The Grey Area provides reviews of comics that might push or flat out break the superhero line, but are still indie or self-published and, as such, are projects we’d like to cover. Because we wrote our own mission statement and we can, that’s why. So in politics there's two types of majorities: political majorities and population majorities. A state might have a population that is 80% non-white, but while that could be a popular majority, it would be considered a political minority if the state legislature is filled with white guys making decisions that only affect white guys positively. This obviously was a description of Apartheid South Africa. Now, imagine what it would be like if a political majority only consisted of a single dude capable of destroying cities. Well, okay, that's a dictatorship obviously, but imagine it's a little more complicated than that.
Strong Female Protagonist is a webcomic dedicated to exploring the relationship between superhumans and politics, and I find it to be particularly interesting, what with its blend of superhero themes and an art style that is great at evoking a New York City feel. It's written by Brennan Lee Mulligan and illustrated by Molly Ostertag, a surname so German that after typing it I instantly discovered a pair of Birkenstocks on my legs.
To start, I find the title interesting. Intentionally generic, it deliberately alludes to the issue of gender politics in mainstream comics—I mean, there's plenty of material to complain about. Power Girl had the most ridiculous backstory ever devised to justify her "tit window." There's no shortage of controversy over super-heroine characters who have a hard time defining themselves beyond their bodies, and an even larger number of women in comics defined only by their relationship to their men. Alison, our resident Strong Female Protagonist, doesn't have this trouble, fortunately. She's a pretty well thought out character, in my opinion, and the storytelling is great at showing it.
Initially you would think Alison is a normal college girl, a mix of cynicism and curiosity, but a bus accident quickly betrays her superhuman nature. From there, we get to see into her daily life and her past, and how her mutant properties have both empowered and burdened her. It's a world much like ours, but with a few key differences; for one, superheroes and villains don't seem to be the world-destroyers like Superman and Galactus, but they do give typical law enforcement and military a run for their money. There seems to be something bigger afoot, of course, as conspiracies are known to do.
I think the biggest strength of the storytelling is a skillful display of "show don't tell" here. There is no narrator telling us she sympathizes with Occupy Wall Street, we can see the signs in the bedroom before she heads off to the rally. We can tell she has mixed feelings about her past from the look in her face when she sees merchandise with her face on it.
She definitely shows herself to be a complex character, surrounded by people that view her as a friend, a tool or both. For her, it's hard to see where personal relationships end and strategic alliances begin. Even as she comes to grips with the differences between her idealistic past and her morally grey present, she has to deal with screwy roommates, old friends still obsessed with their crime fighting days, and the fear of snapping your boyfriend in half during sex. (I am still unaware of any DC writers explaining why Lois Lane is not in fact a smashed pile of guts after a night with Superman.) For a superhuman, she's a pretty realistic, complex character. I especially like the contrast between her stereotypical comic superhero days and her present life; the remorse over lost days, the embarrassment of knowing how many cringeworthy crimefighting puns you emitted, thinking they were cool at the time.
Aside from pondering the possibilities of superhumans who cast ballots, the author also has gone to some lengths to describe a more medical context for superpowers, including the health effects suffered by some of these people. I like that touch—giving medical diagnoses for superpowered conditions kind of grounds it more in the real world, you know? It's little details like that that can add up to making a universe better.
The art is pretty good too. Reminds me of the stuff you see in art magazines, thick black linework, sound effects represented by ticker tape with words written on them. Very dense detail sometimes; Ostertag likes to include lots of tiny details for you to comb through slowly. Poses get kind of weird sometimes though, like she's still trying to figure out more positions for her characters beyond typical standing and posing figures. Expressions take a hit too sometimes. I mean, up close she's great at drawing faces, but sometimes when she needs to draw a smaller figure her eyeballs get kind of weird. So yeah, her biggest strength is showing her characters when they're emotionally expressive and dominating the panel, but she still needs to work on showing those same characters express kinetic energy without looking like action figures with stiff joints.
It's still in its infancy and needs some work, but I think the style and plot as they stand are pretty good. I would suggest reading it, as it's topical, pretty well-written and nice to look at. Besides, most mainstream superhero comics don't like to dip anything more than their toes into the pool of politics—it's nice to see some individual creativity spin it into something more unique.
TL;DR: Strong Female Protagonist is a political action comic that takes the idea of a world where superheros exist in a cool new direction. It looks set to be an interesting thriller. It's one I think is worth watching.
A review copy of issue 1 of Strong Female Protagonist was graciously provided to Spandexless by the artist at MoCCA 2013.