Friday, January 26, 2018

Homework Assignment: (Re)constructing America through Science Fiction

The last autumn semester I had a class about science-fiction. If you read my blog you might know that I care a lot for it, but am not an expert on the topic. I have been doing my own research to get more on the theoretical side, but it is more for fun, than anything else. Nonetheless, we could write an essay on anything that re-entered the SF topic and I decided that I am not going to graduate without having written at least one essay on Margaret Atwood's work. So here you go:
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The Unlikely Superhero
Margaret Atwood’s Angel Catbird

World renowned Canadian author Margaret Atwood needs no introduction in the literary world, but she might when the graphic novel of Angel Catbird falls into the average comic book reader’s hand. The author provides an entertaining foreword in which she explains that she was already at reading age when the classic comic books rolled around. She mentions several comic books that she religiously read through, among them “Batman, Captain Marvel, Wonder Woman, Superman, Plastic Man, the Green Lantern, the Human Torch, and their ilk” (Atwood, vol. 1, 6). She also adds that for years she wrote and even drew her own comics, for her own entertainment (7). When opportunity came around she decided to write the story of the unlikely superhero, who was still someone based on those character traits that made the lead characters of DC and Marvel comics stand out for over seventy years now, as publisher Mike Richardson described it “a bold and unforgettable new character, paying homage to both classic pulp heroes and traditional comic book origin stories” (Flood). Angel Catbird’s character is indeed “superhero whose image reflected the great gods and hyperhumans of a mythic past” (Ndianalis 9), like the Man of Steel.
The essay will first look at the title character itself and the details that makes him different from the archaic hero; second, the characters around him, friends, sidekicks and enemies; and finally the setting of the world that Angel Catbird is introduced to after his transformation.
Image 1: Strig Feeledus, Angel Catbird vol. 1., page 12.
The story opens with the main character, Strig Feeledus, a young bachelor and scientist working from his home (Image 1). Strig is an ordinary and contemporary man: he owns a cat, Ding, to whom the reader is introduced on the first page. A cat is an unlikely pet for a superhero, recalling Batman’s Ace and Superman’s Krypto, who were both dogs, emphasizing the stereotype of the trusted best friend (Jones). Strig just started work at a new company, where his boss is Dr. A. Muroid, has him working on a super-slicer serum. This concoction will in the end give Strig his powers. Once done with the serum Strig runs after Ding who escapes from home; when on the street he is hit by a car. In the collision the serum falls from his hands and he lays in it with his cat Ding and an owl, the latter trying to catch the same rat that Ding chased into the streets. Strig awakes to having wings and feline senses (Image 2).
Image 2: Transformed Strig Feeledus, ibid., page 20.
Angel Catbird has all the qualities of a simple hero with a simple origin story, but only at first glance. The archaic superhero has several qualities that are missing when looking at Strig. To understand why he is so different, there is a need to define what superheroes generally represent. The American Heritage dictionary defines it as “[a] fictional figure having superhuman powers or greatly enhanced abilities, usually portrayed as fighting evil or crime” (“superhero”). When taking a closer look at iconic characters like Batman, Superman and Spider-man, one can immediately see traits that link them together. First, they were all struck by tragedy having lost either one or both parents. In the case of Spider-man, it was not only the parents but a father figure too that was lost. Second, all three discover that they have the ability to make their world a better place by putting on a mantle and heading out into the night. The tragedy was part of their consciousness in such a way as to result in their wish to act upon that injustice and prevent it if possible. Third, although crime existed before the birth of the given hero of the given story, they decided to become active participants and in that way a new world is laid down at their feet which are in return changed by their presence. A good way to understand a hero’s impact is to look at the villains they face. Most of them came about because the hero established himself as a worthy adversary. These heroes have their own arch nemesis, Batman’s genius is paralleled by the mad Joker; Superman’s alien qualities scare Lex Luthor into action, and Spider-man’s abilities create the laboratory experiment that is the Green Goblin. All of these heroes are introduced to a world of crime that has an impact on them. This world changes when they decide to become a part of it. “These early super-heroes were products of their time and social avengers that fought for the average man” (Johnson 3). Not only do these heroes have qualities that overlap, but they were constructed with the sole purpose of entertaining the average man in the venture of being able to destroy evil. They are “social avengers” who strived because they were born when the United States was fighting wars, and whoever their enemy was they were a representation of a far greater evil (4). The best example is the creation of Captain America who punches Hitler in the face on the cover of the first issue (Robb 14-15). Batman is, also, a simple man. In the #197 issue of The Brave and the Bold Catwoman is faced with his injuries, a body filled with scar tissues, to which he replies “Oh, that. Occupational hazard. Fifteen years of fighting will do that to a person” (Zehr 220). Angel Catbird’s body is superior to his, but does not match his intellect. Angel Catbird is not a social commentary, nor was it born with the intent of becoming the ultimate salvation; he was not, to quote the ending of The Dark Knight, the hero “[we] deserve” (Nolan).
Image 3: Hungry Strig looks for food in an alley, ibid., page 34.
Another element these archaic heroes have in common is that they have to keep their secret identity from many, even those they love. There is a constant struggle in them that is dealing with the damage their hero persona might do to their everyday persona. Strig loses his cat Ding in the accident where he is transformed and he has no others. Both of his love interests are part of the world he is introduced to. Because of this, the essential struggle that most heroes with a secret have to face, lying and cheating those who are most important, is left out of the story altogether. The struggle that Angel Catbird is faced with, however, is the natural instincts in him that contradict each other. Atwood phrased the problem as: “[h]e would be a combination of cat, owl, and human being, and he would thus have an identity conflict - do I save this baby robin, or do I eat it? But he would be able to understand both sides of the question. He would be a walking, flying carnivore’s dilemma” (Atwood, vol. 1, 8-9, image 3-4). Within the scope of these three graphic novels the events unfold so quickly that although the struggle is presented, it is not discussed in great deal. The overall story turned to the fight against the evil, in fact Strig barely turns back human from the second half of the story, and this way excluding, “the human realm” altogether. In this regard he is like Captain America, “once he assumes the role of caped crusader, that ‘normal guy’ part of himself rarely makes an appearance” (Weiner 204).
Image 4: Hungry Strig looks for food in an alley, ibid., page 35.
Like a good action movie, this story too forgets about food or sleep from time to time, and as such the problem is not addressed again. Nonetheless, the struggle of which animal in him is the strongest is also present in the love triangle that Atwood decided to entangle Angel Catbird in.
At first he falls for his co-worker, Cat Leone, a half-human and half-cat who helps him learn about his abilities and how to transform at will. The two have an instant connection which is then strengthened as she allows only him to get closer to her. As they are fleeing the grasp of Dr. Muroid, Angel Catbird senses someone else in the woods, when asked where he is headed he replies: “Just answering the call of nature” (Atwood, vol. 2, 14). The call of nature was a half-owl by the name of Atheen-Owl whom he finds irresistible. The two are then caught by Cat (Image 5) and the ladies argue over which one has the right to be with him. This feud is not driven by true love but by animal instincts that are deeply rooted in them. In the end, Angel Catbird is unsure whether his feelings for Cat were indeed of true love or just the animal in him looking to mate. The love triangle is not resolved in the story, Atheen-Owl steps back, but whether the animal within will become stronger than the human side of the hero, as it did upon meeting these ladies, remains an unanswered question.
Image 5: Cat argues with Atheen-Owl, Angel Catbird vol. 2., page 21.
As the love triangle entails, there are several side characters to the story, many of which have to be discussed in more detail. As the hero discovers more of this world he meets more peculiar half-breeds. First, he finds out that some cats have humanoid forms, but no complete human form. They have the strength, shape and characteristics of a human, they can even talk, but cannot hide their ears, tails or fur. Just like these cats, Atheen-Owl also has no real human form, just the humanoid. Second, he is also introduced to the half-raven form of one his co-workers, Ray, who has befriended the cats over the years. The possibility of various half-breeds, no matter the animal, is emphasized with the inclusion of another bird to the pack. And third, the mix of more animals is not just a quality of the hero, as he finds out for himself after meeting a half-bat, half-cat vampire by the name of Count Catula. Atwood devotes the second volume of the story entirely to the introduction of these half-breeds, with the inclusion of the villain, Dr. A. Muroid, who is revealed to be a half-rat himself (Image 6). With every new character introduced the reality that the hero has just become a part of grows larger with each page passing.
Image 6: Dr. A. Muroid unleashes the rats, Angel Catbird vol. 1., page 37.
            Finally, this world or reality has existed before him and could go on existing without him, undisturbed. His presence does not have a significant impact on it, apart from him being a unique combination of animals when he transforms. To see how little impact his presence actually means, one can look at the villain. Dr. Muroid turns out to have been a nuisance for far longer than Strig ever came on board, and as the open ending of the graphic novel suggests, he will keep on being a problem as he is never defeated. Angel Catbird was not responsible for the origins of this villain; he fell into the midst of a war that the half-breeds had been fighting for a long time (Image 7). If anything, it was the villain who was responsible for the existence of a hero that could become an opponent, as he asked him for the super splicer serum and then hit him with the car. The fact that these two started to fight was a direct effect of Strig feeling the need to get involved after falling into a reality completely unknown to him.
Image 7: Fight with Dr. Muroid’s rats, Angel Catbird vol. 2., page 49.
            The three-volume story is barely enough to allow the reader to immerse itself in this world. That is why it is the belief of the author of this paper that this was written for the “superreaders”, those whom often encountered what Douglas Wolk in his book Reading Comics: How Graphic Novels Work and What They Mean calls metacomics: “comics series that are aimed at an audience extensively steeped in the lore of the medium” (Lewis 109). Angel Catbird is the amalgamation of all the superheroes that one has read about through their life with the addition of all the possible cat puns made in the world. Atwood is humorous all throughout the story and there is an underlying layer of absurdity, if one considers that the demise of the superhero is caused by a robot that has colorful feathers and catnip (Image 8). After Angel Catbird is captured it is up to the side characters, most of whom are fierce and powerful women, to save the day. The hero is in a way pushed aside, and it is no longer his actions that determine the outcome of the story.
Image 8: Dr. Muroid reveals the Drat to his prisoner rats, ibid., page 38.
Atwood was smart for choosing simplicity. “Comics are not immune to industrial pressures towards standardization and differentiation” (Ndialanis 19), yet she manages to avoid the set rules for heroes and sidekicks and their enemies by avoiding complicating the story. There is no need to further discuss his struggle, there is no need to showcase more of the “human realm”, there is no need for the author to go into lengthy details on the backstory of Strig or the feelings he has for his compatriots. Above all, it is futile to teach the reader the moral lesson of what comes with great power (Kirby), because Angel Catbird is not about the archaic superhero: it only wishes to imitate one. These details are all there for the superreader, he and she can find them easily, and on the surface the comic remains an entertaining read for the average fan of Margaret Atwood’s work.

In conclusion, Atwood's Strig Feeledus ticks all the boxes when it comes to the Golden Age superhero: he is smart with a good heart and the wish to do good when faced with evil. Once he gains his powers he is able to do that, but falls short because of his inexperience. He is saved multiple times by the ones he meets in the new world and as such they become the heroes of the story instead of him. The open ending of the story allows for more adventures and so the debate on whether or not Angel Catbird is a superhero in all merits is not yet concluded.

Works Cited
Atwood, Margaret (w), Johnnie Christmas (p). Angel Catbird. Vol. 1, (2016). Dark Horse Comics.
Atwood, Margaret (w), Johnnie Christmas (p). “To Castle Catula”, Angel Catbird. Vol. 2, (2017). Dark Horse Comics.
Flood, Alison. “Margaret Atwood Writes Graphic Novel Superhero, 'Part Cat, Part Bird'.” The Guardian, Guardian News and Media, 9 Dec. 2015, www.theguardian.com/books/2015/dec/09/margaret-atwood-creates-superhero-angel-catbird-comic. Accessed 10 Oct. 2017.
Johnson, Jeffrey K. Super-history: Comic Book Superheroes and American Society, 1938 to the Present. McFarland, 2012. PDF.
Jones, Reid. “10 Superhero Pets behind Marvel & DC's Greatest Heroes!” Movie Pilot, 29 May 2014, moviepilot.com/posts/1456488. Accessed 17 Dec. 2017.
Kirby, Jack (p) and Steve Ditko (i). Amazing Fantasy #15, Marvel Comics.
Lewis, A. American Comics, Literary Theory, and Religion: The Superhero Afterlife. Springer, 2014. PDF.
Ndalianis, Angela, ed. The contemporary comic book superhero. Routledge, 2009.
Nolan, Christopher, director. The Dark Knight . Warner Bros., 2008.
Robb, Brian J. A Brief History of Superheroes: From Superman to the Avengers, the Evolution of Comic Book Legends. Hachette UK, 2014. PDF.
“superhero.” American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language, Fifth Edition. 2011. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company 12 Dec. 2017.
Weiner, Robert G., ed. Captain America and the struggle of the superhero: critical essays. McFarland, 2009. PDF.
Zehr, E. Paul. Becoming Batman: the possibility of a superhero. JHU Press, 2009. PDF.

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