Margaret Atwood has written a graphic novel about a superhero who accidentally splices his genes with a housecat and an owl, is embraced by a secret, ancient community of half-cat people, and confronts the maniacal half-rat man who is menacing them.
"I grew up with comics," she told Polygon when we sat down with her at San Diego Comic-Con, "I’m so old that there wasn’t any television, so the thing that grownups frowned upon and felt that it was causing you to be degenerate, those would have been comics, for our generation. And they were universally read, there was no gender division. Everybody read them and they were very easy to find; they were in drugstores. So there would just be racks of these different comics and some of them would be romance comics, crime comics, fashion comics like Katy Keene, superhero comics — only some of them were superhero comics."
Atwood has crafted some of the best regarded works of fiction and science fiction of the last 50 years, but what’s less well known is that she’s also written and drawn a comic strip or two in her time. Still, Angel Catbird is her first longer comic story — and her first time working with an artist to produce one.
That artist is Johnnie Christmas, co-creator of Firebug and Sheltered for Image Comics, who brought in his frequent collaborator, colorist Tamra Bonvillain, to help craft Angel Catbird for Dark Horse Comics. "It was a fun collaboration — and a good collaboration," he told Polygon.
Christmas says he kept a lot of pulp-era cartoonists, as well as the painter Maxfield Parrish, in mind when crafting Angel Catbird’s visuals — which have a detailed realism to them that contrasts with Atwood’s surreal story and penchant for cat-based puns.
That realism in visuals also contrasts with the pulp absurdity of the characters, perhaps most notably in Count Catula (part cat, part bat, part vampire). Angel Catbird is also pretty sexy, with the titular character’s furry, but still defined, musculature and his romance with Cat Leone, the very noir owner of the Catastrophe — a nightclub where half-cats go to let their fur down, naturally — who first appears in quite a skimpy outfit that Atwood designed herself. And then there are still the puns, if Count Catula, Cat Leone and the Catastrophe haven’t already give you some idea.
All in all, Angel Catbird can be a little tricky to wrap your head around. When asked to make a comparison, Atwood said that the closest thing to her novel’s tone might be early Plastic Man stories, which, despite the character’s classic superhero origin, were full of surreal imagery and slapstick antics.
But despite its surreality, Angel Catbird has a very realistic goal. Atwood, Christmas and Bonvillain created the book in partnership with Nature Canada and its Cats and Birds program, which seeks to help bird populations, cat populations, and other ecosystem disruptions in Canada by encouraging proper care of domestic cats. Much of the program’s focus is on encouraging owners to keep their cats from free-roaming outside, where they can be struck by cars, injured by other animals, and prey extensively upon the local bird population.
"he has a cat side and a bird side ... neither one is worse than the other"
That goal, Atwood said, was precisely why Angel Catbird needed to be a comic and a superhero story.
"If the core of your enterprise is the serious interest in bird conservation — since birds are in crisis right now, they really are, and there are a number of factors having to do with that. One of them is habitat loss, one of them is poisoning, one of them is window collisions, but a big factor is cats. So how do you influence that without demonizing cats? The only way that you can really do that is through a character who combines cats and birds. And, therefore, it’s not that he’s a split character, with a good side and a bad side, he has a cat side and a bird side. And neither one is worse than the other."
And so, the pages of Angel Catbird are peppered in and out with facts about cats and birds — and particularly the dangers of free-roaming cats to both sorts of animals. Atwood hopes the book will be good education as well as a good entertainment.
Volume one of Angel Catbird will be out in hardcover on Sept. 6, with two more installments to follow. Keep scrolling for a five-page preview of that first volume, and our exclusive peek at the covers of the next two.