The other day, someone mentioned to me that there was a really good webcomic called “Strong Female Protagonist” that should be in the Hugo conversation. They provided a link to www.strongfemaleprotagonist.com in with the comment, and I clicked on that link…and about six hours later I came up for air, having devoured every scrap of extant material, and started waiting for the next installment to be posted.
Because it is phenomenal. Brennan Lee Mulligan and Molly Ostertag are two people who have really given an immense amount of thought to the way a superhero universe would work, and they’ve come up with some really fascinating answers. And the best part is, those answers lead to more questions, and those questions make for great plot hooks that lead to fantastic stories. For example, “Why is it that you never see any superheroes with the power to generate cheap, pollution-free energy?” or “What practical use is super-strength and invulnerability in combating systemic social injustices like racism?” or “If Wolverine has a healing factor that strong, wouldn’t he do more good by just becoming an organ donor?” (The answer to that one is, by the way, one of the most heart-rending things you will ever see in a comic book story.)
All of that could be bloodless, but Mulligan and Ostertag do a great job of turning these abstract moral questions into grounded, meaningful human dramas. Protagonist Alison Green, aka “MegaGirl”, is a character who feels utterly real, someone granted great power for no apparent reason (although there are definitely hints that “no apparent reason” isn’t remotely the same as “no reason”) and is struggling to deal with it in the same way that any normal person would. She’s no paragon of seamless virtue–there’s a brilliant scene where she admits to a supervillain that she fantasizes about killing people hundreds of times a day, simply because the logic of “beat up the bad guys” is so seductively easy–but she’s immensely sympathetic nonetheless. She’s a good person trying to do her best to make the world a better place, but she admits to not knowing what that is.
And the supporting cast is great too. I don’t want to talk too much about it, because I’ve already probably hinted too much at spoilers, but there are a lot of interesting and unique takes on classic comic tropes. It’s a series that actively resists the temptation to slot people into the role of “hero” or “villain”; even the worst characters, like the twenty-foot tall guy with meat cleavers for hands and super-strength, turns out to be all too human and all too relatable, and some of the superheroes turn out to be petty, arrogant and stupid. They’re not superhumans; they’re humans with super powers, and they’re all trying to figure out what that means in a world where their only guide is a medium where all the problems end in thirty-two pages or less.
I could go on–I’ve barely said anything about Ostertag’s magnificent art, which gets better with each and every installment, or about the sparkling and literate dialogue–but at some point I have to just tell you to go read the entirely free comic instead of listening to me talk about it. I will say this: You will never look at the world the same way again after reading ‘Strong Female Protagonist’, much less a comic book. If ‘Watchmen’ was a major step forward in treating comics as real literature that analyzes what makes a so-called “superhero” tick, then this is the next step on from ‘Watchmen’. And it’s about time.