So far Doreen Green has charted her own path in Unbeatable Squirrel Girl, but this April another will guide her path: you.
In April, series writer Ryan North and artist Eric Henderson take furry-tailed college student into a "Choose Your Own Path" style story. And for this adventure, she's following up her defeats of Galactus, Thanos and Doctor Doom with what could be her biggest threat yet: Swarm. You know, the Spider-Man villain with all the bees.
This isn't a Wu-Tang Clan video however, so Newsarama talked with North about this unique idea for a comic book story that he's used to critical acclaim in Adventure Time and beyond.
Newsarama: Ryan, even before she got her own series, Squirrel Girl was a cult-favorite character. What is it about Doreen Green that fans connect with so easily?
Ryan North: I think it’s her optimism and competency. Those two attributes are so appealing to me, so it's a joy to write someone who embodies them so firmly. Doreen is this woman who is just supremely competent: she gets the job done, whether it's taking care of Thanos or M.O.D.O.K. or even someone like Whiplash. And her positivity has always been there too: she's just happy to help! Really, what's not to like?
Nrama: You’re now into your second volume of Unbeatable Squirrel Girl. How has Doreen evolved even in the time you’ve been writing her?
North: Sure, she's learned from each encounter she's had, and with each of them more firmly established herself in the world as someone who is really good at stopping criminals from doing crimes, and not only by punching them until they stop doing crimes. I think even Tony Stark's got a great respect for her now, even if the way that most often expresses itself is through trolling each other on Twitter all day.
Nrama: You’ve written some wild adventures for Squirrel Girl already – time travel, her future self, Doctor Doom – and now you’re doing one of the wildest yet by adding a “Be The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl” component to Unbeatable Squirrel Girl #7. What made you decide to try that kind of experimental storytelling?
North: That title was basically my entire pitch, actually. I thought the idea of making a comic that is in effect a Squirrel Girl simulator sounded like a lot of fun, and it'd be great to put readers in her shoes and see how well they'd do at solving the problems she encounters! They are very reasonable problems, such as figuring out how to stop a man made out of bees.
Nrama: You’ve done a “choose your own path” style story before with To Be Or Not To Be, your take on Hamlet. What challenges does that mechanic pose when plotting a story?
North: Oh for sure! And also with Adventure Time #10, which was a choose-your-own-path comic there too. To Be or Not To Be was a lot of fun and taught me a lot about choice structure and building a non-linear story, which I've used for Romeo and/or Juliet, my upcoming sequel book (out June! It's really great! You can pre-order it now!)
There's lots of ways to approach it, but the difference between a non-linear story and non-linear comic, is in a comic (at least the way we've done it, where you follow arrows between panels to see your choices play out) you're in a visual medium. And that means your choice structure is visible! An example: in a prose story I can have node A and unrelated node B all converge into node C, and you'd never know that these two story paths (A and B) ended up in the same place (C) unless you re-read the book a few times and happened to follow that path. It's a neat trick! But in a comic you can see these arrows and it's super obvious what's happening there. One glance at the comics page tells you what's going on.
So we have some fun with it in this book, knowing that a) the reader is in control, and b) the reader has some idea of where their alternate choices are taking them too. There's not a lot of non-linear visual storytelling going on, so we get to make up things as we go!
Nrama: What makes Squirrel Girl such a perfect character to explore this kind of device with?
North: She's fun, she's optimistic, and she's resourceful. This is a woman who only has squirrel powers and yet has also defeated Galactus, so she's great at figuring out what to do with what she's got. Putting those choices in the reader's hands let us have some fun with both the story - what would Doreen do against a bee man? - and also the character. What happens if Squirrel Girl makes the worst choices ever? Well, now you'll see. And it'll be your fault instead of ours!
Nrama: How did you prepare Erica Henderson for the challenge of illustrating a story with different possibilities and outcomes? Did you alter the way you scripted it, in terms of descriptions, set-ups, and so forth?
North: Oh hah hah oh my yes. I wrote out the script visually, drawing empty boxes on a page with arrows between them to represent panels, with roughed-in dialogue for the story. That was to make sure everything would fit on the page. Then I wrote an entire second script, with proper scene descriptions and dialogue. Then I color-coded the scenes and put the same color-coding on the "panels" in my drawn version of the script, so Erica could see how they matched up. At the end there was a giant stack of paper - I think a good 35 pages of plans and schematics and alternate approaches - for the 20-page visual script, plus the actual script. I believe we're going to put a shot of all these papers spread out in the book, just to say "yes, this was a lot of work!"
She was visiting as I was writing the script, so I got to show her my big stack of notes in person.
Nrama: If this issue goes well, could we see this gimmick repeated in later issues, or perhaps other out-there literary devices?
North: Maybe! I see it less as a gimmick and more of an exploration of "okay, we're making comics, and comics can actually do tons and tons of really fun things. What forms can that take?"
I did this also in my Adventure Time run: we had an issue where words got replaced by pictograms, one where most of the story was from a first-person perspective, one where it was a collection of comics that the characters themselves made, etc. Comics is such a fun medium, and it can do things that no other medium can do as well, and I'm fascinated by that. I wanna see more of that, always!
Nrama: What adventure will readers be choosing their way through in Unbeatable Squirrel Girl #7? What’s Doreen going up against this time?
North: Swarm! He is a man made out of bees, and he wants to take over the world. He's a particular challenge for Doreen because squirrels are vulnerable to bee stings just as people are, so her usual approach of "call in the squirrel scouts" doesn't work super well here. Also - and I feel like this seems obvious, but it also seems worth mentioning - you can't punch a man made out of bees. At least if you want results.
Nrama: After Unbeatable Squirrel Girl #7 in April, what’s coming up for Squirrel Girl?
North: The next arc has her going up against a super-powered (and super gross) angry old man, and in a parallel story, trying to go on a date. So, two terrifying things, really.