Exclusive Interview with the writers of Strong Female Protagonist

Strong Female Protagonist follows the adventures of a young middle-class American with super-strength, invincibility and a crippling sense of social injustice. After just two issues SFP is gathering quite a following and why wouldn't it? With a badass superheroine beating up robots while trying to keep her grade up and pass her college courses at the local university, there's something for everyone.

Recently, I was able to talk with Brennan and Molly, the creater and illustrator of SFP and here's what they had to say on the future of SFP, how it all started and what's in store for Alison!

How did you two come up with the idea for 'Strong Female Protagonist' and what went into creating it?

MOLLY: I remember sitting down to eat dinner with Brennan and him telling me about an idea for a comic called ‘Strong Female Protagonist’ starring a girl with super strength. I've known Brennan for years and we've thrown around various ideas for comics, but this one came at just the right time. I've always been interested in female warriors and feminism in fiction, but recently I'd been getting really excited about it. My initial impression of the comic was that it would be done in a light and kind of 'meta' vein, poking fun at superhero tropes. I imagined a girl flying around with 'SFP' in big letters on her spandex superhero suit. However, as we talked more over the course of the next few weeks, I realized that it would be more interesting to do a fully realistic envisioning of the concept, and that the best way to create a female protagonist who was truly strong would be to let her live in a believable world.

BRENNAN: Back in late 2011, I was procrastinating on some social media site or other, and I came across a photograph that had been turned into a bit of a meme. It was a picture taken in Egypt, I think, during the Arab Spring, and it was of an older, very matronly middle-eastern woman wearing a hijab and firing an AK-47 into the air with a look of insane ferocity and rage on her face.

For some time I had been wrestling with two competing ideas. On the one hand, my Mom, an amazing writer and storyteller, taught me to include strong female characters in everything I wrote. And two, something about the expression “strong female character” has always bothered me, but I didn’t know why. This photograph made it all click for me. In literary circles, “strong” has a very dubious double meaning depending on the gender of the character being described. A “Strong Woman” isn’t necessarily powerful, heroic or courageous, it usually just describes someone with a basic level of confidence and emotional fortitude. Whereas a “Strong Man” is someone at the circus who wears a leopard-print leotard and lifts dumb-bells. This verbal double standard really clicked for me when I saw this woman with the gun.

In our real world, there are real life women that smuggle books into Taliban controlled cities to secretly teach girls how to read, at risk to their own lives. There are women police officers and firefighters, women prosecutors who ruthlessly take down hate groups, women who go into dangerous neighborhoods as social workers to rehabilitate needy communities. Real life women are badass! But the women being labeled as “strong” in fiction are relegated to emotional resilience, confidence and self-assuredness, which would be fine, if they also got to be as dangerous, competent and physically resilient as their male counterparts. Does anyone doubt that John McClane or Indiana Jones were self-assured and emotionally resilient in addition to being action heroes? In short, women in real-life are just as strong as men, and I got tired of seeing the term “Strong” used with two separate meanings for male and female characters. I wanted to do a story about a female character who was truly Strong. Not just in the sense of “inner” strength, but truly heroic and indomitable. The fact that she has super-strength also turns the title into a bit of a joke, and I think that humor is integral to what we’re trying to do with the comic.

I see that there are currently two issues out, how often does your webcomic get updated and what day of the week does it come out?

MOLLY: Our webcomic updates twice weekly, on Tuesday and Friday.

Can you tell us a little bit about Alison and how her character came about? Did you have any specific inspirations for her?

MOLLY: Alison looks quite different in the first sketches I have of her. She had black hair and looked like an outsider - she would have stood out in a crowd. As Brennan developed her personality and backstory, I took into consideration that she had been a popular girl in high school and then a celebrated superhero. At least visually, present day Alison fits right into a liberal arts school campus or a New York sidewalk. As for specific inspiration, people tell me that she looks like me, which is not exactly accidental - I wanted to be able to get into her head as I was drawing her emotions and reactions. Or maybe I just wanted to draw myself throwing robots around? You decide.

BRENNAN: I think Alison Green is your average 20-year-old ex-superhero firefighter college student. She grew up lower-middle class in Bronxville, New York, but made a lot of money licensing her own action figures and doing commercials for the American Dairy Council, which she now kind of regrets. Most of her money has since been given to charity, or used to pay for her and her sister’s college education. Alison collects a paycheck from her job as a firefighter, and lives off of that money. Alison was good at sports as a young girl, and if she hadn’t developed super powers, would have probably been very popular in high school, and lead a very busy, low-key life doing good things for her community and making a family for herself. Alison is probably one of the smartest characters in the comic, and it is her intellect that ultimately led her to stop being a superhero.

The way I put it is that Alison would have been much happier doing good without super powers. She has the heart and soul of a hero, and her inclination to see things in terms of right and wrong is very central and intuitive. Her brain, however, is extremely logical and insightful, and so while she feels things in black and white, she is able to see them in shades of gray. This is the central conflict of the character, I think. Someone who would have been very effective if nothing much had been expected of her, but happened to gain the destructive power of a neutron bomb, and constantly has to second-guess herself and her own perceptions of the world, due to how powerful she is. She is naturally an idealist and an optimist, and whenever she faces a problem that has an obvious solution, attacks it with zeal. The problem is that very little in her world is simple, so she struggles with how to be a hero in a complicated world. Aside from that central dilemma, she also struggles with never having had a meaningful romantic relationship, not having had close, non-super friends since middle school, and classic superhero problems of isolation and persecution.

Where do you see 'Strong Female Protagonist' going in the future? Do you have any specific plans for longterm storylines?

BRENNAN: Oh, it’s going places! We’re definitely going to follow all the plotlines that have been hinted at, the world is going to continue to get more complex. We’re going to explore Alison’s education, her job, her relationship with her former nemesis and now friend Patrick, and the complex geopolitics of a super-powered world. Specifically, there’s a lot more left to flesh out regarding other superheroes, super villains and what’s going on after Alison sort of rocked the world by revealing her identity and leaving superherodom.

Have you two worked on any other projects individually or together and if so what were they?

MOLLY: SFP is definitely the largest comics project I've worked on. Brennan and I both work at a live action role-playing summer camp for teens called The Wayfinder Experience, and we've collaborated before on stories for that camp. I think some of the world building and character development skills we learned from that environment helped when it came to creating SFP, but our roles on this project are more clearly outlined as writer and artist.

Do you have any upcoming projects outside of 'Strong Female Protagonist' in the works?

MOLLY: I'm working on finishing school and building a professional portfolio. SFP is definitely the largest and most long-term comics project I've worked on. 

BRENNAN: For sure! I’m an improviser for the Upright Citizens Brigade on the House Team “Graceland.” I also currently have a screenplay in development, and am starring in a play at the New York Fringe Festival entitled “And Then She DIES At The End.”

Seeing as how you're writing about a superhero, who are your favorite heroes and why?

BRENNAN: Gotta go with Superman. He’s the first and the best. I know some people find him boring or past his expiration date, but everything about the character appeals to me. Whether Clark Kent or Kal-El is the dominant identity, Kryptonite and Earth’s Yellow Sun, Man of Steel vs. Last Son of Krypton, it’s all great. He is the original, and so something about his mythology lives on in every other superhero, because every other superhero is in some way a reaction, either positive or negative, to him. Other than Superman, I’ve always felt a strong affinity for the Flash, and also Beast of the X-Men.

MOLLY: To be honest, I don't often read superhero comics. I liked Frank Miller's Batman and Daredevil but had trouble finding other Marvel or DC comics that appealed to me. I am fascinated by the way that superheroes have become an integral part of American mythology, but when I actually sit down to read them I often get the sense that I am not the target audience. One of our goals in creating SFP was to fully explore the fun and nerdy side of superhero comics without having to deal with the censorship and editing that’s invariably a part of the bigger superhero companies.

Will we be seeing more 'Mega Girl' flashbacks in upcoming issues?

BRENNAN: Oh for sure! We reserve the right to flashback at any moment!

MOLLY: There's one coming up actually! We've talked a lot about what Alison's life was like before she revealed her identity, the personalities of each of the Guardians, and their group dynamics. The idea of high school students who are also trying really hard to be superheroes is inherently funny to me. The drama you always find in high school is elevated to ridiculous proportions.

BRENNAN: I don’t know what about flashbacks are so appealing to me. I think it’s the idea of discovery and regret maybe? It’s how we get information in our real lives, sudden bursts of insight into the past. We pursue a course of action thinking that one set of facts will hold true, and then we discover events that happened before that alter our perception and change the context of what we’ve been doing. Flashbacks are also just more visually interesting than a verbal exposition of something that happened a long time ago.

Who are your favorite "strong female protagonists" in other media?

BRENNAN: Gotta go, first and foremost, Nausicaa of the Valley of the Winds. Most badass, courageous, kind-hearted, perfectly heroic character of all time, male or female. Really, I should just list every other Miyazaki protagonist. Miyazaki is the biggest blessing to modern cinema in terms of providing female role models. As a little boy, I never felt like his movies were “too girly,” they always just seemed to be awesome adventure movies that were about girls. Which is the ideal, isn’t? To tell stories not about girls, but about heroes who coincidentally and by-the-way are girls? Honorable mentions to Scout from To Kill a Mockingbird, Lyra Belacqua of His Dark Materials, Juniper from Monica Furlong’s books and Beatrix Kiddo from Kill Bill.

MOLLY: I have high standards for female characters in fiction.  Off the top of my head, Ripley from Alien is pretty great. I love all the female (and male) characters on Buffy, and I love how the majority of the cast is female. When I was a kid, I was very affected by Tamora Pierce's books, which all have great female protagonists and take place in fantasy worlds. More than anything I think those books, especially the Lioness Quartet, cemented my fascination with female warriors.