After 37 issues, three years, two volumes, and one original graphic novel of The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl, Erica Henderson has announced her upcoming departure from the title. On March 9th, she tweeted that the issue she is currently drawing will be her last interior work on the series. There are a few key facts worth noting alongside this announcement. First, the series will not be ending, but no new artist has been announced. Second, Henderson will continue to provide covers. Lastly, Henderson is still leaving The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl, and that is incredibly sad.
Ever since the series began in January 2015, Henderson and collaborator Ryan North have filled Marvel Comics with a lot more fun, math, and squirrels in their surprising hit. In addition to revitalizing the cult-favorite superhero and elevating her to comics stardom, The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl also launched Henderson as a star. Her work on that series, alongside a three-issue stint on Jughead, have revealed the cartoonist to be a stellar storyteller. Her style and approach to comics have distinguished Henderson as an inimitable talent. As we prepare to say goodbye to her work with Squirrel Girl, we also want to take a look back at what has made that work so very special. It can be broken down into three adjectives: all-encompassing, expressive, and delightful.
It’s a difficult task to make the Marvel universe a cohesive setting. There are so many different styles of characters, places, and stories that they often require vastly different stories and storytellers to work. Erica Henderson was an artist who managed to make Galactus, Kraven the Hunter, and classes at Empire State University all fit within the same world, sometimes in the same issue. There was no character or concept too strange to find a home within the pages of The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl. That’s largely due to Henderson’s ability to construct everything on her own terms. No matter the guest star or villain, they always read as Henderson’s version of themselves on the page. Ant-Man jumping titles for a story became Erica Henderson’s Ant-Man, if only for a few pages.
That distinctive approach to storytelling is valuable in a big, strange world like the one presented at Marvel Comics. There was never any risk of stories going off the rails or feeling disconnected from the rest of the series. Each issue of The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl was obviously a chapter in the greater whole, whether it took place in space, the Savage Land, or a Canadian cabin. That consistency also constructed a vision of the Marvel universe where new readers could feel at home and never worry about what else might be happening. Henderson took the raw clay of so many prior creations and molded it into a home for readers new and old looking to enjoy some fabulous superhero stories.
What made all of Henderson’s stories in The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl fabulous was the expressive nature of every character on the page. There’s no doubt that the combination of North and Henderson together made for an unbeatable pair, but it’s worth examining pages from their comics without reading any of the words. While many puns may be lost in the new telling, you can follow the emotional arc of the story every bit as well. Characters do everything but literally wear their hearts on their sleeves. Henderson’s smiles have become iconic as the most famous covers for the series simply radiate joy, but her range covers every bit of human experience. While Squirrel Girl’s default emotion seems to be happiness, that doesn’t mean she was never driven into a rage or left depressed by some tragic turn of events.
One character worth examining to see just how carefully crafted Henderson’s characters are is Nancy Whitehead, Squirrel Girl’s college roommate and best pal. Nancy provides a useful foil to Doreen Green as she possesses a much more introverted personality. While everything Doreen does is big, Nancy’s reactions are often just as small. That doesn’t mean her reactions are imperceptible though. Henderson portrayed her reactions just as clearly in every issue, albeit much more subtly. Heck, even the eyes and cheeks of Doreen’s squirrel companion Tippy Toe could carry a reaction panel. What makes all of this even more impressive is how few lines are required to display such a wide array and degree of emotions. Henderson proved herself to be a consummate cartoonist, distilling human experience into the most effective depictions possible.
While Henderson was capable of portraying any emotion necessary for the story, there was one that strung every issue of The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl together: Joy. Above all else, the Marvel universe depicted by Erica Henderson loved being a world filled with superheroes. This provides some obvious benefits. It made The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl a welcome respite from convoluted events and shocking deaths elsewhere. It also made the series a great entry point for new and young readers who seek comics as a refuge. However, it’s greatest benefit is the intangible construction of a modern model for superhero comics.
Readers of Marvel Comics understand the tropes and rhythms of the genre. They know that no one besides Uncle Ben stays dead, and to expect everything to return to a specific status quo. Attempting to upset these expectations is bound to end in disappointment. What Henderson and North understand is that shock and awe are not the only, or even the foremost, emotions capable of being found within superhero comics. Their work on The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl emphasized delight above all else.0comments
This was a run that prioritized the joy of solving problems, having new experiences, and being with friends. It was consistently astounded by the powers of its characters, both super and mundane. It loved the strangeness of adventures big and small. Henderson could make readers laugh with Galactus or smile at a dorm room sleepover; the connecting thread was that superhero stories ought to be fun.
No matter what Erica Henderson does next, it’s bound to be a delight. For now, she leaves behind an astounding legacy at Marvel Comics, one that reminds us why we love to read about superheroes. That simply can’t be beat.