Review by Ian Keogh
The seemingly contradictory pleasures of bird conservation and a lifelong love of cats prompted Margaret Atwood to create Angel Catbird, and a perhaps more surprising love of comics during her 1940s childhood ensured it was originally released as a trilogy of graphic novels. They’re combined here for a smoother read.
It should be clarified from the start that Angel Catbird is a whimsical indulgence. Beyond footnotes guiding readers to information about cats and birds there are no real points to be made, and Atwood channels the spirit of the comics she read as a child, where the imaginative adventure was all, everything could be taken at face value, and little time was spent building a character. Strig Feleedus is a chemist working on a serum for his wonderfully sinister employer when his cat chases a rat into the street. Attempting to rescue the cat, Feleedus is knocked down by a car as a bird swoops down on them. The serum saves Feleedus and mystically transfers both bird and cat characteristics to him. Fortunately, he can still pass for human if need be, although finds his animal form more convenient for most of the book.
Thankfully, Johnnie Christmas doesn’t mimic the art from 1940s comics, largely too primitive by today’s standards, but does manage an effective hybrid true to the spirit, while applying a greater sophistication. This is particularly apparent in his designs, resulting in some great scabby looking villains. He’s also capable of surprising the reader, with some of his illustrations of rats in the middle section utterly charming.
A single aspect of 1940s comics doesn’t feature. Their stories rolled out at a breakneck pace, but Angel Catbird is extremely leisurely, allowing for numerous diversions that have little purpose in the bigger scheme of things. Had a slimmer and more compact story been produced rather than the trilogy of Angel Catbird, To Castle Catula and The Catbird Roars there may have been a viable plot. Instead the story is dragged on and on until all charm evaporates, and the suspicion is that no-one at Dark Horse thought they should presume to edit Margaret Atwood. It would take a formidably confident person to do so, and while she enjoys her puns, alliterative dialogue and absurdism all logic is thrown to the wind. A trick recurring too often is the deus ex-machina device with no foreshadowing. It’s all a shame, because occasionally the Atwood whose novels are so imaginative does throw in an idea or scene that’s surprising or captivating. Full marks, for instance, for the subversion of the hero’s girlfriend rescuing him. All too often, however, Angel Catbird is a trial, not the intended joy.
It’s not difficult to find a wealth of reviews online completely contradicting this opinion, praising Atwood’s charm and originality. The suspicion is that most are by book reviewers unfamiliar with graphic novels and seduced by reputation. Caveat emptor.