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Read This Now: Brennan Lee Mulligan And Molly Ostertag’s ‘Strong Female Protagonist’

We talk about the rise of digital comics quite a bit here at ComicsAlliance, but I still think we often underestimate just how lucky we are to be living in a time with so much instant access to new and exciting stuff. Case in point: Last week, a reader asked what I thought about Brennan Lee Mulligan and Molly Ostertag’s Strong Female Protagonist, a comic I hadn’t heard of before.

Half an hour later, I’d read through the archive at their website. I’d suggest you do the same, because as it turns out, Strong Female Protagonist is pretty amazing.As you might’ve guessed from the image above, Strong Female Protagonist — not to be confused with the Strong Female Characters — focuses on Alison Green. After spending her teenage years using her super-strength and invulnerability to slug it out with arch-criminals, she started to wonder if there wasn’t a better way to use her powers, and at the ripe old age of 21, Alison has already retired from her career as Mega Girl in order to focus on college.

The idea of someone with superpowers questioning whether they’re making a real difference or just making things worse by throwing bad guys through buildings isn’t a particularly new one, even in mainstream superhero comics. From the time when ideas about social relevance started creeping into adventure stories with stuff like Green Lantern hanging out with Green Arrow and learning about poverty to comics like Ennis and Robertson’s The Boys that take a look at the abuse of power at that level, these are themes that we’ve seen before. What sets SFP apart, though, is how it takes a look at all of that without ever seeming like it’s taking a cynical shot at superheroes.

It’s actually pretty refreshing in that respect. Alison — at least in the two issues (and three pages) that are up now — doesn’t seem like she’s being set up as a model of what superheroes should or shouldn’t do. Instead, she feels like a kid who genuinely wants to make the world better but has a lot of trouble figuring out her place in the world, and there’s an honesty to that feeling and the way Mulligan and Ostertag present it that makes her immediately likable. She reads like a fully-formed person right from the start, and they even make sure to add in the idea that she spends her off hours as a volunteer firefighter, a nice little touch that establishes her desire to still use her powers to help people while she figures things out.

It goes for the rest of the cast, too. The easiest trap for this story to fall into would be demonizing her ex-teammates for not devoting themselves to solving The Real Problems, but while a few of them come off as real jerks, there are others who seem just as committed to helping out through standard superheroics as Alison does to figuring out her life. Pintsize — who’s like the Atom, from that weird five minutes in the ’90s where the Atom was suddenly a teenager in a cargo vest — figures pretty prominently in the first two issues, and he’s written as a decent guy and a good friend, albeit one prone to cracking a few catchphrases during fights.

But to be honest, that’s a big part of the appeal of Strong Female Protagonist, too. Rather than just harping on those themes at the expense of a story, Mulligan and Ostertag let them build with a really natural rhythm, creating a framework around them that’s full of comedy, action and mystery, but the heart of it is some really strong character work.

In that respect, it reminds me more than anything else of Empowered. They’re certainly coming at the subject matter from different angles — trust me, you would not confuse the two books if you saw them side by side, if only because Alison has managed to make it 50 pages without getting tied up even once — but they’re both built around the same kind of core. They both have that same goal of taking these familiar archetypes and situations and looking at them from a different perspective, showing them as big overblown power fantasies without ever going as far as taking the fun out of that idea, which leads to some pretty funny takes on superpowers, like, say, the ability to regenerate having your head chopped in half with a telekinetically thrown katana:

It’s just purely well-done comics. The comedy’s funny, the characters work beautifully together, and the fights are interesting, both visually and from a character standpoint. They even get a little harrowing at times, when Mulligan and Ostertag decide to remind you that their main character is the strongest, toughest person who has ever walked the face of the Earth.

The faces in this last panel get me every time. Such a great “oh s**t” moment all around:

And on top of that, they both have really moving scenes.

There’s a bit at the second issue of SFP where Alison is half delirious from the stress of a bad day, a life-and-death battle with a revenge-crazed supervillain and her very first head wound, and she basically states the premise of the entire comic in one sentence. It’s a risky move for the creators, because this is exactly the kind of thing that’s often so hard to pull off in comics — if it’s even a little bit off, it feels hollow and distractingly pretentious, and you get an eye-roll for your trouble.

Here, though, it works, to the point where I don’t even want to get into specifics because it’s so good when it happens that I don’t want to ruin it for new readers. Of all the things that could’ve gone wrong in this scene, Mulligan and Ostertag manage to nail all of them, from the metaphor of what’s happening in the panel to the way it’s expressed to how much emotion Ostertag is able to put into her work.

That, incidentally, is another nice thing about reading the whole thing at once online: Seeing the way Ostertag’s art improves over the issues. It doesn’t start out bad by any stretch of the imagination — the expressive faces are there right from the first page — but seeing how the lines smooth out and the action scenes become more fluid and dynamic as the comic goes on is really neat.

Right now, they’re into the third “issue” of Strong Female Protagonist, and from the looks of things, they’re just getting started — there’s a sinister conspiracy that’s brought up that has yet to be elaborated on, for instance — and I hope it keeps going at this kind of pace. It’s well worth reading, and if you’re not already, you’re missing out.

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