STARLING: Sibling Creators & Their Anxiety-Filled Superheroine

Art from Starling
Credit: Scott and Sage Stossel

Scott and Sage Stossel are both known for their work at The Atlantic, one of America’s oldest and most respected magazines – but both have also spent their lives dealing with severe anxiety, and independently of one another, each recently wrote a book about it. And in Sage’s case, her look at anxiety is through the eyes of a superhero.

The Stossels have just been in the public eye with their books – Scott’s memoir My Age of Anxiety, which deals with his lifelong struggles with the condition, and Sage’s graphic novel Starling, about a stressed-out superheroine who deals with the stress of her double life with Xanax, therapy, and white lies about having Irritable Bowel Syndrome.

We got both Stossels on the phone to talk about their books, dealing with anxiety, and the strange ways in which superheroes and anxieties seem to mix.

Art from Starling
Art from Starling
Credit: Scott and Sage Stossel

Newsarama: Scott, Sage – there’s been a lot of buzz about the books, which I’d imagine has to be very gratifying…and somewhat intimidating, given the scrutiny you might receive over the subject matter.

Scott Stossel: Speaking for myself, that’s definitely the case. In some ways, it’s great that the books are getting a lot of attention, but you do find yourself fearing the thing you mentioned, which is increased scrutiny. So for me, it’s been a little discombobulating and anxiety-producing.

Sage Stossel: Yeah, I didn’t set out to write Starling as any kind of exposé of my anxieties or neuroses, since it’s a work of fiction. But the fact that Scott’s book happened to come out at the same time as mine has put Starling in a light I didn’t anticipate -- with the anxieties and neuroses, which of course inevitably did make their way into the book, very much thrown into relief. So it’s a little disconcerting…

Nrama: Sage, what made you want to tell Starling as a superhero story?

Sage: I knew I wanted to do a graphic novel before I knew what the subject matter was going to be. It was sort of by chance that it wound up being superhero-related at all. I was walking by Newbury Comics in Harvard Square and saw all these superhero comics lined up in the window, and it occurred to me to wonder, Why is this stuff so popular?

Because if you really think about it, being a superhero would be sort of a logistical nightmare. So from there I thought it would be fun to take a pragmatic look at what being a superhero would really be like -- the crazy life someone would have to develop as a result.

Art from Starling
Art from Starling
Credit: Scott and Sage Stossel

Nrama: I read you saying somewhere that doing a full graphic novel was like doing thousands of cartoons, as opposed to the one-panel type of work you usually do. What did you get out of working in that graphic novel format – is it something you’d like to continue to work in, or has it brought out something new in your experience as an artist?

Sage: I really loved working on it. It was a much larger scale project than anything I’d done in the past. With other kinds of cartoons, there’s usually a pretty quick payoff. You sit down, you draw it, and then it’s in the newspaper later that week, or maybe even online later the same day.

The graphic novel on the other hand was five months just of writing, before I even started to draw. And with the smaller-scale cartoons, you get an idea, you execute it, and then you have to wait for inspiration to strike again. But having a story -- a story I liked -- really let me have some fun with all that work, with executing it, and it was very gratifying. I would definitely enjoy doing this again.

As I was starting out, though, getting going on this massive project, I was very conscious of the fact that I had no idea whether anyone would ever be interested in publishing it, or reading it, and part of me was thinking, “This could be the biggest waste of time ever…”

Nrama: Well, glad it worked out.

Sage: Thanks – me, too.

Art from Starling
Art from Starling
Credit: Scott and Sage Stossel

Nrama: In your own lives, have you found people have reacted with surprise, i.e., “I didn’t know you were going through this?” or in Sage’s case, “I didn’t know you had superpowers?” (laughs)

Sage: (laughs) Well, somebody did say to me, “You’d be the perfect person to have superpowers, since nobody would ever suspect you.” Which, thinking about it, wasn’t really a compliment!… But they’ve also, as a result of some of the discussions surrounding both books, said things like, “Wow, I didn’t know you were going through all that growing up.”

I think people who know us have been surprised by all the angst unveiled for example by the New York Times article. At one point on the day it was published, it was the most-forwarded article on the site, which I suspect had a lot to do with people who know us emailing it to each other saying, “Get a load of this…”

Nrama: I was forwarding it to my mom, and right as I sent it, I got it forwarded from her to me!

Sage: That happens in our family. (Laughs)

Nrama: But I think that speaks to how anxiety is an issue that afflicts a lot of people, and how it’s a bit liberating to have this kind of open discussion about what it’s like living with anxiety. It’s not talked about that much, but virtually everyone I know has some form of anxiety, with many on medication for it.

Art from Starling
Art from Starling
Credit: Scott and Sage Stossel

Scott: Yeah, on my end, I’ve been inundated with people I knew from various stages of my life, all saying things like, “I had no idea!” “I didn’t know you were going through this, glad you made it!”

It tends to fall into two categories; people who don’t really suffer much from anxiety, and they’re astonished and say, “I didn’t know all this was going on in your head, I didn’t know this was so severe,” and the other half are the ones who do have anxiety and say, “Yeah, you got it exactly right, thanks for writing about this.”

I hope the book will help provide people with anxiety a sense that they’re not alone and can talk about it, while also giving people who don’t suffer from anxiety some understanding of those who do, since to them it might be kind of an alien concept.

Sage: I also think the timing of the books’ release was optimal -- being right around the holidays, when people are especially stressed out and getting all these charmed-sounding Christmas letters from people, claiming, “Our lives are so perfect.”

 This is sort of like a Christmas letter from the Stossels, saying, “No, here’s what our lives are really like.” A lot of people can maybe relate, and say, “Yeah, that’s what my life is really like, too.”

Nrama: Well, that’s interesting, what you said about an idealized version of life – it seems like while anxiety is a widespread condition, part of the reason there’s not much discussion of it is because it might be viewed as a sign of weakness, as if saying, “I have anxiety about things,” is a sign that you’re somehow deficient.

Yet, most of the people I know who suffer from anxiety are, like yourselves, very accomplished. It’s just that they have this thing that they have to overcome or put out of their heads to make that accomplishment.

Art from Starling
Art from Starling
Credit: Scott and Sage Stossel

Scott: Right, I think that’s true. And in some cases, there are accomplished people for whom anxiety is a spur, because they’re internally dissatisfied, and there’s that feeling that external success might cancel that out – which isn’t always true, but it can be a productive spur to accomplish things.

Sage: I saw Rachel Maddow on Letterman last spring, and I remember her saying that in a certain sense insecurity is her superpower – that it spurs her to accomplish more than she otherwise might. I liked that. But I think insecurity and anxiety can inhibit success, too.

Scott: It can be like having a rock around your neck, making it more difficult to do anything -- from traveling, to social things to, when the anxiety is bad, just going out.

Nrama: Well, it can work for and against you in myriad ways – my friends are often amazed that I interview people whom they would find very intimidating or unable to speak to, but if they try to introduce me to some strange girl or take me out to a new social situation, it turns into something….very, very awkward and uncomfortable.

It’s like, “how can you be so clueless, when you talk to people all the time?” But there are areas where you can adjust yourself, and areas where the unknown factor provokes something like a puppetmaster in the back of your head to just pull the strings and make you flail about all over the place.

Art from Starling
Art from Starling
Credit: Scott and Sage Stossel

Scott: It’s funny, someone who did a newspaper interview with me about my book said something very similar: when they’re in reporter mode, they have no fear asking anybody about anything, but once they’re at a party, they’re suddenly not that way at all.

And Howard Stern, who’s a fantastic interviewer and of course doesn’t seem at all like a shrinking violet, has said how he’s fearless on the radio, but put him at a party and he’ll be a wallflower and not want to talk to anybody.

Nrama: And getting back to superheroes/comics, superhero stories are very popular in many forms of media today, and one thing I got from Starling was how superheroes and “secret identities” often represent something like that, an idealized construct based on your inner self. Do you agree or disagree with that, Sage?

Sage: I very much agree with that. Superheroes have been tremendously popular since their inception in the late ‘30s with Superman, and I suspect a lot of that has to do with the fantasy element -- of an alter ego who’s powerful and confident and has things together in a way the real self just doesn’t.

Scott: Superman and Starling are similar in some ways in that there’s always that idea that if you had superpowers, you’d be invulnerable. In Superman’s case, and Starling’s, they’re invulnerable to bullets and all these things – Starling can fly and shock people, but she’s still lonely and neurotic. Superman’s always charming Lois Lane, but can’t do that as Clark Kent. It’s a similar problem.

Nrama: And Marvel Comics certainly took that to another level – Spider-Man can save the day, but he’s always worried, whether it’s about a supervillain or his personal life as Peter Parker.

Cover of Age of Anxiety
Cover of Age of Anxiety
Credit: Scott Stossel

Sage: Yes, Spider-Man is probably more relatable than Superman in certain ways, since he’s not as squeaky-clean and perfect and unquestioningly righteous.

Scott: Or Batman, who has this childhood trauma and, particularly in the later iterations, he becomes sort of darker and darker, which makes him more complex and interesting.

Nrama: Do either of you read any comics – not just superheroes, but publishers such as Fantagraphics or Drawn & Quarterly? I’ve seen a number of small press and webcomics people appearing in more publications such as, well, The Atlantic in recent years…

Scott: Yeah, there is a kind of caché to some of these books – I’m meaning to read Hyperbole and a Half, and this one from Drawn & Quarterly about returning soldiers from Iraq. Ever since Maus, there’s been more a movement toward these types of serious stories and away from that shiny, idealized perspective you might have from the Silver Age of DC Comics.

Sage: I’m in awe of Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home, and the re-workings of literary classics that Posy Simmonds does. And I was completely taken with Charles Burns’ Black Hole. I wished I could call him up afterwards and ask, “What did this mean? What did that mean?” And these aren’t graphic novels, but I also love James Thurber and the classic cartoons of Winsor McCay.

Nrama: Anything you’d like to talk about that we haven’t discussed yet?

Scott: Well, I want to mention for Sage – there’s been talk in the comics blogosphere about the lack of female characters and creators, so people should check out Starling if they want to see more of both.

Sage: Thanks --I had a lot of fun doing the book, so I do hope people will check it out.

Starling and My Age of Anxiety are both in stores now.

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