Friday, October 21, 2016

A Very Ryan North Friday

Ryan North is a writer who has slowly but surely made his way into a position where, whenever his name is attached to a project, I have to have a look. Sure, I'd read Dinosaur Comics on-line and had a good laugh. But when he started writing the Adventure Time comic, and perfectly capturing the whimsy, wit, and occasional tragedy of Finn, Jake, and all their pals, I really took notice. And with the Unbeatable Squirrel Girl from Marvel, one of the most joyful (and dense) comics on the racks, I moved from impressed to enamored. So, today, I'm going to focus on a couple of North's long form projects, things I've read recently that have been a real ray of sunshine.

Over the past few years, Marvel has developed a nice program of original graphic novels. Usually stand alone and new reader friendly, some, like Avengers: Rage of Ultron, wind up being important to main continuity, while others, like Jim Starlin's most recent Thanos trilogy, are delights for old fans who get to revisit old characters and creators that don't get as much play in the main MU anymore. But the most recent,released a couple weeks ago, is a giant, standalone Squirrel Girl story too big for the regular ongoing. From the regular creators of the monthly title, Ryan North and Erica Henderson, this hardcover is entitled: The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl Beats Up the Marvel Universe! And boy howdy does she ever.

For those of you who don't know Squirrel Girl from her appearances in Avengers comics, in her own series, or in my reviews, well Squirrel Girl is Doreen Green, college computer programming student and superhero. Along with her friend and roommate  Nancy Whitehead, fellow superheroes Chipmunk Hunk and Koi Boi, and her best squirrel pal, Tippy Toe, Squirrel Girl fights crime, but often stops crime without violence by talking and reasoning with her foes. Which isn't to say she can't kick some butt when she wants to. Unbeatable Squirrel Girl is a fun, all-ages series, and this graphic novel provides everything you need to know about Squirrel Girl and her crew is you haven't read anything before, but is full of fun for longtime Squirrel Girl fans.

The core conceit of the graphic novel is a simple one: after winding up in a device created by the High Evolutionary that Tony Stark was puttering around with, Squirrel Girl winds up getting duplicated. The new Squirrel Girl, named Allene (Squirrel Girl's middle name), starts out as the perfect partner for Squirrel Girl, but after a couple days, takes a darker turn as she decides that the world would be better off run by squirrels. And so, while also fighting her better half, Allene decides that she needs to beat up all the other heroes and villains, as they could be a thorn in her side. And since Doreen is the unbeatable Squirrel Girl, you know she's going to win in the end, but she's never had a tougher fight than against her own doppelganger, and there are plenty of twists and turns along the way.

It's hard to review or discuss anything Squirrel Girl without just saying, over and over again, "Its just so much fun!" That's what defines this book, the pure unbridled joy of living in this big crazy superhero world. And even in what is possibly the most dire adventure in Squirrel Girl's series to date, that joy isn't lost. You still get quips, you still get adorable squirrels, and you still get more Marvel Universe Easter Eggs than any book I can remember in recent years. When it says that Squirrel Girl beats up the Marvel Universe, she does it, because there are more characters in here than you can shake a stick at. And not just big names like Iron Man (whose fault this all is), Spider-Man (who has a thing or two to say about clones), and Thor (whose hammer is super important to the story), but characters like Lady Octopus and Mysterion (knock off Spidey villains, unite!) and the newly created Johnny Fishlips, who... has fish lips, I guess. Oh, and Deadpool pops up, and while we all love Deadpool, Deadpool in an all ages sort of story usually wouldn't work, but it does here for a fun little gag. I should point out, though, that Deadpool is a regular presence in Unbeatable Squirrel Girl thanks to Doreen having a full set of "Deadpool's Guide to Supervillains" trading cards, which she uses for background info on various villains, and there are plenty of those in here too.

So, I've talked about the fun and the excitement, but there's another thing that makes Squirrel Girl great, and that's that the character (and the book) has a huge heart. At the end of the book, a supporting character is near death's door, and instead of having a funeral for yet another supporting character in the Marvel Universe, Squirrel Girl gets the collected heroes, who have defeated Allene (I know you might think that's a spoiler, but guess what: the good guys win), to work together to save a life. With tears in her eyes, she says to Iron Man, "We have the best heroes on the planet gathered right here, and you're saying we can't save her? You shut up with that!" And then she talks to the heroes, gets them to work together, and they save a life. Because it's what heroes do. It's a noble, heart-warming moment, and in what feels like an increasingly cynical Marvel Universe, it's a breath of fresh air.

Oh, and two important things I want to point out about reading a Squirrel Girl story by North and Henderson. There is no comic from either of the Big Two out there that is this dense, and I use that phrase in the best possible way. Most comics, I can sit down and breeze through in ten/fifteen minutes, and most original graphic novels or trades in an hour and change. A Squirrel Girl takes twice that, between how packed with dialogue and panels the pages are, and with the little text commentary at the bottom of most pages. And don't even think about skipping that text at the bottom of the pages! It's like the footnotes in a Discworld novel: a lot of the best jokes are down there.

I've talked a lot about story here, but this is a tour-de-force for artist Erica Henderson as much as for Ryan North. Henderson gets to draw everybody in her trademark style, and they all look great. Her pages are exciting and fluid, but never busy, and you can pick over them for ages looking for all the cameos she has in there. I also love how each character looks so different. It's so easy to get away with having a handful of standard faces/bodies in comic book art, but Henderson's characters are all very different and very distinct. And those different faces are all wonderfully emotive, with big eyes and open expressions that help tell the story as much as any word. It's also impressive to note that Henderson not only pencilled and inked (with an ink assist from Tom Fowler) the whole book (except for those Deadpool Villain Cards, those came from series regular colorist Rico Renzi), but she also colored it herself, and did a stellar job of it.

Oh, and before I move on, let me point out that the production backmatter is really enjoyable on this book, and you really should read to the end, even if you're usually the type of reader who isn't into that stuff. Trust me. If you've ever seen a Marvel movie, you know that things can happen after the credits.

Now speaking of Ryan North and fun, I also just finished my umpteenth journey through his choosable-path adventure book, To Be Or Not To Be. For those if us who were children of the 70s and 80s, you might remember this as Choose your Own Adventure (which is a phrase with a copyright, so to quote Groundskeeper Willy, "Shhhh, you wanna get sued?") story. But in this case, it's the story of Hamlet, the prince of Denmark, the greatest tragedy ever written, only you get to make the decisions!

Now, I know what many of you are thinking, "Aw, man, Hamlet was such a whiner. I don't want to get into his head." Well, you don't have to! First, you can make Hamlet into a man of action, which is awesome, but there are two other options as well. One you can play as Hamlet Sr., the ghost, who can go attempting to exact ghost vengeance on his crappy brother, Claudius. Or, and I can't recommend this highly enough, you can read through the path as Ophelia. And Ophelia is awesome! She's a scientist, she knows who she is and what she wants, and she's just badass. My favorite path/ending so far has been Ophelia decides that all this noise in Denmark is the pits, and so she goes off on vacation in England where she captures some terrorists and becomes this awesome spy! That's a way better ending than drowning herself!

And if all that isn't enough, there are plenty of one page illustrations that tie in to the endings form some really great comic book artists, including Noelle (Nimona, Lumberjanes) Stevenson, Becky (Demo) Cloonan, Chip (Sex Criminals, Jughead) Zdarsky, John (Bad Machinery, Giant Days) Allison, and a bunch more.

Seriously, folks, I can't recommend To Be Or Not To Be highly enough. I've written before about my love of Shakespeare (I'm going to an event in a week where I get to see an original First Folio and I'm giddy over it), and this is a great way to enjoy the world of Shakespeare even if you're not into him. It's fun, it's fresh, it's hilarious in places. You can follow along with Yorick's skull icons to follow the path of the play, or go off on whatever flights of fancy you can come up with within the book. Seriously, do yourself a favor, and go out and buy this book or get thee to a nunnery!

Both Unbeatable Squirrel Girl Beats Up the Marvel Universe and To Be Or Not To Be are available wherever books are sold, and at may finer comic book stores.

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