As you open Angel Catbird, Margaret Atwood's new comic book, your mind may wander through her previous works in search of comparisons and common themes. In her case, that's quite a trip. Though best-known for more than 40 books of fiction, poetry and essays, she's also a creator of comics.
"In the seventies I drew a sort-of-political strip called Kanadian Kultchur Komix for a magazine called, puzzlingly, This Magazine," she writes in Catbird's introduction. "It's no great coincidence that the narrator of my 1972 novel, Surfacing, is an illustrator, and that the narrator of my 1988 novel, Cat's Eye, is a figurative painter."
Actually, though, the most revelatory predecessor to Angel Catbird is a lesser-known work, 1976's Lady Oracle. Its protagonist writes gothic romances and keeps trying to live like she's in one, with boisterous results. (She gets into the romance business after discovering that her larger-than-life lover, a Polish count, supports himself by writing nurse novels.) Atwood has always delighted in subverting genres, and Lady Oracle shows her at her mischievous best.
Well, until now. Angel Catbird is a triumph of genre play, a superhero comic book that looks like a superhero comic book, reads like a superhero comic book, but gleefully capsizes all the usual notions of what a superhero comic book should be. The main character is a twisted version of the typical animalesque hero. Following the inevitable accident with DNA-altering chemicals, bespectacled scientist Strig Feleedus winds up with the characteristics of not one creature, but two. He's got a cat's head and ears, a magnificent pair of wings and a mix of cat and bird powers. This leads to some confusion. Happening upon a baby bird that's fallen from its nest and is being menaced by a stray cat, he wonders, "Do I rescue it, or eat it?"
Just as weird is the way his powers change his life. Instead of isolating him in the usual way, his cat identity is the passport into an exciting new subculture. It turns out that there are lots of half-cat people around. Even his love interest, Cate Leone, is half-cat. She immediately detects his feline nature via scent.
"Ummm. What a great whiff! He's all tomcat. Or almost all. What's that feather aroma?" she muses. "He's so cute! Maybe next time I'm in heat ..."
For Strig, meanwhile, Cate's scent creates another point of confusion.
"I'd love it if you had my kittens. Or laid my egg. Whatever," he thinks.
Keeping up the polymorphous perversity, half-cats aren't the only animal-human mixtures around. Upon visiting the feline club The Catastrophe, Strig learns the cats hang out with a half-bat. And the bad guy, Dr. Muroid, is half-rat. (You can tell he's bad because, instead of welcoming diverse animal-human identities, he wants to obliterate the cats with a bioengineered rat army.) The whole milieu seems devised to mirror current discourses around the nature of gender: Instead of being defined primarily as male or female, the characters' identities are expressed through the infinite variety of human-animal hybrids. And for those characters who claim their hybrid identity is fixed and easily delineated, Angel Catbird seems intended to serve as a comeuppance. He doesn't fit into any one category, so his existence exposes how dubious all the categories are.
Angel Catbird looks a lot like a mainstream superhero comic, which is to say the art has the hard, computer-designed sheen that's usual nowadays. Artist Johnnie Christmas is capable, if not inspired. Dr. Muroid has a wonderfully twisted face, Angel Catbird's body is sculpted and Cate has strangely appealing hair that seems to move by itself. Angel Catbird's feet are particularly beautiful, with feathery fur swirling around humongous claws.
The art serves an intriguing function: It keeps the story grounded in its genre, making it feel like a real superhero tale. In fact, Angel Catbird is more dreamlike than action-packed. For one thing, Atwood so busy exploring the possibilities of her interspecies world, she neglects to have her hero fight crime. But that's no shortcoming; actually, it may be the smartest way to deal with her themes. Here, the big dramas all take place in the mind.
Etelka Lehoczky has written about books for The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times and Salon.com. She tweets at@EtelkaL.