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.

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.

In Starling, Amy’s the older one and there’s more of an age difference between them than between Scott and me, so there’s a more unconflicted protectiveness on Amy’s part toward Noah. But I do think the casual companionableness and forthrightness of Amy and Noah’s interactions are pretty representative of my interactions now with Scott.

I'm guessing you didn't have 36 cats in your house growing up, like the siblings in the book did.

In the book, the siblings' sense of being outsiders comes from their bizarre upbringing. They were raised by cat hoarders, and as a result they smell like cat pee and their house is a ramshackle mess. In our family we were all pretty weird in our own ways—probably like most families—but most of the drama was generated by Scott and his anxieties, and there was heavy-duty tension between Scott and my parents, with lots of big showdowns.  I used to worry about what the neighbors must make of all the yelling and screaming coming from our house.

What did you do while all that was going on?

I was usually just trying to stay out of the way. Scott was such a hypochondriac and always having such dramatic meltdowns that I reacted by trying to be the unobtrusive, non-trouble-causing child.  Since a lot of the drama would start with Scott saying he felt sick in some way—usually with a stomachache—I got in the habit of never admitting to feeling sick, even when I should have said something. Especially with stomachaches, I would always swear up and down that I didn’t feel nauseous—right up until the moment I would abruptly throw up in the car or the middle of the living room or somewhere. Which of course didn’t go over very well in a household where two people had emetophobia…

I wanted to ask you about Amy's double identity. In a way, it's the ultimate parable for why women still can't have it all. Was that part of your vision?

I didn’t set out with that in mind; I was really just looking to try to mine the humor in a superhero’s juggling act with everyday life. But afterwards, it did occur to me that it could be a good metaphor for the classic woman’s juggling act of trying to have it all. Mothers are pretty superheroish to their kids, and like Amy, they’re constantly on call, never knowing when they’re going to get that summons at work because somebody's sick or there's an emergency.

It's perfect, too, that when Amy is flying around taking care of those emergencies, people at work think she's just taking a really long time in the bathroom.

True—a mom might rush back to a meeting after having run all over the landscape accomplishing all sorts of feats: complicated transportation logistics, child-crisis management, awkward parent-teacher conversations, or whatever. But back at work, the only salient fact is that she hasn’t been there. So from the perspective of her boss and coworkers, she might as well have been in the restroom for an hour.

Tell me a bit about the actual process of creating the book, frame by frame.

It involved a lot of manual labor. The book is 200 pages with 1,740 comics panels, each of which had to be sketched, inked, colored, and then scanned. I really enjoyed pretty much every aspect of it, though.  Except maybe for the scanning process…

With the drawings, I never knew what was going to give me trouble. There'd be a big fight scene, and I'd think, How am I ever going to show this complicated move I need someone to make? And then I’d try sketching it, and to my surprise it would come out just the way I wanted it on my first try. But then I might get to something seemingly simple, like a panel where someone is falling asleep in a chair, and I'd find myself erasing and redrawing it over and over until I could finally get it to resemble a normal human being.

Amy seems to find her superhero life pretty stressful. What makes her keep doing it?

It’s probably partly my own sense that if you make a commitment, you fulfill your obligations. So I didn’t really even let it occur to her to back out, even though she gripes plenty and passive-aggressively procrastinates a lot. Also, onerous as her superhero gig is, and much as she complains about it, she is aware that it marks her as special. And since she’s not a person who’s in very many in-groups, that’s something that would be hard for her to give up.

The fact that she feels like such an underdog and an outsider means that she winds up empathizing with a lot of the people she’s supposed to be going after, and that makes her think she’s a bad superhero. Especially when she finds herself helping those people, instead of putting them out of commission like she’s supposed to. But over the course of the story, I think she does come to see that she’s making a difference in people’s lives—which gives her a little more appreciation for her role as Starling. Not that she’s likely to ever stop griping about it —or popping all those Xanax.