On Shakespeare, Superheroes and a Cat-Bird-Human
Jeet Heer in conversation with Margaret Atwood.
This fall sees the publication of not one but two works by the redoubtable Margaret Atwood: a fictional adaptation of Shakespeare’s The Tempest and a graphic novel, her first. Hag-Seed is the fourth book in the Hogarth Shakespeare Project in which contemporary authors, including (so far) Jeannette Winterson and Howard Jacobson, reimagine their favourite plays by the Bard. As for the comic book, the fantastically titled Angel Catbird is an apt rebuke to anyone who expected a graphic novel of the restrained Marjane Satrapi or Seth variety: an unabashed homage to classic Marvel comics, it is centred on a human-feline-avian hybrid who is all sculpted pectorals, and wrestles with an intriguing romantic dilemma.
Critic, editor, journalist and comics authority, Jeet Heer is the author of Sweet Lechery: Essays, Profiles and Reviews and In Love with Art: Françoise Mouly’s Adventures in Comics with Art Spiegelman. He is also a senior editor at the New Republic, and a contributor to the New Yorker, the Paris Review and other publications. He spoke with Margaret Atwood in Toronto.
JH: You were just at Comic-Con [comic book convention]—
MA: I was just at Comic-Con, yes. You get a load of press there too—
JH: I wish I’d remembered to bring this to you, because you mentioned Little Orphan Annie in your introduction, and I had seen a Little Orphan Annie strip from 1948 that takes the opposite position on cats and birds—where, like, Harold Gray [Annie’s creator] defends cats eating birds. This is very much in keeping with his politics.
MA: Of course, in those days the birds were not suffering a precipitous decline. As they are now.
JH: That’s right. He did actually get letters of complaint from birders.
MA: Yeah, but they would object just to the destruction of an individual bird. We’re now seeing—
JH: Species decline.
MA: Not only that, but numbers within species decline.
JH: Let’s start with this, because although it’s a very entertaining book, there is a kind of political message, and it is something that often comes up in your writing, especially on Twitter, about, well, cats and birds. Do you want to talk, talk about where that passion comes from?
MA: I grew up with it, and I grew up with a biologist. We are in an era of precipitous migratory songbird decline, and that has been bad news for Canada, because it is the migratory songbirds that weed the boreal forests of insects, so eliminate all the birds and you are going to get many more forest-eating insects and that means more dead trees and that means more forest fires, and that is also bad for one of our key industries, which is wood products.
So, put it all together, and we should be supporting migratory songbirds if not simply for aesthetic reasons—we like them, they make nice songs, they look cute, all of those things. The economic value that they bring is huge. They found [this], for instance, in India, where inadvertently they were using an antibiotic that killed vultures. There was a precipitous decline in vultures, and there was an immediate outburst of wild dogs, rabies and rats. So, things are connected. [Laughs]
MA: There is a strong seabird and fish connection. If you restore seabird colonies, you get more fish. Why is that? It’s the nutrients that the birds bring into the water fosters the growth of phytoplankton, [which] fosters the growth of small fish and therefore fosters the growth of bigger fish. So there have been big seabird restoration projects, and I’m putting those in volume three of Angel Catbird.
JH: So that’s sort of the political background, but I also want to—
MA: I wouldn’t even call that political. I would call it just, you know, this is where we live. You want to stay alive, you’d better deal with the oceans. Because if they die, you are going to choke to death of oxygen deprivation.
JH: In both this book and I think the Maddaddam trilogy there is the use of fantasy and science fiction allegory to emphasize the continuum, that humans are a part of nature. The Angel Catbird is a cat, a bird and a human.
MA: Well, I am trying to show both sides, indeed three sides, of the question. You can do that by showing an argument, or you can do that by showing an identity conflict.
So my character has an identity conflict. And, as you will see in volume two, he has two love interests, one of whom is part cat and the other of whom is part bird. So what is his choice? Does he want to have an egg or does he want to have a kitten? [Laughs]
JH: [Laughs] The romantic interest is tough. But you reminded me a lot of—which I’m not even sure you would have read—the 1960s superheroes of Stan Lee and Jack Kirby where—
MA: Yeah, it came in with Spiderman. I mean there was the Lois Lane kind of thing going on but we never really believed in that, and we thought that the love interest of Batman was actually Catwoman, but nothing came of that either. [Laughs]
JH: Or Robin.
MA: Now, now. Yes, they all had sidekicks in those days. You probably don’t remember the Human Torch and Toro.
JH: Oh, the fiery guy.
MA: Yeah, they were both fiery guys, but Toro was the smaller fiery guy.
JH: Jules Feiffer said he always resented the sidekick when he was reading in the 1940s, because he said, “You know, I wanted the hero, and the sidekick was an annoyance.”
MA: Well, the sidekick I think was supposed to be for child readers, somebody they could identify with. But what the child readers really identified with was the superhero. I mean, who wanted to be a sidekick? You wanted the full shout-out. You wanted to be a powerful grown-up superhero.
JH: That’s right. So you have this issue of identity, and which side do you choose, but there is a sort of concern of science out of control or science that’s used for corporate interests rather than a broader human interest.
MA: As it is.
JH: As it is.
MA: Science is like anything else in the human world: there’s good of it and bad of it. The old 19th-century age of the gentleman scientist, that was long ago over. So the question we need to ask is, okay, who is paying the scientists, and to do what? And that is why we need public science, divorced from corporate interests and divorced from political interference. And what you had during the Harper era was a lot of political interference. These are public scientists—we pay for them. Why should we not be allowed to hear what they have to tell us?
JH: One of the other interesting things with Angel Catbird is the use of what we know about animal behaviour to shed light on human behaviour, like the sexual attraction between the two lead characters, and how that’s expressed in cat terms.
MA: Well, cat terms are very different from human terms. Or we think so.
JH: That’s what I am curious about, because is there a way in which, if we think about ourselves as biological creatures, as part of a continuum with cats and dogs—
MA: Yeah, we are not really actually very similar to cats. Cats appeal to us partly because, like owls, they’ve got big front-facing eyes and small chins, so to us it says “baby.”
MA: Cute, cute, cutie, cute, cute, cute. We love things with big eyes that look like babies. So that’s why, for instance, crabs and snakes don’t get much hugging love from humans—because they do not look like babies. But when we get to Count Catula—because we’re gonna see more of him in volume two, he is part bat, part cat and part human—I’ll just point out to you that [there were only] “three wives of Dracula.” But Count Catula, being part cat, has lots more. Many more wives of Catula. [Laughs].
JH: You’ve cartooned for a long time, since the 1960s, I think.
MA: Oh, before that.
JH: Before that, too; I just think of the printed material. When you were working on this, did you write out a script?
MA: It’s very similar to working in film or television. You have a team. I will first block out the action of a volume, and then everybody comments on that, then I break it down into blocks and then into pages and panels. And everybody comments on that, and then Johnnie [Christmas], my co-creator, starts to draw it, and he starts with thumbnails, little sketches, leaving space for the writing, which goes in the last. And then he does pencils, more detailed, and then he does inks, and everybody sees these at every stage, and then it all goes to Tamra [Bonvillain, the colourist], who puts in the layers of colour, and the very last thing is that the lettering is dropped in. So that is the process and it’s very collaborative.
JH: Where is the stage at which you add the dialogue?
MA: The dialogue is there from the beginning. It’s in the script.
JH: One of the things I was struck by was the flow. Sometimes, if you have someone who is a novelist or writer working in comics, they tend to overemphasize blocks of text. But this isn’t like that—it does flow like a comic. So that comes out of the collaborative process.
MA: Well, it comes out of the fact that I spent the 1970s writing television scripts and screenplays. [Laughs] And before that, you know, once upon a time, I ran my own puppet show when I was in high school, and [I did] acting, drawing stuff over the years. [I have been] pretty much immersed in the medium from the 1940s. This is where I grew up—I grew up in comics because there wasn’t any TV then.
JH: You are working with very good collaborators. I know Hope [Nicholson, project advisor] a little bit—
MA: She is very thoughtful and of course she has read everything in comics, and it was she who said, “Okay, here’s a number of different illustrators—which look do you want?” I said, “I want something that looks like a classic superhero drawing type of thing.”
JH: It really feels like those 1960s Marvel comics.
MA: Or even earlier. We also wanted all ages, so you’ll notice there is no swearing or naked sex in it.
JH: [Laughs] And you’re gonna do this for three volumes?
MA: Yes, we have already done volume two, so that will come out in February, and volume three is in preparation right now.
JH: I want to talk about The Tempest novel.
MA: Let’s talk about The Tempest novel, called Hag-Seed, which means, in a word, son of a witch. [Laughs]
JH: [Laughs] Which, of course, comes from an insult that Prospero calls Caliban at one point. This is part of a series [reimagining and novelizing Shakespeare plays], and you got to select The Tempest. Why was this the play you chose?
MA: I’ve written about it before, in my book A Writer on Writing, which used to be called Negotiating with the Dead, but I guess the publishers didn’t like that “dead” word. So Prospero is producer-writer-director-actor in his own play, which is the action of The Tempest. He is essentially controlling and directing through his special effects guy, Ariel. It is the closest we get to Shakespeare showing us an artist at work. So naturally I would be very interested in that. It is also the closest that he came ever to writing a musical.
JH: How so?
MA: If you think of it, it is more singing and dancing, and music used as a controller, signalling and transforming. Those things interested me a lot. But also the very peculiar epilogue—that is a weird thing for him to say at the end of the play. The last three words are “set me free.” So you then think “Okay, this is Prospero, who has been controlling the action of his own play, and now he is asking the audience to set him free. From what?” And then you go backwards and you realize that everybody in the play is imprisoned in some way or another, at some time. It is about imprisonment and release. And it’s also a revenge play that does not carry through to the ultimate revenge. So it is Hamlet, if Hamlet had stopped and said “Hey, wait a minute, I’m gonna forgive them.”
JH: [Laughs] Yeah.
MA: That is the hinge moment of the play. For sci-fi and aliens fans, it is particularly interesting because that reversal, that moment of forgiveness, is instigated by a non-human being. Very peculiar and interesting. For all of these reasons I have always been pretty fascinated by it. But also he is one of those magician figures, and they always have a dark side and indeed they always have a slightly fraudulent side. The chapter in A Writer on Writing on that particular aspect involves Prospero, the Wizard of Oz, another one of those controlling figures, and then you have the moment where the curtain falls down and he is this little old man [laughs] who’s yelling “I’m a good man but I’m a very bad wizard!” So, is the magic real or not? In The Tempest it is real.
MA: Magic is real. But it has a dark side. And that is pretty interesting, too, because the things that Hag-Seed’s mother, Hag, [laughs] is accused of—Sycorax [in the play, Caliban’s mother]—are all the same things that Prospero himself has done. So why is he good and she is bad? Why? We ask ourselves.
MA: And the other fascinating character in The Tempest is Caliban. There have been Calibans played sympathetically, there have been Calibans played for laughs, there have been Calibans played as villains. But Shakespeare is Shakespeare because he is always pretty ambiguous about those things. So Caliban, number one, is a potential rapist. Bad. But number two, he has some of the most poetic and romantic lines in the play about the island, and he has these wonderful dreams, and he is also exploited.
JH: He is the voice of the oppressed.
MA: Well … be careful about that. You see, it is Shakespeare. Yes, he is enslaved; yes, he also, the first chance he gets, kicks that over and says, “I’m going to have a new bunch of enslavers [laughs]. I’m going to pick some new enslavers, basically, and let’s go murder people. And rape Miranda some more.” So it’s not all good.
JH: No, of course not.
MA: However, Freud is right in that the repressed returns as nightmare. So how to play Caliban is one of the big mysterious things about every production: Are we going to play him as sympathetic? Are we going to play him as a sort of tantrum-throwing child? How are we going to do this? Every production has a different answer. In our age, of course, he is much more likely to be seen as the voice of the oppressed than he would have been in the 17th century. But he was even in the 19th century already seen as that.
JH: It’s a wonderful play, but I am also wondering … it is a play where Shakespeare is speaking at us, it seems, most directly as the artist. And he is writing about what it means to be a magician.
MA: That’s what we think. There is no objective evidence—the gorgeous thing about Shakespeare is that there is no Shakespeare who can turn up and have an interview like this with you. So he is in a way an open area where people can bring themselves. But he was also so inventive.
JH: There is in Hag-Seed, as in many of your recent books, a real celebration of that inventiveness.
MA: Well, we should probably just set the scene a bit with Hag-Seed: it is a theatrical director [named Felix] who has been expelled in a coup at the theatre company—
JH: Which happens!
MA: It does! People have ganged up and just got rid of him. And he goes off to sulk in the wilderness, and then he gets a chance to get back at the people who have done the expelling of him. So he has been teaching Shakespeare in a prison, which also happens, and he decides to put on a production of The Tempest in the prison—which will also be a revenge mechanism against his enemies.
JH: I want to talk about revenge a little bit because that is one of the two great plots. It is either people fall in love or they get revenge.
MA: Or they are power grabs. So Julius Caesar is a power grab play, but then it becomes somewhat of a revenge play in that there are two opposing factions. But not so much revenge as power grab. Macbeth is a power grab play—the corrupting effects of power. But in The Tempest it is the misuse of your power, because Prospero’s predicament is really, in its origin, his own fault.
MA: He was the duke. He didn’t pay attention to being a duke, and he went off and immersed himself in magic instead, and what was he doing making the dead walk, anyway? What was that for? [Laughs] So, because he wasn’t paying attention, his brother took control and kicked him out. Tried to kill him, basically. Shakespeare is very interested in power—right uses and wrong uses. He is also very interested in revenge, good effects and bad effects.
And late Shakespeare often takes motifs that he has seen through to a tragic conclusion earlier and takes them almost there, and then makes it come out all right.
JH: One big thing is in getting to this happy ending, Felix has to let go of the dead, right?
MA: He has to, yeah. First of all, he has to forgive. And then he has to let go of the past.
JH: Yeah, and I was thinking about that title, Negotiating with the Dead. How important is it for the imagination, for writers, to speak to the dead, but also let them go?
MA: Well, they also have to let you go. Don’t they?
JH: [Laughs] That’s right.
MA: One of the big themes for a writer is the descent to the underworld, the conversation with the dead, the learning from that and then the bringing back up. To bring something to the community. And that is a very old shamanistic task.