Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Webcomics Worth Wreading, Entry Six: Strong Female Protagonist

Alison Green wants to make the world a better place. She has certain natural gifts, but she realizes that those gifts alone are not enough to effect real change. Her challenge is to find a way to do real good without feeling that her efforts are futile.
Alison Green is a Strong Female Protagonist.

Note 1: Strong Female Protagonist is a story comic, and a lot of the reading experience involves the slow reveal of information. I promise I won’t give everything away, but this post will contain spoilers, so if you’d like to read the comic with a fresh perspective, you can start at the beginning.

Note 2: Strong Female Protagonist is not to be confused with Strong Female Characters.

A lot of superhero stories go for a “realistic” angle, deconstructing some aspect of the superhero concept to make the story stand out... despite the fact that superhero stories are inherently unrealistic. While there is no such thing as a realistic superhero story, closely examining the standard superhero conventions can lead to some worthwhile insights and well-considered plots. Strong Female Protagonist examines the concept and implications of superheroes in a sociopolitical context.

Different cultures react to superheroes differently. Their presence adds an element to international relations. Though superheroes have not, to our knowledge, been used in war, the threat of superpowered soldiers makes negotiations that much more tense.

Many superheroes fall into a role that culture has told them they fit, but ultimately, finding the optimal way to utilize each person’s skill is a tricky problem with no clear solution. Even the standard “superhero fights crime” narrative is questioned.

As Mega-Girl, Alison tried to make the world a better place one battle at a time. This was the obvious application for her powers, which amount to invulnerability and super-strength. (The technical term given is autonomic somadynism.) Eventually, though, she came to realize that none of the world’s real problems could be solved through her heroism. There is no way to punch cancer out of someone, or to beat poverty to a pulp. So Alison did what many young adults who are unsure how to improve the world do, and started attending college.

At school, Alison faces the challenges and questions that anyone faces at her stage of life: What kind of person is she? Who are the people she can relate to? What does she want to do with herself? And of course, How can she make the world a better place?

There are additional challenges, of course. Alison has trouble forming relationships with peers because in a sense, she has no peers. Though she’s reasonably even-tempered, when she does get angry it scares people. Though she wants to make friends and bond with people, certain activities are impossible for her to participate in.

In terms of academics, she’s dedicated and a hard worker. There are, however, some people in positions of power who let their prejudices control their response to her. Not everyone likes superheroes, or even believes they are capable of relating to the rest of us.

This guy is less unreasonable than he first appears.

Throughout all the difficulties she faces, Alison never loses sight of her goal to change the world. There is an optimism ringing throughout Strong Female Protagonist, that though the world is bleak in many ways, some people will always be trying to make it brighter.

...Of course, not everyone’s going to be on the same page about exactly how to do that.

The problems with the world are easy to see, and the questions to be asking are clear to anyone who bothers to take the time to ask them. But the solutions are trickier. No two characters are going to arrive at the same conclusions.

One of the nice things about Strong Female Protagonist is that, so far, no one viewpoint has been presented as correct. Alison is the focal character, so her opinions are the ones that are reinforced the most strongly, but she is in a crisis of morality, and genuinely doesn’t know what she thinks should be done. Even when people are in direct opposition to Alison, they are given enough backstory and motivation that the audience can empathize with them. This is a comic about asking the Big Questions, about looking at the world and wanting to improve it, without necessarily knowing even where to start.

As I mentioned earlier, there is no such thing as a realistic superhero concept. But Strong Female Protagonist does feature some engaging discussion of the medical meanings and implications of superpowers. Alison has a doctor who, in addition to taking care of her, is getting data from her for medical research.

The mouseover text for this page (there’s mouseover text on every page, by the way, and it’s worth reading) states “Alison is an autonomic somadynamic, whereas Cleaver is a muscular, dermal and osteodynamic savant. Pintsize can shrink real small!” This provides a good example of the level of thought that goes into the superpowers you see in the comic. It also provides a good example of the type of humor you see in the mouseover text, which tends to be a little lighter than the comic, providing a bit of relief when things in the main comic become heavy.

Sometimes, the implications of a power, when followed to one end, are horrifying. Strength can be accompanied by a slew of problems, and not only is the medical community inexperienced with superpowers, sometimes a person’s power can prevent any sort of effective treatment whatsoever. It’s difficult to save someone when the very thing that’s killing them makes them immune to other forms of harm.

Strong Female Protagonist provides a lot to think about, without telling you what to think. Though none of us have superpowers, the questions of how to make a difference in the world are still important for all of us to consider. Alison’s journey explores the very issues that everyone confronts inside themselves. There are problems, and we can make a difference. The difficulty is in figuring out how to do that, precisely.

Strong Female Protagonist is written by Brennan Lee Mulligan and drawn by Molly Ostertag. It updates on Tuesdays and Fridays.

Oh, and today’s installment features a character laughing like crazy over Looney Tunes, and it’s wonderful.

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