The renowned and insanely prolific writer, Margaret Atwood, branches out to try her hand at this comics business with “Angel Catbird.” She’s joined by artist Johnnie Christmas to deliver this odd, alternative yet still classic superhero adventure. As with any author who transitions from one narrative medium to another, there’s definitely some hiccups and bizarre choices, but this book does feel like a product of a bunch of people who care very deeply about the story.
Written by Margaret Atwood
Illustrated by Johnnie Christmas and Tamra Bonvillain
Internationally best-selling and respected novelist Margaret Atwood and acclaimed artist Johnnie Christmas collaborate for one of the most highly anticipated comic book and literary events of 2016!
A young genetic engineer is accidentally mutated by his own experiment when his DNA is merged with that of a cat and an owl. What follows is a humorous, action-driven, pulp-inspired superhero adventure-with a lot of cat puns.
In the introduction to the inaugural volume of “Angel Catbird,” Margaret Atwood reflects on how she grew up surrounded by comics, specifically newspaper strips. She was attracted to the weird ones, titles like “Little Orphan Annie,” “Mandrake the Magician,” and “Dick Tracy,” all of which she calls “surrealist masterpieces.” Many years later, she stumbled on Walt Kelly’s “Pogo,” where she realized she could be “entertainingly serious while also being seriously entertaining.” While reading through “Angel Catbird,” it’s easy to see all these pieces in play.
Because this is one weird comic book.
The concept is bizarre, taking place in a world of genetic splicing and, like, were-animal/half-breed people? The tone is over-the-top in the same way that the best Golden Age stories were over-the-top: which ultimately lends a surprising amount of earnestness to the material. The characters sometimes act like they just stepped out off a Saturday morning cartoon, except when they’re acting like they’re in any given film noir. At its best moments, when Margaret Atwood and Johnnie Christmas simply let loose, it’s a story so ridiculous you have a lot of fun despite yourself. At other moments, you look at the page and go, “They seriously didn’t put this here, did they?”
The story centers around a genetic engineer named Strig Feleedus (get it? get it? like felidae; prepare yourself, these cat jokes are coming en masse), who’s been brought into this big company to crack a code and develop a formula that would allow them to splice animals and humans. There’s been a lot of suspicious activity going on around this, because, as it turns out, his boss, Dr. Muroid, desperately wants to turn his lab rats into his wives. This is also a world where some people can turn into animals at will and Dr. Muroid doesn’t think enough of the hybrid rat women are interested in him, I guess. Strig successfully cracks the formula, but after a freak accident finds himself turned into a human-cat-owl hybrid. Which then leads him into an underbelly of half-breed felinedom as they try to save the world from the machinations of the evil Dr. Muroid.
I’m not even touching on half of what’s going on in this book.
Like all the scenes where Strig wrestles with being a bird or an owl or a human. It’s like a superpowered version of “Man or Muppet.”
Atwood’s script is filled with nods to the titles she mentions loving in the introduction, both in allusions and in structure. “Angel Catbird” is a superhero origin story, complete with a “To be continued . . . ” at the end of it. She gives Christmas plenty of opportunities for big fights and ridiculous designs and interesting set pieces, which Bonvillian matches with a vibrant color palette. But the book itself doesn’t feel new or all that original. In fact, it didn’t feel like an expression or passion project or something she cared deeply about. This feels like an experiment, like something she wanted to try her hand at and wrote the scripts between drafts of her poetry and prose. And it’s not just all the cat puns or cat-related behavior she subjects her characters to. All the weirdness and oddity and cat tidbits stack up to hide some by-the-numbers plotting and amateur comic structure. So the dialogue’s a bit hokey, there are times when the words and the images describe the same action. The comic is goofy, and Atwood and Christmas play it goofily, so it comes off as even more bizarre.Continued below
Johnnie Christmas, though, does a lot of fun work with “Angel Catbird”. There’s an almost “Blacksad” approach to the anthropomorphized character designs, with some nice variations and sex appeal. There’s bound to be someone who’ll make you interested in investigating the next furry convention. Although the artwork feels like it was drawn quickly and Christmas leans heavily on Bonvillain to fill out the backgrounds, Christmas does well to develop the momentum and energy, so the book isn’t just a bunch of talking with a sudden random explosion. If Atwood was approaching the script with the old comics she loved playing constantly through her head, Christmas approaches the page with an awareness of superhero design and structure. There’s a lot of negative space between panels, there’s a build-up to splash page revelations, there’s characters presented in extreme angles bursting out of the frame border. If you compared this with his ‘Firebug’ story in “Island Magazine,” you’d be able to appreciate just how well he controls genre elements.
“Angel Catbird” is a mixed bag, for sure. Margaret Atwood has scripted this fairly classic superhero story. Filtered through her interests, knowledge, and experiences (I certainly learned a lot more about cats than I thought I would), the book is certainly <interesting though I’m not sure if I would go so far as to call it great, or even good. But it’s nowhere near a failure, either. It has a wild imagination, with art that really pushes on the joke, but something about it never feels like it becomes more than a joke.
Final Verdict: 6.5 – Not a catastrophe but neither as categorically awesome as it may have been.