Mariko Tamaki’s 2021 I Am Not Starfire is a graphic novel set in the DC Universe. Illustrations are by Yoshi Yoshitani.
Koriand’r, better known as Starfire of the Titans, is a statuesque alien woman imbued with marvelous superpowers. Starfire is as famous for her cheerful superheroic exploits as for her preference for skimpy costumes. As protagonists go, Starfire would be the perfect person around whom to construct a thrilling narrative.
Starfire is not the protagonist of this story. Mandy, her teenage daughter, is. Mandy has no superpowers. Mandy is a grumpy, anti-social goth teen lesbian who would like people to stop comparing her to her mother or at least stop speculating about the carefully hidden identity of her father. As the novel starts, Mandy is dealing with the whole going-off-to-college thing. This is a welcome distraction from her angst at her non-existent love life.
Mandy has a scheme regarding college worthy of Kite Man himself!
Mandy could do the conventional thing: sit for her SATs and head off to university. Mandy has a much better idea: drop out of her SATs, avoid picking a college at all, and then move to Paris, where she is sure to connect with beautiful French women. She doesn’t bother to discuss her plan with her mother.
Her best friend Lincoln is less than supportive. Lincoln points out that Mandy knows no French, rather than praising her for her spirited rejection of convention. Oh, and there’s passports, border controls, money to pay rent, and other such picayune details.
A pleasant complication ensues when Mandy is paired with her crush Clair in science class. Mandy’s romantic strategies have focused more on cyberstalking than conversation, so talking to Claire is a new frontier for Mandy. This unfamiliar strategy is unexpectedly successful … until Claire visits Mandy’s house and takes a selfie with the Titans. Mandy is always worried that people will only value her because her mother is a celebrity. Now she’s afraid that Claire is just using her. Oh woe! Teenage woe!
If romantic catastrophe were not enough, Starfire discovers the reason that Mandy is so reluctant to discuss college selection. Family drama follows.
Fortunately for Mandy, her aunt Komand’r (better known as Blackfire) steps in. Blackfire does not see Mandy as a foolish teen chasing hopeless dreams. Blackfire does not see Mandy as someone who has needlessly kneecapped her romantic life. Blackfire sees Mandy as a potential claimant to the throne of the planet Tamaran, a throne on which Blackfire is very comfortably ensconced.
Or to put it differently, Mandy is someone who can best serve Blackfire, her sociopath supervillain aunt, by dying at her hands.
It is clear early on that Mandy and Starfire never talk much; conversations are brief and uncomfortable. Mandy sees her mother as an embarrassing burden. Starfire for her part does not seem to know what to make her daughter or how to connect with her. Perhaps it’s best to be hands-off (a solution that is easy to implement).
It seems that Starfire has never discussed her family (and her villainous sister) with Mandy. Nor has she mentioned that her (Starfire’s) powers didn’t manifest until she was a teenager. Or perhaps she did and Mandy tuned her out. Failed communication will have some terrible consequences.
This would seem to be yet another story that would have been completely transformed had mother and daughter sought counseling. They do not, for two reasons. Firstly, neither of them is the sort of people to whom that option would occur. Secondly, this story is set in the DC comics universe where, for reasons that are unclear, all counselors and therapists are either egregiously bad at their jobs or outright supervillains. There’s a reason nobody ever emerges from Arkham Asylum cured of their particular mania.
Yoshi Yoshitani’s art is pleasant enough. Author Mariko Tamaki hits the notes one expects given the premise. Being a celebrity’s kid is frustrating, as is having a continually distracted single parent, as is just being a teenager in modern America, particularly if one is slightly unconventional.
Unfortunately, unlike the story’s protagonist, the tale itself is utterly conventional. The author delivers everything one expects but nothing beyond that. Particularly disappointing is the swerve into resolving things with a fight between superheroes (although I suppose it’s unfair to complain about costumed scuffles in a superhero comic).
One does wonder why an alien monarch would decide to drag her niece to her niece’s high school, there to execute said niece1.
However, this graphic novel does not seem to be aimed at people who have read comics for decades, the sort of people who might drop a gratuitous Kite Man reference. This is aimed at younger readers for whom all these well-established tropes are new. If that’s you, you might like this.
1: Not the only question I had. For example, for years people have believed Mandy had powers like her mother. How do US schools handle students they think might be able to fire bolts of plasma from their hands? Also, the Titans seem confident that Blackfire could face jail time for attacking her niece. Would the US justice system extend to a visiting head of state?