Brennan Lee Mulligan and Molly Ostertag had a problem. They were tired of the ways female characters were being portrayed in the majority of comics and science fiction/fantasy literature. They wanted to deliberately shatter some stereotypes with a story of their own—a story about a young woman who is strong in every sense of the word.
Strong Female Protagonist is the story of Alison Green. Formerly known as Mega-Girl, Green is the strongest hero the world has ever seen—but after an encounter with her arch-nemesis, she hangs up her cape for good, believing that there must be a better way to help the world than reacting to life-threatening calamities by punching them really hard. So she goes back to school to try and figure out how to incite real change.
SFP started as a webcomic—a serialized story updated with a new page twice a week for free. However, following a wildly successful Kickstarter campaign, Mulligan and Ostertag have been able to bring their comic to print as a graphic novel from Top Shelf Productions. Since this is a great jumping on point and the series’ print debut, EW spoke with Mulligan and Ostertag about the origins of Strong Female Protagonist and what makes webcomics a great way to enjoy comics. There’s even a video!
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: How’d you both get started with Strong Female Protagonist?
MOLLY OSTERTAG: Well we’ve known each other for quite a while—we went to summer camp together, and met there. I came to the city in 2009 to go to the School of Visual Arts to study comics, and I started hanging out with Brennan a lot more. We started talking about our issues with female protagonists in geeky, nerdy media—and wanted to do something about it. The original idea for the name and the comic came from Brennan.
BRENNAN LEE MULLIGAN: Yeah, the term ‘Strong Female Protagonist’ as it’s used very commonly in discussions of literature, especially in graphic novels and video game literature, project a very limited expression of that which was dominating the conversation. And so we decided, almost as a writing exercise, to take the term ‘Strong Female Protagonist’ and try to develop a character who is strong in every sense of the word.
Let’s have a female superhero who literally is the strongest hero on Earth, able to lift battle carriers over her head—and then also make her strong in a literary sense (or so we hope) and then strong in a moral sense, strong of conviction, of virtue.
So that was the original idea for the character, and it sort of played out from there. The storyline ended up following more of a path of giving the character more of a real superhero story of her own. So not necessarily building an entire story around the concept of a strong female protagonist, and just making a strong female protagonist, and giving her what I would think is a sort of classic superhero story, where she’s struggling with themes of power and responsibility.
OSTERTAG: Yeah, and so we sort of worked over an initial script, and we made a 22 page story that was the first chapter. Brennan’s brother Griffin is a web designer, so he made us a web site and we put it up. And it just started going from there.
MULLIGAN: The response to it is just crazy. (laughs)
In May of 2012, we put up the first ten pages, and three weeks later there were 16 pages on the site. And then a little post on Metafilter showed up about, “Hey you guys have got to check out this thing!”
There were sixteen pages. And that’s a fast turnaround for a webcomic.
OSTERTAG: It really helped us stay motivated, to keep doing it; knowing that some eyes were on it at the very beginning.
MULLIGAN: And then Lauren Davis wrote an article on io9 about it later that summer, when we had just finished the very first issue and were just starting chapter two. It sounds cliche, but I think in no intangible way, we owe so much of this comic to our fans, just for immediately being like ‘yes, please give us more of this,’ and keeping us both motivated to keep putting it out.
What have fan interactions been like?
OSTERTAG: Well, we just enabled comments [on the site] a couple weeks ago, so that’s been really really interesting, to see the different voices of these people and just seeing their reactions to each page. So that’s really cool, but before that we did a couple conventions a year and sort of talked with people on Twitter and Tumblr sometimes, but it wasn’t—we hadn’t had a huge amount of one-on-one interactions with people until we just put up these comments.
MULLIGAN: I think the best gauge for me at least—so we had a successful Kickstarter, and we ended up raising a sizable amount of money, it was like 800% of our asking goal. And the first sort of real idea I had about the fans level of commitment to the comic was that we had almost exactly 2,000 backers.
Basically, the average donation was something around thirty dollars—[I realized] that we have lots of fans that are willing to dip into their pockets to come and get a book from us. And it’s a free webcomic! There’s no pressure to donate. It was really touching.
OSTERTAG: Yeah, that was kind of the first moment where it went from being a Google Analytics number, which just tell you the number of hits—to seeing the Kickstarter and seeing people that are really willing to invest, and sending us messages.
I think on a personal level, it was like “there are real people out there!” and not internet robots (laughs)
MULLIGAN: And there are things out there in the world that have thousands or millions of fans, but maybe couldn’t even get a hundred people to donate, you know? Fans are involved with projects at different levels of intensity, and it was really nice to know that we had so many fans that were passionate enough about the comic that they would—cash is hard to come by, it’s not small deal to throw money at something, it really means a lot, and it was really heartwarming to see that many people become invested in the project in that way.
What is it about webcomics that appeals to you?
OSTERTAG: I’m a cartoonist, and I do other work besides SFP, and one huge pet peeve I have is how quickly people read comics. I think if you’re not—and even I’m guilty of it sometimes—but especially if you’re not educated in how to read comics you can really blow through a graphic novel in a couple of hours and get the gist of the story.
But as an artist, there’s so much more going on. And I really like webcomics because—especially for the people who read every day, or the people who come back and read every couple weeks—you’re taking the story in these little pieces, and you really notice the details. So, as an artist, I can put details in the background, are much harder to notice than if it were going straight to a graphic novel format to be consumed all at once.
MULLIGAN: The thing I like the most, first of all, is just access, just to the built-in community of people who want to consume stories in that way. It’s a way for artists to make a commitment to an ongoing project that allows them to—if they’re not making money from that project right away—to still have the time and energy to create.
You know, myself and Molly have been working on SFP for—before we even had a donate button on the site, it had been over a year of the comic for free. But we were doing two pages a week. That’s feasible. On the flipside of that, the fan side—by going that serialized route, I think people get more excited about the project.
If something comes out in one static form, people get excited and they talk about it for a week or two weeks, or three weeks, and it’s done. It goes away. Whereas you think of the things that dominate popular culture—things like Game of Thrones or Breaking Bad—part of the reason they’re popular is that once a week, people aren’t only talking about it because they’ve experienced it, they’re talking about it because they’re going to experience it more in the future.
OSTERTAG: They want to know where it’s going. And there’s sort of a mystery that’s unfolding. And on a creative level, I just love webcomics so much, I think that the idea of mainstream comics, which is definitely getting eroded—it’s a super closed world where there’s not a lot of room for female voices, or queer voices—people who are breaking away from the classic mold.
So webcomics give all these people a place to make their own stories and to find the audience—which is definitely out there, but the bigger giants of publishing haven’t caught on to.
It was so much easier to just make [SFP] and put it online and find people immediately. It’s so much faster than if we’d gone through any kind of gatekeeper to get there.
MULLIGAN: We did nothing to publicize this. We posted it on Facebook to our friends.
I understand that there are arguments against the Internet being a pure democracy, but at least for us—we put art on the Internet, people found it, and it just went from there. (laughs)
OSTERTAG: The other cool thing about webcomics is that the overhead costs are so low. It’s work, but it’s not a full-time job. It’s two people—we don’t need a massive audience. We don’t need the amount of people who read The Walking Dead to read Strong Female Protagonist in order to sustain us. So I like webcomics, because you just find this niche audience, and it doesn’t have to be every single human who reads comics. It can be a subset that. If they really love it, then they’ll be there for you.
What are the challenges of making webcomics?
MULLIGAN: I would say the thing that gets me sweatin’ the most in terms of trying to write SFP is balancing the needs of our regular fans vs. the larger needs of people who might come in and binge an entire chapter or the entire comic. Struggling to put information in every page that is going to be a sufficient adrenaline boost for people who are really dedicated to the comic—while also realizing that if every single page is this huge climactic moment that would be really rewarding for people to read twice a week, it’s going to be awful to read in aggregate.
You’re trying to find moments of rhythm—so after you have an intense action scene, you go, “okay, now we have to have a slower-paced scene.” But then you’re going, “we can’t have it be boring!”
So it’s trying to balance tone and rhythm of a larger story arc with making it worthwhile for people who check the updates every day.
OSTERTAG: And I think it does end up making a denser comic. I was flipping through our book when we finally got it and I realized how dense every page is. The amount of text and the amount of panels is a lot heavier—and I’m working on another graphic novel script right now, and that has a lot less content per page.
I hope it works in this full graphic novel format. I think it does force people to go a little bit slower, to make sure that they’ve caught everything.
MULLIGAN: I think that one of the reasons we jam-pack those pages, at least for me is—we have the story for SFP planned out for what could be years, at least. So every time I’ll send a script to Molly that’s trying to squeeze eight panels onto the page, it’s like “listen, I’m trying to get to chapter 11 before I have kids!”
Wrapping up now—do you have any webcomics you’d like to recommend?
MULLIGAN: We have a bunch of awesome guest artists that did promotional art for our Kickstarter. Chris Hastings of Dr. McNinja did some guest art.
Hannah Krieger she has a webcomic called Camodad, which is the funniest thing I’ve ever read. Noelle Stevenson’s Nimona just wrapped up, which I’m really excited to read. That’s a great comic. I’ve also been reading a comic called Oh Human Star, by Blue Delliquanti, which is a really good story about robots.
I love it though! People used to think that webcomics had to follow a newspaper strip format almost, with one gag a day, and I’m really excited that more graphic novel style comics are happening.