Unlikely Superhero: Margaret Atwood’s Angel Catbird

In 2016, before the first volume of the three-part graphic novel by world renowned Canadian author Margaret Atwood was released, a lot of interviews with her flooded comics news websites, as well as the literary subsections of major newspapers. Mike Richardson described it: “a bold and unforgettable new character, paying homage to both classic pulp heroes and traditional comic book origin stories.” The volumes came out three months apart from each other, and after the last one was released, a couple of online reviews surfaced, but not many that dove deeper into the pages. It’s too soon to claim that Angel Catbird has been forgotten, but it has been overlooked.

Panel from Volume 1 of Angel Catbird. written by Margaret Atwood, art by Johnny Christmas, Dark Horse Comics
Panel from Volume 1 of Angel Catbird.

When reading Angel Catbird, there is a sense of let down. The main character is not the “typical” hero he was assumed to be. As a matter of fact, he has almost zero impact on how the events unfold around him, and as such his absence would make no difference in the story. When we collect the tropes that heroes are most famous for, we can make a small list of attributes: they fight for “truth, justice, and the American way;” they have arch enemies that are most often the product of their way of fighting for justice; they are the main characters of their own stories; if they have a best friend (or a sidekick) the latter can never overshadow them; and finally, there is a singular love interest and they cannot find out the hero’s true identity out of safety. But, in the end, Angel Catbird fails all of these tropes.

It would be easy to assume that this “failure” is because Atwood has never written superhero comics before. But in the foreword of the first volume, Atwood mentions several comics that she religiously read through, among them “Batman, Captain Marvel, Wonder Woman, Superman, Plastic Man, the Green Lantern, the Human Torch, and their ilk.” She also adds that for years she wrote and even drew her own comics, for her own entertainment. That is why I believe that Angel Catbird is not a failed superhero comic–it’s a metacomic. In Reading Comics: How Graphic Novels Work and What They Mean, Douglas Wolk defines metacomics as: “comics series that are aimed at an audience extensively steeped in the lore of the medium.” When one considers how the protagonist of Angel Catbird is cast in the image of archetypal superheroes like the Superman, who comics scholar Angela Ndianalis described as one “whose image reflected the great gods and hyperhumans of a mythic past,” it becomes clear that Angel Catbird was written for these “superreaders.” When it comes to Angel Catbird, recognizing the intertextual elements that reference or re-call older heroes is deliberate and intends to displace both the main character and the reader. My purpose here is to argue that despite appearances, not only is Angel Catbird not a typical superhero, but the supposed “main character” is not even the main character of the book that bears his name.

Our story begins with young bachelor and scientist Strig Feeledus. Strig Feeledus is a very unconventional name, but the strangeness is typified of comic book superhero names. Strig is an ordinary and contemporary man, and he owns a cat, Ding, to whom the reader is introduced on the first page. While the Captain Marvel movie introduced the world to Goose the cat, in comics, a cat is an unusual pet for a superhero–especially a male superhero. Superreaders can recall Batman’s Ace and Superman’s Krypto, who were both dogs, emphasizing the stereotype of the trusted best friend.

Strig’s origin story is similarly typified: After a long day working on a super-slicer serum formula, he heads home, carrying a sample of his serum. He opens the door, and Ding, his faithful cat companion, races outside chasing a rat. An owl descends, drawn by moving prey. As Strig chases after Ding, a car comes out of nowhere, hitting the cat. Strig cradles his cat’s injured body and then–the hit and run driver reverses his car, hitting Strig before speeding away. In the collision the serum falls from his hands and we see Strig lying in the pool of his own serum, with Ding and the owl nearby.

Panel from Volume 1 of Angel Catbird. written by Margaret Atwood, art by Johnny Christmas, Dark Horse Comics
What superhero origin story is complete without an arch nemesis?

Strig awakes to having wings and feline senses. He has been transformed by the combination of science and accident, echoing the origin stories of some of Marvel’s greatest heroes like Spider-Man, the Fantastic Four, and the Incredible Hulk. Strig is not the first one to be born out of a scientific mishap, and that is very important, because as far as origin stories are concerned, the reader will be fooled into making associations and believe that they know the outcome of this hero’s story too. Strig will, we assume, struggle to understand his new self and his new abilities, fight some bad guys, fall in love, and then finally, face down the villain that caused his transformation and triumph, having successfully self-actualized from Strig into Angel Catbird. And that’s exactly what does–and doesn’t happen.

Panel from Volume 1 of Angel Catbird. written by Margaret Atwood, art by Johnny Christmas, Dark Horse Comics

The primary struggle Strig faces early on as Angel Catbird is simply being Angel Catbird. But unlike Peter Parker, who adapts to his new spider-senses, the struggle that Strig is faced with is how the natural instincts in him contradict each other. In the introduction to Volume 1, Atwood writes: “[h]e would be a combination of cat, owl, and human being, and he would thus have an identity conflict – do I save this baby robin, or do I eat it? But he would be able to understand both sides of the question. He would be a walking, flying carnivore’s dilemma.” Even though there are three volumes of the comic, the events unfold so quickly that although the struggle is presented, it is not discussed in great deal.

But our “hero” is also not as unique as we the audience–and Strig himself–believes him to be. Atwood quickly introduces more “mixed” people like himself. He meets a half-bat, half-cat vampire by the name of Count Catula, Cat Leone, a woman who is half-human and half-cat, and a half-human, half-owl woman by the name of Atheen-Owl. Even the man who triggered Strig’s transformation by running him over with his car, Dr. Muroid, is revealed to be a half-rat himself. With every new character introduced, Atwood undermines the uniqueness of our hero.

When it comes to the superhero’s love interest, Strig falls in love with not one, but two women. At first he falls for the aforementioned Cat Leone,who helps him learn about his abilities and how to transform at will. The two have an instant connection, which is then strengthened as she allows only him to get closer to her. As they are fleeing the grasp of Dr. Muroid, Strig senses someone else in the woods; when asked where he is headed he replies: “Just answering the call of nature.” The call of nature in question is a half-owl by the name of Atheen-Owl, whom he finds irresistible. The two are then caught by Cat and they argue over which one has the right to be with him. Wonderfully, these two women decide to settle their feud without involving Strig: the male character lacks control over his own love story, in a neat subversion of the typical love triangle.

And then there’s the part where our hero is supposed to beat the villain. Another good way to understand a hero’s impact is to look at the villains they face. Most of them came about because the hero established himself as a worthy adversary. These heroes have their own arch nemesis who are simultaneously our hero’s equal and their antithesis.  Wonder Woman’s god-like quality can only be matched by other gods; Spider-Man faces off again and again against the Green Goblin, another scientific experiment gone wrong. But the hero must always triumph. And yet, Strig is unable to stop Dr. Muroid’s plans in any way. There is no great duel, no lifetime of struggle between good and bad in this story. The villain is not reduced to the presence of a hero that will fight him, nor is the hero a product of the villain, a reaction of necessity to an evil in the world. Comically, a robot that has colorful feathers and catnip almost causes Strig’s demise. And in the end, it turns out the town is big enough for the two of them.

Besides the above mentioned categories, all of these “typical” heroes are introduced to a world of crime, which then has an impact on their decision to take up a fight against the evil. In Super-history: Comic Book Superheroes and American Society, 1938 to the Present, Jeffrey Johnson explains that, “these early super-heroes were products of their time and social avengers that fought for the average man.” They were originally constructed with the sole purpose of entertaining the average man in the venture of being able to destroy evil. They are “social avengers” who strove because they were born when the United States was fighting wars, and whoever their enemy was they were a representation of a far greater evil. Angel Catbird is not a social commentary, nor was it born with the intent of becoming the ultimate salvation; he was not, to paraphrase The Dark Knight, the hero we deserve. Except maybe he is.

Atwood’s entry into the superhero comic genre is a metacommentary on the genre itself.  Most hero narratives already do not exist without the side characters helping the main character along the road, but there was no real debate about who the protagonist of the story is. This is something that cannot be said in the case of Angel Catbird, and that is the main reason why Strig could not be considered a “typical” hero. Strig actually has very little impact on the world. Although the title of the series is Angel Catbird, the pages of Angel Catbird open to so many incredible characters that the reader might even forget about who the story was about to begin with. Add to this the fact that Atwood’s tone throughout the story is light and humorous, and one begins to wonder if Atwood’s intention was not to write a comic book where there is a hero and a villain and a happy ending, but to showcase that the era of hero narratives or quest narratives has come to an end. Above all, it is futile to teach the reader the moral lesson of what comes with great power, because Angel Catbird is not the “typical” superhero story: it only wishes to impersonate one.

Works Cited

Flood, Alison. “Margaret Atwood Writes Graphic Novel Superhero, ‘Part Cat, Part Bird’.” The Guardian, Guardian News and Media, 9 Dec. 2015.
Johnson, Jeffrey K. Super-history: Comic Book Superheroes and American Society, 1938 to the Present. McFarland, 2012.
Lewis, A. American Comics, Literary Theory, and Religion: The Superhero Afterlife. Springer, 2014.
Ndalianis, Angela, ed. The contemporary comic book superhero. Routledge, 2009.
Robb, Brian J. A Brief History of Superheroes: From Superman to the Avengers, the Evolution of Comic Book Legends. Hachette UK, 2014.
Vaden, Tina. “Margaret Atwood On Cats, Comic Books & The Upcoming Graphic Novel Of ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’”. Nylon. June 16, 2017.
Weiner, Robert G., ed. Captain America and the struggle of the superhero: critical essays. McFarland, 2009.
Zehr, E. Paul. Becoming Batman: the possibility of a superhero. JHU Press, 2009.

About the Author

Photo of the author, Esther Susan CsorbaEsther Susan Csorba is a PhD student at the University of ELTE. Her passions include media evolution through presidential campaigns, science fiction, and popular culture, and she maintains a blog of movie/TV show/book reviews.

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