Thursday, December 14, 2023

Rereading Strong Female Protagonist

If you haven't read SFP, what are you waiting for? It's tragically unfinished, but what's there is still a damn great webcomic full of heartwarming humanity, staggeringly carefully thought out "what if superheroes were real?" sci-fi, actually difficult moral conundrums, practical advice, philosophical world-bettering, occasionally not terrible reader comments, adorablesness, heart-wrenching horror and gay girls.

I keep rereading it far too often for such a short work, and it occurred to me I have thoughts about it. And now you have to read them.

Small print copyright notice: This post includes scans of comics panels owned by Garth Ennis and Patrick Robertson (The Boys) and Mike Carey and Mark Hempel (Lucifer), aside from links to the website for the comic Strong Female Protagonist owned by Brennan Lee Mulligan and Molly Ostertag.

Ch. 1 P. 0:

A very telling title page. Really I think there's only one possible way to read it. The domino mask, the gloves, the cape, the action figure, all ready to be put in a box and put away. Alison is just lingering on the memories a while, while the sun rises on a new day and begins to cast colors onto the shadows.

I'm just staring at this now trying to figure out how it's so unambiguous. Why can't she be packing the stuff up? Why can't the sun be setting, or just falling in from a window somewhere behind her? I think it's in the body language. Subdued, passive or something? I don't really have even a pidgin vocabulary of body language but Molly Ostertag's art communicates it so well even I get it. Okay enough gushing for one splash page.


Haha, it's funny cause Alison is staring down her birthday cake like it's a supervillain and staring down supervillains is a thing she has actually done as one of just a handful of people in the world. Her parents are supportive! Her sister Jen rolls her eyes! Buster is a good boy! Alison expresses her sincere belief in birthday wishes, or symbolically the simplistic moral values she has been brought up with!

Okay I just got the last part myself, reading this comic for the fifth time. This is some very good lighthearted low-key action, containing setup and theme stating combined with just a touch of character introductions. Nobody even gets a name except Buster. Cause all this is just one page and you don't want to front load a bunch of Nouns in a story.


Oh, here come the Nouns. New York, Bronxville, Christmas, these are familiar terms, grounding us in reality. (Maybe not THAT real for EVERYONE WHO DOESN'T LIVE IN NEW YORK, Brennan I'm just kidding, the creative team are really not living up to the stereotype of New Yorkers who think the world revolves around their city.) 

But yeah this page is mostly just setting things up, establishing scene, delicately infodumping and developing two central characters a little bit. And ending on multiple open ended questions to pull you along to the next page. I don't mean to praise the comic so much on every level but it is actually so good on every level. So much craftsmanship has gone into these pages. And they don't even feel dense even with all the things they're accomplishing.

Okay I can say one negative thing. The lineart early in the comic is pretty rough. Good amounts of detail, not too sparse, not too distracting; strong character designs, as previously mentioned a firm grasp of body language as well as anatomy, perspective, lighting and all them basics, but the lineart is just functional, not amazing. Yeah, get roasted, Molly nine years ago who's probably working all day and night to get pages done.


Okay the opening shot here is just hilarious with how it contrasts Alison with her roommate in the way they decorate their respective sides of the room. Violet: Cardboard signs with progressive slogans, pamphlets, not much else. Alison: Firefighter equipment, Christmas lights, pictures of dog and family, a book titled The Social Contract. Could it be a suggestion Violet is a. . .poser? Nah, okay, she's passionate, she has some idea what she's doing, I think it's just that she's made slogans into her entire personality, which is not a problem with a lack of deeper analysis so much as a problem with not having anything else in her life. And well, we're gonna see how that works out for her.

Then there's the rest of the page that's just Alison trying to take it easy and getting lost in her thoughts and/or music for just a moment and walking into traffic. There's probably a large essay to write about all the specific ways in which being bulletproof has changed and, importantly, not changed the way Alison thinks and moves through the world; because she does not have any kind of superhuman awareness or wisdom or integrity, unlike Superman she's just as susceptible to conceit and thoughtlessness and frustration and cruelty the path of least resistance and general old fashioned poop brains as any mortal (sorry, chromosomatically stable person).

Which, of course, she can't afford to be and okay let's give the comic a chance to develop its theme by itself and I'll probably get through that essay a little bit at a time.


I wonder what it's like to be jolted out of your revelry by being physically launched across the street but not experiencing any pain or even mild discomfort. Probably very similar to the old myoclonic twitch which I get a lot - you're fully immersed in a freshly forming dream world, then your whole body just instantly jerks you out of the world. Alan Moore has made me believe waking up from a dream is what dying is like.

So, the city of New York should probably be grateful Alison doesn't have any panic reaction here.

Also, shout out to the bus driver who goes from "jeez he's gonna have nightmares fore a year" sympathy to "okay instantly turning off the sympathy the moment he sees it's just a superhero he's run over with a bus is kind of a heel move" disbelief to "yes alt text, yelling about what the tax payer has to pay for is like, the fastest possible way to get the biggest possible number of people to lose interest in you and your opinions" irritation in the space of four panels (one not even including him). Nice job saving Alison from feeling guilty!


Sweden is a peaceful country where cops don't murder a lot of people so I'm lucky that I can relate to having a respectful exchange with one. I'm cautious around them, but not afraid, and I'm not even invincible.

For this page, it seems we've got a state of detente between biodynamic people of mass destruction of various political affiliations and police mechas that makes peaceful protests possible. Nobody's going to start any shit when Chris, aka Furnace, aka the unstoppable mass murderer with famously hot temper is standing there, right? Maybe the gun enthusiasts are right that people are more polite to each other when they know they can be killed at any moment, right? 

Mmmaybe that impression is not going to last for many pages.


Yeah, yeah, Violet is the worst, the comic lays it out pretty vividly so we may not have to get into it.

I could get into how well the comic establishes Furnace's character and makes me hate him, before even giving him a name or clarifying what those sparkly hands do and why it's so bad that he's waving them around in front of an unarmed crowd. It's all about the plural "hippies."

Yes, it's not that he's willing to blowtorch a large crowd of people over a paper coffee mug. It's that he uses the actions of one person to blame the collective crowd. Yes, this sort of thing was wrong before Israel killed 17,000 people in two months and displaced an entire city in order to fail to take revenge on any significant portion of the people who attacked them, and it will continue to be wrong when the last war criminals have gone to the Hague. It's the basically faulty logic of prejudice, of ascribing a common and inherent quality to a group of people that diminishes the individuality and the free will of that group's members. Here, the quality of violent-coffee-throwingness, which is not even a trait Violet individually possesses, let alone everyone in the crowd.

Reality doesn't work that way, which is why we've had laws against collective punishments for several hundred years. Furnace doesn't get it and neither do the cops, apparently. (Or they might be trying to hold Furnace back for other reasons than Alison being there.) So we immediately know who's on the right and wrong side here.


This page pretty much speaks for itself. Way to put me out of a job, page. Furnace gets even more hateable with every single panel; I especially like his intuitive way of twisting facts into insinuations that serve his narrative. That's a skill that has to have taken many years of watching Fox News to train. Like, the line "You talked about leaving the spotlight yet here you are" does the job of accusing Alison of hypocrisy, suggesting she has an obligation to go away so she doesn't end up on the news since she said she didn't want to do that, insinuating without specifically saying those things because if you spell it out it doesn't actually add up. And I kind of doubt Furnace thinks consciously about any of this before he decides to say it - it's just a reflexive action on the part of his mouth, the speech pattern of someone who doesn't think truth matters but just uses words to dominate his enemies, the argument of someone who doesn't make arguments but just takes advantage of any perceived weakness of his enemies. Note especially how he doesn't acknowledge one word of anything anyone says on this page - he answers Alison's questions with "you can't tell me what to do!"

I have seen this sort of person on the Internet a lot even before Trump. They're actually even worse in fictional stories because I know for a fact they'll never listen to me calling out their bullshit.


And if you can put them in a position where it's clear the bullshit won't serve them their only recourse is violence, and if they don't have a massive advantage to ensure victory they'll flee physical confrontation at any cost. Flying away without a word after getting humiliated in front of the news is actually less embarrassing for Furnace than trying to have an earnest conversation about what he wants and why he wants it, and he knows it.

So back to Violet. The first time I read Alison's line was when I realized that's what happened, and I've been impressed with Alison for immediately seeing through it and taking steps to prevent Violet doing it again ever since.


Well this is a scene transition with almost nothing going on, but instead we get a lot of worldbuilding. Must be surreal to have life size window decorations of your own likeness staring you in the face, even without the teenage superhero phase Alison is trying to leave behind factor and also your own recorded one-liners playing and launching you into full sensory PTSD flashbacks.


Ah, action scenes. Where, ironically, the action slows down exponentially. Artists flex their muscles so hard to make these things happen and in the end it's just a simple easy to follow sequence of physical movements that the eye scans over in a couple of seconds and then you move on. It takes so much longer to describe in simple words what's happening on this page than it takes for it to happen, even if you skip over things like what the murderbots look like, who the characters are, where it's happening. . .

So it turns out, even after spending considerable minutes poring over the artwork to like at least appreciate this page on a technical level, I don't have anything clever to say. Mega Girl strong. Quips witty.


And the quips get even wittier. Okay there's one thing to talk about here but I'm not even sure it's really a thing: To me, this page reads like a comic book. Especially towards the end. Did Brad (aka Sonar) really have a uniform with a big S on his torso? What he's doing with his mouth, and Alison in the last panel, are some gruesome "comic book with the dialogue finalized after the art" expressions. And "Sonar + Moonshadow"? The thing I think is happening is Alison's memory getting corrupted by comics. You wonder if this is how it really happened, or how much of it even happened.

I'm just noticing this now whereas the comments field got there nine years ago. Wow.


At least Violet is sorry (or she's worried about losing her super useful friend) (or even her super famous friend) (I shouldn't be so uncharitable to her) (she could even be really scared about upsetting the untouchable) (maybe the last part doesn't strictly work as a parenthetical to the first) (but I'm fine with it because this is hilarious) (oh no I can't stop it) (okay I'll stop).

It was inconsiderate and she probably gets that, but Violet also has a certain amount of je ne said qui wants to be near famous people (okay I guess she does have a hobby!) and at least I'm reading her expression as more freaked than apologetic. Maybe she's not completely good or bad.

I'm more into the preceding phone conversation honestly. The world of Susan Green, where getting news from her daughter that didn't make national TV or special reporting where they interrupt the ongoing program is unexpected.

And I'm into those comfy pants. (ohoho I wish) (no I did just mean it literally) (not that I wouldn't) (pls don't punch me through a wall Alison) (wink, unless, wink wink) (don't start this again).


Maybe we just take Alison's word that she could tell she scared Violet. And the fear of scaring people is at least as bad as the fear of hurting them if you're a person with a sense of responsibility.

My process of reading this page: "Who is this Rich? Did Brennan just pick a name out of a hat to give Alison a bit of a social network?" (Checks cast page) "Oh right, the computer wiz guy who's pointedly not biodynamic who I should probably have remembered exists. They really thought of everything, at every step of the comic's creation."

I recently watched The Terminator and was once again blown away by the elegant way the movie does its infodumping. It gets away with having Reese just exposit at the audience for like fifteen minutes, explaining the science fictional gimmick of the story, the world of 2029 ([sweat drop] yes the distant future) and Sarah Connor's part as mother of the messiah almost entirely without interruption and it never feels like we're just being told a list of facts - I certainly never thought of it before I saw the DVD with commentary track explaining it - because he yells it out in considerable distress, mostly in the middle of a car chase.

But this exposition may be even better. It's reasonable for these characters to have this conversation, it's framed within a highly distracting scene of Alison being vulnerable and adorable, we're told a bunch of interesting and important-sounding stuff and yet only want to hear more, and the most crucial information is delivered without any words. Brennan and Molly, you've done it again! (I can't keep praising every single page of the comic, there's hundreds of them.) (But it looks like I'm gonna have to try.)

Also I think the word is "chromosomatically" stable, not chromosomally, that's not me being pedantic bur rather the comic further being excellent, using informal speech in dialogue, showing us Dr Rosenblum is not too pedantic or in love with fancy words to go there even though she does use a lot of fancy words and highly precise language.


Another detail that fills out the exposition and turn it into rich, meaty story is the relationship between Alison and the Doc we're being shown. They're quite at ease navigating an uncomfortable topic and at the same time mapping out the boundaries of their tolerable levels of discomfort; they're casually touching - even in the middle of discussing exactly how easy it could be for Alison to badly hurt someone with the merest twitch of her muscles at a moment's distraction, Rosenblum isn't worried about Alison putting an arm around her shoulders.

Alison must have been extremely well behaved for a fourteen year old who's recently turned into the strongest person who's ever lived. But the point is, it's wonderful to see this trust. Probably the government didn't ask them to tell the biodynamics about the government monitoring their sexual habits, but the Doc elects to be honest with her patient even if it gets her in trouble with the suits. Like, if you wanted you could probably twist that disclosure into an espionage charge, depending on how explicitly the government wanted it to be secret. (And it's hard to imagine they wouldn't want something so gross and invasive kept secret.)

Anyway, hooray for Roosevelty paraphrasing and fabulous inventions like "autonomic somadynamism."


Good for Violet to get one appearance where she isn't actively terrible on one or more level. Just a little annoying because she clearly doesn't believe Alison would ever not a) be friends with a guy and therefore have sex with him and b) be embarrassed and lie about it.

It's pretty funny to see Pintsize introduced like some kind of playboy, chilling around in the back of a limousine that has a fancy sound system and room enough for him to put his feet up on a footstool, and working Alison on a hands free phone while waving to the crowds. Given how extremely serious he later turns out to be about superheroing and given the gravity of the situation with these villains and the situation where he's probably been trying to get Alison to put the costume back on constantly for the past year but now it's serious, it's incongruent enough that we could take it for an early misstep in the character's design. But then, it's just as likely he's just budgeting his time very well and this is five minutes where he doesn't have anything more useful to do than whatever this drive-by celebrity appearance thing is, possibly just taking a moment to decompress by acting like Bruce Wayne.

Well, he must be relaxing his brain or he should realize the argument for Alison to do this job instead of the military is keeping the danger to the public low and probably saving millions of dollars on the deployment of forces, bombs, tanks, property damage etc., not to mention nobody knows for sure if the tanks and airstrikes can even win against Cleaver. You know, rather than "you're Mega Girl!"


Indeed, it has the opposite effect of convincing. It should have been a pretty obvious question about the common good where we know Alison would do the right thing but you turned it into (from Alison's perspective) a chance to go back to playing cops and robbers. You ruined it Hector.

A bunch of questions left unanswered, which I guess happens when you're having a fight and talk past each other. But at least we know we'll get back to them.

I feel like it's becoming a trend with these pages leading into a flashback not having a lot going on. (At least not a lot that we're expected to follow at this point in the story.) Makes sense in an ongoing narrative, you don't want to go through a whole separate thing going "come on let's get back to the other thing, I want to know what's going to happen" the whole time. Especially if you were reading it at a rate of one or two pages a week, woof.


And speaking of pages that don't have a lot to comment on in themselves. Umm. I notice the Mega Girl costume could not be better designed to display Alison's freckles, even the ones on her shoulders.

The big reveals of Menace, and his surprise surrender and subsequent mysterious disappearance, and the introduction of the big ass conspiracy that's probably designed human civilization from the ground floor up to and including the creation of the biodynamics to provide themselves with a controllable means of sustenance and/or reproduction all. . .begin.

Not much else to say on this page.


I'm starting to think the mark of really good exposition is when you dig into every single part of it presented or hinted at and it doesn't seem like nearly enough. So many things we're told here and still only more questions. (Why does everyone have an "awareness level" listed with their powers? Okay I just got that, it's how much they and the people around them know about their powers, with level 1 being the worst (for the conspiracy)). There's only three files here we get any details of and I count at least five more.

It could be less than ten, I guess. Just a handful of kids killed because they could have threatened the hold of the world in the hands of the powerful. Because they were too strange, too wondrous.

Patrick was probably watching when they started killing them, finding out that there was other special kids in the world that he could have much in common with as they were killed. Would have been hard for him because he does care about other people so much. Patrick is a decent man, a humanitarian man.

(That's from Apocalypse Now. Whatever reason my mind might have to associate Patrick with Walter E Kurtz.)


"Everyone who could have saved the world is dead" is not exactly on the level of Lucifer having Duma, the angel of silence, speak for the first time in the history of the universe to say "no", but it's probably in the top three of lines that make you go "holy shit."

"What are you going to do, throw poverty into the sea?" is also a sweet line that almost gets lost in the shadow of the previous quote. In the words of Mikey Neuman, THEME STATED. The whole page is just banger lines and thesis statements. Maybe a weakness is that we don't see much of a reaction from Alison, she just seems to progress from being stuck on antagonizing Patrick on the principle that she's the face and he's the heel and not taking any of this in to possibly stunned silence. Probably not enough space on the page, not if you want it to make a kind of nuanced shift of everything Alison believes.


And hot damn, we went through all that in under twenty pages.

Hehe, Freeze Ray ice cream. (A Ben & Jerry's bucket costs at least the equivalent of $5 around here but probably the big city is different.) (Obviously it is, it has indoors bank machines in shops!) 

Haha, mentothemagnificent@yahoo. Really it's endearing Patrick thought up that silly email probably when he was like ten years old and alone in the world fighting a murder happy conspiracy. Yahoo is just a funny word to me, I associate it much more with the ridiculous insult than the corporation.

I like these quiet, contemplative scenes. Garth Ennis does the best I think, like Preacher would take a whole issue and just have characters take it easy and talk of unimportant things and reassess their emotional status bilaterally. Hard to imagine a 24 page monthly comic doing that, let alone a webcomic.

It's just hard to say anything interesting about such pages.


Everyone should have a John in their life. No nonsense, no bullshit, no tolerance for unsafe or unrespectful behaviors, just unconditional, angry support and professional mentoring in your field of work.

Well, Alison isn't exactly a career firefighter. I think she does this mainly to receive training in emergency response actions. Being prepared in case disaster strikes and there isn't anyone she can punch to fix it. The special skills she brings to the field of firefighting don't make much of a difference from an experienced firefighter, like, maybe one time out of a thousand it might be helpful to be able to wade through a fire where you can't see or hear anything but don't get burned, or holding up a burning roof in a spot where a crane can't fit or something. One time in ten thousand maybe she'll be able to save someone where no one else could. Important work, sure, but Alison at this point is trying all the time to think of where her particular gifts can do the most good on a societal level, and being a marginally better firefighter than humanly possible can't be the answer.

But starting with learning as much as she can about how stuff works might be. Firefighting is even a kind of lateral move from her earlier career as super-cop. She's already thinking a bit outside of the box. And never losing sight of her obligations to the box. (The box is society.)

I wonder if the "World's greatest fireman" mug is passed around the station on a schedule, on a merit system or in a series of increasingly elaborate heists that everyone plays along with in good humor. Okay Brooklyn 99 did the last one but I still want it to be that one. No I don't think it could just be Unnamed Firefighter #1's own mug that his kids gave him or something as simple as that.

And, I just noticed the drawing of a burning house saying "thank you." Pretty advanced stuff from what I assume is a child of about five, dealing with the mixed feelings of terror of the house fire and gratitude towards the rescuers who maybe pulled them out of the fire or at least tried to save their home, and putting it into a painting and giving it to the firefighters. I might feel weird about putting it on the wall, but of course, I'm no hero.


The ability to instantly categorize and internalize the entire contents of the minds of everyone nearby doesn't save Patrick from academics making him feel stupid and out of his depth, apparently. I choose to take this as a criticism of academia.

So is Alison really this happy and surprised about the most obvious gift you could give to the most famous woman who's ever lived who's currently working on learning about feminism, the state of the world, what needs to be done to change it and how to do it, or is she just being nice? That "How did you know?" is obviously sarcastic, but it's probably more a little mind reading joke/flirting than a comment. I find it likely it's either a book she has long made plans to read but not found the time to even purchase, or a book filling a key part in her field of interest that she didn't know existed; which in either case it's a very good gift and she genionely appreciates it.

I'm not sure how important this is. I think it's just every time Alison and Patrick interact I struggle to figure out what level of sincerity the spoken dialogue is on and to what degree they're thinking about how he's reading her thoughts as they form.

And that's the end of chapter 1. Let's see if I can break this up into manageably large posts.

Link to part 2

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