Vancouver-based comic-book artist Johnnie Christmas is 15 pages into drawing his latest project – a three-volume comic-book series called Angel Catbird that is being written by Margaret Atwood.
Yes, that Margaret Atwood, the acclaimed Canadian novelist and author of such works as The Handmaid's Tale, The Edible Woman and Alias Grace. Here, Ms. Atwood, who has previously dabbled in the art form, is chronicling the adventures of a superhero who is part cat and part bird for publication this fall from U.S. publisher Dark Horse Comics. The project is being published in association with the Keep Cats Safe and Save Bird Lives initiative of the conservation charity Nature Canada. By the time Mr. Christmas is done, he will have pencilled and inked about 220 pages of material over three volumes.
Mr. Christmas, 39, is a citizen in good standing of Vancouver's community of comic-book artists. Working out of his studio in the city's hip Mount Pleasant neighbourhood, he has been pencilling and inking the imagery for the project, guided by Ms. Atwood's scripts and the dialogue with her and the project's editor.
Puerto Rico-born Mr. Christmas was raised in Miami and settled in Vancouver in 2009. As an artist, he has steered clear of the superheroes of U.S. publishers Marvel and DC. Mr. Christmas, who lists the work of Jaime Hernandez, of Love and Rockets, and Katsuhiro Otomo's Japanese manga series Akira as influences, has made his mark with various projects including the Image Comics series Sheltered, the film rights to which were sold to the producers of TV's The Walking Dead. He has been working on Angel Catbird since joining the project last May.
Why did you say yes when the opportunity to work with Ms. Atwood came up?
I like the collaborative process of comics. It's really fun batting ideas back and forth and finding a place where sensibilities agree and realize that vision that's an amalgam of two different mindsets. I was really interested in that and collaborating with someone who has had a really long creative career. To dance with someone who has been doing this for so long and see different methods is very intriguing to me.
What's it like working with Ms. Atwood?
She's very professional, as you might imagine, and very open. The collaborations are easy. Things are suggested and she takes everything in and thinks about things. It's a very easy collaboration, which is really kind of pleasant. It's not a lot of straight dictating this, that or the other. Everyone is open to toss suggestions in. The editor is tossing in things. I am tossing in things. Margaret is tossing in things. We are finding our way to building this world.
Is she a good comic-book writer?
Yes. She is finding her way through it. She moves quickly and decisively through [the project], which is very nice. There's not a lot of hand-wringing with the writing.
Do you think readers of Ms. Atwood's novels will find her voice in this project?
Of course, the prose, for the most part, will be lost. It's mostly just dialogue. For the rest, action will be dictated by the drawings that I create and, of course, the colours that [colourist Tamara Bonvillain] adds to them. I am reading The Handmaid's Tale right now. From what I have read and understood about her reputation in literature, I think this is a little lighter than some people expect. But I think it has the humour and it has the intelligence but a lot more fun than the expectation of her.
What's the community of comic-book artists like in Vancouver?
It's big and varied. It's kind of amazing. When I first moved to Vancouver, I didn't know anything about the cartooning community here. It's fantastic. There are so many people doing so many great things. We've got an animation community as well and that feeds a lot of people being able to stay within the forum of drawing and expressing through drawing. We've got greats like Brendan Graham and tons of cartoon masters who live where I live in Mount Pleasant. And within a five-block radius, you can throw a stone and hit a cartoonist. It's kind of amazing.
Coming from the creator-owned world, I mostly hang with indie folks. Brandon Graham, Simon Roy, Kurtis Wiebe, Ed Brisson. And there others, of course, like Pia Guerra. There are DC folks in town, but it seems to be mostly creator-owned.
How do artists find economic security doing this kind of work?
It can be tricky. I know a lot of folks who aren't making a lot and a lot of folks who aren't making anything. And then some folks have an unexpected hit and then you're making a lot. Most of the people I know working professionally are sort of doing okay, not great. But most of what drives them is the urge to create and they're making a living, but I don't think they're socking away anything in their RRSPs.
Here's the thing about comics. You can self publish and have your comic in the world, but then you have to take it down to your local comic shop and say, "Hey guys. Could you put it on the shelf?" If you're talking about through publishers, there are tons of people who want to do it. Competition is fierce and it's definitely difficult to get in. Once you're in, it's a lot easier. But you definitely stay on your toes and keep it relevant, fresh and moving forward.
Do you have any interest in the superhero realms of either Marvel or DC?
I won't rule anything out completely right off the top without seeing what the project is. But, on the face of it, those stories don't particularly interest me because they aren't nuanced enough. After a while, I get a little bored of one guy punching another guy in the head for 20 pages. There's not anything there for me.
As an artist, do you see anything in Vancouver that would make it a good setting for your work?
This place can definitely inspire stories. We've got a great mix of things here. We've got the pristine quality of [Kitsilano] to stuff going on in other parts of town that are a little more seedy and colourful, which is great. I love the juxtapositions of these high-rises, glass and steel but also these other stories happening in the shadow of glass and steel, the personal stories of people living an existence outside the gleam and glitter.
This interview has been edited and condensed.