Last year, internationally best-selling novelist Margaret Atwood took the plunge and wrote her first story in the comics medium, teaming up with acclaimed artist Johnnie Christmas to collaborate on Angel Catbird, an original graphic novel.
In the book, A young genetic engineer is accidentally mutated by his own experiment when his DNA is merged with that of a cat and an owl. The cat pun filled, humorous, action-driven, pulp-inspired superhero adventure was the latest project for Christmas, co-creator and artist of the series Sheltered and Pisces.
Johnnie took some time between working on his own comic, Firebug, currently being published in Island Magazine and the third volume of Angel Catbird to discuss the second volume, To Castle Catula, in stores this week, with Forces of Geek.
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FOG!: How did you get the job illustrating Angel Catbird? Were you approached by Margaret Atwood, or were you approached by Dark Horse?
Johnnie Christmas: I was approached by Hope Nicholson who was working with Margaret Atwood, when the project was just a twinkle in Margaret’s eye. Hope went out and gathered samples from various artists that she knew. She sent them over to Margaret and, happily, Margaret liked my work.
Although Margaret’s career as a writer is both legendary and distinguished, going into the project you had more experience working in graphic storytelling. What was the collaboration like? Did she write full script or just plot?
The collaboration is very easy-going and things came together quite steadily. Margaret wrote full scripts, as one would expect for a comic book with this much action and dialogue. However, the scripts had a vitality while at the same time, being succinct. Communicating the needs of the story with clear-eyed efficiency.
The writing style of the book is often reminiscent of Silver Age Marvel Comics. Your art and layouts in this book are also noticeably cleaner and simpler than much of your other work. Was this a conscious decision to adjust your art to the story?
I try to adapt my art “style”, to suit the needs of every project I work on. Think about it, Steven Spielberg released Jurassic Park 2 and Amistad in the same year. If they were both shot the same way, they wouldn’t have served the films or their respective audiences properly. So if I drew everything the same way, as I moved from story to story across projects and genres it wouldn’t make any sense. Not to mention, would do a great disservice to the story and the reader (and myself). So for this story I needed to adapt my “style” to be lighter, leaner, funner, so that the world of Angel Catbird could shine through.
Is there a particular character design that you are particularly proud of?
I am particularly proud of Angel Catbird’s design. It was a unique challenge to put together the feline and aviary aspects and attributes into one creature. It was fun and challenging, in the best sense of the word.
Who or what have been the biggest influences on your art?
Jeez that is one big question. Hmm, there isn’t ONE big influence on my art, there are many. Art is just expressing an idea or world-view by whatever means a given individual thinks is the best way of communicating it. So until we figure out this telepathy thing, we’re stuck with ink, paint, words, dance, film, etc., to clumsily try to get these ideas and feelings across.
So let’s see… Paul Gauguin is a big influence, Toni Morrison, Marc Chagall, Gustav Klimt, Gabriel Garcia-Marquez. As are Bill Sienkiewicz, Mike Mignola, Jaime Hernandez. Nick Bantock inspired me to dance between words and pictures in a new way. Robert Rauschenberg. Ella Fitzgerald… Yeah way too many to list. Many many influences, that feed into the river of inspiration that leads from Head to Brush.
In addition to the upcoming Angel Catbird Volume 3, what else do you have coming up?
I am writing and drawing a graphic novel called Firebug to be published by Image Comics. Then there are other things that I am currently writing and developing, that I’ll hopefully be able to talk about in the months of come.
What are you currently geeking out over?
Currently I’m well into The Pharos Gate by Nick Bantock, 100 Nights of Hero by Isabel Greenberg and I stumbled across a giant tome called The Book of Symbols that was printed by Taschen. Also, I really dug Rogue One.
Angel Catbird Volume 2: To Castle Catula is available now
All art by Johnnie Christmas and Tamra Bonvillian