Last weekend Margaret Atwood was a special guest at Fan Expo Canada. Yes, that Margaret Atwood. The celebrated Canadian novelist has been more open to “geek culture” in the last few years and the massive lines to see her on day three of the expo made evident that the geeks had welcomed her with open arms. Much of Atwood’s work is tailored to the Fan Expo crowd. Many have claimed The Handmaid’s Tale, for example, is a work of science fiction dystopia in everything but marketing. That being said, Fan Expo is, first and foremost, a comics conventions and Atwood had a comic to share. When Angel Catbird was first announced months ago many were skeptical. While comics have gone from mainstream to niche and back to mainstream in recent years, they’ve never been “respectable” and Atwood is “respectable.” Not only that, Atwood’s graphic novel was to be a superhero story, probably the least “respectable” genre in this disrespected medium. Many wondered what would such acclaimed author bring to the genre. Others were skeptical that she could pull it off at all, “what could Margaret Atwood know about comics?” they balked. Turns out the answer is, “quite a bit.”
Angel Catbird opens with an intro from the author, establishing her bona fides with the medium and the genre. Atwood revisits her girlhood growing up in the post war comics boom with the likes Little Lulu, Dick Tracy, Mary Worth, Superman and Captain Marvel (Billy Batson, not Carol Danvers). She also reminisces on her early career working on political strips in the 70s. Her roots in the medium are evident in Angel Catbird which feels much like the golden age superhero comics of Atwood’s youth. It tells the story of Strig Feleedus, a scientist working on a serum that will splice healthy animal DNA with that of humans to cure genetic illnesses. His boss, the half man and secretly half rat, Dr. Muroid really wants it to create a rat-man army to take over the world. Strig is involved in a car crash with the serum, a cat and an owl, transforming him into a part-man, part-owl, part-cat super being. It’s pure comic book pulp and it’s done with reverence and, more importantly, it’s done well. Plot wise, Angel Catbird spends most of its time introducing its protagonist, supporting cast and world. This is done fairly well and since this is only volume one there will be more time to truly flesh out this cast of colorful characters in subsequent entries (Vol. 2 is set for Feb. 2017). What’s here in volume one is a good start, characters like the vampire cat-man Count Catula are endearing, the love interest Cate Leone and the back story of a war between the cats, rats and birds is intriguing. It all has a lot of charm and it feels like Spider-Man meets an episode of a CBC Saturday morning cartoon. It’s pretty fun to read and the copious amount of cat, rat and bird puns make it abundantly clear that Atwood had a lot of fun writing it.
But this is a graphic novel and we can’t talk about graphic novels without talking about the artist. Angel Catbird is illustrated by Johnnie Christmas. Prior to Angel Catbird he was the co-creator of the Image Comics series Sheltered. Christmas’ art is an interesting blend of styles, his characters look very Western but they emote like they’re in a manga or a “dank meme.” His illustrations carry many of the characters like the aforementioned Cate Leone. The visual designs for all the characters are equal parts classic and clever and work very well with Atwood’s words. Unfortunately this great art design does not extend to the setting. Locations look and feel boring and the entire story feels like it has no sense of place. The only place that truly feels unique or interesting is Catastrophe, the secret hideout the half-cats.
I’d be remiss to not mention that Angel Catbird has an educational objective. Atwood has teamed up with the conservation charity Nature Canada to highlight risks to pet cats and the bird population with keeping your cats “free range.” Snippets of data appear throughout the book, encouraging pet owners to keep cats indoors. Facts like outdoor cats having a much lower lifespan than their indoor counterparts and that cats are responsible for decimating the bird population by more than 2.6 billion a year in the US and Canada pepper the page. The information is educational and helps with understanding the protagonist’s struggle with being both cat and bird but it’s poorly integrated visually, appearing in blank white panels and looking like they were copied and pasted from Nature Canada’s website, source link and all.
Angel Catbird is a solid first effort in a new medium and genre by a storied author. Atwood has shown that she has a decent working knowledge of comics and the tropes of the genre. Volume one has set the stage to what could be a fantastic story with memorable characters and there’s not much more you could ask for from a book like this. I’m not sure I’d recommend this to fans of Atwood’s novels, but I can definitely recommend it to comics fans, especially those that appreciate Fawcett’s golden age Captain Marvel or Stan Lee’s early Spider-Man.