Saturday, November 15, 2014

Book-A-Day 2014 #317: Strong Female Protagonist Book One by Mulligan & Ostertag

There was a time when all superhero comics wore their hearts and their sympathies on their sleeves, when Superman punished crooked industrialists and Batman struck fear (and bullets) very immediately into the hearts of gangsters. But we've had several waves of modernism since then, and increasing levels of irony and self-awareness: when a superhero story has a political slant these days, it's with a wink and a nod and without any passion.

Alison Green is different, though: she's an unreconstructed fight-the-pigs lefty, in a world where it's hinted there are very good reasons to distrust all of those pigs in their various positions of power. But she doesn't live in an established superhero universe, which is probably the reason she can get away with it: useless conflict and cynical plot twists haven't been baked into that world for seven decades, and it still lives and breathes like a real place. (And Alison believes in collective action, rather than individual punching-things-in-the-face, as the way to really change society, which makes her a vanishingly slight minority among all superpowered individuals in all of fiction.)

In Alison's world, a worldwide band of thunderstorms hit, impossibly, about a decade ago -- soon after 9/11 -- and in their wake a whole lot of tweens and young teenagers suddenly had superpowers and strange transformations, all over the world. No one knows if there's a cause-and-effect relationship there, or which way it would run. But some nations now have gods, and some presumably have very scary government enforcers, and some probably have unstoppable criminals. In the US, we got superheroes and a comic-booky strain of supervillains, who appear to have all gone in for the world-domination racket. Alison found herself a brick at age fourteen -- superstrong, essentially invulnerable, able to leap like the early Superman -- and was thrown into a camp (half penal, half training) with others like herself. She became Mega-Girl, and fought crime with a group called the Guardians until she got sick of it and outed herself on national TV. The supervillans had pretty much all been taken care of, by that point.

That took about five years, and is pure backstory: Alison is twenty, possibly the world's most famous college freshman, settling in at the New School in New York. She is the Strong Female Protagonist, which has been appearing twice a week as a webcomic (each update is a comics page, and those pages clump into explicit chapters of widely varying lengths, which is unusual for the web) since 2012, written by Brennan Lee Mulligan and drawn by Molly Ostertag. The first four "issues" of that comic -- over two hundred pages of story -- are being collected next month as Strong Female Protagonist Book One.

Alison's world is complicated and gnarly, with a set of superhero-specific issues overlaid on all of the problems of our own world -- and no easy answers to any of them. Alison, though, desperately wants an answer: she's that stereotypical college student who wants to Do the Right Thing, to Make the World Better, to Find Her Perfect Niche. Even worse, she already has saved the world at least a half-dozen times in her old job, so just getting a decent job at a NGO when she graduates in two years probably won't cut it.

It's all told pretty well: the art is always solid, and the writing believable, though Mulligan sometimes crams a few too many words into a single dialogue balloon. Alison is appealing and real; her concerns are, like the best superhero comics, the real hopes and dreams of her real-world equivalent pushed higher for maximum drama and resonance. There's no ending in this book, and I suspect Alison's story will not end for quite a while: this is a story about finding the right work to do, the right place to be in the world, and the right way to make things better. And none of that can ever happen quickly or easily. But this is a solid piece of story; each issue is a satisfying chapter on its own, and this book collects four long chapters.

Book-A-Day 2014 Introduction and Index

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