Margaret Atwood, Author
Johnnie Christmas, Illustrator
Tamra Bonvillain, Colorist
Dark Horse Books
Release Date: September 6, 2016
Wait… what? Margaret Atwood, THAT Margaret Atwood, the author of The Handmaid’s Tale has, at age 76 years of age, written a comic book? Really?
Well, okay, not a comic book, a graphic novel. At least two of them, in fact. Volume 1 of Angel Catbird came out in early September; Volume 2 is slated to release in February 2017.
Angel Catbird is the story of genetic engineer Strig Feleedus, who is accidently exposed an experimental formula which mixes his DNA with that of a cat and an owl. Although his transformation is artificial, Stig discovers that there is an entire underground sub-culture where half-human/half-something beings live among us. And that’s not always a good thing, especially when there is also a crazed corporate mogul out there, intent on taking over the world…
So what leads a literary heavy hitter such as Margaret Atwood to write a fun, funny and kind of pulpy graphic novel about a nerdish superhero so late in her career?
Well, apparently, comic books have been a part of Ms. Atwood’s life since she was a small child. According to the forward in Angel Catbird, she drew her own cartoons when she was young (flying rabbits and winged cats, and lots of balloons), and through the years watched the industry move from the post-WWII boon all the way to today’s superhero-drenched social landscape.
In her teenage years she was taken with the comic strip Pogo (where cute little swamp critters waxed both philosophical and satirical – it was Pogo the ‘Possum who uttered the famous words, “We have met the enemy and he is us.”), which she says set a new benchmark for comics: “how to be entertainingly serious while being seriously entertaining.” She continued to dabble in comics and illustration, even creating characters in her novels that were illustrators and painters. (“We all have unlived lives,” she quips.) So it’s not all that surprising that she finally decided to take an idea that had been fomenting for years and make it a reality.
But Angel Catbird is more than just a flashy story. It also speaks to Ms. Atwood’s environmental activism, specifically bird conservationism. Both a cat lover and a bird lover, she is looking to use Angel Catbird as a way to entertain, yes, but also to inform readers about the dangers of letting domestic cats run free. Not only are these cats at much higher risk of being killed by cars, predators and parasites than indoor cats, but they also ruthlessly kill millions of birds each year. Since Strig Feleedus, the “hero” of Angel Catbird, is both a cat and a bird (and a human), he is often pulled in two different directions while in his mutated state. But Ms. Atwood goes a step further, including statistics and factoids from Nature Canada that are folded in at the bottom of a periodic pages, enlightening the reader with tidbits such as “Outdoor cats live a fraction of the lifespan of indoor cats: as low as a third,” and “Many human foods are toxic to cats: chocolate, coffee, onion, garlic, and tomato.” It’s a nice, unobtrusive way to add some gravitas to the more kitschy tale being told above.
Unfortunately, as a graphic novel, Angel Catbird is kind of hit or miss. The story line has all the right ingredients – an unwitting hero cluelessly dragged into the fray, a saucy love interest with more to her than meets the eye, a megalomaniac villain with delusions of godhood, and a generous subtext that allows the story to rise above the superficiality of typical superhero tropes. The writing itself is well done, with clever turns of phrases and an abundance of catty puns (such as the name of the main character, Strig Feleedus, which I believe is a play on “felid”, meaning “any animal belonging to the cat family”; with “strig” having an urban slang meaning of “hanging with my homies” – Strig Feleedus can loosely be taken as “hanging with my kitty friends”).
Strig’s inner conflict is also enticing. While most of his transformation is concerned with being part-cat, the part-owl aspect comes in mighty handy – unless he’s embarrassed in front of his feline pals by rescuing a baby bird that has fallen from its nest, instead of eating it. (The wings come in mighty handy, too – hence the added dimension of “angel” to pull the human aspect into the mix.)
But there are plot holes in the action of Angel Catbird big enough to drive a Mack truck through, and a feeling of unevenness in its emotional base – there is plenty of serious entertaining in the work, with its almost campy, absurdist vibe, but it comes up short in the “entertainingly serious” aspect, even though it’s an element which is clearly intended. One might expect the illustrations to help bridge this disparity, but Mr. Christmas’s artwork, while stylish, is too often over-the-top. He employs interesting angles, yes, but the human avatars are often wooden with faces that can be both overextended and flat. This works when the prose is cheeky and the action outrageous, but does not lend itself to depth in look or feel.
And the story is strangely insular. It takes place in a very narrow realm – Strig’s life, his work, and the few feline buddies that frequent a half human/half cat night club called – what else? – the Catastrophe. While one can appreciate the need to focus on Strig’s struggle with learning to exist with his mutation, there needs to be a threat – and a response to a threat – that exists outside of the half-human subculture and its immediate two mile radius. Sure, there’s talk of evil overtaking the world. But that world doesn’t really present itself in Angel Catbird, even though it apparently is in imminent peril.
Still, Angel Catbird is an imaginative endeavor, and I for one love the idea of embedding a specific social crusade in with the plot. Maybe the concerns I had in the first volume will be made moot in the next. I certainly am interested in where this tale will go. I mean, even with its missteps, Angel Catbird is still a story full of promise. And a great social message. And it’s Margaret freakin’ Atwood, after all. That’s all that really needs to be said.
~ Sharon Browning