‘Angel Catbird:’ Margaret Atwood Goes Old School

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The cover to Angel Catbird, image via Dark Horse Comics

“Why is a nice literary old lady like me–an award-winning nice literary old lady–a nice literary old lady who should be resting on her laurels in her rocking chair, being dignified and iconic–why is such a nice old lady messing around with flying cat-owl superheroes and nightclubs for cat people, not to mention giant Rat men? Strange.”

That’s the beginning of Margaret Atwood’s introduction to her latest work, Angel Catbird, a graphic novel due out Tuesday, September 6, from Dark Horse comics, drawn by Johnnie Christmas and colored by Tamra Bonvillain.

Turns out the answer is the same as mine would be (though I’ve not reached award-winning or old lady status yet): Atwood grew up reading and loving all kinds of comics and even made some of her own as a child. Given her literary background, I had no idea what to expect from her comic, particularly given its name.

So what is Angel Catbird?

It’s just what she says in the introduction: about a scientist who becomes a flying cat-owl and the community of cat people he joins, and their enemy, who is basically a giant rat. There’s even a cat vampire!

In short, it reads like a throwback to all those gloriously odd Golden Age stories where scientists could turn into all sorts of things due to dire experiments and danger lurked around all corner, but so did secret societies and the possibility (maybe!) of sex.

The story wouldn’t work at all without Christmas’ clear, pulp-inspired art, which is reminiscent of the early stories of Batman or Superman but with much more definition. Christmas has a great time with the scenes in the cat club, which not only have the oddest costumes but people and cats in various stages of morphing. Some people have cat faces, some cats have people faces.

Of course, we have our reluctant hero, Strig Feleedus, a scientist who’s targeted for his knowledge of a secret formula, which–in true Golden Age comic fashion—spills all over him when he’s struck by a car driven by the villain. Strig gains the powers of a cat and a bird, both also hit by the car, and thus is an outlier even in the part-cat, part-human category.

A reluctant hero is born! image via Dark Horse Comics
A reluctant hero is born! image via Dark Horse Comics

Interspersed throughout the book are small factoids about cats such as:

There Lies Danger

Outdoor cats live a fraction of the lifespan of indoor cats, as low as a third. They frequently get hit by cars and are at much higher risk of contracting diseases, getting lost, fighting with wildlife and other other cats, poisoning and parasites. http://catsandbirds.ca/blog/keep-cats-safe/

Extras in the book include Christmas’ sketchbook, Atwood’s own concept sketches that she used to show the artist what she had in mind, and the process of coloring by Bonvillain.

It this graphic novel worthy of her prose work? I’m not one to judge. What I can say is that Atwood and Christmas succeeded in telling exactly the story they wanted to tell, exactly the way they wanted to tell it. If I’d read this with no knowledge of the creators, I’d say this was a terrific first story by a promising new creative team who clearly have been influenced by Golden Age styles, in much the same way the late great Darwyn Cooke was influenced by the greats of the Silver Age.

And reminding me of Darwyn Cooke, in any way? Well, that’s not a literary award but some of the highest praise I can give for a graphic novel.

The hero takes flight. Image via Dark Horse Comics.
The hero takes flight. Image via Dark Horse Comics.

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Writer, Mom, Geek and Superhero. though usually not all four on the same day. Author of the award-winning Phoenix Institute Superhero series and the steampunk novel, The Curse of the Brimstone Contract.