Angel Catbird – Volume 1
Story by Margaret Atwood (@MargaretAtwood)
Illustrations by Johnnie Christmas (@j_xmas)
Colors by Tamra Bonvillain (@TBonvillain)
Letters by Nate Piekos of Blambot ® (@blambot)
Review by Joey Braccino
“No, you stay inside. You’re an indoor kitty.”
Hired by the not-so-good Doctor Muroid, hapless chemist and cat-lover Strig Feleedus is tasked with completing a top-secret, special project: completing the Super-Splicer Serum, a chemical compound that essentially mixes and replaces the genes of the user!!! I’m sure you can guess how the serum comes into play given that the title of this highly anticipated graphic novel from Dark Horse Comics is ANGEL CATBIRD.
Yes, this is a comic book about an anthropomorphic Cat/Bird hybrid superhero named Angel Catbird, aka Strig Feleedus.
And it’s a story conceived and written by literary legend Margaret Atwood, the writer behind critically acclaimed novels as Handmaid’s Tale and The Blind Assassin and over 40 volumes of poetry, children’s literature, and non-fiction.
And yes, Atwood knows that may seem weird to you, so she penned an incredible piece of fangirling in which she talks about her longtime love of comics, dating all the way back to the onset of superheroic four-color fare from the ‘40s. She identifies Batman, Wonder Woman, the Human Torch, and Superman by name before jumping into the “weird” books like Mandrake the Magician, Little Orphan Annie, and Dick Tracy and discussing the strange surrealism of the Golden Age of comic books in which “a criminal could assume anyone’s face, behind which he looked like melting Swiss cheese.” I suppose when she puts it that way, yeah, comics are weird. And she totally loves it.
Frankly, Atwood’s introduction alone is worth the price of admission, but—holy bats, Catman!—Angel Catbird is an absolute blast from start to finish.
Given her critical and nuanced admiration for that original Golden Age/Silver Age flair of superhero comics, it’s no surprise that Atwood’s work in Angel Catbird here is brimming with the sort of vibrancy, innocence, and boisterousness of those stories. Stig Feleedus is very much a throwback to the Bruce Banners and Reed Richards of the Silver Age—a scientist caught in a strange accident that imbues him with at once bizarre and brilliant superpowers. In this case, at the tragic expense of his cat Ding and an overzealous owl, Feleedus is granted the ability to shape-shift into a—you guessed it—CAT/BIRD with the head of a cat, the wings and talons of the bird, and the heroism of, well, a superhero. Under the guise of Angel Catbird, Feleedus teams with his crush/Muroid Inc. co-worker Cate Leone (who may have a secret of her own nipping underneath the surface) to join the ongoing battle between the Half-Cats of the city and Muroid’s rats!
Yeah, it’s wild.
Atwood’s writing is delightfully old school in its tone and tenor. It’s wonderful to see the internal-narration-as-thinking word balloons in a comic rather than the over-used caption boxes, and Atwood uses them at length here to give the book and its characters a vintage feel. The villain of the piece, Dr. Muroid, is a blend of classics like Lex Luthor and the Mole Man, and his dastardly rants and evil-plan-ologuing (and all of his rats upon rats upon rats) are absurdly entertaining. The mythos surrounding the anthropomorphic cats that fill this book—including some cats who are Half-Cat but not human and probably the greatest half-bat/half-cat character of all time, Count Catula—opens Angel Catbird to many more stories.
Joining Atwood on this project is illustrator Johnnie Christmas (Sheltered) and colorist Tamra Bonvillain (Rat Queens, Wayward). Simply put, their work here is absolutely stunning. Reminiscent of the heightened realism of Adrian Alphona and David Marquez, Christmas’ lines and layouts burst with energy, particularly in the sequences featuring Feleedus honing his cat/bird skill set. He also draws one adorable feline. The dynamic verve of Christmas’ work is amplified by Bonvillain’s diverse color palette. The muted, pastel-quality of her blues and oranges lend light touch to the illustrations, making the darker backgrounds, night scenes, and harsh pink/purples of the Muroid scenes pop all the more. Angel Catbird’s coat… fur… down… skin (?) is a distinct and fine mix of tans, browns, and yellows, which speaks to Bonvillain’s consistency and expertise as a colorist. Visually, Angel Catbird is as much a throwback as the writing, as Christmas and Bonvillain load every page with as much as they can.
And I didn’t even talk about what Count Catula looks like. Just read it and see.
One last note of kudos goes to letterer Nate Piekos, whose fine work here takes Atwood’s dense dialogue and narration and loads it carefully and clearly into almost exclusively word balloons and thought balloons. I think a lot of books rely on the nice clean edges of caption boxes now to sort their narration, but Piekos and the rest of the visual team do an expert job of keeping the pages clear and enjoyable. Awesome work.
BUY!!! With Angel Catbird, the all-star team of Margaret Atwood, Johnnie Christmas, and Tamra Bonvillain make anthropomorphic cats super cool. And that’s coming from someone who still has nightmares because of Cats the Musical (btw, how the heck is that piece of horror back on the Broadway!?!?!). In all seriousness, though, Atwood channels the Golden Age spirit of heroism as she gives us the origin story of our titular superhero, albeit with the modern visual verve of the illustration team. A spectacularly crafted piece of superheroic storytelling, and I’m super excited for Volume Two next February!!!