Why Superheroes Still Can't Have It All

Sage Stossel, author of the graphic novel Starling, talks about her unconventional heroine, her creative process, and her own memories of growing up with an anxious brother.
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Click the image below to view a six-page excerpt from Starling.

Amy Sturgess has a demanding job, a dysfunctional family, and a baffling love life. She also has a bottle of Xanax permanently stashed in her pocket. Those pills come in especially handy when her pager buzzes in the middle of a meeting, instructing her to slip on a cape and turn into her alter ego, Starling. To make matters more stressful, Amy’s coworkers have no idea who she really is: While she’s off fighting crime, everyone assumes she’s just taking a really long time in the bathroom.

Sage Stossel’s first graphic novel is many things: a delightful satire, an offbeat romance, and a thought-provoking parable about why women still can’t have it all. It’s also a story about living, and thriving, with anxiety—which happens to be the subject of her brother, Scott’s, current Atlantic cover story (and forthcoming book). In this interview, Sage—a prolific cartoonist, the author of two children’s books, and an Atlantic contributing editor—talks about her unconventional superhero, her creative process, and her own memories of growing up with an anxious brother.


What made you decide to write a book about an anxious superhero?

I knew I wanted to do a graphic novel, and the ideas I was coming up with were kind of all over the map. Then one day I happened to walk past Newbury Comics in Harvard Square, and I noticed all these superhero-related materials in the window and found myself wondering why people are so into that stuff. After all, I figured, if you really think about it, being a superhero would be kind of a logistical nightmare. And it occurred to me that there might be some humor to be mined from that.

When I sat down to see if I could do something with the idea, I decided to start by just writing out one scene and seeing if it felt like it was going anywhere. I wasn't trying to make Amy any kind of proxy for me specifically, and in most ways she isn’t. But the scene that popped into my head—of her in her therapist's office, anxiously griping about the pressures of her life—was, I have to admit, something I could relate to.

Were you a fan of superhero comics growing up?

I actually wasn’t. But my brother read a lot of superhero comics as a kid, and it's so pervasive in the culture that I probably absorbed a certain awareness of it just by osmosis. In another interview, somebody asked how I decided what powers to give Starling, and I had to admit that in my ignorance I’d just assumed most superheroes are fast, strong, and can fly. The one idiosyncratic power I gave her was the voltage in her hands.

One of my favorite scenes is the one where Starling chooses her costume.

I added that in after I started showing the book to people, and they seemed sort of amused by the costume I’d come up with. I thought I’d given her a completely typical superhero costume: It has a star on it, and one of those leotards with a cape and a belt. But people’s reactions made clear to me that that's not the height of contemporary superhero fashion. So I figured I either had to change it or come up with some explanation for why she wears such a cheesy, anachronistic outfit.

It also happened that after I’d written the story, I started Googling to look into what kind of market, if any, there might be for it. And I quickly got clued into an intense conversation going on about women in superhero comics being marginalized in various ways—not being granted their own storylines or perspectives, and being drawn almost pornographically in these absurd poses and wearing ridiculously risqué costumes. So it was as a nod to that phenomenon that I decided to have her first reject a series of slutty outfits and then find out that the costume designer is in fact a 13-year-old boy.

Amy's relationship with her brother is a central part of the plot. I can't resist asking whether any of that was drawn from your relationship with Scott.

Scott and I were always pretty close, especially after my mom started law school when we were 6 and 4, and we were left evenings and weekends in the care of our dad, who was sort of benignly oblivious to whatever we were getting up to. Scott would smack me around a certain amount, in the way of older brothers, but we would also hang around together in a companionable way and make up games or read or—under the direction of Scott—play indoor Nerf soccer or hockey. He even made up this game where we would play school, and he would give me math and writing assignments, which he would grade.

At one point in the book, Noah asks Amy if she remembers the time he made her laugh so hard a chicken nugget came out her nose. That reference, I have to admit, was drawn from life, though in our case, it involved a bowl of Cheerios…

In your book, Amy's brother shows up homeless and crashes on her couch. I'm assuming that never happened with Scott, but did you ever feel like you had to look out for him?

We were both pretty young when Scott was at his worst, and being the younger sibling, I wasn’t really in a position to watch out for him in any kind of serious way. But there were small ways he would sometimes try to get me to help. For example, he had a lot of food phobias, and at camp he would put in his order at the snack bar and then make me watch his hotdog while it was being grilled to make sure no cheese touched it. He would twist my arm and ominously say he would know if I was lying. But plenty of times the hotdog would have been cooked with cheese all around it, and so long as no cheese was actually visible on the hotdog, I’d say there wasn’t; otherwise, he’d make me order him a new one and then stand there and watch that one.

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Jennie Rothenberg Gritz is The Atlantic's digital features editor. More

Jennie Rothenberg Gritz, an Atlantic senior editor, began her association with the magazine in 2002, shortly after graduating from the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism. She joined the staff full time in January 2006. Before coming to The Atlantic, Jennie was senior editor at Moment, a national magazine founded by Elie Wiesel.

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