Readers who’ve followed “Strong Female Protagonist” as a twice-weekly webcomic know that it’s an intelligent, heartfelt coming-of-age story that uses superheroics as a metaphor for individual ability, in a world that needs so much more than that. The Kickstarter-funded trade paperback collects Volumes 1-4 of the adventures of Alison Green, a “biodynamic individual” and former superhero who’s starting over as an activist college student. Molly Ostertag’s warm, human artwork and Brennan Lee Mulligan’s thoughtful, kind script create a complicated world that’s as deeply frustrating and surprisingly rewarding as our own.
The titular “strong female protagonist,” Alison, is the heart and soul of the book, and her characterization is its biggest strength. Like many superheroes, she’s relentlessly, hungrily seeking — but instead of gunning for victory or the stars, she’s trying to understand the people around her. Alison wants systemic solutions that make people’s lives fundamentally, categorically better, not just on an individual level, and those are incredibly difficult to accomplish. There have been many critiques of the superhero genre — its violence, its individualism, its focus on apocalypse — but “Strong Female Protagonist” stands out with the earnestness of its approach. Alison’s questions about how to contribute to humanity are applicable to any reader who’s wondered how to best use her abilities. The book becomes broader than a genre critique, instead becoming an exploration of idealism, powerlessness and consequences.
Still, the book isn’t all feelings and sincerity. For the trade, the creative team has added comments below each page that are meta and quite funny. From additions like “New York is a good city” to reminders like, “You’ve seen this photograph before, page 25” to editorializing like, “Don’t you know any happy secrets, Patrick?”, these additions give the reader a feeling of being “in on it” without getting too snarky or self-satisfied.
It’s a credit to artist Molly Ostertag that I forever want to see more talking head panels in “Strong Female Protagonist.” The characters’ clear, readable faces are compellingly open, whether she’s drawing Alison or the monstrous-looking Cleaver. Even the action scenes emphasize the characters’ vulnerability and personhood. Though she can smash buildings, Alison fights barefoot in cutoff jeans, looking tiny and scrappy.
It’s further to her credit that the black-and-white pages felt complete without color. The grayscale forced my eye to the linework and gave the book a zine-like feel that matched the authorial comments at the bottom.
As a result of both Ostertag’s art and Mulligan’s script, Alison’s interactions with the sizeable cast of characters are uniformly strong and engaging. Even when she only interacts with a person briefly, she’s so invested in figuring them out that the stakes feel high. It’s smartly scripted so that every scene has a purpose or lesson. The entire fourth volume is basically just flashback, but it’s just as gripping as the previous three.
All told, “Strong Female Protagonist” is a fascinating superhero book — one that’s more interested in how one person can’t make a difference than how one can. But instead of turning that lesson into nihilism, the book treats it as a call to action. If change that affects everyone is going to take effort from everyone, that means each individual’s heroism is actually more necessary than it would otherwise be. When the world can’t rely on one person to get it done, it needs every person.