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‘Angel Catbird’ Volume 1 (review)

29719Angel Catbird Volume 1 HC
Written by Margaret Atwood
Illustrated by Johnnie Christmas
Colorist: Tamra Bonvillain
Published by Dark Horse Comics
ISBN: 978-1506700632 | Price $14.99
Release date: September 06, 2016

Before we begin, let us all pretend we have never heard of Margaret Atwood.

Place your like or dislike for Atwood’s novels, essays, and stories on the shelf, and let us all analyze and reflect on Angel Catbird as objectively as possible.

Strig Feleedus, scientist and shape changer by way of an occupational injury, is the heart and mind of Angel Catbird. In volume one, Atwood introduces us to Strig before and after the emergence of his ability to morph into a part cat, part owl, and part human creature, and in the process, we see Strig rise to a purpose far greater than the one he expected when he first took a job with Muroid Inc.

As an accomplished scientist, Strig attracts the attention of Dr. Muroid, the CEO of Muroid Inc. Living Solutions. Muroid needs someone to work on a splicer that he claims will benefit humanity, but something seems suspicious about the project and the man funding it. On his first day on the job, Strig meets Ray and Cate, two people who immediately warn him about their big boss who more than just looks like a laboratory rat. Cate informs Strig that his predecessor was suddenly and suspiciously killed by a hit and run, and Strig notices that a key part of his predecessor’s work is intentionally missing. Within the first few pages of Angel Catbird, we know that Dr. Muroid will be far more than just an eccentric scientist.

After a few days on the job, Strig successfully completes the splicer, and en route to delivering the solution, he is hit by a car driven, of course, by Muroid himself. Unlike Strig’s predecessor, Strig survives because his splicing solution blends his DNA with that of his cat, Ding, and a nearby owl, allowing him to live and to transform into a hybridized human-cat-owl. Thankfully, Strig is not alone in his shape-changing ability; Cate and Ray can transform into cat-human hybrid forms as well, and they bring Strig into their world.

Naturally, all of the cat shape shifters meet at a local nightclub nestled in the back of an alley appropriately named Catastrophe, and during Strig’s welcome to the society, where he gains the moniker Angel Catbird, the group finds out that Dr. Muroid is spying on them and has a plan to take over the world with his own race of half rat, half human creatures. For the rest of the volume (and for the expected volumes to come), Strig, Cate, and Ray embark on a mission against Dr. Muroid to try to save the world.

Undoubtedly, Angel Catbird takes it cues from Golden Age superheroes. Though Atwood cites Pogo and Dick Tracy as influences in her introduction, Angel Catbird lacks the relevance of either of those landmark strips, and at the end, Angel Catbird feels like a forgotten, misfired superhero that has appropriately fallen by the wayside over the course of time.

Angel Catbird is out of date and trite in every way. Dr. Muroid’s rat-humans plan to take over the government and banks; yes, we get it, politicians and bankers are rats; capitalism is evil. Harvey Kurtzman addressed more relevant evils in media manipulation in his Jungle Book, and Don DeLillo used a representation of rats in a more clever, scathing, and insightful way in Cosmopolis. As for Angel Catbird as a hero, we are well past the time of a standard superhero who lacks introspection; Alan Moore’s and Frank Miller’s bodies of work do not allow for such a lackluster superhero such as Angel Catbird whose only struggle is between whether he is a cat or an owl, which Atwood only explores with a few scenes of our hero struggling to control his cat senses from eating a bird. Angel Catbird’s conflict of instincts could be explored in an existential, contemplative way, but Atwood does not do this, preferring to focus more attention on the romantic tension between Strig and Cate, the facts about cats and how they affect bird populations in North America, and the clumsy puns on the word “cat” that suffocate the pages of the first volume of Angel Catbird.

At this point, you may say, “Well, this is clearly an homage to the superheroes of eras past.” Perhaps, but an homage made in a modern age cannot have the world-building mistakes that Angel Catbird has. Strig is a seasoned veteran in the biotech world who refers to his work as “top secret” in the first pages. No one working in that industry would ever say that because everything in the tech world is top secret; any person working in tech has to sign a nondisclosure agreement, no matter how trivial the product or company.

In addition, Atwood sloppily includes scientific concepts and procedure within the narrative of Angel Catbird without any research into them, which is unacceptable in today’s internet age where details could be verified with a single email to a biotech researcher.

First, there is no way that a splicer could ever be topically applied in order to mix genetic material between multiple species and reinsert it into a human; the fiction of Angel Catbird would have been more believable by calling the solution by some oblique code name and never connecting it to any scientific concepts.

Secondly, Strig completes the solution at his house; there is no way this would be possible unless Strig has the proper laboratory equipment at his home, and if he is creating a splicer, this would mean that he would have to regularly have a batch of the right enzymes stored at the proper temperature in his home. Sure, maybe it is possible that Strig has the equipment necessary, but we never see a proper lab area at Strig’s house; we only see him working with a single Erlenmeyer flask at his desk.

Lastly, Strig’s predecessor is believed to have taken out a part of code in the splicer formula; most likely the predecessor did not code anything for the splicer; he probably wrote a scientific protocol; he may have written down some abbreviation for a section of RNA or DNA that was the target of the splicer. In today’s world, a “piece of code” refers to a part of a computer program, and the last time I checked, splicers were not built with any computation; maybe splicer behavior is simulated on computers, but again, Atwood and artist Johnnie Christmas bypass these scientific details.

These mistakes regarding science in Angel Catbird would have been acceptable in the Golden Age, but today, these details can be researched and addressed. Otherwise, exclude science and make the transformation of Strig into Angel Catbird completely and utterly fictional. After all, we suspend disbelief in the transformation of Spider-Man because it did not originally have detailed references to grounded scientific terms and concepts.

Angel Catbird is gaining acclaim because of its heralded author, but if you look past all of the cheers and adulation for the comicbook debut for the literary writer who wrote The Handmaid’s Tale, you will find a book that is stale and irrelevant to today’s society and to today’s world of comicbooks.

Beyond its regurgitation of commonplace superhero motifs and dialog, Angel Catbird also carelessly and irresponsibly relies on science in order to seem more fresh, but in the end, it just taints two things that I love, science and comicbooks.

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