Margaret Atwood lives her graphic 'unlived life'

When she was a child, Margaret Atwood not only passionately read comics, but she also drew them herself. Volume 2 of Angel Catbird was released on Tuesday.
When she was a child, Margaret Atwood not only passionately read comics, but she also drew them herself. Volume 2 of Angel Catbird was released on Tuesday. PHOTOS: REUTERS, WASHINGTON POST

The author indulges her love of comics with Volume 2 of graphic-novel series Angel Catbird, which has just been released

WASHINGTON • In one specific way, United States President Donald Trump has been good for Margaret Atwood. Since he became president, the political shift has sent The Handmaid's Tale, her dystopian novel about an authoritarian American society, rocketing back up the bestseller charts.

But the Booker Prize-winning author says she would rather talk about something that fills her with joy and the buoyancy of childhood optimism. Atwood was raised as a voracious reader of comics - a form she still adores.

And so, with her graphic-novel series Angel Catbird - Volume 2 arrived on Tuesday - she continues to fulfil a dream at age 77, more than three decades after her Handmaid's Tale painted a world of women subjugated within a Constitution-suspending dictatorship.

She is experiencing, she says, one of her "unlived lives".

She laughs at how this apparent career pivot might be perceived. She imagines that some fans would have her fulfil the stereotype of a "nice literary old lady", resting in her rocking chair, "dignified and iconic". But the Angel Catbird series, illustrated by Johnnie Christmas, realises the creative vision of an author who has little patience for resting on her laurels.

From her earliest years in the 1940s and 1950s, as her family travelled between Quebec and other Canadian points, Atwood not only passionately read newspaper and magazine comics, from Batman to Blondie to Rip Kirby; but she also drew them herself.


When she was a child, Margaret Atwood not only passionately read comics, but she also drew them herself. Volume 2 of Angel Catbird was released on Tuesday. PHOTOS: REUTERS, WASHINGTON POST

"That's what we did in Canada," she says. "We were living in the woods."

Her older brother's plotted-out drawings "were more about warfare", she says, while her characters - including rabbit superheroes - "were playing around".

She notes that some of the characters in her novels have been artists, including the narrators in Surfacing (1972) and Cat's Eye (1988).

Yet beyond her deep appreciation for visual creators, there is a theme here that stretches from The Handmaid's Tale (which debuts as a Hulu TV series in April) through to Angel Catbird: The fascination with, and inexorable drive towards, whatever is denied.

By age six, she was drawing cartoons that featured flying cats often affixed to balloons - fun, furry symbols of buoyant hope rising above deprivation.

"I drew so many balloons because we didn't have any," she says, recalling the rubber shortage during the war.

"It was a very magic idea - that you could go up in a balloon," she continues, citing a film that was born the same year she was: 1939's The Wizard Of Oz.

Her budding imagination was also fuelled by a second absence: Despite her wishes, her home lacked cats.

"I wasn't allowed to have one because we were up in the Canadian forests a lot," she writes in the introduction to the first volume of Angel Catbird, which was published last year. "How would the cat travel? Once there, wouldn't it run away and be eaten by mink? Very likely."

Atwood's resolution? She populated her pages with flying dream cats.

So, decades later, when she met Toronto-based project adviser Hope Nicholson, she pitched her graphic-novel visions involving flying felines. And once she spoke with Dark Horse editor Daniel Chabon, she knew her dream cats would become a publishing reality rendered by more talented comics hands than hers.

"I got lucky enough to get Johnnie (Christmas)," she says, as well as colourist Tamra Bonvillain.

(Atwood had created the political comic strip Kanadian Kultchur Komix in the 1970s, allowing her to reach what she calls the ceiling on her limited, "lumpy" artistic talent.)

Her new graphic-novel stories brim with joy. She nods to midcentury action-adventure comics tropes even as she tweaks them.

In classic superhero fashion, Angel Catbird involves a scientist: mild-mannered genetic engineer Strig Feleedus, who becomes a mutant because of an experiment gone wrong. His avian/feline hybrid body lands him squarely in a dark world of other animal mutants, complete with a real minx of a love interest.

Underpinning all of this, Atwood says, is her passion for bird conservation and feline causes.

Her graphic novels are dotted with facts about nature, as well as links to sites for more information.

Still, like the true student of cartoons that she is, she knows what she must deliver to her fellow fans of the art form: "This comic has to stand on its own - it can't be too preachy."

It is the only way to elevate when drifting back to her tales of flying balloon dream cats.

Angel Catbird may have nine lives. Through him, Atwood aims to discover just one unlived one.

WASHINGTON POST

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on February 16, 2017, with the headline 'Margaret Atwood lives her graphic 'unlived life''. Print Edition | Subscribe