Author: Margaret Atwood
Illustrator: Johnnie Christmas
Colorist: Tamra Bonvillain
Letters: Nate Piekos of Blambot
Plot Type: Superhero Urban Fantasy (UF)
Ratings: Violence—3; Sensuality—2; Humor—2-3
Audience: All ages, from pre-teens to adults
Publisher and Titles: Dark Horse Comics
Volume 1 (9/2016)
Volume 2: To Castle Catula (2/2017)
Volume 3 (Fall 2017)
Angel Catbird, Volume 1
Lauded novelist Margaret Atwood and acclaimed artist Johnnie Christmas collaborate on one of the most highly anticipated comic book and literary events of the year!
Atwood plays with the superhero graphic novel genre in this darkly humorous story of Strig Feleedus, a nerdy young man who has the inevitable accident with DNA-altering chemicals and attains the ability to change into a three-way hybrid: human, cat, and owl. This odd combination leads to a number of humorous dilemmas. For example, what should he do when he finds a baby bird that has fallen from its nest? "Do I rescue it or eat it?" The panels at left show Strig in the moments after his transformation into Catbird. Click HERE and scroll way down to view the four-page sequence in which our hero makes his initial traumatic changeover from man to hybrid. (Click on the plus sign in the upper right corner to get a larger image.)
Contrary to the usual social isolation of traditional superheroes, Strig finds himself in a dark, dangerous, and exciting subculture filled with hybrids, mostly half-cats, but also a half-bat named Count Catula and a half-raven named Ray. Ray forms the third side of a love triangle that develops between Strig and sexy half-cat Cate Leon. One of the funniest lines comes when Strig is daydreaming about a possible future with Cate: "I'd love it if you had my kittens...or laid my egg...whatever."
The series villain is Dr. A. Muroid (at right), the half-rat CEO of the mysterious company at which Strig, Ray, and Cate work. The narcissistic, sociopathic Muroid has the usual overwhelming need for world domination, and he plans to kill all of the other half-animals, particularly the cats, on his way to becoming King Rat of the world. Muroid is the typical one-dimensional bad guy. He even attempts to do the standard Bwa-hah-hah cackle, but through his rat mouth, it comes out "Bwee-hee-hee—squeeeee!"
One of the ironies of this story is that it veers away from Atwood's usual focal point: gender roles. In this world, the hybrids are focused solely on their animal identities, completely ignoring gender differences. In fact, they are so obsessed with their singular animals that when Cate's half-cat friends see Strig change for the first time, they don't know how to deal with his multiple identities. ("No way!" "We can't let him in here" "He's a freak.") That's when Cate tells the others, "Face it, half-cats—we're all freaks!" and names him Angel Catbird because she's crazy about his gorgeous wings.
The book overflows with cat puns. For example, Strig's pet cat is Ding, after the famous Schrödinger's Cat paradox. The names of all of the half-cats at their nightclub/headquarters, Catastrophe, are also cat-related (e.g., Cataclysm, Alleycat, Caterwaul). Of course, Muroid uses rat puns for the names of his followers (e.g., Ratilda, Ratify).
One of the weaknesses of the book is that there isn't much action. Although Muroid and his ratty minions are always plotting in the background, much of the story is expositional, detailing Strig's transformation process, explaining Muroid's evil plans, and setting up the love story. It's a short book (only 82 pages), so there's not much room for anything but the set-up for volume 2, which will take us to Count Catula's castle.
The artwork, for the most part, is pretty standard, with the exception of the terrific illustrations of Angel Catbird and Cate Leone. Although I'd have preferred a higher degree of cat/owl definition in Angel's face, Christmas does a good job combining Angel's cat and owl features with his human form. The silvery, dark-tipped wings are great, and the feathered lower legs and clawed cat/owl feet are wonderful. Cate is the usual sexy graphic novel heroine, but her best feature is her hair, which Christmas has somehow given a feeling of movement, particularly in the nightclub scene in which she swings and sways as she croons a jazzy tune.
Atwood is writing the series in conjunction with Nature Canada, which supplied the statistics and general information for the handful of informative footnotes scattered throughout the story. Those footnotes emphasize the purpose of Nature Canada's #SafeCatSafeBird outreach campaign, which urges cat owners not to let their cats range freely. Don't worry, they're not heavy-handed in their approach, so the footnotes are informative and interesting without being preachy. Each footnote directly relates to an incident in the story. For example, when Strig—now a brand new half-cat—attempts to drink his usual morning coffee, he spits it out. exclaiming, "Poison!" The footnote on that page lists common human foods that are toxic to cats (chocolate, coffee, onion, garlic, and tomato) as well as toxic plants and common household products that are cat killers. Good to know.
For more information about ANGEL CATBIRD and its four creators, click HERE to go to the Darkhorse web page for this series. Click HERE to read an excerpt from Angel Catbird on its Amazon.com page by clicking on the cover art. Click HERE to scroll down and watch a video featuring Atwood and Christmas as they discuss the story line and the creative process. The video includes panels from the book.
FULL DISCLOSURE: My review of Angel Catbird is based on an electronic advance reading copy (ARC) of the book that I received from the publisher through Netgalley in exchange for an honest review. I received no promotional or monetary rewards, and the opinions in this review are entirely my own.