Angel Catbird by Margaret Atwood, Johnnie Christmas & Tamra Bonvillain
For a literary giant who is approached with a seriousness that borders on reverence, Margaret Atwood is perfectly willing to have fun and write whatever she wants. Sometimes that is clearly genre-tinged; sometimes it is darkly humorous, and sometimes it’s a graphic novel for children about a superhero who is part human, part cat and part owl. And that’s the premise of Angel Catbird, Volume 1.
Atwood’s story and words are illustrated by Johnnie Christmas and colored by Tamra Bonvillain. (I do wonder whether at least one of those surnames is a pseudonym.) Christmas’s images have a simple, comic-strip look to them. With a few exceptions, they reminded me of Kid Beowulf by Alexis Farjado. They’re at least in that style. Bonvillain nicely mixes color palettes to create a feeling of fluorescent lighting in the sterile, stark laboratory where the main characters work, in contrast with the underground nightclub and the night scenes throughout the book.
I think it’s safe to say that Atwood is not obsessed with creating deep, nuanced characters with core conflicts, or making too many powerful, thought-provoking, belief-shattering observations about the human experience. Mostly she wants to have fun re-creating a pivotal experience from her childhood (reading comics) and to make cat puns. It’s Atwood, though, and she is incapable of being 100% frivolous, so several pages have informational banners about cat and bird health. Atwood is a cat person and she has come to believe that all cats should be indoor cats for their safety and the safety of birds.
Angel Catbird is not preachy though. The story starts off in a familiar manner, but she introduces some great characters along the way. Strig Feleedus is a young genetic engineer working on a genetic-splicer-serum for a creepy and rat-obsessed boss. (This is foreshadowing!) The person he replaced was killed in an accident just as he had completed the formula; only one piece is missing. Strig completes the formula and an accidental exposure in the proximity of cat and owl DNA transforms him into a human-cat-bird blend, with talons, wings and a taste for rats. As superhero transformations go, it is no more fantastical than being bitten by a spider or dosed with gamma rays.
When Strig changes back, he thinks he was dreaming, although he can understand the language of birds and cats on his street. His breakthrough soon makes him a target of the evil boss Muroid, who as you’ve already guessed is more that he first seemed. Strig has allies too, though; the sexy Cate Leone who is half-cat, half-human, and not as the result of a gene-slicing serum. Strig also meets Ray, who seems to be raven-human. The local cat-people hang out at a club called (of course) Catastrophe. They have another friend called Count Catula who is part bat. All of the shapeshifter-people band together against Muroid, determined to thwart his evil rat-based scheme.
Muroid is a two-dimensional villain at this point, not complex, thoroughly evil, and Atwood gives him a delightful evil laugh-squeal. There’s a bit of a subplot with Muroid. He has two rats in a cage on his desk and constantly gloats about how they will be his first two rat-maidens in his “harem.” Eew. We see the two rats react to small things that happen in Muroid’s office, and they do not seem to be on his side. I think maybe Strig and Cate might have some allies they don’t know about.
The book is not deep or challenging. It’s just fun. Christmas cuts loose in a couple of places; on page 19 the lower panel, as Strig reacts to his transformation, is gorgeous, and Bonvillain’s colors make the picture both dramatic and otherworldly. Two pages later we get a silhouette of Strig in cat-owl-human form eating a rat against a full moon. It’s a conventional and fun image, made more fun by the thought balloon in the panel that follows.
It seems almost silly to attack the story logic in this work, but I have to say that I don’t buy the “owl” as a protector of birds, in conflict with the “cat.” Owls are predators, and an owl will eat a baby bird. Both of Strig’s animal selves are predators; the interior “bird vs cat” conflict did not work for me.
Angel Catbird is simply good fun. It might get deeper and darker as it continues, but frankly, I almost hope not. I don’t think college professors will be teaching Angel Catbird in their Atwood classes in ten years, except maybe to show her range and her love of fun.