Cover Story: With a new graphic novel on the wing, Margaret Atwood talks comics, climate change, and poverty
By Joanna Reid
Distinguished author of more than 50 books, Margaret Atwood is a powerful figure in Canadian arts and media. We know her voice well: she’s forthright and wry and starkly realistic about the darker possibilities of human futures. At the same time, she’s nature wise and very funny.
A lifelong bird enthusiast, Atwood often says that the decline of wild bird species is an omen of dark days ahead for humankind. Climate change and ecosystem degradation affect birds acutely, and often first. “Canary in the coal mine,” she has noted, is no empty phrase. Her latest book, Angel Catbird (Dark Horse Comics), is her first foray into graphic novels, and it’s also part of her ongoing efforts to raise awareness about the plight of wild birds.
In Angel Catbird, she introduces a superhero who is a cat-owl-human hybrid, created in an accident involving some genetic super-splicer. This new hero is magnificently drawn by Vancouver-based illustrator Johnnie Christmas (with colourist Tamra Bonvillain). First in a three-part series, the book contains many side panels filled with information about cats and wild birds. It’s also full of all the tension and humour of a story about a character in the midst of an inter-species identity crisis.
As a child, Atwood spent long days birdwatching in Northern Quebec with her parents, who were both naturalists. In a 2010 Guardian article, she recalls sitting in a canoe, pestered by mosquitoes, waiting to see if the “Very Rare Blur will deign to do a flit-by.” She was nearsighted, it turned out, but no one in her family had noticed. Eventually, with binoculars, the “Very Rare Blur resolved into something [she] could see,” and a connection was made.
Now, all these years later, she is active in several environmental campaigns, and she shares many bird-related campaigns, facts, and ideas with her 1.28 million followers on Twitter. As avid birders, Atwood and husband Graeme Gibson are honourary joint presidents of BirdLife International’s Rare Bird Club. Atwood has even partnered with Balzak’s Coffee in Toronto to help create a bird-friendly coffee (called the “Atwood Blend”). She won the 2016 PEN Pinter Prize for environmental and political activism.
Angel Catbird was developed as part of Nature Canada’s “Keep Cats Safe and Save Bird Lives” campaign. Domestic cats kill some 200 million birds each year, the campaign reports, and Atwood and Nature Canada hope to encourage cat owners to keep their pets from roaming freely. (Atwood, who loves cats, recently said she has “bird blood” on her hands. She doesn’t own a cat right now, she recently told Maclean’s, but in the past she has found them good company for a writer.)
Atwood’s busy Twitter feed also reflects her activities as a writer, citizen, activist, traveller, and graphic novel and comic enthusiast (she attended Comic-Con in San Diego earlier this year). Her account also recently revealed her new role: as an actor. She tweeted a picture of herself in full costume for her cameo in the upcoming six-part miniseries version of Alias Grace (adapted by Sarah Polley for CBC and Netflix). Her character’s name, according to a picture she took of the sign on her trailer door, was Disapproving Woman. “#Typecasting!” Atwood wrote.
In her interview with Megaphone, she describes her work with Johnnie Christmas on Angel Catbird, reflects on inequality and poverty in Canada, and considers which two natural enemies she’d like to see spliced together. She also tells us the comics and TV miniseries she loves, showing her passionate engagement with the fast-changing world of storytelling in its many forms.
Joanna Reid: You’ve written that you’ve always lived in “the birdy world,” and Angel Catbird is published in partnership with Nature Canada’s “Keep Cats Safe and Save Birds’ Lives” campaign. How responsive are people to the campaign’s message (of stopping cats from roaming freely outdoors), and what do you say to them when you explain why the campaign is important?
Margaret Atwood: So far all the interviewers have been very positive about the campaign, and have said they have learned a lot about cats, and also about birds. I’m excited about the positive response! @safecatsafebird on Twitter; www.catsandbirds.ca on the Internet.
JR: The hero of Angel Catbird is a cat-owl hybrid, created after some genetic super-splicer was spilled. Which other two common enemies would you like to see spliced together and why?
MA: Liberals and Conservatives, because it would make the world a less grumpy place. Or how about lions and lambs, as in The Year of the Flood? I would still like a skunk-raccoon, although those two aren’t enemies. The peacefulness of the skunk, the fragrance of the raccoon...well, maybe not fragrance exactly.
JR: I understand that you are not only a long-time fan of comics and a past attendee of Comic-Con, but you also (from the ’40s to the ’70s) drew your own comics. What was the impulse behind these early comics, and what were they about?
MA: Kids drew comics. I was a kid. Later I was a fan of Ronald Searle, and drew caricatures. It’s just something I like to do. (I haven’t stopped: my latest four four-panel strips can be seen in Hope Nicholson’s Secret Loves of Geek Girls, due out from Dark Horse this fall.)
JR: How has your understanding of the graphic novel form changed over the course of working on this book?
MA: Maybe better to ask “How has the graphic novel changed?” The most recent game-changers were Maus and Persepolis... But earlier than that—there were a lot of examples
in France. I’m a big fan of Claire Bretécher. Agrippine is genius. So is Kate Beaton. The form is now being used in all sorts of ways, from deeply serious to madcap comic to a blend.
JR: What was the process that you and Johnnie Christmas used to develop Angel Catbird’s scenes and images? What are some of the points you discussed as you developed the look of the hero?
MA: We went back and forth via email and scans. Many things were discussed: the shape of Cate’s face, whether Angel should have hair in his alter ego form, what sort of pants he should have, the origin story of those pants... practical things.
JR: Poverty is a feature of many dystopias you’ve written. Given rising rates of homelessness, poverty, and inequality in Canada, is it your sense that we are standing on the edge of one of those dystopian futures? Do you see any signs that people are heeding any of the warning signs of the kind we see in your fiction, or is widespread poverty inevitable?
MA: When you have a top-heavy society with wealth concentrated at the apex of the pyramid, and a large poverty-stricken or struggling base, and then the price of food goes up, as it does in times of bad harvests—see “predictable effects of climate change”—you are likely to get the French Revolution. Canada is nowhere near that point but other parts of the world are already experiencing it. Yes, I’d say the present government is reading those runes better than the previous one; hence the infrastructure spending. But time will tell. Long story short: we can’t keep doing climate-impact things that will toast our food supply—and that includes, especially, poisoning and warming up the oceans. Dead oceans equal catastrophic loss of atmospheric oxygen, and that would be the end of our story.
JR: The Handmaid’s Tale is being made into a 10-part TV miniseries that will be released in 2017—27 years after the movie adaptation of the novel. The main concerns of the book are clearly still as relevant as they were in 1990, but do you think they are relevant now in different ways?
MA: In 1985—when the book was published—the kind of thinking that’s built out in The Handmaid’s Tale was so far just ideological thinking. Now some of it has been actualized.
JR: Alias Grace and the MaddAddam trilogy are also being adapted for the small screen. What opportunities do streamable miniseries, as a form, create for the adaptation of novels?
MA: What I like about the form is the room that’s in it. Unless a novel is very short, it’s hard to get it all into a 90-minute space. Things get left out. With a miniseries, you can unfold the story at something more like the pace of the book. Wolf Hall is a really good example. It’s not just car chases and explosions. We follow the character’s thinking, his development, his downward slide... “Breaking Bad” wouldn’t have worked nearly as well as a single-shot film.
JR: You often write about the darker possibilities of social control and environmental degradation, and yet you remain very funny, prolific, and engaged. How is it that you maintain this balanced perspective?
MA: Culturally, I’m from Nova Scotia. They’re like that: gloomy, but funny. If you mean hope—it’s built into our species. Without it, why get up in the morning?