Liam Sharpe
Liam Sharpe

Margaret Atwood on Writing Her New Graphic Novel, Angel Catbird

Liam Sharpe
Liam Sharpe

This month, acclaimed best-selling novelist Margaret Atwood will release an original graphic novel, Angel Catbirdthe first of a three-volume all-ages series. Angel Catbird is something of a throwback to the early days of superhero comics in which a laboratory accident turns a young scientist into a cat/owl hybrid. It’s full of action, romance, humor, and even a message about making our world safe for cats and birds. It’s also beautifully illustrated by Atwood’s collaborators, artist Johnnie Christmas and colorist Tamra Bonvillain. Ahead of Angel Catbird Vol. One's September 7 release, mental_floss chatted with Atwood about what it was like to write a comic book and work with a team, and gave us an exclusive first look at some pages from the graphic novel.

How did Angel Catbird come to be? Did you always plan for it to be a graphic novel?

It was always going to be a comic. How I did it was through Hope Nicholson, who is a comics producer. I had helped her on a Kickstarter in which she was raising money to republish some black and white comics from Canada in the ‘40s—this guy called Brok Windsor, who has entirely disappeared. He was one of those heroic people—but not a superhero—who went around battling Nazis without his top on. Johnny Canuck similarly was frequently topless when doing the Nazi fighting.

Therefore I got to know Hope and helped her out on her book The Secret Loves of Geek Girls, which she initially did herself and has now been picked up by Dark Horse. So I said to her, I have this idea but it’s not an idea I can do on my own. And I explained Angel Catbird to her and said "Can you help me with it?" And she said, "Yes, I could." She sent me a bunch of artists’ work that I could look at and therefore we identified Johnnie Christmas.

Did you know what you were looking for in an artist?

I knew exactly what I was looking for. I was looking for a ‘40s superhero look with a touch of noir, but since it was an all-ages book it couldn’t be too slathered in blood. I needed somebody who can draw. One of my theories is that all of that figure drawing that Michelangelo and Leonardo DaVinci used to do is all in the graphic arts now. So someone like Johnnie knows how to draw bodies. He knows anatomy. He can draw hands and feet and that really separates the sheep from the goats. When you look at amateur paintings, you’ll often notice that the hands and feet are hidden by red velvet drapery because they can’t actually draw them. They’re a big challenge. But Johnnie can really draw them as you’ll see by how he can draw claws and talons for Angel Catbird. He’s very accomplished and I knew he could draw anything I threw at him. And he has been able to do that. His Angel Catbird creation is really gorgeous.

Do you find it challenging to write an all-ages book?

I’ve written for children before. I’ve even written for very young children in which I wrote, drew and lettered the entire book myself. It was in the 1970s, a book called Up in the Tree. I did it because my publisher at the time said there wasn’t any children’s writing in Canada, take a crack at it. There wasn’t then, there sure is now. The reason that it’s in those funny colors was that we could only afford the two-color printing. So we chose blue and red which mixed into a funny third color which was sort of a browny/purpley color. They did a reissue of it recently and I said I’ll only do this if we keep the original look. I didn’t want it brought up to modern color standards. I wanted it the way it was.

In the back section of Angel Catbird it shows some sketches you drew for Johnnie to help convey some ideas for a particular outfit for one of the characters.

Yes, for the nightclub outfit. I was in England at the time so I was scanning these things in and sending them to him and he would send sketches back.

I needed someone who could actually draw, unlike me. My drawings are pretty basic. They’re essentially lines. [Laughs] This had to have an atmosphere.

Would you ever consider drawing a graphic novel yourself?

I think it would be very boring to have 72 pages of that. The thing about Johnnie is he’s able to vary the look of the lines. Some of that comes from the color. He’s worked with Tamra Bonvillain before so they understand each other. She’s picked kind of a early ‘50s color range. How can I describe it? It’s the right tonality for that period. There was a period in kitchen appliances [laughs] when they went from white and everyone thinks they went to that ‘60s range of avocado green and harvest gold and this horrible brown color that was very popular at the time but they went to an intermediate period of aqua pink and primrose yellow. These sort of Miami Beach colors.

How did you all work together?

Our team is five people: Johnnie; Daniel Chabon, our editor; Hope Nicholson, who brought the team together in the first place; and Tamra Bonvillain, the colorist, who operates once the rest of us have done our stuff.

So, I’ve now met all these people but before I hadn’t actually met them. They were all at Comic-Con, except for Tamra. It was all done over emails and scanned sketches. It’s similar to developing a film or television script but instead of writing scenes you’re writing panels but same stuff in them. Who’s in the panel, what are they saying? Point of view, where is it taking place. The difference in film is that you can’t have what people are thinking unless you do a voice over. In comics you can, because you can have a thought bubble. Or you can have narration that says “A week later” or “back in the forest” or in the “sewer system of New York” or whatever you want to put in. You can tell people where we are.

Is collaboration hard when you’re used to having total control of how you tell a story?

I worked in television in the ‘70s, so it is similar. You actually have more control in comics in that they are not expensive to create. Meaning, you don’t have investors putting millions of dollars in and therefore having a say. It’s just you and your partners.

It’s very different from working on a novel because it’s a team. Luckily I have some summer camp counseling experience which is the same. You’re working on a team, planning things, executing them. It all has to do with how do you get on with the other people. Are there going to be fights? Are there egos involved? Happily, that was not the case. It was all copacetic. The world of comics is somewhat amiable compared to other kinds of worlds. They seem to help each other out. They mention each other’s books on Twitter. They seem to be more friendly towards one another than other areas have been known to be—I say, being extremely tactful.

Why do you think that is?

I think it’s because they felt they were a small, beleaguered, misunderstood group for so long and therefore they had to help each other out. And I, of course, was a writer in the ‘60s in Canada when we were a small, beleaguered group ourselves and we were all very helpful to each other.

Are there any current comics creators whose work you follow?

I just discovered some new ones at Comic-Con. There’s this one called Lady Killer which is about a ‘50s housewife and the artist (Joelle Jones) obviously looked at a lot of ads of the period. I was there—I can remember all this stuff—but for a person of her age it’s probably ancient history, and she thinks it’s all funny. So this ‘50s housewife is driving around in her station wagon and getting groceries and making sure the twins have their ice cream cones but she’s also secretly an assassin. It’s really funny.

There’s also one I’m very fond of which is called Blacksad. It’s a cat detective, Dashiell Hammett/Raymond Chandler type of noir. It’s so well done. It’s beautifully drawn and it goes into social issues and it’s just really interesting.

There’s so much out there right now, and I think that people are creating for all sorts of audiences that have not been typically represented. I’ve discovered one called Mama Tits Saves the World. It’s about a superhero who happens to be a drag queen. She has a magic word composed of the initial letters of a lot of gay icons like Oscar Wilde and Quentin Crisp, and the mission of Mama Tits is to intervene when someone is being beaten up for being gay. So these things are springing up left, right, and center. If there’s a niche that hasn’t been represented, you’ll find someone there already or moving into it now.

Angel Catbird will be a three book series, right?

So far. Who knows? I’m blocking Volume 3 right now. Two is done. I think it’s even inked and some of it has gone to Tamra. Volume Two will be out in February.

************************************************************************

In addition, we spoke with Johnnie Christmas and Tamra Bonvillain, the art team on Angel Catbird.

Was working on this book very different from other comics you’ve worked on?

Johnnie: I approach the project like any other I’ve been involved with. The profile is way higher, that’s true! But at the end of the day I’m still at a drawing board with an ink brush in my hand, trying to find the best way to artistically serve the story.

Tamra: The process itself wasn't too much different than other books. I've worked with Johnnie before, so I have some experience there. It's just a matter of tailoring what we do to fit this story.

How did you and Margaret develop the look for this book together?

Johnnie: We have characters that reference different times, places and historical contexts. So I might look up early 20th century Romanian nobility for one character (Count Catula) or modern business attire for another (Cate Leone). We actually didn’t talk much about old comics or influences at the beginning of the project but I was given windows into Margaret’s thoughts on relevant bits of story as we went along.

I’m most proud of Strig/Angel Catbird’s design. Do you know how hard it is to merge a cat, owl and human into one design?!

Tamra, Margaret referred to how your color choices perfectly captured the era of the 1940s. Was this a conscious strategy on your part or happy accident?

Tamra: It wasn't conscious, no, but I usually try to let the story and art influence how I approach coloring any project, so I'm glad to hear it worked out! I wanted very bold colors, and to help scenes stand apart from one another, I will try to key them as dominated by certain colors. Generally, I tried to start off things kind of cold and simple, then as things amp up, the colors get a little wilder and warmer throughout.

Were you guys fans of Margaret’s work before getting involved in this project?

Tamra: I'm a little embarrassed to say that I hadn't read any of her work before starting, but once this project was put together I went out and read The Handmaid's Tale, and then Cat's Eye, both of which I enjoyed very much. I already loved working with Johnnie, and after familiarizing myself with Margaret's work more, this only added to my excitement to work on the project!

Johnnie: I was familiar with Margaret’s work (I think they’d march you right out of Canada if you weren’t), and I think it’s brilliant!

Johnnie Christmas, photo by Avalon Mott

************************************************************************
Below is an exclusive 3-page excerpt of Angel Catbird, in which the book’s protagonist, Strig Feleedus, in his cat-owl hybrid form, meets a group of cat-human hybrids who give him his new name. You can pick up your copy here.

nextArticle.image_alt|e
iStock
Bad Moods Might Make You More Productive
iStock
iStock

Being in a bad mood at work might not be such a bad thing. New research shows that foul moods can lead to better executive function—the mental processing that handles skills like focus, self-control, creative thinking, mental flexibility, and working memory. But the benefit might hinge on how you go through emotions.

As part of the study, published in Personality and Individual Differences, a pair of psychologists at the University of Waterloo in Canada subjected more than 90 undergraduate students to a battery of tests designed to measure their working memory and inhibition control, two areas of executive function. They also gave the students several questionnaires designed to measure their emotional reactivity and mood over the previous week.

They found that some people who were in slightly bad moods performed significantly better on the working memory and inhibition tasks, but the benefit depended on how the person experienced emotion. Specifically, being in a bit of a bad mood seemed to boost the performance of participants with high emotional reactivity, meaning that they’re sensitive, have intense reactions to situations, and hold on to their feelings for a long time. People with low emotional reactivity performed worse on the tasks when in a bad mood, though.

“Our results show that there are some people for whom a bad mood may actually hone the kind of thinking skills that are important for everyday life,” one of the study’s co-authors, psychology professor Tara McAuley, said in a press statement. Why people with bigger emotional responses experience this boost but people with less-intense emotions don’t is an open question. One hypothesis is that people who have high emotional reactivity are already used to experiencing intense emotions, so they aren’t as fazed by their bad moods. However, more research is necessary to tease out those factors.

[h/t Big Think]

nextArticle.image_alt|e
Universal Pictures Home Entertainment
The 10 Wildest Movie Plot Twists
Laura Harring in Mulholland Drive (2001)
Laura Harring in Mulholland Drive (2001)
Universal Pictures Home Entertainment

An ending often makes or breaks a movie. There’s nothing quite as satisfying as having the rug pulled out from under you, particularly in a thriller. But too many flicks that try to shock can’t stick the landing—they’re outlandish and illogical, or signal where the plot is headed. Not all of these films are entirely successful, but they have one important attribute in common: From the classic to the cultishly beloved, they involve hard-to-predict twists that really do blow viewers’ minds, then linger there for days, if not life. (Warning: Massive spoilers below.)

1. PSYCHO (1960)

Alfred Hitchcock often constructed his movies like neat games that manipulated the audience. The Master of Suspense delved headfirst into horror with Psycho, which follows a secretary (Janet Leigh) who sneaks off with $40,000 and hides in a motel. The ensuing jolt depends on Leigh’s fame at the time: No one expected the ostensible star and protagonist to die in a gory (for the time) shower butchering only a third of the way into the running time. Hitchcock outdid that feat with the last-act revelation that Anthony Perkins’s supremely creepy Norman Bates is embodying his dead mother.

2. PLANET OF THE APES (1968)

No, not the botched Tim Burton remake that tweaked the original movie’s famous reveal in a way that left everyone scratching their heads. The Charlton Heston-starring sci-fi gem continues to stupefy anyone who comes into its orbit. Heston, of course, plays an astronaut who travels to a strange land where advanced apes lord over human slaves. It becomes clear once he finds the decrepit remains of the Statue of Liberty that he’s in fact on a future Earth. The anti-violence message, especially during the political tumult of 1968, shook people up as much as the time warp.

3. DEEP RED (1975)

It’s not rare for a horror movie to flip the script when it comes to unmasking its killer, but it’s much rarer that such a film causes a viewer to question their own perception of the world around them. Such is the case for Deep Red, Italian director Dario Argento’s (Suspiria) slasher masterpiece. A pianist living in Rome (David Hemmings) comes upon the murder of a woman in her apartment and teams up with a female reporter to find the person responsible. Argento’s whodunit is filled to the brim with gorgeous photography, ghastly sights, and delirious twists. But best of all is the final sequence, in which the pianist retraces his steps to discover that the killer had been hiding in plain sight all along. Rewind to the beginning and you’ll discover that you caught an unknowing glimpse, too.

4. SLEEPAWAY CAMP (1983)

Sleepaway Camp is notorious among horror fans for a number of reasons: the bizarre, stilted acting and dialogue; hilariously amateurish special effects; and ‘80s-to-their-core fashions. But it’s best known for the mind-bending ending, which—full disclosure—reads as possibly transphobic today, though it’s really hard to say what writer-director Robert Hiltzik had in mind. Years after a boating accident that leaves one of two siblings dead, Angela is raised by her aunt and sent to a summer camp with her cousin, where a killer wreaks havoc. In the lurid climax, we see that moody Angela is not only the murderer—she’s actually a boy. Her aunt, who always wanted a daughter, raised her as if she were her late brother. The final animalistic shot prompts as many gasps as cackles.

5. THE USUAL SUSPECTS (1995)

The Usual Suspects has left everyone who watches it breathless by the time they get to the fakeout conclusion. Roger "Verbal" Kint (Kevin Spacey), a criminal with cerebral palsy, regales an interrogator in the stories of his exploits with a band of fellow crooks, seen in flashback. Hovering over this is the mysterious villainous figure Keyser Söze. It’s not until Verbal leaves and jumps into a car that customs agent David Kujan realizes that the man fabricated details, tricking the law and the viewer into his fake reality, and is in fact the fabled Söze.

6. PRIMAL FEAR (1996)

No courtroom movie can surpass Primal Fear’s discombobulating effect. Richard Gere’s defense attorney becomes strongly convinced that his altar boy client Aaron (Edward Norton) didn’t commit the murder of an archbishop with which he’s charged. The meek, stuttering Aaron has sudden violent outbursts in which he becomes "Roy" and is diagnosed with dissociative identity disorder, leading to a not guilty ruling. Gere’s lawyer visits Aaron about the news, and as he’s leaving, a wonderfully maniacal Norton reveals that he faked the multiple personalities.

7. FIGHT CLUB (1999)

Edward Norton is no stranger to taking on extremely disparate personalities in his roles, from Primal Fear to American History X. The unassuming actor can quickly turn vicious, which led to ideal casting for Fight Club, director David Fincher’s adaptation of the Chuck Palahniuk novel. Fincher cleverly keeps the audience in the dark about the connections between Norton’s timid, unnamed narrator and Brad Pitt’s hunky, aggressive Tyler Durden. After the two start the titular bruising group, the plot significantly increases the stakes, with the club turning into a sort of anarchist terrorist organization. The narrator eventually comes to grips with the fact that he is Tyler and has caused all the destruction around him.

8. THE SIXTH SENSE (1999)

Early in his career, M. Night Shyamalan was frequently (perhaps a little too frequently) compared to Hitchcock for his ability to ratchet up tension while misdirecting his audience. He hasn’t always earned stellar reviews since, but The Sixth Sense remains deservedly legendary for its final twist. At the end of the ghost story, in which little Haley Joel Osment can see dead people, it turns out that the psychologist (Bruce Willis) who’s been working with the boy is no longer living himself, the result of a gunshot wound witnessed in the opening sequence.

9. THE OTHERS (2001)

The Sixth Sense’s climax was spooky, but not nearly as unnerving as Nicole Kidman’s similarly themed ghost movie The Others, released just a couple years later. Kidman gives a superb performance in the elegantly styled film from the Spanish writer-director Alejandro Amenábar, playing a mother in a country house after World War II protecting her photosensitive children from light and, eventually, dead spirits occupying the place. Only by the end does it become clear that she’s in denial about the fact that she’s a ghost, having killed her children in a psychotic break before committing suicide. It’s a bleak capper to a genuinely haunting yarn.

10. MULHOLLAND DRIVE (2001)

David Lynch’s surrealist movies may follow dream logic, but that doesn’t mean their plots can’t be readily discerned. Mulholland Drive is his most striking work precisely because, in spite of its more wacko moments, it adds up to a coherent, tragic story. The mystery starts innocently enough with the dark-haired Rita (Laura Elena Harring) waking up with amnesia from a car accident in Los Angeles and piecing together her identity alongside the plucky aspiring actress Betty (Naomi Watts). It takes a blue box to unlock the secret that Betty is in fact Diane, who is in love with and envious of Camilla (also played by Harring) and has concocted a fantasy version of their lives. The real Diane arranges for Camilla to be killed, leading to her intense guilt and suicide. Only Lynch can go from Nancy Drew to nihilism so swiftly and deftly.

SECTIONS

arrow
LIVE SMARTER
More from mental floss studios