Sage Stossel’s ‘Starling’ juggles superheroics, ordinary life

Dec. 12, 2013 | 2:48 p.m.

The most difficult part of being a superhero might not be the superheroics. For caped heroine Starling (civilian name Amy Sturgess), catching criminals is no less stressful than dealing with her conniving co-worker, her delinquent brother or her cat-hoarding mother.

“Starling,” out this month from Penguin, is Sage Stossel’s first graphic novel, though she is no stranger to the form. A longtime political cartoonist, Stossel draws “Sage, Ink” for the Atlantic, where she is also a contributing editor. Her children’s books include “On the Loose in Boston” and “On the Loose in Washington, D.C.

In “Starling,” Stossel introduces a heroine who blames an imaginary case of irritable bowel syndrome for her frequent missed meetings at her high-pressure marketing job. Her love life is hampered by her superpowers, including the ability to generate electric bolts from her hands. And though she can fly and beat up baddies, her life is as ordinary as it is harrowing.

Hero Complex caught up with Stossel to talk about “Starling,” superheroes and what’s next.

HC: Amy is such a relatable heroine. What inspired her character? And why did you decide on the superpowers you did?

A page from "Starling," by Sage Stossel. (Penguin)

A page from “Starling” by Sage Stossel. (Penguin)

SS: I happened to walk by a comic book store that had a large proportion of superhero-related material in the window, which got me thinking about superheroes in general, and specifically about the fact that if you really think about it, the life of a superhero — living a double life, always being on call, not getting any public credit for your death-defying feats — would be pretty stressful and unpleasant. It also occurred to me that there might be some humor to be had in taking a “realistic” look at someone’s attempt to juggle superhero-dom with everyday life and a day job. So it was that overall concept that came first.

And then a very specific scene popped into my head — of a young woman in her therapist’s office, complaining about her superhero obligations. And as I started working out that scene, a very clear picture of Amy as a character quickly emerged: of a young woman with a bit of a chip on her shoulder — somewhat grouchy and passive aggressive, and not really a follower of rules, but nonetheless a good person at heart, and one with a strong moral compass, even if she doesn’t always see it that way. When I’d finished that first scene, I knew right away that I liked her, and that I wanted to try to work out a whole story for her.

As for the superpowers I gave her, they’re partly a reflection of my limited knowledge of the possibilities, not coming at this as a dedicated superhero comics fan myself. My vague impression was that most superheroes are fast, strong and can fly, so I gave her those attributes. And then as I was writing up that first scene (where her therapy appointment gets disrupted by a call to action), I found myself at one point writing something along the lines of, “…I disabled him with my power-shock hands.” So she wound up with electric hands too.

HC: One of “Starling’s” most memorable moments was when, after being recruited as a superhero, Amy decides on her official uniform – a practical choice after turning down sexier options. She asks, “Who’s your costume designer? A 13-year-old boy?” What are your feelings about how superheroines are often portrayed in comics and on screen?

A page from "Starling," by Sage Stossel. (Penguin)

A page from “Starling” by Sage Stossel. (Penguin)

SS: I wasn’t really clued into the phenomenon of females getting short shrift in the superhero universe — portrayed as sex objects with no inner life — until after I’d done a draft of “Starling” and started researching the comics world to see how and whether the book might fit in. It was at that point that I became keenly aware both of how two-dimensionally, and often demeaningly, women are depicted in many mainstream comics, and also of growing efforts on the part of some fans and creators to reverse those tendencies. It was also at that point that I went back and added the scene where she rejects the slutty costumes.

It surprised me that outdated norms like those could still persist — especially in the cartooning world, since I think of cartoonists (at least the ones I know!) as exceptionally nice, sensitive people. I suspect there may be big-picture reasons for it — entrenched theories about what the comic book fan market is looking for, or maybe mainstream publishing houses still dominated by people or attitudes from an older era. But it’s hard to imagine that a concerted effort to make the comics world’s female characters more substantive and realistic wouldn’t pay off for male and female readers alike, making for richer, more interesting stories, and ultimately benefiting publishers’ bottom lines.

HC: Amy’s challenges as Amy – her job, her complicated love life, her relationship with her brother and parents – were more difficult and stressful than Amy’s challenges as Starling – crimefighting, etc. Why did you decide to emphasize her civilian life?

A page from "Starling," by Sage Stossel. (Penguin)

A page from “Starling” by Sage Stossel. (Penguin)

SS: Some of that stems from the premise I started with — wanting to try to find the humor and drama in a superhero’s juggling act with everyday life, which meant that a fair amount of the focus wound up on her civilian experiences. But many of the challenges she faces — in her job, her relationships and so forth — are a direct result of the havoc her superhero obligations wreak. And the reverse is also true, in that whatever’s going on in her civilian life tends to impinge on her superheroing, like when she’s had a few too many drinks and throws up on a guy she’s trying to put out of commission, or when she desperately needs participants for a marketing focus group, and starts hitting up crime victims with survey questions.

I think it’s also a reflection of the fact that for Amy, who was raised by neglectful cat hoarders and treated like an outcast during her early school years, superheroing is one of the few realms where she feels fairly confident and in control. It’s the rest of her life that she can’t seem to manage.

HC: Amy is hardly perfect. She’s messy and short-tempered and she has a dalliance with an ex-boyfriend who’s not exactly single. But she’s also the hero of this story. How do you balance the character’s flaws and virtues to achieve likability?

A page from "Starling," by Sage Stossel. (Penguin)

A page from “Starling” by Sage Stossel. (Penguin)

SS: To some extent — I hope! — her flaws may actually enhance her likability. For me, at least, I found myself rooting for her precisely because she doesn’t have it all together, and because she’s sort of an underdog and an outsider. I did worry, though, that her pursuit of her ex-boyfriend when he’s not available might cost her some readers’ sympathy. Her play for him isn’t really defensible, but I hoped it might at least be understandable, given all she’s felt locked out of and deprived of in her life.

HC: You’ve authored children’s books and contributed cartoons for magazines and newspapers. How was creating a graphic novel different?

SS: If I think up a cartoon, I can execute it and see it published within the week — sometimes the same day, if it’s for the Web. So there’s a kind of immediate gratification. Children’s books are much bigger projects, but at least generally only in the double digits in terms of numbers of pages to fill and pictures to draw. “Starling,” on the other hand, ran to 200 pages and 1,740 cartoon panels to draw and color. So working on it felt a bit like running a marathon. It was gratifying, though, to be able to tell a much more in-depth story, with more fully developed characters, than would be possible in a one-off cartoon or a short children’s book.

HC: What was the greatest challenge you faced in this project?

"Starling" writer and illustrator Sage Stossel. (Michael Callaghan / Penguin)

“Starling” writer and illustrator Sage Stossel. (Michael Callaghan / Penguin)

SS: In some ways I found the most daunting part to be the first stage, when I spent months figuring out and writing up the story (and very painstakingly engineering the plot), without knowing whether it was something anyone would ever be interested in or whether I was doing an OK job of it. Part of me worried that I might be wasting my time. And since writing the story was such a long process, I was painfully aware that if it did all come to nothing, it could wind up being a pretty big chunk of time down the drain.

Another significant challenge was the many, many things I had to figure out how to credibly draw. Some were complicated scenarios like elaborate fight scenes, while others were seemingly simple everyday movements like somebody getting out of bed or into a car. I found myself acting out so many different kinds of movements to see how they looked that my neighbors probably think I’m into some kind of weird yoga.

HC: What’s next for you?

SS: At the moment I’m working on the next in my series of cities-based children’s books — this one set in Philadelphia. And I hope to do more of those. But I’d also love to try my hand at another graphic novel … whether a further “Starling” adventure or something entirely different I don’t yet know.

– Noelene Clark | @NoeleneClark | Google+

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