Maggie Tokuda-Hall’s 2021 Squad is a horror coming-of-age graphic novel. Illustrations are by Lisa Sterle.
Becca has been dragged to upper-class Piedmont by her divorced mother. A moment of charity saves her from a pariah existence as a socially awkward stranger at her new school. Marley, to whom Becca handed a spare tampon, is a member of the school’s elite clique. Because Marley takes an immediate shine to Becca, Becca joins Amanda, Arianna, and Marley in their squad.
It’s a dream come true, except for the serial killing.
Membership has its privileges. It also comes with a price tag. Becca gets to hang with girls most of the student body would sacrifice a limb to join. However, the group expects conformity from its members in matters of style and social activity. So, chic clothes and wild parties are in, but palling around with amiable nerd-girl classmates is out. For Becca, being part of a group is worth the sacrifices1.
There is one expectation the other girls don’t mention up front, something that only becomes apparent during a road trip to attend a party. Every member of the group, except Becca, is a werewolf. Thus, their superhuman fitness. Thus, once a month, they have to kill and eat a human.
After assuring Becca that they only target bad people — specifically creepy boys who if left alive would only harass and prey on women — the girls give Becca a choice. She can become a werewolf as well, with all the perks and requirement inherent in lycanthropy. Alternatively, she can turn the opportunity down and be immediately murdered by her friends so that she does not betray their little quirk. Becca chooses to become a werewolf.
Their shared lives of high fashion, parties, and socially conscious murder could have lasted the rest of their high school years. Unfortunately for Becca, Amanda, and Marley, Arianna broke the group’s rule against boyfriends. Dating rich hunky jerk Thatcher Lang is a means to an end for Arianna and if he fits the profile of the sort of boy the group habitually consumes, Arianna is willing to ignore that — provided Thatcher never preys on Arianna’s friends. Thatcher makes the mistake of thinking Becca a weak, defenseless target. In short order, the girls have a very dead Thatcher to dispose of.
Overconfident, the girls are not as careful about disposing of Thatcher as they should have been. Thatcher was a creep but he was a well-connected creep. His death will have consequences.
In the spirit of immediate gratification, I purchased the ebook version of this. I do not recommend that format. The file is immense (almost 200 MB), which meant I didn’t want to download it onto my increasingly memory-strapped Kobo. My go-to option for ebooks I don’t care to read on the Kobo is my laptop but the file repeatedly crashed Adobe Acrobat. I did manage to read it via Kobo app on my tablet but page advance was unreliable and halting. Paper is the way to go here.
It may be due to the difficulty of reading it that my reaction to the book isn’t nearly as positive as other reviewers. The art in particular was an issue. Sterle seemed to have little grasp of anatomy and perspective; there were a couple of action sequences I had to reread because it was difficult for me to determine where characters were in relation to each other.
Additionally, it seemed to me like there was a certain amount of sleight of hand regarding moral culpability. Sure, Becca is subjected to a certain level of social pressure to go along with the whole serial killing and cannibalism deal, but she does go along with it. By the end of the book, one specific werewolf is scapegoated by her friends for their collective screwups, leaving the rest to continue their lives. It may be that homicidal mean girls are not necessarily the best moral guardians.
On the other hand, there are lots of hints that the squad falls well short of perfection, even if one sets aside the whole obligate cannibalism issue2. They’re rather shallow, although no worse than one would expect from teens. There’s the matter of how they studiously use a hated nickname for Amanda despite African-American Amanda making it clear she prefers her full name, not to mention the girls’ apparent assumption that if Asian American Becca dated, it would only be other Asian Americans (which as it turns out, is not the case at all). The whole blatant hypocrisy may just be characterization.
1: Becca has maternal validation for her new social life; her practical mother points out that rich friends can be a valuable asset later in life.
2: The squad would argue that by focusing on sex pests, they perform a useful function. It’s a shame the text makes it clear that’s the ideal, not necessarily the practice. Peckish werewolves are not always careful to ensure that their meal is a bad person.