Are superheroes woke? It’s a loaded, often decontextualized and eye-roll worthy buzzword, sure, but it’s an interesting question. Yes, they fight for the downtrodden, but they’re also gifted ubermensch who bully their way to justice. Might makes right, and all that. Captain America fought Nazi ideology, but he mostly did it the one way he knew how — by punching Hitler in the face. It takes an exceptional superhero to acknowledge the limits of his or her physicality, and it usually takes an exceptional story for them to rise to the challenge of the inherent conflict that drives all superheroes. Strong Female Protagonist is taking on that challenge more overtly than any other superhero comic out there right now, and it’s got all the makings of a modern superhero classic.
The webcomic is a collaboration between writer Brennan Lee Mulligan and Molly Ostertag, whose warm, human illustrations give life to the exciting, thoughtful story. Even the title of the comic, which kicked off back in 2012, should clue you in on what to expect. A “strong female protagonist” is an oft-misused trope, the idea that just because someone made a woman kick ass, they’ve created a feminist masterpiece. Working off this cheeky title, Strong Female Protagonist attempts to unpack what, exactly, that means. What does it mean to be a superhero? It’s not the first comic to ask this question, but the superhero at the center of the story is asking herself the same question.
Strong Female Protagonist follows Alison Green, a 20-year-old who used to be the superhero Mega Girl. “Used to” are the operative words here. Alison was one of thousands of young kids across the world who suddenly found themselves gifted with superpowers. She helped found one of the world’s greatest superteams, the Guardians, and saved the world by battling supervillains. But after taking down the big bad, Alison has an epiphany: Fighting killer robots and punching mutants in the face doesn’t make a real difference in the world. Sure, you can brute-force your way to temporary safety, but Mega Girl can’t make lasting change. So, Alison hangs up the mask, comes clean with her secret identity, and enrolls in college at the New School in New York City to try to figure out how she can make the world a better place.
Of course, even though she quit the superhero game (and the age of heroes is largely over), that doesn’t mean all that’s disappeared. Even as Alison tries to be a normal college student with big ambition, she’s visited by old villains, former teammates, and the biggest, baddest supervillain, who has retired and become more of a frenemy. All of these characters are also trying to figure out what to do with superpowers now that the tights and fights era is largely over, and not everyone approves of Alison’s declaration that superheroics are, essentially, pointless.
Strong Female Protagonist is full of great dialogue that’s both dramatic and human, and some sweet action scenes. Ostertag’s art really levels up about halfway through the comic’s current run when she switches to color instead of black and white (though the earlier pages aren’t too shabby).
If you’re the type of person who has ever used the phrase “social justice warrior” as a pejorative, then this comic isn’t for you. Or, more accurately, maybe it’s exactly what you need, if you’d give it a chance. Strong Female Protagonist is a great, free superhero comic, but both the series and its main character are trying to be even better — and in Alison’s case, she’s still trying to figure out what that means.
Strong Female Protagonist updates on Tuesdays and Fridays.