Strong Female Protagonist

A comic by Brennan Lee Mulligan and Molly Ostertag

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.

Past Alison and Present Alison. This is the disconnect I was talking about. Yes, she threw a robot into a hospital, killing a gay guy. This comic is not good to queers.
Past Alison and Present Alison. This is the disconnect I was talking about. Yes, her past self threw a robot into a hospital, killing a gay guy. This comic is not good to queers.

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.

and ANOTHER thing! Alison has to get her hair cut by a specialist with liquid nitrogen and a buzz saw, but look at how smooth her legs are! Does she have a plasma cannon at home that she shaves with?
and ANOTHER thing! Alison has to get her hair cut by a specialist with liquid nitrogen and a buzz saw, but look at how smooth her legs are! How? Why? Does she have a plasma cannon at home that she shaves with?

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.

Mary Kim is the real hero of this comic.
Mary Kim is the real hero of this comic.

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.

Totally reasonable reaction.
Totally reasonable reaction.

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.)

5 comments on “Strong Female Protagonist

  1. The rating seems fair, what little I’ve skimmed of SFP seems like it’s well-intentioned but overall sloppy and unrealized, and at least you criticized it for legitimate reasons, unlike the Bad Webcomics Wiki’s claim about Volume 5 “GOING FULL SOCJUS BY PARROTING THE 1-IN-4 MYTH WEW BOI”

  2. I agree that this comic has a lot of room for improvement, but I also think it’s pretty promising. And a couple of your criticisms don’t seem entirely fair.

    — the difference between gung-ho former Alison and current disillusioned Alison: see, I *like* that. It would be all too easy to give her an “origin” story where she accidentally crushed a busload of orphans or something. That’s been done many times, usually badly.

    The comic takes it as a given that being a superhero is pretty stupid. In the SFP-verse, the only reason for superheroes is to defend the world against supervillains. Once those guys are all locked up, what then? Various characters are coming up with various answers: cling to superheroing anyway (Pintsize, Furnace), help others (Feral), become a vigilante (Moonshadow), try to invent AI (Paladin), use your powers to try to figure out the secret history of the world (Patrick), be a minor jetsetting celebrity (Johnny), go back to school to try to figure out something better (Alison). At this point, many characters have followed Alison’s lead and walked away from superheroing. Why she did it seems less interesting than what happens next.

    — punching Feral through a window: Feral surprised a minor with an unwanted kiss on the mouth. This was, at a minimum, very bad manners. (And of course, Alison knew that punching her through a window would do no lasting harm.) Would your view of the situation change if Feral had been a straight male character?

    — Alison is a fairly convincing portrait of an intelligent, well-intentioned, young middle class white woman who sincerely wants to change the world without having the faintest idea how to go about it. She’s a college freshman — and as one character points out, she’s basically spent her adolescence as a child soldier. Easy for us to say “end capitalism”, but what basis does Alison have for coming to that conclusion? She’s had zero chance to work things out. Part of what makes the comic interesting is watching her try to do that.

    Anyway, consider giving it a second look. I didn’t love the way the Mary plotline resolved (too fast and predictably IMO), but the current arc — which has Alison attending a conference of people whose “powers” render their appearance too bizarre to pass for normal humans — is going some interesting places.


    Doug M.

  3. Just in case anyone was wondering, SFP has since spiralled wildly downward into a dumpster fire. It introduces a brilliant disabled black lady roboticist, vaguely flirts with the idea of Allison liking her romantically, then throws that in the trash so she can date the most aggravatingly dull and spineless man that has ever existed. It’s been coasting by on barely any conflict since, occasionally stopping to jerk itself off.

    You’ll be happy to know Feral was given an augment to her powers so she only needs to spend about 40 hours a month in the hospital as opposed to her entire life, but less happy to know this happened through a weird sexual assault allegory where Allison uses her powers to physically restrain someone and force him to use his own powers against his consent (his superpower being the augmentation of others’ powers). She receives no narrative punishment or downside for doing so.

  4. I’ve had mixed feelings on this one since I discovered it, which was only a year or so ago. It definitely opens with the kind of energy that was prevalent during the Occupy Wall Street days, and you can see it kind of change culturally in subtle ways as it goes on. But that being said, there’s kind of a lack of focus as to just what the comic is trying to achieve through its messages, or even what those are, as concrete concepts. We know from the tagline of the comic itself that it supports social justice, but we don’t get to see that take many forms within the story itself.

    I’ve been told that Allison’s super strength and invulnerability were stand ins for white privilege, and if that’s the case, I think it was hardly ever broached as a topic. Allison is a character who is young and clearly filled with good intentions but who is ill equipped to effectively act on them. We rarely see her worldview questioned in any meaningful way, and we rarely see her use her powers to create real social change, which, as was pointed out in the review, she has the absolute power to do. There are few systems of inequality she could not make massive inroads towards correcting, but she spends most of the comic in inaction. Is this intentional on the author’s part? Is Allison meant to represent a person with great social power who is yet to take serious action against oppression and the system she unfairly benefits from? It’s hard to say.

    My hope for the comic is that it becomes more vehement in its convictions, or rather, better defines them at least as it goes on. Buuut the last arc has her going inside her ex’s mind and fighting mind monsters and ‘id’ and ‘ego’ and…yeah. It starts to read like a typical superhero comic. So… We’ll see.

  5. Oh good, I’m glad to see a review trashing this. It’s too preachy without actually tackling the problems it preaches. And I quit reading it when there was an abusive mom character who was evil because she didn’t experience empathy, which was frightfully ableist.

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