Margaret Atwood’s next book isn’t what you’re expecting, unless you’re expecting a bird conservation superhero comic about a flying man-cat-owl fighting to save the world from an evil CEO who is secretly a rat.
It’s called Angel Catbird, and it’s absolutely bonkers. Although the 76-year-old author of The Handmaid’s Tale has written speculative and science fiction about worlds full of genetically engineered animals, malevolent totalitarian futures and nefarious social experiments, her debut graphic novel manages to be the strangest thing she’s written yet by drawing on the pulpy traditions of Golden Age superhero comics.
Its hero is a genetic engineer named Strig Feleedus (an amalgam of the Latin names for cats and owls), while the villain is one Professor Muroid, the CEO of Feleedus’s company, who walks around covered in rats that wear tiny surveillance cameras. Like many iconic heroes, Feleedus is transformed from an average Joe into something much more by a serendipitous accident. This particular accident involves a car, a cat, a bird, and a mysterious serum, turning him into a giant anthropomorphic feline with wings—aka Angel Catbird—and endowing him with the senses and instincts of both owls and cats.
“Why do I have this urge to jump on him, grab his neck with my teeth, and shake him back and forth?” Feleedus wonders when his newly heightened senses catch a whiff of Professor Muroid the next day at work. “I can’t do that! He’s my boss!”
Illustrated by Johnnie Christmas, colored by Tamra Bonvillain, and published by Dark Horse Comics, Angel Catbird hits comic shops and bookstores on September 6th. In the introduction, Atwood preemptively asks the question that she knows is going to be on the mind of pretty much everyone who picks it up: Why is “an award-winning nice literary old lady… who should be resting on her laurels in her rocking chair, being dignified and iconic—why is such a nice old lady messing around with flying cat-owl superheroes and nightclubs for cat people, not to mention giant rat men? Strange.”
But to Atwood, it isn’t strange at all. Before she a venerable elder stateswoman of literature and the winner of the Booker Prize and the Arthur C. Clarke Award, she told me, she was a comic book fan who grew up devouring superhero books about heroes like Superman, Batman and Captain Marvel.
“I’m a child of the ‘40s and that’s when superhero comics were really, really big,” said Atwood. Nor is she a stranger to making her own sequential art; she wrote and illustrated a children’s book called Up in the Tree in the 1970s, and published an intermittent series of autobiographical strips called “BookTour Comix” on her website. “I’ve been making my own comics since I was little, so that’s baked in.”
Although the absurdity and archetypal simplicity of the storytelling might startle readers who are accustomed to more sober and delicate work from the Canadian author, Angel Catbird makes more sense in the context of the Golden Age superhero comics that Atwood grew up reading. Full of bright, larger-than-life heroes with spectacular powers and on-the-nose names, the superhero books of the ‘40s and ‘50s were told in the broad, often blunt strokes of mythology; similarly, Angel Catbird is more interested in rocketing readers from one bizarre adventure to the next than in subtlety.
Case in point: the puns. Yes, there are puns—so very many puns. One of Angel Catbird’s allies is a vampire man/cat/bat who lives in a castle; his name is Count Catula. The female love interest is a half-cat named Cate who is fond of declaring that things are “purrfect.” At one point they attend a secret cat dance club called the Catastrophe, where a female singing group named Pussies in Boots performs a song with the lyrics: “You are my dish of cream/ You are my catnip dream.”
In the introduction, Atwood ponders whether or not to create a half-woman, half-owl named Atheneowl as a rival for Angel Catbird’s affections. “In her human form, does she work at Hooters, or is that a pun too far?” Atwood wonders. Whether this strikes you as ridiculously funny or just ridiculous may be a useful clue as to whether or not you will enjoy this book.
Angel Catbird sits at the intersection Atwood’s love for superheroes, cats, birds, and mythology, as well as a specific image that has been floating around in her mind since early childhood. “I’ve been drawing flying cats with wings since about the age of six,” she said. “In mythology and literature, there are all of these transformational beings. The gods could disguise themselves as human beings and frequently did, and vampires of course are transformational beings as well. Dracula can become a bat, so why shouldn’t I have Count Catula, who is not only part bat and part vampire, but also part cat?” She paused for a moment and laughed. “Well, it makes sense to me.”
The conservationist subtext of the story stems from Atwood’s longtime interest in environmental causes, with a particular concern for birds and the dramatic population decreases in various species over the last several decades. She’s the co-president of Birdlife International’s Rare Bird Club, and is publishing Angel Catbird in collaboration with the conservation group Nature Canada and their “Keep Cats Safe and Save Bird Lives” initiative.
“We are in a precipitous bird decline right now,” said Atwood. The culprits typically cited for this decline include habitat loss, pesticides, and yes, cats. The estimated bird murder rate for both pet and feral cats ranges anywhere from 500 million to 3.7 billion birds a year. These statistics dovetail—sorry, Atwood’s puns are cat-ching—very neatly with Atwood’s lifelong affection for cats, and the studies that say cats who live indoors have far higher life expectancies than outdoor cats. “They come to sad ends,” said Atwood. The conclusion: Keeping cats indoors keeps a lot more cats and birds alive.
While Angel Catbird may not be what anyone is expecting, Atwood doesn’t seem to mind. From the punning to the underground nightclubs full of dancing cat ladies, it’s clear that she’s having an awful lot of fun with it.
“I’m so old,” laughed Atwood when I asked about it. “Why do anything that isn’t fun?”