The story of a disenfranchised and dissatisfied teenage girl, I Am Not Starfire treads several familiar paths. Mandy, the non-superhero daughter of famous costumed crimefighter Starfire, spends the book struggling with her sense of self and the pressures of high school, wrapped in tropes that can be found in a slew of teen movies. There are problems with bullying and prejudice, the inescapable crush between members of mismatched social groups, and flashbacks to past embarrassments of youth. Under all that is a story about legacy, one that has been explored before in comics: the struggle to live up to the reputation of a far more well-known and experienced hero who seems to be the opposite of a struggling child or ward. But I Am Not Starfire takes these well-travelled journeys in ways that keep the book feeling modern and fresh, making it a delightful read for both fans well-versed in Starfire’s own story and new readers alike.
Both Mariko Tamaki and Yoshi Yoshitani have contributed to the excellent DC YA and middle grade books in the past. Thankfully, the creative team meets and exceeds the high bar set by their past work—Tamaki worked with Steve Pugh on Harley Quinn: Breaking Glass, and wrote Supergirl: Being Super (where Joelle Jones’ incredible art got a chance to shine), while Yoshitani did the art for Zatanna And The House Of Secrets, written by Matthew Cody. Both are obviously very skilled in how to handle some of DC’s most well-known female characters. I Am Not Starfire gracefully balances its cameos and references to DC lore with plenty of new story and explanations for readers who aren’t as deeply enmeshed in decades of canon.
Part of what makes this familiar story great is how Mandy’s struggles with her mother’s famous exploits—and the expectations created by them—is contrasted to her best friend Lincoln’s own journey with his immigrant parents. It’s a good comparison to make, and helps put I Am Not Starfire in the same field as Superman Smashes The Klan, refusing to leverage fictional bigotry and experiences for life lessons without providing context from reality. Through both accident and Starfire’s intention, Mandy is removed from her mother’s history and culture, leaving her isolated and a little unmoored. When Starfire’s past comes back to confront them, it offers both an opportunity to confront the faults in their relationship and become closer, allowing Mandy to reclaim the parts of her existence that are tied to her mother while also carving out an identity for herself.
Yoshitani’s art and bright color palette both read appropriately cartoony, giving space for the characters to have oversized physical reactions and big facial expressions. For fans of Teen Titans and Teen Titans Go! it will feel like a natural extension of those shows, yet also a more nuanced and artistic version of the characters and world they love, a credit to Yoshitani’s skills. It’s easy to hear Hynden Walch (the voice actor who plays Starfire on both series) when reading the book, thanks to Yoshitani’s art and Tamaki perfectly nailing the different grammar that Starfire uses.
I Am Not Starfire is a special book in a lot of ways, but one of the most wonderful things about it is how the creative team handles subjects that could be stumbling blocks. Mandy is queer and worries about the size and shape of her body, especially compared to her mother. But these aren’t treated as problems or obstacles; her sexuality and body are not turned into traumas or opportunities for continued pain. They are simply facts about her, the same as her freckles and green eyes. She’s aware that these things set her apart, but is not apologetic or angry at herself about either one. The book would be good without this careful shaping of the protagonist’s identity, but such deft characterization makes it great.