirrel Girl is one of the more popular Marvel titles [in that market] by all means. That was really the thinking: We've got this format of OGNs, and the books do really well in that market, so let's try one there. We tried to time it so that the book would be out for the start of school season. There was enough evidence from the collected edition that we thought it'd be interesting to see how it would do, and fun to see what Ryan and Erica could do with that amount of space.

The audience reaction to the regular series has shown that there's a different type of relationship between the readers and the book. The letters page each issue demonstrates that, and also the different types of readers you have — from parents, kids, longtime comic fans….

North: I love the letter pages. I'd never done a book with a letters page before, and I'm not sure what it's normally like, but my experience with it is a lot of people saying, "I'm so glad this book is out there," and responding to the book — my favorite is when I see pictures of people dressed up, or their kid, as Squirrel Girl and Tippy-Toe. It's really gratifying. You know, abstractly, that people are reading the book, but to see evidence that people are reading the book, and loving the book and really connecting with what you've done, it's so great. Every time we get to do the letters, I'm really excited to see what's there.

Henderson: My favorite part of the letters is finding out that we've completely cornered the squirrel biologist market. [Laughs.] They seem to all be reading this book.

The graphic novel isn't just a longer version of the monthly comic — I love that there are activity pages for readers to take part in, and that they impact the story itself just a few pages later! When you were starting work on Beats Up the Marvel Universe!, did you give much thought to how it had to differ from the regular series?

North: When you're writing the monthly book, you're working in the shared Marvel universe that we all get to work in, which is great — you get to play in the Marvel sandbox, you get to play with all the toys, but that comes with restrictions. For example, if I wanted Squirrel Girl to blow up the galaxy and I didn't wrap it up that issue, that would have consequences across everywhere, and Marvel would probably say, "You can't destroy the galaxy, do not do this." In a larger graphic novel, it's not like it takes six months to tell. I do have the option to destroy the galaxy. I mean, I think we can spoil that publicly: The galaxy does not get destroyed in this book. The galaxy is safe. But it increases the scope of the story you can tell. It's a stand-alone unit you can have a lot of fun with.

Henderson: One of the things we talked about when this first came up was, this should be a stand-alone book, and we've already told a bunch of stories, so we have to raise the stakes. This had to be a bigger story that we'd been telling. I think that's how the idea of, "Who could beat the unbeatable Squirrel Girl?" came. The answer would have to be the unbeatable Squirrel Girl.

This book really lives up to its title, as Doreen proves just how unbeatable she actually is. Squirrel Girl manages to actually beat up the Marvel universe.

North: The joke with Squirrel Girl before we got her was that she beats up villains who are outside her power range, but it always happened off-panel. The fun in our book is that we show how that would happen; you can't do it off-panel more than once because you're cheating the readers. In this book, Squirrel Girl Beats Up the Marvel Universe!, I had to sit down and work out, how would this happen? How would you do this? It took several days, with me building flowcharts, and power grids — in the book, Doreen talks about how she would do it, and has this chart. That chart is the result of a week of my time figuring out how this would actually happen. [Laughs.]

The fun of it is, having all of these characters, all of whom were created and written by different people and none of them were particularly designed to be there in case someone wanted to beat up the Marvel universe, but now that we had someone who did want to beat up the Marvel universe, you could use them in this way they were never intended to be used, and make it awesome and incredible. And that's fun, I think. It's a puzzle: How does Doreen Green beat up the Marvel universe? Now you can read the book and find out.

Henderson: I wish we had a photo of you in your office, putting this together. Pictures with strings connecting them…

North: I looked like a crazy person.

With this book, you have the chance to play with any Marvel character you wanted. Were there any that just had to be in there?

Moss: Ryan demanded that [obscure Spider-Man villain from the 1990s] Lady Octopus be in the book. That was the only character he had to have in there.

North: The character I mentioned, and Wil's like, "I'm pretty sure she's dead…." I was like, "No, she's not! Here's proof!" [Laughs.] She wasn't dead, she was just away for a while and now she's back.

I can't tell you how much I want this not to be a joke, and that you've been wanting to put Lady Octopus in something for years.

North: I read all these Marvel wikis, and there are characters that just stand out to you, and you think, "How is this character not being used? This is crazy." Lady Octopus has been on my radar for a long time because, her name is ridiculous — "Lady Octopus" — and on top of that, Doctor Octopus, his mind is in a robot body somewhere and no one knows, so he's off the table. No one gets to play with Doctor Octopus. But Lady Octopus, even more fun to play with and no one was using her. This book was my chance.

Henderson: One of the Octopuses. [Laughs.]

North: One of the Octopuses, Doctor or Lady. I'm not entirely sure which, I'll take it.

The graphic novel gives readers of the monthly Squirrel Girl comic something they've wanted for a long time: A real team-up between Iron Man and Squirrel Girl. I'll be honest: After reading this book, I want you two to take over the Iron Man comic now.

North: I really love Doreen and Tony Stark's relationship. It surprised me, because, it was there in the first appearance, but they really formed their relationship in the Twitter recap pages of the monthly book. I think it was by the third issue, I was like, "This is great. Tony's going to be in every recap page, chatting back and forth with her, making jokes." I love the idea that this CEO businessman who's a superhero also hangs out on social media. For me, Tony Stark and Doreen go together really well. That's part of the fun of [the graphic novel]; it's the first time in our book they get to be onscreen together, and the first time she gets to hang out with Tony Stark. I just really like their relationship. I like that Squirrel Girl and Iron Man get to hang out online and chat with each other.

Erica, you've now drawn the entire Marvel Universe in one book. Were there any characters who stuck out as being particularly exciting to draw?

Henderson: I didn't realize how much fun it was drawing the Hulk. I really like drawing the Hulk now.

North: I didn't know that!

Henderson: It's a lot of fun. I like his angry faces. The Hulk never has an in-between face. He has no resting face. He's always having an extreme face, due to the nature of his character, and it's great. It's so much fun to draw.

What does the future of Squirrel Girl look like now? You're both continuing the monthly book, but would you do another graphic novel?

North: I would love to do a second graphic novel. The challenge I had on my end was, I wanted to write the whole book and then revise the whole book, but because the timeline was so tight, it wasn't possible. I think Erica was drawing the first couple of pages while I was finishing up. It turns out I didn't need to, but I wanted to have it in my back pocket, the option to maybe go back and change things if we need to. It was a fun challenge. It was a lot of work to be sure….

Henderson: It was almost too much work to do a graphic novel!

I'm amazed that you both kept working on the monthly comic while also putting together a graphic novel that's more than 100 pages…

North: That's because Erica Henderson is a super hero.

Henderson: Henderson: It was a terrible time of my life. [Laughs.]

The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl Beats Up the Marvel Universe! is released digitally and in print Oct. 5. The regular Unbeatable Squirrel Girl series continues with No. 13 on Oct. 12.