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Margaret Atwood & Kelly Sue DeConnick in Glorious Discussion: Sci-Fi, Tattoos, Angel Catbird, Bitch Planet and So Very Much More

Comics Features Margaret Atwood
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Margaret Atwood & Kelly Sue DeConnick in Glorious Discussion: Sci-Fi, Tattoos,  <i>Angel Catbird</i>, <i>Bitch Planet</i> and So Very Much More

Literary icon Margaret Atwood is the Booker Prize-winning author of more than 40 volumes of fiction, non-fiction, poetry, children’s literature and—as of this week—an original graphic novel series from Dark Horse Comics. Drawn by Johnnie Christmas and colored by Tamra Bonvillain, Angel Catbird presents Atwood’s first foray into sequential storytelling, although she’s been reading comics (and drawing her own) since childhood. Both a slyly goofy anthropomorphic ode to the pulpy series of old and an act of animal advocacy in conjunction with the Canadian charity Keep Cats Safe & Save Bird Lives, Angel Catbird’s first volume introduces readers to Strig Feleedus, a genetic engineer who finds himself mutated into a cat/owl/human hybrid and thrust into a hidden world of feline shape-shifters.

ACBV1 CVR RH.jpg To (theoretically) talk about this momentous release, Paste jumped on the phone with Atwood and Kelly Sue DeConnick, the critically acclaimed writer of Bitch Planet, Pretty Deadly and the upcoming Parisian White. DeConnick is an unabashed fan of Atwood’s, and boasts a first-edition copy of Atwood’s landmark novel, The Handmaid’s Tale. Thanks to a fortuitous Twitter interaction, Atwood happens to be a Bitch Planet reader. The resulting conversation, while rarely touching on Angel Catbird directly, is a fascinating fly-on-the-wall look at two of the smartest—and funniest—minds in comics today.

Keep Cats Safe & Save Bird Lives/Nature Canada is the oldest national nature conservation charity in Canada. See more at: http://naturecanada.ca.

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Angel Catbird Vol. 1 Interior Art by Johnnie Christmas and Tamra Bonvillain

Margaret Atwood: Hi, Kelly Sue. Has anyone ever sang you “Kelly Sue” to the tune of The Everly Brothers? There’s a song called “Peggy Sue.”

Kelly Sue DeConnick: Was that The Everly Brothers?

Atwood: [singing] “Kelly Sue, Kelly Sue, oh what those two words can do. My Kelly Sue-ue-ue-ue.”

DeConnick: Oh gosh, why did I think that was Buddy Holly?

Atwood: Maybe it is. Have to look. Anyway, now you’ve had that experience, Kelly Sue.

DeConnick: There you go. My mom was Pollyann and her mother was Patty Ann.

Atwood: So you had to have a double name.

DeConnick: Yeah, like the good hillbillies that we are. [laughs] And I have my son, Henry Leo.

Atwood: Henry Leo? Does he get called that?

DeConnick: He does, because as it happens, there are like 19 Henrys in his school, so any distinction helps.

Atwood: Okay, so does he only get called that when he’s bad, or all the time?

DeConnick: Nope, that’s his all-the-time name.

Atwood: Did you name him—no, you didn’t, because you’re too young—you didn’t name him after the old radio program Henry Aldrich?

DeConnick: No, no—my daughter is named for Tallulah Bankhead.

Atwood: [laughs] Good choice.

DeConnick: She’s named for Tallulah Bankhead and Louise Brooks. We wanted to give her two badass broads to be her guardian angels.

Atwood: Wow. You certainly picked those. And what about Henry?

DeConnick: Henry—we went the other direction with Henry. Originally, my husband suggested Huck, and I loved it, but I said, Oh no, but it has to be Huckleberry, and Matt [Fraction] said that was tantamount to child abuse.

Atwood: Well, yeah.

DeConnick: So Henry, we chose instead, because it sounded kind of like a “good guy name” like Huck. Henry is the kind of guy who will come help you move your couch. Henrys are dependable good guys.

Atwood: Well there’s Henry V…

DeConnick: Yeah, unless you’re British, I guess.

Atwood: But then there’s Henry VIII. Not a dependable good guy. Henry has a song, too. There’s an English song called “Henry VIII.”

DeConnick: Yes, I made Tallulah a mixtape—there’re a ton of Tallulah songs, oddly enough. I think “Henry VIII” is the only thing I’ve found for Henry, womp womp.

Atwood: Well you can look up the old radio show with his mother yelling at him. “Henry! Henry Aldrich!” Coming, mother

DeConnick: [laughs] That’s fantastic.

Atwood: That would be in the late ‘40s, I think.

DeConnick: I love radio.

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Angel Catbird Vol. 1 Interior Art by Johnnie Christmas and Tamra Bonvillain

Atwood: So now, let us give Steve a word or two. Steve, we’re talking about something that you didn’t think we were going to talk about. What did you think we were going to talk about?

Paste: No, I hate to interrupt at all! It’s a pleasure just to listen to the conversation. Ms. Atwood, we know you’re a Bitch Planet reader, and Kelly Sue, we know you’re a fan of The Handmaid’s Tale, among others of Ms. Atwood’s work. I’d love to know how you each became aware of the other in the first place.

Atwood: Well I got sent Bitch Planet. Now how did that come about? I think it was probably through Twitter, and possibly through Hope Nicholson. Somebody said to me, “Have you ever read Bitch Planet?” and I said, “No!” So I received some of its issues, its first issue, so that’s how I became aware of it. But also Kelly Sue was at Comic Con in San Diego, quite recently, and so was I, though our paths did not immediately cross.

DeConnick: Sadly.

Atwood: I think you have a comiXology card, and I got my picture taken with your comiXology card, and she got her picture taken with—

DeConnick: With my first-edition Handmaid’s Tale.

Atwood: So there you go, that’s what happened most recently. But I think the original one was a Twitter exchange which resulted in me getting some Bitch Planet issues.

DeConnick: I’ve been very upfront about how influenced I was by Handmaid’s Tale, and that doesn’t put me in a small club at all.

Atwood: On the other hand, Bitch Planet is quite a lot rougher.

DeConnick: Oh yeah. I mean, we’re satire. I think the thing that’s most chilling—

Atwood: You think you’re a satire? [Laughs]

DeConnick: We keep trying to be satire! But the thing that made Handmaid’s Tale so chilling to me was that it was so plausibly grounded. It just felt ten minutes down the road in the wrong direction. I don’t think of myself as a science fiction reader because when I think of the genre, I think of hard science fiction, which tends not to be my jam.

Atwood: So you’re thinking spaceships and warp drives and things like that. Aliens on other planets.

DeConnick: Yeah, Arthur C. Clarke—things I gave a shot to in real life, not so much for me.

Atwood: Not so many women in it. But you probably like Ray Bradbury.

DeConnick: I love Ray Bradbury, I do.

Atwood: That is a more—how should we put it—a more quasi-allegorical form. The Martian Chronicles for instance.

DeConnick: Dandelion Wine is one of my favorites.

Atwood: So Ray, yes, Arthur, no.

DeConnick: I’m aware of my subjectivity here. It’s not a quality judgment, just what are my choices. Handmaid’s Tale was revelatory for me on many levels, and we’ve not been shy about saying thank you to that in the book, which is how I think that got put in your face.

Atwood: [laughs] Possibly, a little bit. Or people just thought I might like to read it.

DeConnick: I hope so!

Atwood: So what issue are you up to now?

DeConnick: We are sending #9 to press. We are a slow-moving train.

Atwood: On the other hand, you’re on issue #1. It didn’t die after issue #1.

DeConnick: That is true! In fact, it keeps getting bigger, so that’s exciting.

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Bitch Planet #10 Cover Art by Valentine De Landro

Atwood: Didn’t I see that people are now getting tattoos based on it?

DeConnick: Yeah, that actually happened really, really early.

Atwood: I see Handmaid’s Tale tattoos as well.

DeConnick: Oh, absolutely. I’ve considered it. I would get that tattoo.

Atwood: Would you?

DeConnick: Oh yeah, I’m not shy about tattoos. I just don’t have any words. I don’t have any text tattoos. I have a full back piece and a half-sleeve. All pictures. But “Don’t let the bastards grind you down”...

Atwood: That’s what they most frequently get tattooed.

DeConnick: That’s what I imagine. Or if it had to be an opening image, maybe the opening image of her staring at the medallion. It’d be a thing that only I would get…

Atwood: Sometimes they get a winged eye.

DeConnick: Ooh, that’s nice.

Atwood: Well it’s all pretty chilling. So, Steve. Now you know the answer to that one.

Paste: Well, you mentioned Bradbury, who’s a favorite of mine, who often works in allegory. You both work with allegorical subject matter, but Angel Catbird includes real cat and bird facts, and Bitch Planet hosts backmatter essays. What informs that decision to occasionally cut through metaphor to directly address the root topics of your work?

Atwood: I think comics have a long history of that. Like, a really long history. Wonder Woman, in her origins, was a wartime Nazi fighter. There always have been some comics that were just entertainment comics, or for children or whatever, but another whole branch of them have always been tied to real-life subjects. And if you go back into the history of cartooning, a lot of it in the 18th century and early 19th century was highly political and often obscene. So that has been there for quite a while. As far as “info-comics” go, the Bayeux Tapestry, a record of the invasion by William the Conqueror of England, done in separate panels, some of them with text—that’s basically an info-comic, is it not? I rest my case. [laughs] And a lot of church frescos, the life of St. Francis of Assisi, showing the times of his life, that was to tell people the story. Something they thought you would like to know. So it’s always been possible. What are comics anyway? They’re the telling of a story in consecutive visual and text panels. And that can tell all sorts of different stories, some of them grounded in reality and some of them are not.

DeConnick: The genre vs. medium conversation that we go back to so much, because, particularly in the United States, the superhero genre is so dominant, when we talk about comic movies, for instance—

Atwood: It’s generally that. Anyway, it seemed like a natural to me. I grew up with comics, and since it was the ‘40s, post-war, a lot of them were information-based. Or certainly propaganda-based. [laughs]

DeConnick: I think with Bitch Planet, satire only functions in relation to its subject. If I were raging against entirely imaginary problems, it wouldn’t have any heart.

Atwood: It wouldn’t have any resonance. It wouldn’t be satire. Satire has to be satire of something.

DeConnick: Shocking no one, I think the title came first. [laughs]

Atwood: “We have to do a comic that goes with this title!”

DeConnick: I had written a whole bunch of ideas down for Valentine [De Landro], the artist and my collaborator on the book, and I think the Bitch Planet one was the title and said, “Gladiatorial women in prison…in space!”

Atwood: Works for me. Add snakes and you’ve got it made.

DeConnick: There we go, exactly! And then when he said, “That sounds like fun,” it became, Okay, great, what is this? What do I have something to say about, what do I have strong feelings about, what do I have mixed feelings about?

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Bitch Planet #5 Cover Art by Valentine De Landro

Atwood: There you go. So did you see the film Gladiator?

DeConnick: I did see the film Gladiator.

Atwood: I saw the film Gladiator twice. I had to see it the first time to see if it was suitable for my older brother.

DeConnick: You were checking it out for your older brother?

Atwood: Yes, if it didn’t have any mushy sex in it, then I could take him to see it. I saw Jurassic Park twice to check it out for my mother, who was quite old at the time. I thought, This will work for her, it’s got lots of adventure and dinosaurs and no mushy sex. I also took her to see Star Wars, the first one. She didn’t quite like that. At the end she said, “Well, that was a ball of fluff.” And I said, “I didn’t notice you falling asleep.” [laughs] So I saw Gladiator twice and my brother then rated it according to how many anachronisms were in it. We’re a picky family.

DeConnick: That’s fantastic.

Atwood: For instance, the bust in the tent of Commodus’ dad oughtn’t to have been white.

DeConnick: But that’s a relatively new discovery, right?

Atwood: Not that new. But if you color them the way they used to be colored, they’d basically look like Barbies.

DeConnick: I remember reading that, they were probably really bawdy.

Atwood: Well they were supposed to be lifelike. They were flesh-colored, they didn’t have those white eyeballs we’re so used to, they actually had eyes. They were supposed to look as much like people as possible, but of course that makes them creepier.

DeConnick: The whole uncanny valley thing.

Atwood: Let’s see, we got a bit off-track with that. Dinosaurs, gladiatorial women in space and therefore how did they get there?

DeConnick: Influences were Handmaid’s Tale and Robocop, those were the big ones.

Atwood: Robocop ! Wonderful.

DeConnick: I love Robocop. I absolutely adore Robocop.

Atwood: Another kind of satire. Satire of police.

DeConnick: And corporations. And private police.

Atwood: Of which there are more and more.

DeConnick: Indeed. That’s one of the things we want to address—as we’re granting personhood rights to corporations, where does that meet with Second Amendment rights in the U.S.?

Atwood: Somebody said it: I’ll believe corporations are people when you can execute them.

DeConnick: Right! And “Stand Your Ground” laws, right?

Atwood: They’re not the same as persons, they’re not the same as people in my view. Robots, now, that’s another conversations. You go back to the original, which is R.U.R., by Karel Capek, he was the one who invented the term “robot.”

Paste: I was in that play in high school. I played Rossum.

Atwood: Were you really? [laughs] The term “robot” comes more or less from the word “indentured slave” in Slavic languages. So have a look at that. The whole debate is whether they’re people. The robots revolt and say they’re people. Now he was doing a satire on something else, which was actual people who were referred to as “robots,” but he put it in futuristic terms.

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Angel Catbird Vol. 1 Interior Art by Johnnie Christmas and Tamra Bonvillain

DeConnick: I think that conversation about artificial life is really fascinating, and what our rights and responsibilities are as stewards as artificial life. I worked with Dark Horse—who are doing Angel Catbird—I worked with them on a licensed project in the Alien universe. That was a big thing that we wanted to bring in, that idea of—they have these sentient, partially organic robot life forms, and as their creators, what are our responsibilities to them, and comparing that to the corporations who were treated as people. And the whole journey of the big patriarch of the universe, going in Prometheus to search for God, wanting to find our creator and demand an answer for why we exist. And what we came to thematically is that you don’t get answers. That is not owed you.

Atwood: You went right back to Gilgamesh.

DeConnick: These are not new questions.

Atwood: He finds out the secret to eternal life, but then he drops it down a well. That’s why we die. [laughs]

DeConnick: Damn it!

Atwood: Next question. Next question, kids! So Blade Runner, you must love it?

DeConnick: I do, I do. I have sort of a love/hate relationship [with director Ridley Scott]. I think Blade Runner is successful, and I think Prometheus is the bad side of his work. I think he’s a beautiful painter, but sometimes the story is clearly secondary. In Blade Runner, it feels cohesive, and Blade Runner feels like it has a point of view as well as a beautiful vision, but Prometheus didn’t 100% work for me. But still, I’d go watch anything he made forever, just for the pretty.

Atwood: Just for the pretty. It is very pretty. So how are we doing, Steve?

Paste: I’m good! I think you had mentioned you have another interview, though? So I don’t know if you need to go…

Atwood: Well, it’s been a pleasure talking with you. I very much look forward to issue #9.

DeConnick: Well thank you! I’ll make sure you get a copy.

Atwood: And are you planning to make it into a movie?

DeConnick: Boy, I would love to just keep it a comic for right now. [laughs]

Atwood: Gee, I was expecting you to say, “Boy, I would just love to make it into a movie,” but you didn’t say that!

DeConnick: No, no, I think for it to be people up and talking and moving around, it’d be a really delicate line to walk to maintain the satire and the tone. I don’t want to say no—

Atwood: But you don’t want to turn it into something it isn’t.

DeConnick: No, I don’t. And I don’t want to stop loving it because something happened to it. So I’m going to try to make it a really, really good comic right now. That’s my goal.

Atwood: It is a really, really good comic right now! So you’ve achieved your goal.

DeConnick: Well thank you very much. I don’t want to hold you up, but I just want to say how very much I appreciate the opportunity to speak with you.

Atwood: My pleasure.

DeConnick: And how much I’m looking forward to [Atwood’s October-debuting novel] Hag-Seed!

Atwood: I’ll make sure you get a copy!

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Angel Catbird Vol. 1 Interior Art by Johnnie Christmas and Tamra Bonvillain

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