Today, Taylor and Spencer are discussing The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl 15, originally released December 14th, 2016. As always, this article contains SPOILERS.
Taylor: Looking back at Matt Fraction and David Aja’s run on Hawkeye, it’s hard to pick out a single, best issue. But press any comic reader hard enough and they’ll probably say that #11, the famous “Pizza Dog” issue, stands apart as particularly good. If you haven’t read it, the premise of the issue is fairly simple: what’s a day in the life of Clint’s dog, Lucky, like? It turns out that question is far more complex than it would seem, as Fraction and Aja use revelatory methods to show what it’s like to experience the world from the point of view of a dog. Taking it’s queues from this modern classic, Squirrel Girl 15 aka the Unbeatable Mew shows us what it’s like to experience the world not from the point of view of a hound, but from man’s other best friend, a cat.
It’s a typical day for Doreen and Nancy, and Nancy’s cat Mew. Another villain threatens Manhattan and once again Doreen finds herself thrust into the middle of an epic duel. However, as the name of this issue would suggest, the hero of this story isn’t Squirrel Girl. It’s Mew the cat. As such, we see the world from her point of view and learn what it’s like to be the pet cat of one of the world’s most powerful superheroes.
In Hawkeye 11, the reader interprets Pizza Dog’s understanding of the world through the use of symbols and icons in lieu of words. This makes sense. Dogs don’t have language so why would their view of things incorporate a concept of which they have no understanding? The artistic team in Squirrel Girl similarly find unique methods to demonstrate Mew’s take on the day’s events. My favorite of these revolves around the placement of speech balloons in the issue.
Whenever a human talks in this issue the speech balloons blend into the background of the panel or, in most cases, run off of it as well. While we’re always still able to read what characters are saying, thereby allowing us to follow the narrative of the story, it’s clear that the placement of these balloons is meant to de-emphasize the importance of any human spoken words. What better way to show a cat’s I-don’t-give-a-fuck nature than showing us the text but making it appear as so much background noise. Cats certainly hear whatever we humans have to say, but rarely to they deem these words worthy enough to respond to. What Ryan North, Erica Henderson, and letterer Travis Lanham have done here, simply with the placement of speech bubbles, is captured the perfect essence of cat’s relation to humans. While it’s more subtle than the icons in Hawkeye 11, it’s no less genius.
Ostensibly the narrative of this issue – as much as there really is one – focuses on Taskmaster attempting to take over the city. He seems to be having his way with the Avengers and it’s only when Mew, with a special friend in tow, helps out that that the issue is resolved. Mew’s sidekick in this case is a dog she encounters on the street after she pilfers some old pizza. Together, they form a plan to take out taskmaster using the one thing he doesn’t have: a tail. But Mew is the brains of this operation and it takes the dog awhile to catch on to her plans.
It’s a funny little exchange but what stands out in this sequence is the appearance of this dog. Something about it looks familiar.
Oh that’s right, it’s taken directly from a panel from Hawkeye 11! They say imitation is the sincerest form of flattery and everything here would suggest this is the case. Aside from being flattery this is also a literal wink and a nudge from Henderson acknowledging where the concept of this issue came from. Sure, there is the replication of an iconic panel, but the dog in Squirrel Girl is literally winking at the camera. Narratively, this is to show the dog understand’s Mew’s plans, but the head-on camera shot has the dog looking directly at the reader. The dog’s wink is as much for us as it is for Mew. It’s a knowing wink acknowledging that, yes, this story isn’t original, but that it was done in a fun way to pay homage to a great comic issue.
So Spencer, what did you think of this Pizza Dog inspired cat story? Do you see it as humorous homage or something else? Also, what do you think of the Mew’s dream sequences? While I’m always a fan of guest artists, it felt a little disjointed to me. Do you feel the same? Lastly, I’m pretty sure I would read a comic devoted entirely to Mew. It turns out the feline perspective on the world is pretty wonderful. Would you read the series?
Spencer: I’m a cat lover, Taylor, so the answer to that question is you bet I would! North and Henderson’s portrayal of Mew won me over from the very first page.
This is something my childhood cat, Milk, did all the time — when he was tired of waiting to be fed in the morning, he’d jump up on my mom’s headboard and start knocking stuff on her head until she’d get up and feed him. Seeing his behavior reflected here made me feel all warm and fuzzy inside, and gave me confidence from the get-go that North and Henderson understand how cats think.
That confidence pays off throughout the rest of the issue, where Mew’s behavior is just as spot-on and well-observed. I love her physicality (Henderson must have spent hours studying cat videos; if only I could get paid for that), her disgruntled little sigh every time something doesn’t go her way, and her general lack of interest in people. Taylor, I especially like that touch with the speech balloons you pointed out. Studies show that cats can understand what we say to them, they usually just choose to ignore us. So of course the speech balloons are legible, but obscured; Mew doesn’t pay what the people around her say any attention until it’s absolutely necessary.
All of this speaks to Unbeatable Squirrel Girl 15‘s greatest strength: North and Henderson commit fully to their concept. This is an issue about seeing the world, albeit a superhero world, through the eyes of a cat, which means that North can’t rely on many of his usual techniques. The captions that usually accompany each page are gone, and the cast and their dialogue are quite literally shunted into the background. That doesn’t mean North’s gonna stop packing as many jokes as he can into this book, though.
Thus, a concept that could be limiting becomes kind of freeing. From sign gags like the above to Mew knocking over Taskmaster’s super-villain card (a wonderfully natural way to deliver exposition in a non-exposition friendly issue) to that dense splash page of the Avengers battling Taskmaster, there’s a whole secondary layer of this issue full of gags readers can look for. Yet, all these gags still fit perfectly into Mew’s world instead of distracting from it.
That’s what gives me mixed feelings about the dream sequences, though. I think their purpose might be to show how much time cats spend sleeping in a visually interesting way, but they’re still a strange digression from the story at hand. Moreover, the punchlines of the “dreams” themselves are very complex for a cat, and the punchline of Mew and the mouse driving away in car full of money is especially “human.” These are supposed to be Mew’s dreams, and the rest of the issue depicts her as a rather average, if intelligent, cat. These don’t feel like the dreams of an average cat, which is disappointing when the rest of the issue so closely sticks to that perspective.
Still, they’re awfully funny; Zac Gorman is a talented cartoonist, and I got a real kick out of each one of these strips. I also appreciate that North, Gorman, and Henderson tie the dreams into the main narrative at the end of the issue, better justifying their inclusion.
This time Mew’s dreams allow her to process the day’s adventures, including both her battle with Taskmaster and her newfound friendship with the apartment’s resident mouse. That feels more on the money.
Said mouse reminds me of another thing I enjoy about this issue: despite being told entirely from a cat’s point of view, it still manages to convey all of The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl‘s usual themes. At one point in the issue, Squirrel Girl refuses to try to talk down Taskmaster because it just means he’d be able to copy her persuasion, essentially making him unstoppable. It’s a fun reminder of what Doreen’s greatest strength truly is, but it also sets up Mew using similar means to save the day.
Sure, Mew can’t actually “talk down” Taskmaster, but she does use the powers of friendship, intelligence, and persuasion to bring him down, much like Doreen would. The first step in that victory is befriending the dog (and Taylor, I’m going to take your theory about that dog one step further — I’m pretty sure this is Lucky the Pizza Dog. His left eye is shut every time we see it, not just in the panel you posted, and he’s first introduced fighting with Mew over pizza. It’s still an acknowledgement of Hawkeye 11, but an even more explicit one than you gave it credit for). Befriending Lucky allows Mew to use him as her muscle, and also to communicate with Doreen. Mew comes up with the strategy to defeat Taskmaster, but she needs to work with others to implement it. That’s Squirrel Girl in a nutshell (pun fully intended).
Mew’s befriending Lucky also seems to have made her a more friendly cat in general; she was chasing this mouse earlier in the issue, but after her adventures with Taskmaster, decides to befriend it instead, presumably because she’s seen how important and useful friendship can be. That North, Henderson, and company can so thoroughly shake up their typical style to instead focus on a cat, yet give the cat a fully-fleshed out character arc and make both Mew’s adventures and arc relevant to Squirrel Girl‘s trademark themes is genuinely impressive. Bravo.
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