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There’s this one Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal strip where humanity realizes that Superman can help a whole lot more by solving the world’s hunger and energy problems, than by preventing crimes: “How about you transport loads of grain to starving people?”. In Strong Female Protagonist, it isn’t society that’s questioning the superhero’s contribution – it’s the heroes themselves.
Specifically, Mega Girl, or as she’s known today: Alison Green. Alison was one of thousands of teenagers worldwide who, following a mysterious storm, got superpowers: in her case, invulnerability and super-strength (get it? Strong Female Protagonist? Ha ha). She then spent a few years as Mega Girl – as pure a “classic superhero” as can be. She punched things, she Saved the Day, and she punched some more things. And then, suddenly, she stopped, revealed her identity, hung up her mask, and enrolled in college.
All this happens before the comic starts, and is shown via flashbacks – which is great, for someone like me who doesn’t like action comics (i.e. traditional superhero comics, like Superman). Instead, the comic revolves around Alison’s decision to “come out of the phone booth” (in SFP’s words): her motivation for it, how it affected the world around her, and how she adjusts to life as an ex-superhero and a celebrity who mostly wants to stay out of the spotlight.
So while the comic does have all the trademarks of every good superhero comic: the action, demonstrations of cool powers used in novel and awesome ways, and ridiculous outfits – that’s not what makes SFP stand out. Instead, the pleasure here is a much more intellectual one – a harsh, no-punches-pulled discussion about the morality of superpowered beings and their effect on the world. Yeah, we save the day, Alison asks – but what about tomorrow? How do we make sure the world “stays saved” (in the words of Mr. Incredible)? Is it really Alison’s responsibility, just because she’s the strongest, physically? Or was it her responsibility, as much as everyone else’s, all along?
In other words, can she be a Strong Female Protagonist not only due to the power-granting storm?
SFP’s strength is that it raises these questions – and many more like them, just as intriguing – not as a detached academic debate on comics, but from within the genre itself. It’s not the first comic to do that, but it does so in a refreshingly direct manner, without resorting to cynicism or mockery of “regular” comics.
All this comes through thanks to Brennan Lee Mulligan’s absolutely marvelous writing. Molly Ostertag’s art is also very good, with unique and pretty visualizations of both regular humans and ones with weirdly-manifesting powers – but it’s the writing that’s exceptional in my opinion. All the questions and discussions are wrapped in a cool story with well-rounded, likable characters. The plot is well paced, we learn about the characters and the world by their words and deeds and not by external stories (AKA “Show, don’t tell“), and the trope-reversals and twists are extremely well done.
Issue 3 is the highlight for me so far, with its reveal being one of the most gut-wrenching things I’ve read in recent memory – and an astoundingly original use of a very popular superpower.
At the time of writing, reading the entirety of SFP’s archive isn’t a daunting task – there are 4.5 issues of about 50 pages each. I’ve read them all in 2-3 days, and then two weeks later read them all again to write this post – and because it was immensely fun. And if I didn’t have more posts to write – and new webcomics to read, which will lead to more posts, etc. – I’d read it all again. Go read it, if only so we can also have deep and engaging discussions on superheroes.
1. We’ll get to that one sometime soon, don’t worry. [Back to post]