As a concept, it’s hard to imagine a more exciting comic than Angel Catbird. Written by one of our greatest living novelists, Margaret Atwood (The Handmaid’s Tale, The Blind Assassin etc.), it tells the story of a young man who becomes part owl and part cat thanks to a freak accident. It’s a slightly weird premise, but that’s never stopped Atwood before and with art by Johnnie Christmas and colors by Tamra Bonvillain, it should be nothing short of great. Instead, this first volume is, at best, an unexpected surprise and, at worst, a baffling disappointment.
Let’s start with the positive: Angel Catbird is a good-looking book. Christmas’s style has a sort of throwback feel. Think post-World War II superhero comics with more modern, slightly softer line work. Bonvillain’s colors further soften things, with a lighter palette that reads almost pastel compared to the bright primary colors of mid-century comics. In fact, it’s not far off from the current run of Archie and the similarities to the Riverdale gang don’t stop there. Our hero, Strig Feleedus (a play on the scientific names for animals in the owl and cat families) has the looks of Jughead and the bumbling sweetness of Archie. His love interest and fellow cat person, Cate Leone, looks like Veronica in human form and Raquel Welch in One Million Years B.C. after she transfigures. They–and every other character–feel like they’re from a different time and Atwood seems to be going for an old-school, more cartoonish, bang-pow kind of feel. At least, that’s hopefully what she’s doing.
To be perfectly frank, reading Angel Catbird: Volume 1, it’s a little difficult to tell whether Atwood is going for pastiche or is just having trouble with the graphic novel form. There’s plenty of evidence to support the former. The way Strig gets his powers (an accident that involves a spilled gene splicing formula and the convenient presence of an owl and a cat) is in the same vein as heroes like Spider-man or the Flash: so improbable it borders on ridiculous. The dialogue, with its profusion of exclamation points, certainly resembles that of Golden Age comics. However, it also tends to be a little clunky. It is almost painful how inelegantly Atwood crams exposition into every thought bubble and speech balloon and, worse, a lot of it feels completely unnecessary. Take the moment when Strig’s boss and the villain of the piece thinks of our hero as a, “useful idiot.” Though the panel is meant to tell the reader that Dr. A. Muroid is exploiting Strig, that’s already clear from the preceding dialogue and the point feels labored.
Unfortunately, that’s not the only heavy-handed moment. As stated in her introduction, Atwood isn’t just fulfilling a long-held dream in writing this comic, there’s also an element of activism involved. Atwood, a long-time cat and bird lover, includes relevant factoids at the bottoms of some pages. For instance, when Strig’s cat runs into the street, a small paragraph about cat-and-car related accidents appears below. When Strig saves a fallen baby bird from a bunch of alley cats, we learn about the dangers cats pose to wild bird populations. They set a strange tone and, by and large, they seem to be almost embarrassingly sincere—with one exception. The best–and most unbelievably perverse–factoid comes when a few sentences on the importance of spaying female cats appears below the panels depicting Strig and Cate’s first kiss. It’s the one instance where the statistics don’t just seem like teachable moments for children and the only time within the comic itself that we see the wry wit Atwood so effortlessly displays in her introduction to the volume.
Speaking of that introduction, it’s ungenerous to say that it’s the best thing about Angel Catbird: Volume 1, but Atwood’s account of how she came to write the book and her long history with comics is pretty fascinating. That said, the book works best if you save reading the introduction until the end. Atwood writes so eloquently and passionately about the project that it can feel at-odds with the somewhat frivolous tone of the actual storytelling. More importantly, the introduction spoils some of the volume’s best reveals and characters and they are more surprising and enjoyable when the reader experiences them with Strig rather than anticipating them.
Listen, Angel Catbird is a little bizarre—and that’s fine. But that means it won’t be everyone’s cup of tea. If you can accept the intentionally outdated, occasionally preachy tone and focus on the impeccable art and coloring, there’s a lot of fun to be had in this first volume. However, if you’re looking for sharp social commentary or a serious tone, you’re better off sticking to Atwood’s novels.