Two giants of the literary world have brought angels among us. William Gibson’s Archangel and Margaret Atwood’s Angel Catbird were released this year to great fanfare. Even though it was each author’s first time writing for comics, I had very high hopes. Maybe too high.
Archangel is set in an alternate 2016 where the planet is radioactive, and the current U.S. administration believes time travel is the only way to fix their dying world. The vice president is involved in a plot to change events during World War II, but not everyone supports this plan. Archangel is full of operatives and counter operatives in an apocalyptic present and the sweeping drama of a world at war.
Angel Catbird follows the transformation of a mild-mannered genetic engineer, Strig, into a man-owl-cat after one of his experiments mutates his DNA. As Strig learns to deal with his new form, he discovers an underground world of half-human, half-animal characters and a whole new set of problems. Angel Catbird is a superhero story, complete with origin story, love interest, and evil nemesis.
When I first heard that two of my favorite novelists were writing for comics, I was thrilled. Gibson and Atwood are near legends in speculative fiction, and I love their work for their innovation and unique perspectives on the complexity of the world and the future. I’m a particular fan of Gibson’s Bigend Trilogy, which includes Pattern Recognition, and Atwood’s The Blind Assassin. I couldn’t wait to see what they did with the graphic storytelling form.
While neither Archangel or Angel Catbird are failures, neither one was particularly good. The stories felt a little stale and very safe. Neither one had any of the ground-breaking innovation I had come to look forward to with each new novel these authors released.
Gibson’s story in Archangel was a less-interesting version of the wild time splintering he played with in The Peripheral, wrapped up in the nostalgia and classy military costuming of WWII. As I read, I kept feeling like his fresh perspective on the very well-trodden themes of nuclear apocalypse and WWII spy craft would emerge on the next page. But it didn’t. I was left with a lot of characters and a lot of plot, but not much else.
Atwood trafficked in nostalgia as well with Angel Catbird, recreating the expositional dialogue and stock characters of fifties and sixties comics with high precision. The problem was that her recreation was almost too exact. The comic didn’t use the tropes to say something new or to explore a different facet of them. If she intended for Angel Catbird to be a fun romp or a parody of superhero comics, her digs were too subtle for me.
Both Gibson and Atwood worked with solid comics professionals on these projects. Everyone’s competence is visible in the clarity of the page layout and the pacing of the story for both Archangel and Angel Catbird. What isn’t there in either one is the spark of specialness that makes you excited for every new release.
I am willing, however, to cut Gibson and Atwood some slack. These are their first comics, after all. Most writers’ and artists’ first attempts at their art remain blissfully in obscurity. Both Atwood’s and Gibson’s efforts have been exposed to a huge audience with high expectations on their first times trying out the form. I wouldn’t expect anyone’s official first time doing anything to be perfect.
I’m not counting either of them out of the comics game for now. I just hope that they both keep working at the form, putting in the hours, and pushing themselves to make something truly amazing with comics. I know they’ve got it in them, and I’d love to see it.