Will Murray didn’t create very many superheroes during his brief career writing for Marvel Comics. The writer—who left comics years ago to pursue writing fiction and nonfiction—wrote fill-in single-issue stories featuring the likes of The Punisher and Iron Man. And one superhero he did create was, for much of her existence, a throwaway gag who’d be lucky to get referenced in an issue of Deadpool as a joke. So Murray is gratified that his creation—Squirrel Girl, whom he created with artist Steve Ditko in the 1992 Marvel Superheroes Winter Special—is suddenly a cosplay favorite, one of Marvel’s most beloved new titles, and the subject of public campaigning among Hollywood's brightest young stars to play her on-screen.
"I always felt like she had enormous potential, and nobody saw that back then," Murray says of the character's origins. "But time has proven me right." Despite leaving comics some time ago, he’s kept up with Squirrel Girl as she’s somehow become one of Marvel’s best-loved characters. Friends will post cosplay photos of her on Facebook, or share articles about the character.
A character named "Squirrel Girl" sounds like a joke, but Murray never saw her that way. The first story in which she appears is funny, but it takes the character seriously. A squirrel isn’t a tough-guy animal to base a superhero around, but the character of Doreen Green was created in part to contrast against the grim-'n'-gritty Marvel heroes of the early ‘90s. "When I introduced her to the Marvel Universe, we got a lot of ridicule. It was an age of grueling, gritty mutants, and I wanted to do a story that went back to the early Silver Age of Marvel Comics, where they did a lot of tongue-in-cheek stories that were lighter in the heart than what was going on," Murray recalls.
The character of Squirrel Girl is weird, to be certain. In Murray’s origin story, she’s a 14-year-old girl with the powers of a squirrel: She has a furry tail almost as long as she is tall, the power to chew through wood, and the proportionate strength and athleticism of a squirrel—plus, of course, the power to talk to squirrels. And after her creation, she essentially disappeared—until writer Dan Slott tapped her for use in the similarly tongue-in-cheek 2005 throwback miniseries Great Lakes Avengers, where she auditioned for and earned a spot on the team.
In 2010, writer Brian Michael Bendis decided that New Avengers characters Luke Cage and Jessica Jones should have a superpowered nanny to take care of their baby. (Fans of the Netflix duo should be aware that, in Marvel’s comic book universe, they’re married with a daughter.) He posed the question of who to put in the role to Twitter, and somehow landed on Squirrel Girl.
It was a high-profile gig for a character who had only been used in tongue-in-cheek roles before, and it catapulted Squirrel Girl to fan-favorite status. Marvel recruited writer Ryan North—famous for his "Dinosaur Comics" web series—and artist Erica Henderson, and Squirrel Girl’s journey to the public consciousness began in earnest.
In July, Anna Kendrick told People magazine that, while she hasn’t played a superhero yet, the franchise she has her eye on would be Squirrel Girl. Edgar Wright—who was the first director on Ant-Man before splitting with Marvel over creative differences—tweeted his support for the idea (noting that much of the cast of his film Scott Pilgrim vs. The World is loaded with past and future movie superheroes like Chris Evans, Brie Larson, Brandon Routh, and Thomas Jane), sparking a debate over who should play the part. Stranger Things star Shannon Purser, who played Barb on the Netflix show, had previous tweeted her interest in the part, and reaffirmed that interest in an interview this week. Orange Is the New Black and Jurassic World star Lauren Lapkus, meanwhile, chimed in on Monday to express her interest in donning the bushy tail and buckteeth.
All of this is silly, for the most part. Marvel has announced no Squirrel Girl feature plans—though we suspect they’ve been watching the interest in the past week’s updates closely—but there’s potential there as Marvel expands the scope of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (there's always end credit cameo potential, too—Howard the Duck is experiencing a similar resurgence in popularity after popping up unexpectedly at the close of Guardians of the Galaxy). The two biggest developments in the Marvel movies this year, after all, has been the addition of two other characters that Squirrel Girl cocreator Steve Ditko was responsible for—Spider-Man and Doctor Strange—and the success of Deadpool suggests that there’s room for all kinds of superhero movies right now.
According to Murray, the idea of Squirrel Girl in other media just makes sense, too. "I remember telling my editor at the time that this was a great spin-off character," he says. "Those were the days of Saturday morning cartoons still being a force, and I said that she’d make a great Saturday morning cartoon character—but nobody saw the potential in that. So I feel vindicated, because I felt she had enormous potential in a completely different direction from where Marvel was going at the time. I thought there could be room for characters that stepped outside of what we might call the Marvel rut of the time."
Murray is vindicated by the fact that Squirrel Girl is getting her time in the sun, even if she’s not exactly the character that he created anymore. His vision of Squirrel Girl was a 13-year-old who was "a naive Peter Pan-type character" who was on the cusp of adolescence." In North and Henderson’s version of Squirrel Girl, she’s a college student. Murray says that he’d have liked to have had the chance to revisit the character himself, but that he likes what they’ve done.
"Their take on her is very unique and very refreshing, but it’s not my take. I wish I was writing her, but I’m busy writing novels now," he says. "But I think she touches a chord—some of which was intended, and some of which I didn’t suspect at the time. Don’t forget, we’re a generation later than when I created her, so she’s striking a chord in women who are approximately Squirrel Girl’s age, and now everybody, to some degree, is into superheroes. So maybe the fact that she took so long to be revived was because her time was now; it wasn’t then."
Of all the people to come up with a superhero for a company like Marvel, Will Murray is one of the best equipped to see his creation find new life in the hands of other creators. These days, he’s writing novels that feature the pulp heroes of the early 20th century—Doc Savage, King Kong, Tarzan, and more. (Later this year, he’ll be publishing a novel detailing a long-anticipated meeting between Tarzan and King Kong.) Murray purchased the license to the characters five years ago, and prior to that he wrote nonfiction that explored that body of work, from H.P. Lovecraft to western pulps to The Shadow. So mostly, he’s enjoying seeing what happens with Squirrel Girl—even if he sometimes wishes he could get his hands back on the character. "I have mixed feelings, but I don’t have any negative feelings," he says. "Thank god they rediscovered Squirrel Girl and the world is seeing her as the unique character that she is."