This is a review for Starling, a graphic novel written by Sage Stossel, who is a contributing editor at The Atlantic and draws the comic strip “Sage, Ink.” This is her graphic novel for older audiences. Her other two books are children’s books named On the Loose in Boston and On the Loose in Washington, DC.
Amy Sturgess is a marketing career woman whose professional, personal and romantic life is constantly interrupted by the little fact that she’s a super heroine. Gifted with a high strength stat, electric hands, speed and flight, she is dubbed with the secret identity Starling in her youth and joins a volunteer program for super individuals. Just as she starts taking on a big project at her workplace in order to keep her job, her life becomes further complicated when her brother begins to live on her couch and an old college crush comes back into the picture. The story follows these four threads of her brother going missing, her newest work project, super hero duties and the college crush showing signs of moving on from his current girlfriend. Amy deals with them as both herself and as Starling.
Done with pens and watercolors, the art style is uniquely glamorous in it’s execution. There is a child-like quality to the illustrations, but the consistency of the characters and sheer amount of work involved certainly reveals it as a creative decision and not a limitation of the artist. I must add that the sheer amount of work that was put into this book is commendable, as the story is thick in comparison to the last few graphic novels I’ve read. Many of the pages consist of eight panels or more. There is a great deal of restraint in the panel composition and expressiveness of the characters, although there isn’t much in the way of innovation. This restraint works well with how reserved and trapped the main character feels, which is in direct competition with her superhuman abilities. The art style works well for the kind of story being told, even if it isn’t to my personal tastes.
The story is very straight forward in many respects, and I had a difficult time pinning down over arching thematic elements or reoccurring metaphors in the narrative. The one word that the marketing team decided to throw on the back cover of the book outside of the synopsis and author’s biography is “Powerless?”, which seems to be the main issue with Amy’s life. Despite her super human abilities, her altruism sucks away at her ability to perform at her job and form meaningful romantic bonds. The most disappointing element of the story is that this conflict isn’t truly resolved by the end of the story. Sure, Amy ties up all the immediate conflicts in her life, but her time is still divided between her volunteer duties and her regular life. Her load gets lightened in a small way by the end of the novel, but she admits that her slight unwillingness to even be a super hero isn’t really resolved.
Thus, I’m left wondering what the point of the story was. Her issues of family conflict and romantic difficulty are abated, but the core conflict is simply shoved under the rug. There are even points in the story where Amy starts questioning whether or not the criminals she catches are a true menace to society, and she improvises her missions by helping out the criminals in some small way. This plot point doesn’t really reach a conclusion either in regards to her superhero identity. Instead it serves to help her understand her brother. The fact that the core conflict is disregarded with a simple “well, that’s just the way things are” at the end keeps this novel from reaching Highly Suggested status.
Much of the story is told from Amy’s third person view and narration, and so we see it in a rather straight forward manner, and most of the insights are gleaned from her commentary, rather than what we see in the novel itself. The visual storytelling isn’t as strong as the written storytelling, which makes me wonder why the author chose sequential art as her medium for this story. I imagine the biggest reason is because she established herself as a cartoonist, and because the story is about a super hero. But since the core hero conflicts of the novel are brushed aside, the whole work can only reach half of it’s potential.
Starling on Amazon!