What is Angel Catbird? There must be a sense of tongue-in-cheekness, surely, to such a title and premise, but with Margaret Atwood, one never knows. It’s a title–and a premise–that allows you to assume you know everything about it (an Angel Catbird, obviously) while simultaneously confirming you know nothing about it (what the hell is an Angel Catbird?). And at the time of this interview, a title and an image were pretty much all we had to work from. 

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Going into an interview when there has been literally nothing released about the upcoming project except a single promotional image can be difficult. Going into an interview when there has been literally nothing released about the upcoming project, except a single promotional image, when the person you’re interviewing is Margaret Atwood is terrifying.

At the interview spin-o-rama that is San Diego Comic Con, I sat down across from Margaret Atwood and artist Johnnie Christmas, feeling utterly unprofessional and intimidated. But Atwood has been giving interviews longer than I’ve been alive and was able to give me quote-able answers to my sometimes babbling questions, and in only five minutes, more or less.

On the origins of the Angel Catbird comic, her involvement with comics, and the collaboration process:

  • She ran a comic strip in the ’70s in Canada and would draw comics from time to time that she describes as “fairly primitive, basically lines.”
  • She started reading comics in the ’40s. “I taught myself to read from the funny papers.”
  • She’d worked with Hope Nicholson previously on the Secret Loves of Geek Girls and the Brok Windsor republication Kickstarter. “So when I wanted to do Angel Catbird, I said to Hope, how do we go about it? And she put me together with Dark Horse, and with Johnnie. And he brought in Tamra [Bonvillain] the colorist.”

On the collaboration process:

  • The team is composed of Daniel Chabon, Hope Nicholson, Johnnie Christmas, Tamra Bonvillain, and herself. “First of all, I send out the outline, and then the blocking, and the script. And everybody comments on that, and he sends the thumbnails, and then the pencils, and then the inks, and we all look at those. At every stage everybody sees everything.”

On Angel Catbird as a serial narrative, a fantasy comic, and its potential audience:

  • Angel Catbird is slated for three issues to start with, and in Atwood’s words, “We’ll see how those three go. And then that has an arc. But that doesn’t rule out another set of three, which would also have an arc.”
  • Working in serial narrative in this sense isn’t new to Atwood or to writers in general. She explains, “In all of the rules of serial–anything in life–which end with a question, as we call it, a cliffhanger. That’s how Charles Dickens wrote a lot of his earlier novels. He wrote them in serial form and something called numbered. So the numbers were a lot like softcover comic issues. They were typically maybe three chapters, and he always ended that three chapter set with a cliffhanger, and then people, of course, wanted the next one. And that’s how he did it then and it is, indeed, an old-method of publication.”
  • Though some people question why she wants to use comics as a medium when she’s supposed to be a “serious literary writer” she scoffs. “[It’s] certainly not the first time that comic books have been used as an interface between fantasy worlds and the real world. Pogo was one of the big anti-Joe McCarthy forces in the ’50s. Just for instance. Pogo of all things.”
  • In terms of Angel Catbird‘s potential audience, Atwood does not discriminate. “I think everybody. All ages, all persons. Once you have people who are half cat, you know, those people could be any color, or any gender. The weird thing about them is that they’re half-cat.”

Margaret Atwood is well-known for writing fiction that manages to be both intensely personal and fantastical with protagonists that manage to resonate and alienate at the same time. In this context, perhaps, the seemingly strangely titled Angel Catbird makes sense. And the preview images we’ve since been given, along with its goal of raising awareness for endangered bird sanctuaries, become a little less silly and a little less tongue-in-cheek than one might suppose.

When I walked away, I felt like I had learned something worth sharing. I understood a project, with an almost ridiculously fantastical name like Angel Catbird, a little better. And I understood these people a little better as people, in the way you only can when you’re in a situation where you’re allowed to ask direct questions, and you have no agenda other than genuinely wanting to hear what the other person has to say.

My only regret is not having gotten to hear more from Johnnie Christmas and to ask him some questions directly. To some, Margaret Atwood and Johnnie Christmas might seem like an oddly matched collaboration. But when you go past the surface details of age and lived experience, they are both incredible storytellers in their respective media, and there is something wonderful in thinking about how these two people created a comic book never having met. And there is also something wonderful about how when they do meet, at one of the most intensely people-filled and surreal experiences in contemporary human existence, they already seem to be old friends.

Angel Catbird is due out in early September, and you can bet I will be reading it.