Comic book stories are born out of a need to entertain audiences, no question, but like some of the best tales of any medium, they can also be employed to reflect on society. Author Margaret Atwood has been using her voice to speak about and reflect on culture for years in such novels as The Handmaid’s Tale and The Heart Goes Last. So when she set out to create the new graphic novel three-volume series Angel Catbird, readers are assured to see that same sensibility in the four-colored world of comic books.
However, Angel Catbird would not be able to become fully realized with Ms. Atwood’s collaboration with comic book artist Johnnie Christmas. Partnered with colorist Tamra Bonvillain, Mr. Christmas brings a lushness and realness necessary for a fantastical story that involves a human-cat-bird hybrid, giving it grounding and gravitas. Mr. Christmas spoke to me recently about the conceit of Angel Catbird, what drew him to the project, and his collaboration with Ms. Atwood.
FreakSugar: For readers who are considering picking up Angel Catbird, how would you describe the first volume?
Johnnie Christmas: It’s the story of our main character Strig being introduced to the strange world of half-cats. He simultaneously discovers that a war is coming from an evil rat army. For love and friendship he jumps into the fray and uses his amazing new powers to help his friends.
FS: What can you tell us about how the collaboration between you and Margaret Atwood came about for this project?
JC: Our collaboration came about when Hope Nicholson got in touch, asking if I’d be interested in working on a project with Margaret Atwood. I, of course, was and sent Margaret some samples of my work. Later, Dark Horse Comics came on board as well as my long-time collaborator Tamra Bonvillain. Then we were off and running.
FS: Beyond the collaborative process with Ms. Atwood, what is it about Angel Catbird that drew you to the project?
JC: I was curious about working on something superhero based, I haven’t drawn them since I was a kid really. My professional oeuvre has consisted of normal people in extraordinary situations. Angel Catbird features extraordinary characters in extraordinary situations. I also liked Margaret’s take on superheroes. She saw the rise of superheroes as an early comics reader in the ‘40s, so her ideas on what a superhero could be isn’t based on the, somewhat, calcified form that superheroes exist in today. Angel Catbird feels like it’s located closer to the superhero source, when the possibilities were limitless.
FS: You’ve been in the industry for quite a while. How have your past works influenced how you approach tackling Angel Catbird?
JC: Having some work under my belt allowed me to let Angel Catbird be what it was gonna be. I think with early work you’d like to define your work, be thought of as a certain kind of creator. But learning to serve the work, instead of the work serving you, is extremely liberating and rewarding. That said, my past work may influence Angel Catbird in some of the techniques and storytelling tools I use as an artist. But my hope was to come to it as “clean” as possible.
FS: There’s a lot to love about the first volume: the humor, the action, the political overtures. As you worked on the project, what was the most readily accessible entry point for you to enter the world of Angel Catbird?
JC: You know that feeling you have around cats? Like they know something you don’t? Like there’s something else going on and you might be able to suss it out if you pay really close attention? I imagine that was how Strig felt working around the office, before the gene splicer ushered him into that world. I tried to hold onto that “stranger in a strange land” feeling while approaching the comic.
FS: The design of the comic is stunning, a nice of mix of down-to-Earth sensibilities with action-packed bombast. How did you approach the design of the world of Angel Catbird with Ms. Atwood?
JC: Thanks! Margaret gave bullet-point-like descriptions of the characters, I think she did that to give me lots of freedom to play with design. Then she would give her notes on those and we would refine the ideas until we found something we were happy with.
FS: What are some takeaways that you want readers to have as they finish the first volume of Angel Catbird?
JC: I want readers who may be new to comics to feel excited about discovering other incredible comics and graphic novels. This is a medium rich with lots of great stories across many genres.
FS: Is there anything you can tease with what we can expect in the upcoming volumes?
JC: There are lots of aerodynamics in Volume 2. We really get to see Angel and Ray take to the sky.
FS: Side-note: I read that you’re a dog lover. Any chance we’ll see any canines crop up later in the story?
JC: … time will tell. 🙂
Angel Catbird Volume 1, written by Margaret Atwood with Johnnie Christmas on linework and Tamra Bonvillain on colors, is on sale September 6th from Dark Horse Comics.
From the official book description:
Internationally best-selling and respected novelist Margaret Atwood and acclaimed artist Johnnie Christmas collaborate for one of the most highly anticipated comic book and literary events of 2016!
A young genetic engineer is accidentally mutated by his own experiment when his DNA is merged with that of a cat and an owl. What follows is a humorous, action-driven, pulp-inspired superhero adventure—with a lot of cat puns.