A dream of flying cats
‘Angel Catbird,’ based on Margaret Atwood’s childhood fantasies, returns and brims with joy
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.
LEFT: A page from Atwood’s new “Angel Catbird” graphic novel. The hero is a scientist turned avian/feline mutant.
BELOW: Some of Atwood’s drawings from 2011. In the 1970s, she created a political comic strip, “Kanadian Kultchur Komix.”
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