Atwood, Margaret; Johnnie Christmas, Tamra Bonvillain (2016), Angel Catbird, Dark Horse
I wrote the first sentence of this review before reading the book. Angel Catbird arrived here this afternoon, and I immediately noted down this sentence: “This is just a quick review to inform you that this awesome book exists.” So when I tell you that this book is a big disappointment, maybe you can chalk it down to my high expectations. This review is still going to be quite short, but the word “awesome” won’t be part of it, I’m afraid. Margaret Atwood is a genius novelist and a very good poet and short story writer. She is not, based on reading this beautifully produced book, very good at writing comic books. Angel Catbird is a book with a great premise, it is drawn by a fantastic artist, and who among us wouldn’t like to see Margaret Atwood write a Golden Age style comic book? And yet! And yet, this book is much duller than it had any right to be. If anything, it shows us that transitioning to comic book writing is not a given, and maybe it helps us to re-examine the achievements of Brad Meltzer (who worked on Green Arrow, among others, though his work is a bit of a mixed bag), Marjorie Liu (whose new book Monstress is a magnificent read) and China Mieville. This book is so strange and bad that its failings almost make me want to recommend it. Atwood does not play it safe, and produced a book that cites different comic traditions, comments on environmental politics, on art and gender relations, all while telling a garish story told with a silliness that is almost admirably bold. For all the dismay that Angel Catbird caused me, it made me want to read Atwood write a whole novel possessed of a similar level of adorable shameless silliness. Additionally, my faith in Atwood’s skills is such that I assume she’ll eventually get better at this. Volume 1 of Angel Catbird is a mess and not a delightful mess. But it is a book of an author clearly enjoying herself, taking risks, and it is illustrated by gifted artists. If you don’t expect the next comic book masterpiece you may even be able to stave off disappointment. Finally: cats.
The book’s greatest strength has to be Johnny Christmas’ art. He did an excellent job on Brisson’s Sheltered, a creator-owned title at Image, and in Angel Catbird he does his utmost to keep the train on the tracks and moving in a forward direction. His work, and that of illustrator Tamra Bonvillain, does an enormously good job of working with shadows, backgrounds, and giving Atwood’s characters the exactly right amount of camp expressions and gestures. As the elaborate materials show, which are part of this edition, Christmas had to be prodded a bit by Atwood to embrace the truly extravagantly camp nature of this book. His work provides a guiding light between the various impulses the script offers, and Bonvillain’s colors provide another important key. Apart from her work with shadows and silhouettes, I think it is her insistence on working with backgrounds of few details that are heavily coated in one specific color per panel that truly sets her art apart here. It gives the book a uniform look, and also lends the sometimes erratic plot a firm sense of continuity. Before reading this book, I didn’t think this would be my opinion, but Margaret Atwood got very lucky in finding these collaborators, because this could have gone so much worse. I don’t mean one of the bad artists who somehow keep floating around comic books; even a serviceable journeyman like Dale Eaglesham, for example, would have been a catastrophe, I think, for this kind of book. And I say “luck” because Atwood was, according to her introduction, connected to not just Christmas and Bonvillain, but also to the team at Dark Horse, who did an outstanding work with the book, by Hope Nicholson. In Sheltered, Christmas is asked to find a visual language for an apocalypse-like scenario of a bloody meltdown at a cult-like community, and his touch is perfect for a serious tale of greed, anger, violence and a snow-covered desolation. It is impressive that he did such an excellent job with the much less serious tale of Angel Catbird.
The story of Angel Catbird is a light story of gene splicing, of a man awakening one day as a being half cat, half owl, half human. Of the strange existence of half-cat and half-rat communities and a fat evil half-rat villain who wouldn’t be out of place in an episode of the 1990s animated series Chip ‘n Dale: Rescue Rangers. Atwood clearly has a boatload of fun in this. Even before the feline revelations, we are introduced to the book’s conflict through the characters’ names. The main character is called Strig Feleedus, his love interest is Kate Leone and his boss (and villain-to-be) is Dr. Muroid. This sets the scene. In Atwood’s introduction she stresses how indebted she is to classic comics, from L’il Abner to Plastic Man, and in many ways you can read this debt in this book. Have you ever read a plot driven collection of classic superhero comics? I read a whole thick book of classic Dial H comics and while they are amusing in portions, after a while, it is tiresome to see all these thought bubbles explaining all the details. In the 1980s, superhero comics were incredibly condensed, panels crammed with details and text (have you ever read the original run of Days of Future Past? It all fits into two short issues.), Golden Age comics and early Silver Age ones were not as dense. There was no room for subtlety: all emotions had to be writ large on the faces of the characters and expressed in similarly unsubtle speech and thought bubbles. Atwood recreates this writing in her comic, without adapting, updating or really commenting on it. It is a fascinating comics experiment, a true pastiche – but the result is incredibly strange. The jokes are corny and generally unfunny, and there is no character development because the framework doesn’t really allow for that kind of character. This is the kind of comic, after all, where a bat/cat hybrid named Count Catula goes to sleep in a woman’s closet and wakes up with a small pink bra on his forehead. Adorable – but it can get tired real fast.
The whole book is underwritten by Atwood’s environmental ideas. There are intermittent info boxes linking the reader to informational material by catsandbirds.ca, and Atwood’s ideological purpose is twofold. On a simple level it is to inform her readers about how to treat cats (and birds), but on a larger level, we are also connected to the broader topic of science and nature. Atwood has in recent novels been very interested in postapocalyptic scenarios about how humanity and nature are intertwined, with some texts hinting at the liminal, ritualistic nature of science. It is not a complete accident that the period that Atwood borrows her tools from is the one between 1930 and 1970, a time when much that we consider modern science has been developed, in both good and catastrophic ways. Ludwik Fleck’s life and work is a strange encapsulation of that historical moment, as he was a scientist who wrote one of the most insightful books on the structure of scientific thought and the illusions and problems embedded therein, and he was also, as a Jew, interned in Buchenwald, which he survived. In some ways, one could say that the extraordinary feat of pastiche in this book serves as a counterpoint to Jameson’s idea of postmodern pastiche as a “blank parody,” a depoliticized “linguistic mask.” Atwood actively uses the pastiche here as a link to history and politics to make a point. One wishes merely that she was better at it. When Guillermo del Toro, a genius director and screenwriter, planned on writing a trilogy of novels, he didn’t do it by himself. He enlisted the help of a seasoned thriller veteran. Genre writing is often underrated, seen as less than, as easier. It is not. So many failed literary science fiction novels should be evidence of that. Atwood’s offensively dull script to Angel Catbird is more evidence of it. Read it, with caveats. Also, I think it gets better with rereads. Or maybe I just want it to be the case. Anyway. I recommend this book, bad as it is. After all, we should remember Faulkner’s famous critique of Hemingway, who, according to the chronicler of Yoknapatawpha County, stuck to the things he already knew he’d do well at, rather than risk failure by overreach. Atwood has never been a “safe” writer and if this book is a failure, it is a noble one. For a serious novelist to switch media, tone and genre so completely was certainly a risk, and I’ll take that any day over the everyday dullness of MFA routine.
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