Abook like “Starling,’’ Sage Stossel’s story of the misadventures of a superhero on and off the job, would not have seen the light of day 50 years ago. Classic comic-book superheroes, when first conceived, were role models — their superpowers became merely extensions of their otherwise irreproachable personalities.
Since the opening of Tim Burton’s “Batman,’’ and perhaps before that, Americans have come to like their superheroes a bit damaged. A dark back story or an addiction can go a long way toward making a superhero more interesting; after all, even Achilles had his heel and Superman his Kryptonite.
Though the title character of “Starling,’’ a hero who flies through the air in an immaculate red suit and yellow cape, might get the job done most of the time — stopping bank robbers and quashing street fights, for instance — Amy Sturgess, the person behind the costume, is a mess. But, she’s a funny mess.
As if to foreground Amy’s imperfections, Stossel opens the book in a psychiatrist’s office. Amy’s shrink has written “Self-defeating negativity,” “Identity issues,” “Self-sabotage” and “Procrastination” on his notepad to describe his patient.
The book carries itself with buoyancy and lightness. Stossel’s fleet, simple illustrations provide a fluid medium for the story to flow through. And yet the lightness is too light. Part of it is in the details, which are often a little flat: Amy’s bank is First United Bank; her day-job is at an office simply called Market Works; and she belongs to a group of superheroes simply known as the Vigilante Justice Association.
And the plot is thin. Amy is given a high-profile project at work, only to find that a competitive colleague is intent on sabotaging her. The fact that she spends most of her time out of the office, claiming she has irritable bowel syndrome (more like this, please) when in fact she’s out fighting criminals, doesn’t help — and in fact, her manager nearly lays her off for her absences.
None of these things, though, achieve enough heft because, despite the details we get about Amy, we never feel as if we get to know her very well. We learn interesting things about her origin story: She gained her superpowers because her mother had a job “cleaning test tubes at the military lab on Rt. 97”; she struggled through childhood with superpowers that made her stand out from her peers; she smelled like cat pee because of her mother’s poor housekeeping.
But these points never quite gain traction because Stossel glosses over them with too much energy, always moving on, never allowing her readers to feel too much.
Of course, Stossel does throw some surprisingly dark patches into an otherwise light book. Amy, for all the empathy she might arouse in some ways, isn’t exactly what one might call “nice.” On running into an old near-boyfriend on the street, she insinuates herself into his life and tries to steal him away — despite the fact that his girlfriend is actually assisting Amy with an ad campaign.
And she also has a slacker younger brother who is himself, ironically enough, a criminal, involved in art theft. When he’s not breaking the law, he’s lounging on Amy’s couch, much like an outward representation of the superhero’s inner self — Amy herself implies that the work she does in her red suit is “dumped” on her.
And there’s her love interest, who runs a fight-club–cum gambling operation. We’re grateful for these details, because they’re unexpected, but they nevertheless clash with the airiness of Stossel’s visual style.
One more reason why this book would not have been written 50 years ago is because there simply weren’t female protagonists like this then. This is a book straight out of the age of “New Girl,” “Sex in the City,” and “The United States of Tara,” in which we are drawn to watch a female protagonist for her flaws or peculiarities, not in spite of them. Surprising and sad as it may be to say it, women still have miles to go in their claim to public consciousness — and when this book is at its best, it pokes intently at the glass ceiling that hangs, weirdly enough, over comics as well as other parts of our culture.
Max Winter is the author, most recently, of a book of poems, “Walking Among Them.” He can be reached at email@example.com.
Correction: Because of an editing error, the photo caption on an earlier version of this story incorrectly referred to author Sage Stossel as a man.