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What if superheroes were real? As in a whole generation suddenly began displaying powers imaginable and impossible, across the entire world? Would some of these heroes form an alliance, like the iconic X-Men, and fight the evildoers to bring justice? Possibly… or perhaps one of them suddenly realizes there is no point to super heroes, sheds her secret identity, goes to college, and lives a normal life, albeit with super strength. Sounds sorta like a comic book, right?
Alison Green, alias Mega Girl, has for many years operated under the stereotypical superhero shtick: punch the bad guys, say a cute quip, and pose for the cameras. However, when she realizes life is slightly more nuanced than a Batman cartoon, she quits her day job and enrolls in college, hoping to finally find the one solution that will bring global peace. Only it’s not as easy as taking World Harmony 101. Frustrated but determined, Alison grows and learns through interacting with friends, family, colleagues, and even some old archenemies, trying to make sense of a crazy world made crazier by superpowers.
Strong Female Protagonist pulls off what at first glance resembles one large cliché. Written by Brennan Lee Mulligan, Alison is a young, take-charge, determined person who is ready to change the world… only to realize how hard changing the world is. Having lived as a superhero since fourteen, Alison is now learning to deal with problems, both large and small, all young adults face, but coupled with her “great powers” and the “great responsibility” that entails. Rather than write Alison as always certain of her ethics and morals, Mulligan presents his character as a young woman who is constantly challenged by reality, forcing her to constantly review her professed ideals, which all young people must wrangle with upon adulthood. Whereas many comics with strong protagonists– male or female, super or not– have them stay clearly in one camp of thought, Alison is constantly forced to see the other side, and even admits to preferring darker aspects of her personality, despite the social implications. In an early chapter, she admits to a defeated enemy how much she loves fighting, and how much it frustrates her that nothing good comes of it. Unlike past superheroes who have professed hatred for their fighting skills, wishing to be simply human, Mulligan’s character acknowledges her desires and the murky complications of enjoying the one thing good people are supposed to hate. As strange as it sounds, it is good to see a woman have dark yearnings; in its own way, this equalizes the emotional range between men and women, allowing both to experience all shades of emotion.
The artist is Molly Ostertag, with her work progressing from black-and-white to full colors in the current pages. Though good overall, the first three chapters are rough drawings, with plain shading. By the fourth chapter, Ostertag’s lines are more complex and detailed. In chapter five, the comic graduates to color, although unlike the usual fantasy-adventure comics, or the comics of old, the scheme balances warm and cool tones with muted shading, forgoing the primary color choice. While superhero comics can take liberties with proportions, especially depictions of abnormalities, Ostertag’s characters–human, animal, or other– reflect realistic growth and change. Even better, characters do not conform to one body type, nor do they follow strict masculine and feminine tropes. People are tall, muscular, thin, curvy, hairy, dark-skinned, freckled, and any combination. There are people with visible religions and handicaps, but in the comic’s universe, they are simply people with more important things to do than worry over differences. And it is wonderful to see people doing what they do best: being people.
As it is a comic about a strong female protagonist, there are themes of women’s rights, social expectations, and the overlapping of religion, culture, and personal fear. SFP handles these themes well by having the characters handle them not so well, mimicking how life is more of a sticky morass and less of a clear path. Mulligan and Ostertag have created that rare comic which is not only appealing to read but asks and answers relevant questions, without preaching a constant moral high ground. In fact, many questions are left unanswered, or at least answered with a less-than-adequate solution. Strong Female Protagonist promises a comic that deserves to be foremost among literature, not just for fun, but education and social relevance too.
The first four chapters of Strong Female Protagonist are available in a print book, and the webcomic updates Tuesday and Fridays. Begun in 2012 and nowhere near finished, you can read the comic at StrongFemaleProtagonist.com.