In our world, birds and cats are often pitted as mortal enemies. But in the graphic novel universe, they’re not only united against a common foe—they also combine to form a superhero that’s part man, part feline, part owl, and many parts absurdity.
Released Tuesday by Dark Horse Comics, Angel Catbird is the brainchild of famed science fiction novelist (and bird lover) Margaret Atwood, and gets its 1980s vibe from Image Comics illustrator Johnnie Christmas and colorist Tamra Bonvillain. The story follows shy scientist Strig Feleedus (learn more about his origins below) and a gaggle of human-cat-bird-bat mutants as they team up to prevent Professor Muroid, a rat-human genius, and his army of minions from taking over the world.
The graphic novel is Atwood’s first, and combines her inventive storytelling—seen in the award-winning The Handmaid’s Tale and Oryx and Crake—with her passion for animals and conservation. A birder since childhood, Atwood is an outspoken environmentalist and advocate who pens essays about the plight of birds and serves as honorary president of BirdLife’s Rare Bird Club.
Christmas and Bonvillain’s artwork bring her story to life—and they kept the visuals as realistic as possible. Christmas looked to raptors for inspiration in designing the characters for Feleedus and his avian allies, keying in on Snowy and Great Horned Owls. He pored over videos of owls on the hunt and in flight to accurately portray their pronounced anatomies—everything from wingspans to the contour of the birds' talons—and movements. Even the subtlest of details, such as the feathers around a Snowy Owl's feet, were considered when ink and brush hit paper.
“You really want to embody the drawing with as much life and feel as you can,” Christmas says. “It was kind of like doing a caricature of a person.”
For Atwood, Angel Catbird is her way of creating common ground between cat lovers and bird lovers, who too frequently see each other as enemies, she told Vox in December. Her hero finds himself caught between two worlds—feline and avian—as he comes to develop and understand his different personalities.
The conservation message isn’t exactly subtle. The pages are littered with factoids on birds and cats, discussing everything from felines’ acute sense of smell to the urgency of keeping pets indoors. The first installment of Angel Catbird was released in tandem with Nature Canada’s Keep Cats Safe and Save Bird Lives program, which urges cat owners to take a pledge against letting their pets roam outdoors, and increases their knowledge of the strain it puts on wild bird populations.
Up next for Atwood and Christmas is the second volume of Angel Catbird, which is due out February 2017. A third volume is also in the works—featuring super rodents that wipe out seabird colonies in a convoluted attempt to destroy all cats.