Superhero narratives ask a thoughtful question: "If you had the power, how could you do good?" And then they answer it in perhaps the stupidest possible way: "Hit bad guys really hard." Superheroes are empowerment fantasies disguised as morality tales, with the express purpose of helping people feel like they are good without forcing them to actually think about what the good is. The triumph of superheroes on the big screen is the sign of a country that has collectively decided that its preferred form of ethical reflection is a gigantic explosion followed by punching a monster through a wall.
Some superhero comics—Moore and Gibbons Watchmen, Morrison, Truog and Hazelwood's's Animal Man—have acknowledged to one extent or another that the genre is a moral shell game. But few have documented its failures and logical snarls more obsessively, or with as much insight, as the webcomic Strong Female Protagonist, written by Brennan Lee Mulligan and drawn by Molly Ostertag.
The central character of Strong Female Protagonist is Alison Green, aka Mega Girl. Some twenty years before the comic begins, an unexplained worldwide storm somehow led a randomly distributed group of in utero fetuses to develop biodynamic properties. In other words, they got superpowers, which manifested mostly when they were around 15. Alison is the most powerful hero on the planet. Like Superman; she's super strong and completely invulnerable. Shortly after she discovered her powers (by kicking a soccer ball into the stratosphere) she joined a superhero team called the Guardians to fight crime.
Then one day during a television interview, Alison impulsively declared that fighting supervillains was a ridiculous way to try to help people. She took off her mask, stomped off stage, and enrolled in college at the New School in New York. The comic is about her trying to figure out how to use her powers for good in a way that doesn't involve tossing evil robots into the sun.
That isn't to say that there are no superbattles in the comic. As Alison tells the gigantic Thing-like villain Cleaver, "I love fighting. I love the blood. I love the heat. I love breaking shit. It's the only thing I've ever been good at, and the fact that it never makes anything better just fucking kills me." Mulligan and Ostertag, and Allie herself, understand how much fun superfights are. Violent solutions are tempting because they feel good.
The panel where Allie explains that to Cleaver is a good example of how the comic occasionally gives into those genre pleasures, and of how it resists it. Ostertag's art is scratchy, angular, and static; it's the antithesis of Jack Kirby's bigger-than-life whoosh and krackle. As Allison strangles Cleaver in close-up, you can barely see the actual action, in part because the speech bubbles fill much of the panel. The spectacular fight scene is literally overwritten with a barrage of words.
Strong Female Protagonist is an almost self-parodically talky comic; it often feels more like a George Bernard Shaw play than like a typical superhero title. The story goes from one big money shot dialog scene to another, as Allie has intense discussions with friends, enemies, and acquaintances about how best to live when you can't save the world just by getting into a fist fight.
Mary Kim, one of Allie's teammates who has the ability to manipulate light and make herself invisible, decides to become a one woman MeToo execution squad, searching out and killing abusers and rapists who haven't been brought to justice. Feral, a lesbian Wolverine with a brain, thinks long and hard about how her regenerative abilities can aid the world, and ultimately concludes that the best use of her talents is to become a perpetual organ donor, with doctors operating on her around the clock to harvest hearts, kidneys, and blood. "She will live in permanent agony, forgoing food, sleep, friendship, memory and cogent thought, for the rest of her life, which due to her anomaly, may be for a very, very long time," as mind-reader, ex-supervillain, and love interest Patrick explains to Allie.
Allie is stricken at this news; she thinks what Feral is doing is both terrifyingly noble and wrong. Donating organs doesn't actually fix systemic oppression and violence. Neither does murdering a few—or a lot—of rapists. Feral is torturing herself for nothing. So is Mary, who is quite aware of the toll of a life devoted to anger, vengeance, and blood. Neither of them is going to save the world.
But Feral and Mary both point out that they're not trying to save the world. They're trying to reduce harm, and to use their powers as best they can to improve what they can. A heart transplant will help the person whose life is saved. Justice for one abused person is better than justice for no one. For that matter, putting all rapists on notice that someone is watching is a small step towards changing rape culture.
Allie is looking for a way to change everything, all at once; she likes to fight battles by taking huge amounts of punishment, and then finishing the evil antagonist off with one brutal punch. But in the meantime, people still need help. Even Pintsize, the creator of the Guardians had a point. In a world with supervillains, you need to have superheroes to fight the evil marauders first, before you move on to change anything else. As Allie, who volunteers as a firefighter, knows, when the building is on fire, you need to put out the fire first before worrying about whether and how to fix the unstable foundations.
Allie herself eventually decides to start a nonprofit called Valkyrie, which connects domestic violence survivors, people dealing with stalkers, and other women in need with superpowered individuals who can help. It's a different kind of superteam—one that's about trying to listen to what people need and organizing institutions to aid them, rather than about inflicting large amounts of property damage and getting a lot of individual glory. The emotional highpoint of the comic is a lovely color image, in which Allie comes up with the idea of the organization. She's sitting in the middle of the page, muttering "Alone" while she realizes, in a flash, that she's not alone at all, and that all these people she's been arguing with and fighting against are allies, teachers, friends, and resources. Being good alone is impossible. Being good together is maybe also impossible, but a little less so.
Superhero stories generally have a happy ending; the monster is defeated, the earth is preserved. Strong Female Protagonist doesn't finish up so neatly. It went on hiatus in 2018, early in book 8, and there haven't been updates in 9 months or so. As a fan, I wish the creators would return and complete their last arc. As a critic, though, I have to admit that shutting the plot down in the middle has a certain rightness. Even for Mega Girl, saving the world is an ongoing project, with no satisfying resolution. How do you use your power for good? Mulligan and Ostertag know that's a question you never finish answering, no matter how super you are.