In a time when political anxiety has quickly morphed into political resistance, who better than G. Willow Wilson, celebrated journalist turned acclaimed graphic novel writer, to pen a tribute essay to legendary novelist Margaret Atwood and to her delightfully nerdy graphic novel, Angel Catbird. These days, Wilson is best known for turning a classic superhero, Ms. Marvel, into a Pakistani-American Muslim teenage girl living in Jersey City. Writing the series, Wilson, who is an American Muslim as well as a much-lauded comics and prose author, contributed to the creation of a bestselling comic book heroine for a new era of diversity in superhero comics. In this essay, which will be published as the introduction to Angel Catbird Volume 2, coming from Dark Horse Comics on February 14, Wilson pays tribute to Atwood’s literary legacy of social rebellion and political resistance and to her geeky love of superhero comics.
Like all true Chimeras, the work of Margaret Atwood defies easy categorization. From the bleak dystopia of The Handmaid’s Tale, which seems more relevant than ever in our era of newly restricted reproductive rights; to the sly surrealism of the Oryx and Crake trilogy, in which humankind reaps the whirlwind of hypercapitalism and ecological destruction; to the lush psychological drama of Cat’s Eye, which throws the lessons of adolescence into painful relief, Atwood moves nimbly from subject to subject and from genre to genre. And like a Chimera, she seems to be fueled by some secret fire, one that makes her as dryly, mirthfully witty on Twitter as she is in the pages of the Michigan Quarterly Review or Harper’s Magazine.
Most fiction writers alive today have been influenced by Margaret’s work, whether they know it or not: by tackling the most pressing issues of each unfolding decade, she has achieved a kind of cultural ubiquity. I first picked up The Handmaid’s Tale in the mid-1990s, when I was twelve or thirteen, which in retrospect is probably a bit too young to tackle that book. In the awkward grip of puberty, it read like a kind of body horror, a warning that there was no part of womanhood which could not be commodified. To encounter a novel like that in the banal, apolitical atmosphere of the nineties, when sexism and racism were “over” and strong viewpoints were seen as impolite, was an electric experience; it showed me that you could, in fact, address real-world issues in a meaningful way within the realm of fantasy and science fiction. Speculative fiction wasn’t simply an escape; it was also an arrival.
Do Margaret’s disparate creations have a unifying message? If they do, I think it might be tidily summed up as a simple directive: resist complacency. Resist it with whatever tools you have on hand—with wit, with humor, with irony, or with anger, but resist it, and do not apologize.
In Angel Catbird, we see that message at its most jubilantly pulpy. It is an unselfconscious romp through a world instantly recognizable both to fans of Silver Age comics and to the furriest corners of the Internet, a world in which the boundaries between human and animal blur and our most primitive instincts come into play. Like all great superheroes, Strig, the titular protagonist, is only momentarily alarmed by the onset of his strange powers: when you are given the ability to transform into a half-cat, half-owl, half-man (that’s three halves), you must carpe that diem, and he does. Angel Catbird represents a side of Margaret Atwood we don’t get to see very often: an unabashedly geeky side, one conversant in the tangled continuities of superhero comics and at home in fandom. The story is pure, distilled nerd catharsis, delivered by a literary legend.
Atwood’s story is well served by coconspirator Johnnie Christmas, whose gleeful, kinetic art style pays homage to the era of Jack Kirby and Russ Manning, masters who peaked before the age of irony and to whom pulp was a kind of religion. If there is a joke, Christmas and Atwood are in on it together, and it makes for one heck of a read. There are puns, and then there are cat puns, and then there are Dracula cat puns, and then there are visual Dracula cat puns, and if you hung around for the end of that list, this is the kind of graphic novel you need on your bookshelf.