Johnnie Christmas
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September 07, 2016 at 05:27 PM EDT

It’s always big news when a successful author from another media platform crosses over into comic book writing: Joss Whedon’s run on Astonishing X-Men, to name one, is still regarded as one of the better X-Men stories in recent years. As a result, a lot of heads turned when it was announced that acclaimed novelist Margaret Atwood would be writing her very own superhero comic called Angel Catbird. The first volume of that series is out Wednesday.

Strikingly, it’s not a Watchmen-style literary soliloquy in comic form, but rather a good old-fashioned superhero romp, full of bright colors and vibrant characters (such as the seductive Cat Leone and the enigmatic Count Catula). As the name suggests, the comic follows a hero named Angel Catbird, a scientist who gets accidentally spliced with both a cat and a bird. In addition to wing and claw-related superpowers, this transformation grants him insight into the struggles of both cats and birds, and allows Atwood’s passion for environmental conservation to come into play. The comic is adorned with cat facts, providing helpful info and real-life statistics about the animals (provided by Nature Canada).

EW talked with Atwood about the genesis of Angel Catbird, the environmental issues at work in the story, and how the series hearkens back to an earlier age of comic books.

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: The main concept, of a guy transformed into a cat/bird/human hybrid, is really fun. How did you first come up with this idea?

MARGARET ATWOOD: I think I first came up with it around the age of six, when I was drawing flying cats with wings. I was a child who desperately wanted a cat and was not allowed to have one because we traveled too much and lived in the woods — though I finally did get one when I was nine, to which I was devoted. So I think it’s been in my subconscious for quite a while.

But then, as I got further and further into bird conservation, it came up out of my subconscious and I thought, wouldn’t it be great to do a comic with this character? I did make some preliminary sketches, but they’re kind of lumpy comics and very basic. So I thought, okay, if I’m going to do this character, who would have a dual nature and thus have some identity conflict and be able to see both sides of the question, I knew I couldn’t draw it myself. But also I didn’t know who could draw it. I had helped out Hope Nicholson, who is a comics producer, with one of her comics projects, and then I got to know her. So we all went out, myself and somebody I had in mind to help with the conservation end, and we all had a drink in a bar. I said, okay, if I was going to do this comic, how would I do it? And can you help? She said yes. It was she who put me together with Dark Horse and Johnnie Christmas. Tamra Bonvillain, the colorist, came with Johnnie because he’s worked with her before. So that’s our team.

Part of the weirdness of this is that people don’t quite get why I, esteemed novelist, would be doing this, but I grew up in the ’40s when everyone read comics. We had huge weekend supplements with all the colored funnies in them. It wasn’t just kids reading them, it was adults, it was [all genders]. There wasn’t any geeky club. It was a general part of pop culture. 

Johnnie Christmas

Johnnie Christmas

What is the conflict between cats and birds when it comes to conservation?

Cats eat birds. Don’t tell! But it’s not the only thing. The migratory songbirds are in horrific decline, as are a number of other species, and it’s not just cats. It is shiny glass windows and habitat loss and it is poisoning. So those are the four biggies. So we’re moving away from North America as we progress, and we will hear, for instance, of the vulture poisoning that’s going on in Africa. We’re bringing in some of those other things that aren’t directly linked to cats but are of interest to Angel Catbird because he’s part-bird. It gives us an opportunity to explore all kinds of battleground scenarios in the ongoing attempt to keep the planet alive.

Johnnie Christmas

Johnnie Christmas

So will volume 2 have more of a bird focus?

Yes, there will be more of a bird focus, and a part-bird female love interest. You get to see the inside of Castle Catula. I do mention in passing that Count Dracula had only three brides, but Count Catula has many more because he’s part-cat. He’s got an entire palace stuffed full of Brides of Catula — useful in later battle scenes as an attack force. How would you like to be swarmed by 100 wives of Catula?

How have comics changed since you were first reading them? It feels like more of a subculture now.

It’s a subculture, but I think it’s moving back into the mainstream in a somewhat different way. It used to be that you would get them in the drugstore. There’d be the magazine rack, and on the magazine rack there’d be these whole shelves of comic books. So they were very easy to come by. There weren’t special comic book stores. I don’t know when it became so specialized.

I think it happened decade by decade. It was still fairly general when Stan Lee revived the form, beginning with Spider-Man, and then that had a high, and then it sort of dwindled, and then came back as a high art form through Maus and Persepolis. They used it for quite different purposes. That has spawned a whole graphic novel revival, only they’re not in drugstores, they’re in bookstores and comic book stores, and a lot of them have hard covers because libraries can handle them better that way. They used to be throwaways; some of us still resent our parents for having tossed our collections of comic books when we went to university. I think that was a widespread phenomenon. They were just considered trash, and the thing that moralistic parents were most likely to get upset about in 1951 wasn’t the internet, it was comics. But there was every kind; there were true romance comics, crime comics, Batman and Superman and Captain Marvel until he got sued, and of course Wonder Woman was very popular in the ‘40s. We just had that interesting book about her a few years ago.

Yeah, it’s interesting how Wonder Woman has never been able to recapture the popularity she had during the ’40s.

Well, no more Nazis. She was the Nazi fighter. She was a wartime Nazi battler, sort of like Captain America. She wasn’t allowed to use guns, just the magic lasso and the bullet-deflecting bracelets. She wasn’t an aggressive machine gun shooter, not like war comics, of which there were also a bunch.

Do you think you’ll do more comics in the future?

After volume 3, if this is still going, why not do three more? You could just go on forever. Well, not quite forever, but it could go on. Lord knows, Angel Catbird can go anywhere in the world.

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