Every Sunday night, Washington D.C.’s public radio station, WAMU 88.5, airs The Big Broadcast, a four-hour mixtape of radio plays from the ‘30s, ‘40s and ‘50s. While some of the comedies-Fibber McGee and Molly, Our Miss Brookscan be cringingly regressive in their portrayal of gender dynamics, the nuanced excellence of the best programsGunsmoke, Johnny Dollar, Dragnet-illuminates the electric intimacy that the radio play can achieve.
It is this electric intimacy that Audible, with its pulpy full-cast adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s 2016 graphic novel Angel Catbird, is aiming to recreate for audiences who aren’t lucky enough to live within broadcast range of WAMU.
“With Angel Catbird, we had a daunting artistic challenge to convey a story told through drawings and turn it into an audio production,” Audible EVP and Publisher Beth Anderson says via press release, “but with Margaret’s script and the work of fabulous actors and producers, we’ve done it!”
“It was great fun to work on my first audio script,” adds Atwood, who not only wrote the Angel Catbird script but also makes a cameo as bit character, The Wise Owl. She calls the finished product 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.”
While Atwood clearly had a hoot collaborating on the graphic novel with artist Johnnie Christmas and colorist Tamra Bonvillain, it’s her least compelling original work. The comic possesses clunky dialogue explaining the very action the art illustrates and bizarrely didactic PSA breaks from the Cats and Birds initiative of the Nature Canada conservation charity, making it seem like she doesn’t understand the graceful nuances that the graphic novel format allows. Read as a radio play script, however, that same clunky dialogue, punctuated by audible yowls and footfalls and beating cat-bat-vampire wings, becomes useful expository fodder for the voice cast, including Lisa Repo Martel, Kelly Vanderburg, Amy Matysio, David Ferry, John Cleland and Dylan Trowbridge. Those distractingly didactic PSAs, meanwhile, once rendered into cheerfully retro commercial jingles, become a delightful way to mark rest points between acts.
The bad news is that the bells-and-whistles fun the audio production provides is the only aspect of Angel Catbird that truly shines. The story itself, featuring “superheroes” whose sole objectives are to mate (literally, the first interaction Angel Catbird has with Athene Owl features her saying, “But why is a fine owl-man like you hanging out with a pack of draggle-tailed felines? You should have more noble ends in view, such as mating with, for instance, me”) and a half-rat villain whose sole objective is to murder Angel Catbird (so that he can use the genetic serum Angel finished coding to force female rats into being his sexy half-rat/half-human slaves), remains as bafflingly retrograde in audio as it is in print.
I can allow for the possibility that there is a level of satire so deep in this homage that I can’t see it, but having read pulpy half-animal superhero sendups like Marvel’s terrific Squirrel Girl and Hellcat series, as well as Image’s neo-Atwoodian feminist dystopian jam, Bitch Planet, I find it impossible to put a finger on what Angel Catbird is supposed to be. This problem is alleviated somewhat in Audible’s boisterously goofy radio play adaptation, as the immersive fun of the audio adventure is novel enough to ignore the inanity of a story that, if one knew nothing about its origins, would never be guessed to have come from Margaret Atwood’s pen. But there already are radio plays for kids that boast a clearer understanding of their core audience and of the point their “retro radio revisits” are trying to make (WHYY’s Eleanor Amplified is a great example) that it bums me the heck out that this is first decent entry we’ve gotten in the adult category.
This reads like a sour note to end on, but is a sourness borne of hope. I genuinely want Audible (and everyone else in the podcast/audiobook nexus) to send this bubbling renaissance of Big Broadcast-worthy radio plays surging. And I believe that, for all the flaws Angel Catbird possesses, the fact that it finds success as an entertaining audio experience proves that a dynamic radio play landscape is the next frontier in storytelling. May this be the first entry in a long line of even more entertaining productions to come.
is available now via Audible.
Alexis Gunderson is a TV critic and audiobibiliophile whose writing has appeared on Forever Young Adult , Screener and Birth.Movies.Death. She’ll go 10 rounds fighting for teens and intelligently executed genre fare to be taken seriously by pop culture. She can be found @AlexisKG.