The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl is one of the few Marvel comics that has managed to hold my attention longer than a minute, aided in no small part by the fact that it also has, so far, managed not to be canceled.
I didn’t know anything about the character prior to picking up the series; I’ve been a fan of Ryan North’s writing since I discovered Daily Dinosaur Comics in high school, but Erica Henderson’s art was new to me. I was still in the early days of reading ongoing comics when I picked it up, growing my understanding of how they tell stories through both art and writing, learning more about what art styles I liked and which I didn’t. Squirrel Girl, in many ways, was instrumental to that learning—it was one of the few superhero comics that didn’t put me off artistically, because Henderson’s art is so clean and modern and approachable that I didn’t feel I had to spend lots of time staring at the page to try to parse out meaning from chaos.
By the time issue #31 came out, I had a pretty good understanding of how these things work, but it is easily the best demonstration of how important art is to my enjoyment of comics. It might have been a good story without Henderson’s art, but it certainly wouldn’t have been a great one, as it is now.
I’m extremely picky about superhero comics, by which I mean that I mostly don’t read them. The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl treads the line between punching and slice-of-life stuff in a way that really works for me. It’s also a great introduction to the Marvel universe for people like me who not only don’t already know it, but who aren’t particularly interested in combing wikis and seeking out back issues to find it out.
It’s also excellent with character. Every member of the core cast, as well as the ensembles, the villains, the people who show up once to get rescued and never again, are all in some way endearing, even Galactus. When I read it, I feel like I get the draw of superhero books even if most don’t work for me; it’s comfortable and familiar, with the right amount of surprises to keep it from feeling as though I’m reading the same issue over and over again. More importantly, I love the people in it—even the peripheral characters are bursting with personality and charm.
One of the biggest issues I have with Big Two comics is the lack of endings. Arcs close, but they reopen again. Even though I find the idea of massive shared worlds extremely cool, I find myself unwilling to explore them with the depth they require. I want something that Big Two comics, more specifically Big Two superhero comics, are rarely able to deliver—endings that end, that demonstrate character growth and show our heroes at the end of a journey, able to rest.
Issue #31, Henderson’s last, is the adorable domestic “ending” I want, but that, by nature of superhero comics being eternal, I will likely never get.
Squirrel Girl and best friend Nancy end up trapped in hypertime after a run-in with a live-vlogging criminal. Their lives feel like they’re progressing normally, but they’re actually moving at hyperspeed while the world slows down around them. They’re invisible to everyone else, who become background features in the life they choose to live together.
Isn’t that, itself, a lovely metaphor? Because Nancy and Squirrel Girl are in love with one another, I am certain, even if I’m never given on-page confirmation.
They use the time that they have to stop all crime and danger. They steal bullets out of the air and replace guns with bananas. They save cats. They borrow Tony Stark’s money and dress in beautiful clothes. They take up painting.
Their friends, left at normal speed, watch Nancy and Squirrel Girl capture this slow world as they see it, including themselves, smiling, one arm around the other, waving at the friends they can no longer interact with. It’s sad in some ways, because Nancy and Squirrel Girl very much want to return to their friends and get back to their lives, but it’s also a time in which nothing bad can possibly happen.
Without the usual pressure to save the world from whoever or whatever is the issue’s big threat, they get to know one another better. They literally grow old together. Their aging takes time to notice. At first it’s just hair growth, and then it’s wrinkles and changing body types. They live an entire life together over the course of one weekend in which nothing bad can happen; crime is over, the world is saved.
More importantly than aging, there’s physical affection. Nancy and Squirrel Girl are great friends, and it’s not uncommon for them to touch one another, but the longer they spend in isolation, the more touching there is. They hold hands. Squirrel Girl touches Nancy’s shoulders as she squats before the time machine they’re both working to build. They embrace as Nancy finishes it, not once, but twice, one of them a splash page that is all intimacy and sadness as they grapple with the fact that once they leave this time, they won’t remember the years they’ve spent together.
As they prepare to step into Nancy’s machine and back into their previous lives, Nancy says, “I’ve spent most of my life in hypertime. This wasn’t how I saw my life going, but … I don’t regret any of it. I don’t want to lose it, and I don’t want to lose us.”
Squirrel Girl replies, “I don’t either, Nancy. You’ve been the most important person in my life. But if we do go back—we can do it again. All of it. It might not happen again quite the same way, but—well, like you say … we’ll have all the time in the world.”
They touch foreheads and hold hands again, thinking of the time they’ve spent together and the time they will spend together. Because though this story, in which the world is saved and the two friends have spent a beautiful life together, is ending, there is a whole other life waiting for them, one in which they will struggle and be afraid, but in which they will still have one another. They’ve lived one life, and now they’ll live another full of potential.
The scene is heart-wrenchingly rendered in Henderson’s style. It’s cast over with a sort of gauzy filter, suggesting both the sci-fi time-travel beam they’ve stepped into and the way their life together is disintegrating. Each line on their faces carries the weight of years, but also the weight of their caring for one another. You can see how tightly they’re hugging, how painful it is to know that the years they’ve spent together are disappearing, but how wonderful to know that they still have an entire other lifetime to live together. It’s extremely sweet and wonderful and perfect.
It ends with a note, sandwiched between books and stuck closed with a strip of tape, that we never get the opportunity to read. “To us—love Nancy + Doreen,” it reads, with three pink hearts underneath. They make reference to it in later issues, but the content is private.
The issue is a perfect send-off for Henderson, whose work has been so important to making this iteration of Squirrel Girl what it is; sweet, charming, loving. It’s also a fitting conclusion—a story finished, and a story that can continue.
It’s impossible for me to read this ending as anything but Nancy and Squirrel Girl living an entire romantic life together that I never get to actually see. It’s bittersweet in that sense—I can’t not read them as romantic (which is not the same as diminishing their friendship), nor do I ever get to see them as textually such. Three little hearts do not canon queerness make. And yet, that’s all I see here.
The door is left open to more. I don’t know, given the state of Marvel, that we’ll ever see Nancy and Squirrel Girl as anything more than best friends and three pink hearts on a note from the future. But they know, as they share the secret of what the note contains, and I know as well.
I don’t expect that I will ever see an ending to Squirrel Girl that is as satisfying as the one where she and Nancy solve all crime and prevent all injuries and they grow old with one another, happily in love. But I’ve already seen it, once, and I’m grateful for that.