Margaret Atwood’s name has been in the news lately, and not for the usual reasons. With the election of Donald Trump and the accompanying ascent of politicians with far right political views rooted in Christian fundamentalism, her 1985 novel The Handmaid’s Tale has served as a potentially prophetic reference point. (It’s also the source material for a highly anticipated Hulu series.) Since then, Atwood’s made return ventures into more-timely-than-ever post-apocalyptic and dystopian worlds. Her 2003 novel Oryx & Crake and its successor, The Year of the Flood and MaddAddam are set in a world ruined by corporate greed, and her 2015 novel The Heart Goes Last opens with a chilling description of society descending into economic ruin.
But such bleak visions are just part of Atwood’s output. Somewhere at the other end of the spectrum you’ll find Angel Catbird, an ongoing series of graphic novels published by Dark Horse written by Atwood with art by Johnnie Christmas and colors by Tamra Bonvillain. The series follows the adventures of Strig Feleedus, a genetic engineer who becomes a part-cat, part-bird superhero. Set in a world in which seemingly anything can happen, it reads at times like a long-lost Golden Age oddity, but with a self-aware sense of playfulness and a hard-to-miss sexual undercurrent. Filled with real-life facts about cats and birds, it’s a lot of fun. The series’ second volume, Angel Catbird: To Castle Catula, which hits stores today, doubles down on the absurdity, shifting the focus to the debonair Count Catula. (Yes, he’s a cat vampire.)
We spoke to Atwood via phone on the day of Trump’s inauguration about comics new and old and why her stories never end as bleakly as they might.
Thank you for speaking to me on this strange day.
It is a strange day. Where are you?
I’m in Chicago.
How strange is it there?
You know in my house, it’s fine. I don’t know about outside. Let’s talk comics. That’s more fun, right? Two volumes into this, what are you finding you can do with comics you can’t do with prose or poetry?
Well it’s a little bit like films and television in that you’re telling a story with not only words but pictures. Though with films and television you’ve also got sound and music and things like that. But with comics you’re telling a story with a series of pictures that have words in them as well, or can have words in them. That is the way of telling stories that is very, very, very, very, very old. You can take it all the way back to ancient Egypt, or you can take it to the Bayeux Tapestry which is panels with words. Not very many words, but there are words. Then you can follow the history as it develops through the 18th century until the 19th. So it really has a very long history, and there has to be a reason why people have stuck with it all those years. It’s sort of immediately graspable, but then of course like a lot of pictures once you look further into them they get more complex than you might have thought.
You became aware of that at a particular point in comics history. Do you feel like when you first discovered comics has influenced your own comics work?
Of course. I even wanted an illustrator who can draw like that, to give it that sort of ’40s feel.
One thing I like about that era of comics, and I think it is evident in yours as well, is the sense of anything can happen, and the characters just kind of accept what’s happened without questioning the logic too much. Does that appeal to you as a writer?
Well that’s what I liked about reading them as a kid. You just never knew. Some of it made sense, and some of it was just… You couldn’t quite figure it out. What happened to Superman’s clothes, in that phone booth? You’re never told, there’s never any explanation for it. When he came out, where were the clothes? Where was his outfit when he wasn’t wearing it? Was it underneath?
I’m assuming you went back to read some older comics, before writing this. Did that trigger any memories of childhood, going back to those?
Well unfortunately I have a pretty complete memory. We did have a lot of comics, and they were under my brother’s bed, and my mother unfortunately threw them out when he went away to college. Oh, had she only asked us first. I think that’s happened to a lot of people.
Do you think you would have arrived at this particular concept if it hadn’t been coming off of the Oryx and Crake books and all the genetic splicing you wrote about in those?
No, no. I have been thinking about it for years. And of course, as you know, I drew comics off and on throughout all of that period of time, but I was not capable of drawing this comic because I wanted it to look anatomically correct and have that sort of ’40s feel to it, and I’m not that good at that kind of drawing. So it was a question of finding the right people to work with. That came about through serendipity. It came about through a person called Hope Nicholson who was reviving a Canadian black and white comic of the 40s called Brok Windsor. In the ’40s in Canada there were these black and white comics. They had to be that way because of the war effort. They couldn’t import colored American ones. So there was this little group of Canadian comics called things like Johnny Canuck, and Nelvana of the North, Brok Windsor,” et cetera. Then they all disappeared in about 1946, when the colore ones came back. So I remember reading tons of colored ones in say, ’47, ’48, ’49, ’50, ’51, ’52, ’53, in around there. The Comics Code hit the world around that time too. True crime and gory horror comics and things. Parents were concerned about them. So they made the Comics Code, but the Comics Code only applied to colored comics. So you could still get gory horror black and white comics.
So was there a lot of that in Canada at the time?
And everything you had we had. Except, with one exception. They got the popsicle sticks and [a chance to] win a Schwinn bicycle. “Offer good only in the United States.” We got the comics but we didn’t get the offers. We did however get a lot of ads that we then made fun of, like, “Why aren’t we invited to parties, it’s because of those ugly blackheads”, et cetera. Kick sand in your face at the beach. Constantly they’re kicking it! You don’t even have to be at the beach, just sand all the time.
Is there a character that took center stage more than you thought he or she might?
What, in my comic? Count Catula has moved in.
That was going to be my guess, tell me why.
Oh well we just love him. He’s so courtly. He uses big words. He’s got Castle Catula, and Count Dracula only has three Wives of Dracula, but Count Catula, being a cat, has lots more than that. He’s got a whole army of them.
In the introduction, G. Willow Wilson mentioned that it seems to be inspired by the “furrier” corners of the Internet. Have you gotten any reaction from the Furry community on these books?
The Furry community. Not as such. I don’t really know what that might consist of. You mean people who like to dress up in fur? No I don’t think particularly. Shape changing from animal to human is very, very, very, very old themed. It’s paleolithic. People would have an animal form and a human form, so it’s not an odd concept in the world of comics because people have these alter egos, do they not? They have their Supermen form and their human form, and Angel Catbird, his super form just happens to be part cat and part bird.
There is a stronger sexual element though than in the comics that inspired you. Or at least more overt.
The comics that inspired me were pretty … they were of their time. But they were always rather bothersome in that you could never figure out who Mary Marvel was. Was she the sister of Captain Marvel? Was she the… where did Junior Marvel come from? It was all quite un-spelled out. And what about the Superman Lois Lane romance? But there was a pretty sexy one and that was Catwoman. You knew there was something going on there. A kind of fatal attraction. I don’t think it was acted out but it certainly had a lot of skin tight clothing involved. And then there was also Wonder Woman who couldn’t get married to Steve, her boyfriend, because her Wonder powers would be obliterated.
They’re rich in subtext, the old stories.
Very rich. Jung could have a field day with Batman.
Is doing comics kind of similar to working within a larger tradition, like you’ve done with Hag-Seed and The Penelopiad.
I think it’s more like writing television scripts. It’s collaborative. There’s a team. You write something that’s a lot like a script, except that it’s panels rather than scenes. Comics are not created unless there is a writer/illustrator/colorist all in one. They’re not usually created by just one person. There are mature comics like Persepolis and Maus [where] all of those functions are done by one person. But this one that I’m doing, I would not be able to draw that well.
This seems like a more pleasant world to spend time in than some of the other worlds you’ve created. Has that been your experience?
You mean the comic? I think it’s necessary, when you are trying actually to improve things, I think it’s necessary to not end on a note of total gloom. So somebody sent me an idea for a story recently in which they said “And then at the end there was nobody left alive.” And I said “That’s not very motivating.” It actually isn’t. I mean one of the things that frightened us all as children was The Time Machine by H.G. Wells. In which he goes through time in which there’s only this sluggish thing on the seashore. And you think, “Oh no”.
Even as dark as some of your books go, they do tend to end on a hopeful note.
I haven’t killed everybody off. I’ve never killed everybody off, and novelists generally don’t. They don’t kill everybody off.
Would you call yourself an optimistic person?
I wake up every day singing and dancing. That’s totally true. I’m not lying. I am by nature rather optimistic, but in my rational mind I am rather pessimistic.
Do you have trouble reconciling those two impulses?
Yes. I’m glad it’s not the other way around.