Last month, Audible released an audioplay of Angel Catbird, the 2016-17 Dark Horse comic series written by Margaret Atwood, illustrated by Johnnie Christmas, and colored by Tamra Bonvillian, and it’s the cat’s pajamas.
But wait, you may say, don’t you mean an audiobook? No, kittens. I mean audioplay. Just as Angel Catbird itself was inspired by the Golden Age of Comics, the audio adaptation is inspired by the superhero radio plays of the same era.
“In the 1940s of radio shows and comic books, I was six when I first started drawing the flying cats with wings that eventually turned into Angel Catbird the ‘Superhero,'” says Atwood, via Audible’s press release. “It was great fun to work on my first audio script: a retro radio revisit, complete with theme song, sound effects, and amazing voice actors who turn my team of furred and feathered fighters into full-throated stars.”
Audible’s Angel Catbird was recorded live, with a full cast, mewsic… er, music, sound effects, and even fake commercials. Also, a truly astounding number of cat puns.
But wait. What is Angel Catbird?
Angel Catbird is the story of Strig Feleedus, a scientist whose work on a top-secret project turns him into Angel Catbird: part man, part cat, and part bird.
His mutation opens his eyes to a world in which demi-people exist side by side with full humans; there are half-cats, half-birds, and half-rodents with their own societies, but the balance between those societies (and the food chain) is about to be disrupted by an evil scientist with plans for his own demi-human race.
Angel Catbird and his feline and feathered friends must stop that evil plan. Along the way, Atwood teamed up with a Canadian conservation group, catsandbirds.ca, to provide helpful asides on keeping cats and migratory birds safe from predation and human interference. In the comic, conservation information relevant to the plot was served up in banners along the bottom of the page.
How does the audio adaptation hold up to the graphic novel?
First of all, you don’t have to read the comic to appreciate the audioplay.
If you did read it, though, you’ll like the audioplay. You may like it more; as much as I enjoyed Johnnie Christmas’s art in the book, I think the story works better as an audioplay; Atwood added a lot more detail to the plot for the script. Certain plot points are explained better, background characters are given voices, and the story is better fleshed out in general. Also, puns that don’t work on the page were used to great effect in the script. (One main character works in PR. Get it? Me neither, until I heard it said aloud.)
I think the thing that works best about the audio adaptation is the story’s nature. Angel Catbird is a Golden Age Comic written decades after comics had moved on; it’s over-the-top and corny, and comic readers are used to a different tone in their books. It’s hard to go from a recent Batman title to something like Angel Catbird, for example.
Radio plays have not suffered from that dramatic a change in tone, mostly because there aren’t that many of them anymore. Oh sure, there’s Prairie Home Companion and Welcome to Nightvale, but radio plays are novel. They can be corny and a listener will buy into it.
Angel Catbird does this well. The voice actors are talented (and I give full marks to every actor who had to portray a half-cat or half-rat because their lines included a lot of animal noises) and the music and commercials were perfect. The commercials, in fact, are the new vehicles for the conservation information, and they mostly work pretty well.
In fact, the conservation message is so strong it sometimes gets clunky and overpowers the storytelling. In a comic, you can choose to skip a panel with side information and come back later when you’re reading a story. In an audiobook, you sort of have to live through it. That can get preachy, especially when the conservation info isn’t nestled in a fake commercial but in the dialogue.
Another critique: although Angel Catbird is feminist, it’s a pretty heteronormative, binary story. The main characters are also pretty white, so if you’re looking for a story with a lot of diversity among the characters, Angel Catbird may not be for you.
Can your kittens listen to it?
Yes, you can listen to it with your child in the car. Very small children may be disturbed by a scene in the final chapter in which a rat named Santa Claws prepares to torture the main characters while describing what he’s going to do to them between ho-ho-hos. Early in the story, a character’s cat is hit by a car. (That might be upsetting for kids of all ages.) There is also a lot of predation; kids who might be upset about cats and owls eating rats might want to give this a pass, but the predation is part of a larger conversation about the food chain.
That food chain conversation is why I think Angel Catbird is a good listen for older kids. The story’s environmental theme is educational, and kids will learn about proper cat care, how to make life easier for wild birds, the history of cats in Europe and Egypt, and about the threats to other species up to and including lions and vultures.
There is some discussion about sexuality (we are talking about tomcats here), but nothing terribly overt. Be prepared to answer some questions about mating and polyamory (as I said: tomcats).
Angel Catbird is also a pretty cool way to introduce kids to the concept of an audioplay. I listened to a little of the story with my preschooler and he was interested but wanted to know where the video is. When he’s a little older, I’d like to revisit it with him.
• This audiobook will mess with your pets’ heads. There are a lot of animal noises, and a lot of voice actors making animal noises. My poor cat just couldn’t take it. (I assume it’s jarring to hear humans trying to speak his language.)
• Fun family activity: Go around the dinner table and ask your family members what kind of half animal they’d like to be. You will learn some things about your loved ones.
• A lot of spot-on Trump references have been worked into this audiobook. If you lean left (and if you’re listening to an environmental Margaret Atwood audioplay, you probably do) you’ll dig it, kitty-cat.
• Margaret Atwood cameos are the new Stan Lee cameo! Listen closely and see if you catch her.
You can download Audible’s Angel Catbird here.