The fact that comics — and their more distinguished relative, the graphic novel — are technically for everyone, including and especially august readers of literature, has been an accepted truth since before Art Spiegelman won a Pulitzer for Maus.
Aside from the fact that every major blockbuster is based on superheroes, most people understand the cultural significance of the form. Michael Chabon won his Pulitzer for The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, a novel about two comic book creators in the 1940s. He went on to write some comic books for DC, too (Mr. Terrific), and Dark Horse published a series based on The Escapist from Kavalier and Clay. In the past few years, other established authors have entered the game, including Jodi Picoult (Wonder Woman), Jonathan Lethem (Omega the Unknown), and Ta-Nehisi Coates, who last spring took over writing duties for Black Panther. They’re not just writing literary graphic novels, like Margaret Atwood is this month or Ethan Hawke did in the summer (with Indeh). These are straight-up comic books, with superheroes and superpowers, and villains, and, you know, action-packed plots.
But somehow, whenever one of these highbrow writers takes up the form, it’s shocking — and that betrays the fact that we all accept comics as a major driving force of pop culture. So, while they aren’t left outside the cultural conversation like they used to be, if you aren’t reading comic books this fall, you might not be a nerd, but you’re certainly not as cool as you could be.
Margaret Atwood’s first graphic novel Angel Catbird, with artist Johnnie Christmas, is about a superhero with some identity problems. It happens when you’re part cat, part bird. The book, published by Dark Horse Comics, is part of her effort to raise awareness of cat and bird safety. Sounds interesting, in a perfectly Atwoodian way. You know what else would be interesting? A comic about people with the power to stop time whenever they have an orgasm. That’s the premise of Sex Criminals, a critically lauded comic by Toronto illustrator and author Chip Zdarsky (who’s also behind the high-profile revivals of Howard the Duck and Jughead). It made sense to have Zdarsky be the one to chat with Atwood about the medium. Well, as much sense as any of this makes.
You collaborated with an artist on Angel Catbird, but you have a history of drawing comics. Why not draw it, too?
I had the idea for ages. But, I didn’t want something that looked like a kiddie cartoon.
What’s surprised you the most from working in the medium?
I think that people find it weird, that it would be me doing it. But why would they find it weird considering how old I am? I grew up in this medium. We didn’t have TV, but the weekend paper would have a full-colour supplement with nothing but funny papers. I grew up drawing them, because that’s what we did. We wrote and drew comics.
How did you come up with the idea of Angel Catbird?
There are two big bird killers on our continent. Glass windows, which are number two, and cats. They’re an introduced species, with basically no alpha predators to keep them down. The problem with cats is, we wuv our widdle pussy-tats. I’ve always been a cat person. I know cat-lovers well. You can’t really say, “Drown your cat in the toilet.” It’s not persuasive. But it doesn’t necessarily mean keeping cats inside. You can build a catio for them.
Yeah, a cat patio. [Laughs.] In our book we have PSAs at the bottom, but as we both know, it’s no good just standing up on a podium and telling people what to do. However, if you tell them an entertaining story that puts both sides of the question inside one’s superhero…
Comics have always been a great way of conveying information.
Wonder Woman started as anti-Nazi propaganda, basically. Even Cherry Ames Jr. Nurse was a series that started in WWII to encourage girls to go into nursing because they needed more nurses.
With this project, what came first, your recognition of the cause or the character and the story?
Well I think probably, if we must be Freudian, I’ve always wanted to do a comic with a flying cat. This was a perfect opportunity!
So how did it work with Johnnie?
Johnnie is basically the co-creator, because we go back and forth on what these people should look like, and he adds visual ideas. I find pictures for him and send them to him, like, “This is what cats look like. This is a cat’s skeleton, and you can see they’re quite thin without the fur…”
That’s a weird email to get, a picture of a cat skeleton, but I guess he signed up for it.