Not long ago, when reviewing Margaret Atwood’s The Heart Goes Last, I wrote:
all that makes The Heart Goes Last frustrating and I certainly wouldn’t suggest it as a starting point for someone who’s never read Atwood before. But she’s too talented a writer to not score some points along the way, so I’d definitely say it’s worth it (it’s pretty brief, all things considered). Nobody succeeds every time, but few of us are lucky enough to stumble as interestingly as Atwood.
I’ve now been proven wrong. Angel Catbird, Atwood’s attempt at a graphic novel/comic book, isn’t an interesting stumble. It’s an ill-conceived mess.
In a lengthy introduction, Atwood addresses the question that must have come to most minds when this project was announced – why was a serious novelist (or a “nice literary old lady who should be resting on her laurels in her rocking chair, being dignified and iconic,” as she slyly describes herself) writing a comic book? There’s a pretty good reason, as it turns out. Atwood grew up reading comics and loved them. She even wrote a few in college. If becoming one of the most celebrated writers in the world doesn’t give you the freedom to indulge in a project just because, then what’s the point?
Unfortunately, that introduction (which also includes how Atwood found her collaborators and how they worked on the project) is by far the most interesting part of the book.
The story is pure comic book pulp, but done without any verve or irony. It tells how Strig Feleedus becomes, via a freak scientific accident that doesn’t make any sense (par for the course for superheroes, I guess), the titular hero, a man capable of transforming into a half cat half bird being. He learns the world is actually full of “half-animals,” men and women who can shift into cats, rats, or any number of other critters. There’s a straight from central casting villain, a love interest, and an internal conflict for our hero (his cat part wants to eat birds, his bird part doesn’t).
The attempts to mine this for humor only work a couple of times and the whole thing is too damned silly to take seriously. The pacing is so rushed (the actual comic only takes up not much more than half of this volume) that everything is just surface, with no hint of anything interesting lurking under the surface. Compounding the simplicity are the infographics that pop up on the bottom of every few pages providing interesting facts about feline well being. Working them into the story itself would have been fine (some are kind of relevant), but as is they stick out like a sore, lecturing thumb. On top of all that, the artwork, while fine, doesn’t do anything to distinguish itself. Saga this ain’t.
In the end, the reason for Angel Catbird’s failure is right there in that introduction. Comics and graphic novels have come a long way since Atwood’s youth, but Angel Catbird seems like a throwback to simpler times and simpler stories. It just can’t live up to the modern genre it wants to be a part of.