Margaret Atwood is old. She is the first to admit this, even in the introduction of her first graphic novel, Angel Catbird, where she discusses growing up during World War II and beyond, being a child during the Silver Age of comics. To say that her age and her childhood experiences of comic books color her own crack at writing a graphic novel would be an understatement. The book borrows from the storytelling aesthetic of those classic comics, from the exclamatory, expository dialogue to the almost quaint origin story of an old-fashioned kind of superhero. Unfortunately, Atwood fails to define this book, to make it as contemporary or revolutionary as so many of her books have been in the past, and it therefore falls short of being truly engaging.
Angel Catbird is the story of Strig Feleedus, a geneticist who takes a job working for a man who is attempting to create a gene splicer, a serum that can combine the DNA of one animal with another, up to and including humans. We learn from the first few pages that Strig’s predecessor died suddenly and mysteriously, and he took the original successful formula with him. Through a series of odd mishaps, Strig’s DNA is accidentally spliced with that of his cat and a passing owl, and he thus becomes Angel Catbird, a creature who has the ability to sometimes grow wings and claws and develops a taste for rodents.
We learn the major plot through Cate Leone, Strig’s love interest, who is herself “half-cat.” Her family has apparently had the ability to turn half-cat for centuries, but we never really learn why. We also learn from her that their boss — a half-rat, half-human hybrid — intends to use the gene spicer serum to create a rat hybrid army to help him take over the world and destroy his feline enemies. Strig, though our hero, pretty much doesn’t do anything to stop him. In fact, he mostly follows the directions of Cate and his new cat gang and lets them do the heavy lifting.
The plot itself has a classic supervillain bent, and the actual writing also makes it feel as if Atwood hasn’t read a comic since the ’60s, down to the expository word bubbles and exclamatory narration from the characters. The first page of the book features Strig speaking out loud to his cat, Ding (which is short for Schrodinger, and that’s all I’ll say about that), about how he needs to leave for work: “Don’t want your buddy to be late for his new job! Seeing as I was head-hunted and all for a top-secret project!” Then for some reason he tells Ding to stay inside because he’s “an indoor kitty.” This kind of dialogue doesn’t bode well for the rest of the book. It already feels as if Atwood doesn’t trust her medium to tell the story.
Maybe that’s to be expected. Although Atwood makes sure to tell us, repeatedly, in the introduction to the book, that she does have experience creating comics, this is her first attempt at a graphic novel, and writing a comic is much different than writing prose. Is it fair to expect from Atwood the same quality of writing that we might see in her novels? Like any novice, should we be cutting her some slack and leaving her a little room to improve, to grow in her abilities?
I want to say yes, but I’m inclined to say no. Atwood herself spends an entire introduction convincing us that, although she has no experience with the comics industry and has never written a graphic novel before, she is qualified to write this one, that she isn’t a novice, isn’t out of touch with contemporary comics, even though the most recent graphic novel that she can name, Persepolis, came out sixteen years ago. If Atwood herself wants us to take her graphic novel with the same seriousness that we take her prose, then that’s how we should read it. And the fact is, it doesn’t hold up.
The book’s major purpose is to be an educational resource about cats. That sentence sounds silly to me, and the effect on the storytelling isn’t much better. Every few pages, a blurb at the bottom of the page shares a fact about cats, effectively disrupting the scene. When Ding dashes out of the house in pursuit of a mouse and gets hit by a car, a blurb pops up to tell us that outdoor cats have a much shorter life expectancy than indoor cats, due to the various dangers of being outside, including being hit by a car. Instead of allowing us to feel for Strig, who is visibly upset at the sudden death of his feline companion, the book chooses to tell us about cat death statistics.
This lack of feeling is pervasive throughout the book. Strig turns into a part-cat, part-owl, part-man creature and barely even reacts. There is no sense of wonder about this world he finds himself suddenly privy to. There’s no delight at the existence of an underground club that exists only for half-cats. The only reaction we see to anything is an over-the-top hormonal response to Cate Leone, who is apparently a very good-looking cat lady. There are some borderline creepy thought bubbles about Strig wanting to rub his face against her body and an equally unsexy thought from Cate Leone about wanting him the next time she goes into heat. Nothing feels natural or charming, and the cat jokes and references feel put-on and unpleasant.
The saving grace of the book is the art, with linework by Johnnie Christmas and colors by Tamra Bonvillain. It’s unfortunate that the story feels so uninspired, because the book is downright beautiful. The cast of characters, made up mostly of people who are also sometimes cats, move with the grace and lightness of felines; there is nothing clunky or heavy about their designs. Their faces, while usually human, sometimes take on subtle cat-like features, curving mouths or slanted eyes, giving them mischievous airs. The color palette, draped mostly in purples and grays, makes the book feel as if every scene takes place at twilight, an accurate setting for a book about animals who live their lives mostly in the nighttime.
Most of the personality of the book comes from the art, which gives the lazy story and subpar dialogue a little bit of life. If Strig is never going to express any real grief about his cat, who has clearly been his closest companion and housemate, if the only real tension we get between the two characters who are supposed to be almost helplessly attracted to each other is through creepy thought bubbles, then the art will exist to give them all real feelings and reactions, with expressive faces and body language.
Margaret Atwood describes herself as iconic when introducing this book. She’s not wrong. Part of the reason this book feels so unimpressive is because we expected it to be a Margaret Atwood book. But she is a novice. This is a new kind of writing from someone whose main experiences reading or creating comics happened decades ago. It is frustrating to read a graphic novel written by someone with no real idea what comics look like now. Maybe if Atwood picks up a comic written in the last decade, her next attempt at comic writing will feel more natural and modern. Maybe she’ll feel less inclined to fall back on old-fashioned comics tropes and we’ll get to see some of the innovative writing she is best known for. Then again, maybe she’s only ever just wanted to teach us about cats. I guess, in that case, she’s succeeded.
Elizabeth Brei grew up in Chicagoland, once worked at Disney World and has a cat named Moo. She holds an MFA from San Diego State University and can sometimes be found on Twitter @peachchild grumbling about kids these days or talking about Sailor Moon.