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“Angel Catbird” Takes on Cats, Birds, and Species Hybrids

It's author Margaret Atwood's first graphic novel; we chat with her and artist Johnnie Christmas.

Phillip Mlynar  |  Sep 7th 2016


As a child, Margaret Atwood says she longed for a cat but couldn’t have one because most of the time her family lived in the wild woods. Faced with this unfair longing for a feline, the Man Booker Award-winning author conjured up her own solution: “I drew flying cats with wings.”

Skip forward a number of decades, and Atwood has returned to her childhood doodling daydreams to create Angel Catbird alongside artist Johnnie Christmas (who’s best known for his work on the apocalyptic survival tale Sheltered) and colorist Tamra Bonvillain. In her first graphic novel, the story’s main main character turns from a genetic engineer into its eponymous half-cat, half-owl hero after a DNA experiment mishap.

Naturally, cat puns also ensue.

These days, Atwood is proud to call herself “a person of cats,” but she’s also active on the bird conservation scene. The back and forth between these two usually competing species bubbles strong through the heart of Angel Catbird.

“Habitat destruction, poisoning of the land, and glass windows all kill large numbers of birds,” she explains, “but so do free-roaming cats.

“Emotional conflict!

“What to do?”

Enter the lead character in the novel.

“Angel Catbird, who combines bird and cat, can help explore both sides,” she says, while adding, “Plus, vampire bat-cats. What’s not to like?”

To transform the concept for Angel Catbird‘s story line and characters into illustrated form, Christmas says Atwood presented him with “bulletpoint descriptions of the characters for the most part,” but Christmas was free to embrace “unexpected ideas” that might take on lives of their own.

Christmas aimed to bring “a fresh take to this very unique world Margaret was describing,” and in the process he became a “picture-browsing machine” as he rampaged through books and web image searches looking at a menagerie of wildlife for inspiration.

An early version of the Angel Catbird character carried too much emphasis on feline features, so the avian angle was played up to balance out the look. Christmas adds that when it comes to the female lead character Cate, Atwood contributed more in the way of direction: “She really wanted Cate’s feline appeal to shine through, whether she’s in human or half-cat form.”

In Angel Catbird, the idea of hybrid human-to-animal morphing quickly and vividly comes to the surface. While living a secret half-feline life, Cate and her band play shows at Catastrophe, a hedonistic underground music club populated by fellow half-cat revelers that Christmas says would probably listen to the sounds of pioneering cat rap project Meow The Jewels, trance and electronic dance music. (“Although I would imagine real cats would be driven mad by the loud music, lights and vibrations,” he jokes.)

During one scene outside the club, Cate warns Angel, who’s still coming to terms with the mechanics of his transformation, “Why aren’t you in half-cat? You’ll stand out … They don’t like full humans here.”

The busy background is fleshed out with sneaky spy rats and a figure called Count Catula who is never shy about offering up glasses of mouse blood champagne (non-alcoholic, of course).

As the Angel Catbird story progresses, the characters’ cat-like behaviors, thoughts, and movements become more frequent and pronounced. Talking about conveying cat mannerisms in half-humans, Christmas says “the spine and the way it moves may be the trickiest bit to convey. There’s a slinky deftness to the way cats move: A lot of that is in that gracefully curved spine and how it meets the shoulders.”

Christmas also adds that “mannerisms like scratching and licking things were really fun to squeeze in here and there.”

Don’t bet against that sort of action going down in the nooks and crannies of the Catastrophe, too.

Angel Catbird is available to purchase now via Dark Horse Books.