What if you were both invincible and had super-strength—yet you still couldn’t save the world?
That’s the problem confronting Alison Green, the twenty-year-old protagonist of Brennan Lee Mulligan and Molly Ostertag’s webcomic, aptly titled Strong Female Protagonist. Running since 2012 and updating every Tuesday and Friday, the comic is set on an Earth familiar to the reader, save for one detail: in the aftermath of “an unprecedented meteorological event”, “biodynamic” individuals—essentially humans with superpowers—have suddenly cropped up all over the globe. Alison is one such person, acquiring what amounts to invincibility and super-strength when she is only fourteen years old.
As she and other American teens with newfound powers are shipped off to a camp “for their protection”, and supervillains commence wreaking havoc in the country, Alison finds herself roped into a makeshift superhero team formed by a Superman fan and a fellow biodynamic. Reluctantly donning the mask of Mega-Girl, she fights supervillains with the other Guardians until she realizes that what they do won’t have any real, systemic effect on the world. This is where Strong Female Protagonist really shines as a speculative work in the superhero genre. Complicating the hero-villain dichotomy occurs in many comics, but Mulligan’s writing also tackles the consequences of superpowers in our current sociopolitical context. Alison decides to attend college in the hopes of finding a better way to help people. She comes to realize the destructive potential of her abilities, evinced by her emotional outburst on national television when she says: “My name is Alison Green, I’m 19 years old, I’m invincible, I’m stronger than any human being that has ever lived, and I don’t know what the [f***] I’m doing!”
The trope is upended, for although she is a physically strong female protagonist, this isn’t what renders Alison a compelling character. The comic focuses not on Mega-Girl’s heroic exploits, but rather “follows the adventures of a young middle-class American with super-strength, invincibility and a crippling sense of social injustice” after she becomes an ex-super hero. It is disappointing to find that the comic, which often deals with social justice issues, such as rape culture and income inequality, overlooks the ableist language in its self-summary. However, in many ways Alison’s growth as a character comes about in the same uncomfortable way, because as she comes to understand the many complicated factors that contribute to unhappiness and oppression in the world, she learns that there is often no clear or easy solution. Meanwhile, she witnesses the diverse cast of heroes around her try to find their own ways of helping as they come to similar realizations. Surrounded by people with biodynamic powers that range from mindreading to photokinesis, and from having a bat’s head to a superhuman ability to learn robotics, Alison is pitted against the reality that her brand of idealism may be doing more harm than good. She is not a perfect hero or a perfect person—Alison often seems to approach situations with more force and less tact than is appropriate, and she rarely thinks about the consequences of her actions on those around her. In this way, the comic is as much about what it means to be a human wanting to help others in the world as it is about the implications of gaining sudden superpowers.
Aside from story arcs that deal directly with particular social justice issues, the comic also does a nice job in representing the diversity present in New York City. With a strong supporting cast alongside its “strong female protagonist”, the webcomic portrays characters who are believable in their depth while refraining from invoking too many tired stereotypes. Diversity is displayed through characters from different economic backgrounds, people of colour, disabled characters, and queer characters who inhabit Alison’s immediate community as a reflection of the real world—and they occupy positions ranging from prominent secondary characters, to panels depicting passers-by on the street. Neither are they reduced to one aspect of their identities; in fact, many of them, like Alison, are trying to find their place in a setting where none of the superpowered people seem to have the ability to save the world. This alludes to darker powers at play, ones that remain mostly a mystery to readers thus far, but provide an undercurrent of tension to the comic’s overarching plot. Ostertag’s art has matured quickly throughout the series, so it will be exciting to see the plot unfold in the full colour that has been adopted since the latest issue.
Strong Female Protagonist stands out as a superhero webcomic in its subversion of common genre tropes and its nuanced depiction of complex characters confronting equally complex systemic issues. Truly speculating on a world where both more help and more harm can be accomplished through superpowers, Mulligan and Ostertag’s comic explores the ways in which these powers are sufficient, but also where they fall short in tackling the problems of our time.
-Contributed by Victoria Liao