If you’re like me, reading superhero comics brings up a lot of questions. Like, is fighting crime really the best use for superpowers? Why do so few supervillains have realistic or even internally consistent motivations? Isn’t this all just an excuse to see huge pointless battles between people more or less disconnected from the lives of regular people? Don’t superpowered people get tired of fighting all the time and never changing anything?
Strong Female Protagonist is a superhero comic that asks these questions, and that’s glorious. It’s the story of Alison Green, a 20 year old former superhero who hung up her cape after the disappearance of the last great supervillain and her realization that fighting supercrime accomplished nothing. Now a firefighter and a college student, she’s searching for a way to use her powers to actually make the world a better place.
I should love this comic. It’s a perfect subversion of all the superhero tropes I can’t stand, and it’s told with convincing dialogue and a realistic eye for the fallout of the end of superheroism, on an individual scale as well as a cultural one. But there’s a couple things that I can’t get past.
First, as cute as the title of the comic is, Alison is a disappointingly unrealized character. Flashbacks to her past as a gung-ho moralistic crimefighter are jarring when contrasted with her lost, disillusioned present self. Her past self hurls giant robots into hospitals and throws girls through windows for kissing her, and her present self regrets these things. That’s all there is to her, no development there, no transition between the two Alisons. The reader is just expected to imagine some sort of gradual shift, but that’s poor storytelling. Why did she suddenly decide to give up superheroing? What events preceeded that turning point? These critical questions are unanswered. It’s possible that future flashbacks will depict that progression, but in my mind it’s too late – I shouldn’t have to suspend my disbelief for 5 issues about something so central as the main character’s development and motivations.
The second problem is that 5 issues is way too long to circle around the question of how to make the world better when, in my mind, the answer is completely obvious: end capitalism. Alison agonizes and hand-wrings about all the suffering in the world – poverty, hunger, war – without ever trying to think about the cause of those things. Super-strong and invulnerable, she could easily destroy the American war machine, crush nuclear missiles in her arms, single-handedly end the possibility for imperialism. A national hero and household name, she’s also one of the few people who could rally support for a popular uprising. She repeatedly laments the fact that her superpowers only make her good at fighting, but I’d say there’s plenty of fighting to be done in the name of world peace.
The frustrating liberalism of this comic emerges in other places, too. When a girl who can turn invisible starts making national news by using her powers to murder rapists, the most sympathetic commentator available is someone who says that it’s surprising that it took so long for something like that to happen, but murder is still wrong and indefensible. In my humble opinion, murdering rapists is a GREAT way to use your superpowers for good, but maybe that’s me being a scaaary anarchist.
The third thing that irritates me is the treatment of Tara, aka Feral, the girl who Alison punched through a window for kissing her. Fortunately, Tara has extreme healing and regenerative powers, allowing her to recover from an assault that would have killed anyone else (I repeat, for the crime of daring to kiss a girl). In the present, Tara has decided to help people by becoming an organ donor – through an unnecessarily horrible regime of dozens of surgeries per day, with no breaks for sleep or anesthetic, for the rest of her life, as enabled by her powers. This is clearly a case of the author choosing something nonsensical for the character to use them as plot point, and indeed, when Alison, now friends with her, is unable to convince her not to go through with it, she resolves to make the world better enough that Feral no longer “needs” to torture herself.
Tara is constantly subjected to such consistent awful treatment, by the characters and the writer, that it seems like that’s her intended purpose and role. And honestly, seeing the main queer girl in the comic’s cast get worse than fridged to motivate the straight hero makes me kind of sick.
Especially in a comic titled Strong Female Protagonist.
Final verdict: This comic has a lot of potential, but the queer representation needs a lot of improvements, and the main character’s development is still a bit of a mystery. Read it if you have A) a love/hate relationship with superhero comics and B) a strong stomach for fridged queers. (And let’s face it, if you have A, you probably have B.)