I’ve been feeling tentative, lately, about how much comic book movies are actually going to be able to innovate going forward. So I can’t even begin to tell you how excited I was to discover what is hands-down my favorite new web comic, and a ridiculously smart exploration of both comic book conventions and progressive politics: Strong Female Protagonist.
The setup is relatively simple, but the motivations behind it are complex: Alison Green is a 20-year-old freshman at the New School in New York City, who started a little late after taking a year off to fight crime. By that, she means that she used to be a superhero, but she’s traded her tights for textbooks for reasons unknown to the Guardians, the people who oversee superhero activities. Instead, she’s spending time working on Occupy Wall Street and trying to figure out how to pass classes taught by professors who think her past means she’s entitled and everything comes easy for her.
The real reason Alison quit, and the reason she’s so involved in social justice work now, is a confrontation with her nemesis. Instead of fighting her, he surrendered, on the condition that he be able to tell her about a secret effort to eliminate superpowered people even more powerful than they are. People who have powers at the level that they do are a sop for the populace, a way of heating up the temperature of existing conflicts and distracting the public through media accounts of their exploits. “I’m not powerful enough to be a villain. And you’re not smart enough to be a hero,” he tells her. “Nobody’s scared of us, or we’d have a little ‘closed’ folder of our own. What are you going to do, Mega Girl? Fling poverty into the sea? Smash all of us into a better tomorrow? Nobody thinks we can change the world, and they’re right.” It’s a direct shot fired both at Alison’s self-confidence, and at the unending conflicts that fuel superhero comics: if Marvel and DC superheroes actually addressed the systemic problems that generate supervillains, they’d lose all rationale for their continued existence.
It’s a great premise, and it’s set in an even smarter world. Since her superpowers manifested when she was fourteen, Alison’s had a doctor and psychologist assigned to her who are responsible for helping her navigate issues like a college sex life with the added complication of super-strength. Superheroes search for legitimacy—and find themselves used in various ways. Alison’s roommate and fellow protestor tries to use Alison’s super-powers as a shield when they’re out protesting: with Alison there, she reasons that the cops won’t act even if the protestors get more aggressive and belligerent. Other supers line up next to the cops, even though any action they took would hurt protestors: they’re less concerned with actually enforcing law and order than looking like they’re on the right team.
We’ve got a lot of comics, Powers among them, that look at what it would like for cops and lawyers to operate in a world with super-powered heroes and villains. Strong Female Protagonist may be one of the first, and most effective, to put a superhero on the side of protestors. And at a time when superhero movies frame threats to the American people solely in terms of security, whether it’s from alien threats or insane and very capable clown figures, there’s something particularly refreshing about a superhero who has a more expansive understanding of truth, justice, and the American way.