Books·How I Wrote It

Johnnie Christmas brings Margaret Atwood's cat/bird/human vision to life

Christmas talks about the otherworldly experience of working with a Canadian icon on Angel Catbird.
Johnnie Christmas is the illustrator behind Margaret Atwood's Angel Catbird. (Avalon Mott, Dark Horse Comics)

As the artist behind comics like Sheltered and Pisces, Johnnie Christmas is no stranger to the weird and fantastic. Even when faced with the task of drawing a cat/bird/human superhero, the brainchild of a world-famous literary icon, he's far from phased. 

In his own words, the Vancouver-based artist describes the process of creating Angel Catbird, from the thrill of launching a new superhero to working alongside Margaret Atwood on her first graphic novel.

Origin story

"I loved the sense of wonder in Angel Catbird. Like a lot of early superhero comics, it uses a scientific basis as a jumping off point into the fantastic. Just as an example, Superman comics of today are a very serious matter. And understandably so, there are 70-plus years of stories, characters and continuity that must be adhered to. However, in the first Superman comics, Siegel and Shuster were just trying to figure it out, what the world of the comic was like, what the rules were. He didn't even fly in early stories, he just jumped really far. With Angel Catbird I liked the feeling of being on the ground floor of creating a new character, a new mythos of fantastic beings and figuring out the rules of this new world."

Building an Angel

"The visual part of the process began with Margaret's notes for what Angel should look like and his abilities. He's a science-based character so that helped in the design some, knowing his physical strengths and limitations are helpful in guiding the design to a sensible place. Then once it's sensible you bedazzle✨ the design with a little flair!

"The immediate reaction upon first hearing the concept was a flood of images popping into my head. A visual problem-solving mode: Are his wings going to sprout from his back or will his arms be the wing bones with feathers sprouting from those? Etc, etc. Asking lots of questions to myself, anticipating the questions readers might ask and then finding the solutions. As the possibilities became clear, I grew quite excited with the prospect of visualizing the world of Angel Catbird.

"My final iteration of the Angel Catbird character was much more a blend of cat/owl/human. My first attempt was very cat/human heavy. The hardest feature to pin down... this sounds weird, but the thing on him that I thought of the most was his neck. Cats' heads jut forward at the neck. Humans' necks connect at the bottom of the skull, so we have that overhang at the back of our heads. Owl necks are super short, so essentially nothing draw-able. It was a tightrope at first, but I went humanoid neck, with a touch of neck jutting forward."

Learning from a master

"I do a lot of research when writing projects of my own and when collecting visual reference for drawing. Margaret's research and knowledge on the subject is astounding. I suppose novelists are in the habit of researching years in advance, but her well of knowledge is otherworldly. So I've learned that one can't be too versed on the subject."

The Atwood effect

"The profile of this project has made this experience unlike any other I've had while working in comics. However, the extra attention hasn't changed my process at all. The fundamentals of any craft don't change just because more people are interested in the final product.

"I lean toward introversion by nature (to be a cartoonist, it's helpful if you're comfortable with solitude), so I see the extra attention as an opportunity to step out of my comfort zone a bit and face the world. Having your work noticed is very nice. Don't let anyone tell you otherwise.

"The other thing that makes the attention easier to deal with is that most of it is still focused on Margaret. I find it much easier to talk up someone else than to talk about myself, especially when that someone else happens to be a genius.

"The funniest reaction is always when I'm in a room with someone who hears that I'm working with Margaret Atwood. I rarely ever bring it up, usually other people mention it. Or if I'm asked directly, 'What comics do you work on?' People are usually pretty delighted."

Johnnie Christmas's comments have been edited and condensed.