The key to Strong Female Protagonist vol. 1–the first collection of the webcomic of the same name, published in 2015–appears near the end of Chapter 4, in the flashback to main character Allison’s childhood. At fourteen, she discovers that her budding superpowers are a strange phenomenon affecting many children her age, all over the world, and is brought to a government camp to learn more about her abilities. There, a boy named Hector invites her to join the superhero team he’s organizing, but she refuses on the grounds that there is no manual for being a superhero.
He counters that there is, and hands her a stack of comic books, at the top of which is clearly All-Star Superman #1–its distinctive Frank Quitely cover is unmistakable. The serene, happy, unflappable Superman of the All-Star Superman covers is based on an experience Grant Morrison recounts in his book Supergods. Assuming any of it actually happened (it is difficult to read anything Morrison has to say about himself or comics without the distinct impression that he is never not trying to sell you something), Morrison was at a convention where he met a Superman cosplayer who had this serene, peaceful, sanguine attitude, which struck Morrison as exactly the way a man who cannot be hurt would behave.
Pretty much all of Strong Female Protagonist is a demonstration of just how wrong Morrison is. Allison–who, like Superman, is nigh-invincible, with her first and only injury occurring at the hands of a being with powers like herself halfway through the book, and even then it’s barely more than a scratch–is in near-constant pain throughout the book, which picks up with her 20th birthday midway through her freshman year of college, about a year after she quit being a superhero. Physically, she is fine, but she has to cope with everything from a friend taking advantage of Allison’s powers to anti-“biodynamic” bigotry to sick and injured friends and loved ones. Most of all, however, she struggles with the knowledge that her powers of super-strength and invulnerability, while handy for dealing with giant robots or supervillains, are useless for dealing with the world’s real problems: poverty, ignorance, environmental issues, war, bigotry.
In this, Strong Female Protagonist bears a notable resemblance to the 1999-2005 comic series Rising Stars, which is similarly about a mysterious meteorological event that granted superpowers to people in utero when their mothers were exposed, and which similarly has powerful heroes struggling with the inadequacy of their powers to solve real problems. Rising Stars will be covered in more depth later in this project, so for now let’s just say that its characters eventually do find a way to truly help, permanently transforming the Earth.
Strong Female Protagonist strongly suggests that that approach is impossible. First, the supervillain Menace (shortly before abandoning supervillainy; he’s Allison’s friend Patrick now, with his former identity known apparently only to the two of them) revealed to Allison that someone killed all the biodynamic individuals whose powers might have really changed the world for the better–people able to generate unlimited energy or talk to diseases are mentioned. Second, Allison rejects her friend Feral’s choice to use her regeneration power to become an endless organ donor, saving dozens of lives a day at the price of unending agony. As Allison points out, the lives she saves will be the wealthy, the powerful, and the insured, while the poor continue to die.
This is, ultimately, a rejection of the protector fantasy. Throughout the book we see its flaws, starting with Professor Cohen, Allison’s teacher who hates her because his husband was a bystander killed in a fight between Allison and a giant robot. When Allison complains about unfair treatment, he’s fired, because the school administration is afraid of what might happen if Allison feels mistreated. People alternately are afraid of her, hate her, treat her with kid gloves, or simply attack her. Even when Allison outright murders someone–a hate-group member who burned Feral and Feral’s medical team, killing the doctors and nurses–and threatens to murder the entire hate-group on national television, she faces no consequences, because she’s a superhero.
Everything is tied together by Allison’s rejection of All-Star Superman as the instruction manual for being a superhero. She accepts that people need protection sometimes, but she rejects the need for protectors. She has a great speech in Chapter 3 in which she argues that Feral’s mistake is in taking everything on herself; that only if everyone agrees to protect everyone else can the world truly be changed for the better.
“I’m nineteen years old, I’m invincible, I’m stronger than any human being who has ever lived, and I have no idea what the fuck I’m doing.”
Allison’s words when she reveals her identity on live TV and quits superheroing resonate throughout the book. None of us really know what we’re doing, so we dream of protectors who do. In so doing, however, aren’t we really dreaming of abandoning our responsibility to one another?
Shortly after we see the flashback in which Allison received a copy of All-Star Superman, we learn she is returning home because her father has cancer. In an argument shortly after, her sister Jennifer angrily declares that Allison can do anything, to which Allison responds, “I can’t save Dad.” But in All-Star Superman, Superman actually does cure cancer patients–specifically, he sends in swarms of miniaturized Kryptonians to destroy the cancer cells of all the patients in a children’s hospital, with the possible implication that they will be doing this all over the world.
But Allison isn’t a Supergod. She’s not a transcendent, perfect being, who can shoulder all the burdens of humanity and leave us nothing to do. She’s a person, flawed and complicated, who loves fighting but hates that it can’t really solve anything, who craves friendship and connection, who goes to classes and student protests, and happens to be able to punch very, very hard. We still, ultimately, have to take care of ourselves.
More importantly, we still have to take care of each other.
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