Angel Catbird is a weird comic. Straddling the line between trade fiction (for kids? For teens?) and educational text, Margaret Atwood’s “first” comic is nothing like the gushing pre-release press would lead you to believe. Certainly it’s true that Atwood is among Canada’s most celebrated authors of novels, poetry and literary criticism, and one of the best science fiction-ish writers working today. Also cool are her experiments with publication and delivery: micro fiction, digital first, and sometimes for free online. It’s no surprise then, that her first comic was marked by big interviews, heavy press coverage, both “genre” and mainstream. It’s perhaps more surprising that since its release in September, we haven’t heard much about Angel Catbird. When I finally picked up a copy, purchased from the book’s penciller, Johnnie Christmas, at FanExpo in Toronto, and read it on the subway home, I figured out pretty quickly why that is: Angel Catbird is weird.
Margaret Atwood makes her goals for the book plain in the preface, and reading the comic itself, it would be hard to mistake them. Angel Catbird is one part educational pamphlet, one part pulp fiction. The educational element is a strong throughline, not just in the body of the comic itself, the narrative, but in asides more commonly found in textbooks than in fiction; text boxes containing useful facts and did-you-knows (but sadly, no quiz tips). In addition to these just the facts asides, the subject matter and narrative of Angel Catbird is consciously educational. Not so dry as to be a textbook with a handful of characters to follow through your/their journey through the wonders of 8th grade biology, but rather the reverse — a narrative+, meant to educate through fiction, but with the kind of teachable extras that get added to school and library editions of children’s and YA fiction. Chapter notes, discussion questions — if it’s a really big school board buy the publisher might even throw in a slide deck. If Dark Horse and Atwood’s agent aren’t working to get Angel Catbird into classrooms and school libraries I would be very surprised.
But this aspect of comic, its blatant didactic goals, are less fun to write about than pulp fiction side of things; this bird-man-cat thing, this Angel Cat Bird. What reviews the book did get focus more on story, the cuteness of Atwood’s educational hopes, and how momentous the occasion is. Atwood’s First Comic! Oh no, she… accidentally including all these factoids about migrating song birds and pet death. Does she even comic? A question I initially asked myself, to be honest, so unexpected was this combo pack of teachable facts and fun story. (Should I even say anything about how weird this comic? What if she and other popular writers of non-comic entertainment don’t come back to validate us?) But this does Angel Catbird a disservice, because I don’t think the educational element makes it a bad book. Certainly weird for trade fiction (for kids? For teens? I ask again?) but Atwood and Christmas do manage to balance their dual goals — teaching and storytelling — and deliver a fun pulp science fiction story about people who turn into animals and animals who turn into people. It is, on the whole, pretty charming and while Angel Catbird isn’t what most Atwood fans have come to expect from her, it’s a deeply personal project.
That’s the second influence, one which comes from Atwood’s childhood. She was born in 1939, during one of comics’ golden ages and grew up reading them. Everything from lower case d detective comics, to child appropriate weird science fiction, to newspaper strips, to superheroes. And though she read comics after that, through all of comics’ subsequent golden ages, Angel Catbird is more pulp than literary, personal for its combination of nostalgia, activism and fun. So, does Margaret Atwood even comic? Yes, but she doesn’t comic in the way that Marvel and DC do; or again, how Fantagraphics and Drawn & Quarterly do. Angel Catbird is influenced more by Dick Tracy than Young Avengers; more by Mandrake the Magician than Maus. The plot powers forward with the speed of a children’s cartoon — with only twenty odd minutes per episode that’s pretty fast — and the dialogue is more accessible than “realistic.” Effort spent on cogency rather than capturing the awkwardness of natural speech; delivering information in digestible, character establishing packets, and puns, everywhere.
The story of Angel Catbird, its characters and its ridiculous scenario, are all pulp. In this world, there are people who are part cat, people who are part right, and, one assumes, people who are part every other animal you can think of. They have secret societies within secret societies but without any of the ceremony or mysticism that implies. The cat people stick with other cat people and they all hang out in a corny nightclub called Catastrophe, where sexy catgirl bands like Pussies In Boots perform. The rat people, well, the one rat person we meet, hangs out in a dank, ratty lair with his army of rat-drones. There are characters named Count Catula and Octopussy and their names mean exactly what you think they mean. Angel Catbird himself owes some of his design to Hawkman but his attitude is all golden/silver age golly-geeing, with more innuendo than your average Little Lulu or even Action Comics. And if it has the speed of a children’s cartoon, it has the pacing of one too. Comedic beats hit with precision, puns come like clockwork, and the comic never slows down to think about how silly it all is — it has no time for such questions; there is ridiculous plot to get to!
Atwood is a longtime environmental advocate, famous in Canada not just for her writing but for her activism for migrating birds, protection of green spaces, and her opposition to the Alberta tar sands (which we are officially supposed to call oil sands, but tar is so much more evocative, isn’t it?) and Conservative politics. Her website even has information on green initiatives in her office. She has been involved with bird conservation for years, a subject which provided half the inspiration for Angel Catbird, the education part. Nature Canada, too, played a part in the creation of the book, providing facts for those text boxes and through its campaign, #SafeCatSafeBird, obvious inspiration for the main character’s species dilemma. And so, through Angel Catbird I learned about how many migrating birds cats kill each year and how much healthier indoor cats are; less likely to be to killed in accidents, fights or by disease. More broadly, the comic wants us to internalize the importance of approaching the world holistically, our place in it as members of a complex ecology, not masters of a kingdom. As, well, people who are also animals; animals who are also people. How Angel Catbird gets to this point is not through philosophy but through putting literal animal-people on the page.
Fine, ok. But come on, does Margaret Atwood even comic? Atwood herself is aware of the likelihood of such suspicions, from both within our tiny comics world and from the much larger book world. Her preface begins with a disclaimer: yeah, ok, I’m a literary old lady, but I grew up reading comics too and guess what? I also drew them. Atwood has the usual history of childhood doodling and character creation but unlike some of us, she kept it up and even drew a strip for This Magazine in the ‘70s, called Kanadian Kulture Komics. She describes it as “political” and implies it was of dubious quality. (Was it about colonial white supremacy in Kanada???)
Yet, the CBC’s digital archives tell me that K was widely read… ish; that the unmasking of Atwood as its cartoonist — she published the strips under the pseudonym Bart Gerrard — was worth at least a spot on a chat show. She tells Peter Gzowski, the host, that the appeal of comics is that “it’s a medium in which I can do all those rude things I don’t usually do, you see.” Dirty jokes, cheap shots and puns abound in Kanadian Kulture Komics and they do in Angel Catbird as well — albeit with the dirtiness a bit cleaned up for a young audience. She takes pains, though, to make sure that Gzowski knows that she can’t really draw. Despite drawing comics her whole life and at that time, making part of her living from comicking, she wanted him and all of us to know that she can’t actually draw. It’s a deflection she makes again in the preface to Angel Catbird, and one that a few of you probably recognize. I bet, if you’re a writer who sometimes doodles or draws you’ve said it yourself: “I don’t really draw though. I’m more of a writer.” Do you even comic?
In addition to her old comic strip, Atwood has spent decades producing a casual guilt comic. Book Tour Comix were originally intended to ensure that her publishers understood just what they were putting her through. They’re semi-autobio joke comics. One-offs about book culture and the weird shit that happens on the road.
They’re not polite. The linework is not beautiful or highly skilled. The jokes are effective. They work. They are comics that Atwood has written and drawn with some understand of how a visual gag works; how a page works. She can comic. But, in Angel Catbird, she hasn’t yet produced That Good Comic (GoodReads has it at only a three, if you’re curious to know how it was received by readers), just an interesting one.
Rude comics aside, Atwood has a reputation for serious literary fiction. There was even a time where she was reluctant to call her work genre (though she seems to be over that now). But I don’t think Angel Catbird is completely out of place in her bibliography; rather, it’s another angle on her oeuvre, taking advantage of a shift of medium and the history of genre comics in it. Atwood has fused the very serious subject of urban wildlife conservation, with the vary serious subjects of animal-people, mad science and superheroes. What it reminds me of, in terms of intertexual technique, is The Penelopiad, her take on The Odyssey, and of Hag-Seed, her retelling of the The Tempest, out this month. Both books were commissioned by publishers as part of multi-authored series of retellings, or literary fanfiction. They demonstrate, you know, command of the material, understanding of the source, but they’re not snobby; they’re experimental. They’re Atwood having fun. And they depend on the reader being able to connect the books with other works — the source material, of course, but also the context of works that talk back; retellings that resist the original narrative.
Angel Catbird is a similarly fun project, both a chance for her to “do all those rude things” and a chance to play around with comics again, in a much more expansive format. There are some things she doesn’t “usually” do in it: it’s sillier than her environmental apocalypse trilogy, MaddAddam. It’s not grand or high stakes. It’s a bit narrow, focused on the small group of animal-people and a mad scientist rat-man who wants to turn hoards of rats into his own personal army. It’s a book that will work best when the reader is already familiar with comics. Having all the same points of reference as Atwood isn’t necessary, but like a lot of nostalgic pulp fiction, it’s even cornier when you don’t get the references. And make no mistake, Angel Catbird is corny, from its educational goals, to its puns and to its science. It is a whole field’s worth of corn. But I had fun reading it. I even looked up some of those cat and bird facts. It works, is the thing. And even its failures are interesting because she’s trying to fuse two such unlikely texts. In that preface I keep bringing up, Atwood mentions Elmer the Safety Elephant, who used to tour schools giving educational talks on such important topics as not setting yourself on fire or drinking poison. She wanted a bit of Elmer in her comic and she got it. Angel Catbird is like if Elmer delivered his safety lectures through spontaneous Captain Marvel/Dick Tracy fancomics with a little something for both the kids and adults in the audience.
Like I said, Angel Catbird is weird.