If you spend enough time in a comic book store, you will inevitably hear someone ask, "Who would win in a fight? (Hero A) or (Hero B)?" which inevitably leads to an entertaining conversation about each of the characters' powers and merits. Not surprisingly, the outcome of this make-believe battle is rarely determined by the hero that is physically stronger. It often comes down to the one who has a strength based on intelligence, determination and faith in their convictions. There is a hero out there, fortunately, that exhibits both kinds of strength: Mega Girl, the main character of "Strong Female Protagonist," a webcomic created by Brennan Lee Mulligan and Molly Ostertag.
"SFP" tells the story of Alison Green, a college-aged girl with superhuman strength and invulnerability who quits her job as a masked "hero" to discover how she can be the best person possible. While this may sound like a simple morality tale, the story's big surprises and quiet character moments have earned it a large following on the web. This past summer, online readers followed Mulligan and Ostertag offline and supported their Kickstarter for a printed copy of the comic with surprising results. This then led to an offer from Top Shelf to publish the book, which is good news as it brings the comic into comic shops so fans can finally debate whether Mega Girl would win a fight with Wonder Man.
Considering the comic's simple beginnings, both creators are surprised and pleased by all the attention "SFP" has received of late. Both natives of New York, Mulligan and Ostertag first met at the Wayfinder Experience, a LARP (Live Action Role-Playing) camp. Mulligan (the book's writer) explained, "It's an amazing young adult summer camp that teaches improv, sword-fighting, and runs the most incredible live-action adventure games that I've ever witnessed (and I've witnessed a few). My first introduction to Molly was through her art. She had played a game I had written and had drawn a number of the characters from the game, and I was immediately struck by how perfectly they captured an essential quality of the characters I had imagined but been unable to give voice."
"Brennan is a few years older than me -- which is a big deal when you're a teen -- so he was the cool staff member at camp and he wrote the most amazing adventure games," Ostertag added. "We've always had a pretty solid shared aesthetic and had talked about collaborating on various projects; 'SFP' just happened at a time when we both were ready to commit to a new project and it grew from there."
While the full title of the webcomic may be a mouthful to say, the creators couldn't envision any other title capturing the concept and tone of their comic more successfully. Mulligan said, "The initial concept was a reaction to the literary expression and us wanting to make a character that was strong in every sense of the word. The first initial outlines of Alison as a character focused on making sure she possessed every connotation of the word 'strength,' and the title stuck as almost a play on words.
"It was as though Molly and I had woken up from hibernation and fundamentally misunderstood the conversation surrounding the need for strong female protagonists, and had been like 'What, a lady with super-strength? That's easy, we can do that!' The truth, of course, is that Alison's super-strength is probably the least important type of strength she possesses."
Ostertag (the artist and female half of the creative duo) replied, "As a woman, it's funny to watch movies and read comics and feel as though writers are just ... missing the point where female characters are concerned. Women are half the population of the world, and so whether they're written as sex objects or mysterious badasses, it comes across as frustratingly unrealistic. I just want to see stories where women fill half the roles in the story -- like in real life -- and their characters are informed by their personality, not their gender. So, despite the very meta name, that's part of what we try to do with 'Strong Female Protagonist.'"
Working with another person always comes with a certain set of challenges, but Mulligan indicated that things become much simpler when your partner is both a friend and local. "Molly and I live in the same city, so in-person meetings are pretty common, but I'd say we mostly hash things out over email. We each provide a good deal of support and act as a sounding board for the other creator, while giving each other a lot of freedom to just do our thing."
"Our in-person meetings are always the most productive, although we do tend to get sidetracked talking about rad superhero characters who never make it into the story," admitted Ostertag. "We have a nice back-and-forth where we'll talk about upcoming pages. Then Brennan will write them, I'll draw them, Brennan proofreads, then I'll post them and Brennan will write a hover text for the web page, which is a nice way to have him look over the art as closely as I looked over the script."
The "hover text" (known as Alt Text in tech circles) is the text that appears when a computer user allows their cursor to rest on an image. Those who read "SFP" online may be surprised to discover that Mulligan has written a different bit of Alt Text on each of the hundreds of pages Ostertag has drawn. The artist admitted, "Yeah, they are the best kept secret of our comic! They're usually a commentary, observation, or fact about the comic. But I'm glad to let people know about them. They're also appearing in the published book, printed in small text at the bottom of each page. An example of one that made me laugh a lot can be found here."
Due to the title of the book, there may be a few shortsighted individuals out there who assume the comic has some sort of "woman-power" feminist agenda. However, it quickly becomes evident that the comic has a "humanist" agenda that all people can relate to. It might also surprise those who stop short at the title that Alison's "voice" as a character is actually provided by a male. When asked if he's ever had any surprised reactions to this fact, however, Mulligan responded, "The funny thing about the Internet is that I haven't really met a representative sampling of the comic's fans, so I couldn't tell you if all that many of them know that I'm a fella or would care if they did know!"
Ostertag doesn't believe it would be a surprise to any of their readers, and wouldn't be concerned if it was. She said, "Our comic is much more about being human than about being female. And Brennan is, to my knowledge, a human."
Speaking of biology, "SFP" has created its own interesting set of rules when it comes to powered humans. There are two different types: innates and biodynamics. The distinctions between the two are somewhat subtle, but make a big difference to characters in the book. Mulligan was kind enough to help clarify any confusion that may exist.
"Technically, innates are a classification of biodynamics, although that's something that's hotly debated in-world in the comic. Innates are theoretically the least 'powerful' superheroes, but that just means their powers don't have to bend the laws of physics that much. In a real-world sense, many of them are actually more powerful than their more fantastical counterparts. Innates are biodynamic individuals who exhibit a supernatural proficiency at a skill or suite of skills that may not be able to be differentiated by the casual observer from just a genius or prodigy in a given field. Paladin (a hero in the comic) is a technological and combat innate, meaning she has a level of talent, insight and genius in those fields that is definitively superhuman. In other words, you can't be as good as she is at building stuff without the biodynamic gene in your body."
While the science behind "SFP" is interesting and deep, the cause behind people gaining powers is deceptively simple: a large global storm that lasted for several weeks occurred while Alison (and other powered individuals) were in utero. While nothing has been revealed in the comic about this event, the creators assured us there is a larger significance behind the storm and that all will be revealed.
"We definitely have a lot figured out," Ostertag said. "We're not going to disappoint readers who have questions about why and where powers came from, but we are also not going to tell people ahead of time!"
"'Strong Female Protagonist' is heading somewhere finite and specific, so at some point in the distant future there will be a final update, but there is a lot of story in between here and there," added Mulligan.
For now, Alison's story will continue to unfold twice a week at the "SFP" website until Mulligan and Ostertag reach their planned conclusion. Considering that the comic is free to read for anyone with an internet connection, the duo were astonished by the demand for a printed copy with their Kickstarter. Either people still love the feel of a book in their hands, or they wanted to thank this team for their efforts in telling such a terrific tale. No matter the reason, this creative pair couldn't have been more thrilled by the response.
"It was definitely surprising, but also extremely inspiring and encouraging," stated Mulligan. "I think there is a culture on the web (that doesn't get as much press as the internet's more toxic elements) that is truly dedicated to supporting artists, writers, inventors and activists, both with vocal support and cold hard cash, that would maybe have a tougher time finding a home in the big, wide world without their help.
"I think the term 'crowdfunding' is kind of funny. The connotation of the word 'crowd' makes you picture like a ragtag assembly of scruffy internet drifters, when in reality each and every member of that crowd is someone with bills to pay (and at least one mouth to feed) who made the conscious choice to support our project. Every one of the almost 2000 people who backed us is a literal patron of the arts, so to say that the internet is currently undergoing a renaissance of independent art couldn't be more apt."
Ostertag replied, "It was a really incredible experience to see our readers go from a number on Google Analytics and the occasional tweet to thousands of people who gave us their money, attention, and trust! I had no idea what to expect so I calculated low. But I do think people were excited about a physical book -- our comic is structured like a graphic novel and so it feels right to have it in book format.
"I'm also excited about having the book -- and about the distribution deal that we recently signed with Top Shelf -- because not everyone likes to read comics online. I hope that having the book will make it easier to recommend it and lend it to other people. It's coming out in bookstores all over America in December, and I'm fondly envisioning well-meaning parents buying it for their teen daughters!"