A dream of flying cats

‘An­gel Cat­bird,’ based on Mar­garet At­wood’s child­hood fan­tasies, re­turns and brims with joy

The Washington Post Sunday - - BOOK WORLD - BY MICHAEL CAVNA book­world@wash­post.com Michael Cavna is a Wash­ing­ton Post writer and cre­ator of the Comic Riffs col­umn.

In one spe­cific way, Don­ald Trump has been good for Mar­garet At­wood. Since he be­came pres­i­dent, the po­lit­i­cal shift has sent “The Handmaid’s Tale,” her dystopian novel about an au­thor­i­tar­ian Amer­i­can so­ci­ety, rock­et­ing back up the best­seller charts.

But the Man Booker Prize-win­ning au­thor says she’d rather talk about some­thing that fills her with joy and the buoy­ancy of child­hood op­ti­mism. At­wood, you see, was raised as a vo­ra­cious reader of comics, a form she still adores. And so with her graphic-novel se­ries “An­gel Cat­bird” — Vol­ume 2 ar­rives Tues­day — she con­tin­ues to ful­fill a dream at age 77, more than three decades af­ter “The Handmaid’s Tale” painted a world of women sub­ju­gated within a Con­sti­tu­tion-sus­pend­ing dic­ta­tor­ship.

She is ex­pe­ri­enc­ing, she says, one of her “un­lived lives.”

At­wood laughs at how this ap­par­ent ca­reer pivot might be per­ceived. She imag­ines that some fans would have her ful­fill the stereo­type of a “nice lit­er­ary old lady,” rest­ing in her rock­ing chair, “dig­ni­fied and iconic.” But the “An­gel Cat­bird” se­ries, il­lus­trated by John­nie Christ­mas, re­al­izes the cre­ative vi­sion of an au­thor who has lit­tle pa­tience for rest­ing on her lau­rels.

From her ear­li­est years in the 1940s and ’50s, as her fam­ily trav­eled be­tween Que­bec and other Cana­dian points, At­wood not only pas­sion­ately read news­pa­per and magazine comics, from “Bat­man” to “Blondie” to “Rip Kirby”; she also drew them her­self.

“That’s what we did in Canada,” she says. “We were liv­ing in the woods.” Her older brother’s plot­ted­out draw­ings “were more about war­fare,” she says, while her char­ac­ters — in­clud­ing rab­bit su­per­heroes — “were play­ing around.”

At­wood notes that some of the char­ac­ters in her nov­els have been artists, in­clud­ing the nar­ra­tors in “Sur­fac­ing” (1972) and “Cat’s Eye” (1988). Yet be­yond At­wood’s deep ap­pre­ci­a­tion for vis­ual cre­ators, there is a theme here that stretches from “The Handmaid’s Tale” (which de­buts as a Hulu TV se­ries in April) through to “An­gel Cat­bird”: It is the fas­ci­na­tion with, and in­ex­orable drive to­ward, what­ever is de­nied.

By age 6, young Mar­garet was draw­ing car­toons that fea­tured flying cats, of­ten af­fixed to bal­loons — fun, furry sym­bols of buoy­ant hope ris­ing above de­pri­va­tion. “I drew so many bal­loons be­cause we didn’t have any,” At­wood says, re­call­ing the rub­ber short­age dur­ing the war. “It was a very magic idea — that you could go up in a bal­loon,” she con­tin­ues, cit­ing a film that was born the same year she was: 1939’s “The Wiz­ard of Oz.”

At­wood’s bud­ding imag­i­na­tion was also fu­eled by a sec­ond ab­sence: De­spite her wishes, her home lacked cats. “I wasn’t al­lowed to have one be­cause we were up in the Cana­dian forests a lot,” she writes in the in­tro­duc­tion to the first vol­ume of “An­gel Cat­bird,” which was pub­lished last year. “How would the cat travel? Once there, wouldn’t it run away and be eaten by mink? Very likely.”

At­wood’s res­o­lu­tion? She pop­u­lated her pages with flying dream cats.

So, decades later, when At­wood met with Toronto-based project ad­viser Hope Ni­chol­son, she pitched her graphic-novel vi­sions in­volv­ing flying fe­lines. And once she spoke with Dark Horse ed­i­tor Daniel Chabon, she knew that her dream cats would be­come a pub­lish­ing re­al­ity, ren­dered by more tal­ented comics hands than hers. “I got lucky enough to get John­nie,” she says, as well as col­orist Tamra Bonvillain.

(At­wood cre­ated the po­lit­i­cal comic strip “Kana­dian Kultchur Komix” in the 1970s, al­low­ing her to reach what she calls the ceil­ing on her lim­ited, “lumpy” artis­tic tal­ent.)

At­wood’s new graphic-novel sto­ries brim with joy. She nods to mid­cen­tury ac­tion-ad­ven­ture comics tropes even as she tweaks them. In clas­sic superhero fash­ion, “An­gel Cat­bird” in­volves a sci­en­tist: mild­man­nered ge­netic en­gi­neer Strig Felee­dus, who be­comes a mu­tant be­cause of an ex­per­i­ment gone wrong. His avian/fe­line hy­brid body lands him squarely in a dark world of other an­i­mal mu­tants, com­plete with a real minx of a love in­ter­est.

Un­der­pin­ning all of this, At­wood says, is her pas­sion for bird con­ser­va­tion and fe­line causes. Her graphic nov­els are dot­ted with facts about na­ture, as well as links to sites for more in­for­ma­tion.

Still, like the true stu­dent of car­toons that she is, At­wood knows what she must de­liver to her fel­low fans of the art form: “This comic has to stand on its own — it can’t be too preachy.” It is the only way to el­e­vate when drift­ing back to her tales of flying bal­loon dream cats.

An­gel Cat­bird may have nine lives. Through him, Mar­garet At­wood aims to dis­cover just one un­lived one.

IL­LUS­TRA­TIONS BY JOHN­NIE CHRIST­MAS, COL­ORS BY TAMRA BONVILLAIN

LEFT: A page from At­wood’s new “An­gel Cat­bird” graphic novel. The hero is a sci­en­tist turned avian/fe­line mu­tant.

COUR­TESY OF MAR­GARET AT­WOOD

BE­LOW: Some of At­wood’s draw­ings from 2011. In the 1970s, she cre­ated a po­lit­i­cal comic strip, “Kana­dian Kultchur Komix.”

COUR­TESY OF MAR­GARET AT­WOOD

Mar­garet At­wood, above, and be­low left, at age 12 or 13, draw­ing comics for her younger sis­ter. She was a pas­sion­ate reader of magazine and news­pa­per comic strips as a child.

AN­GEL CAT­BIRD Vol­ume 2: To Cas­tle Cat­ula By Mar­garet At­wood Dark Horse. 104 pp. $14.99

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