“Oh, there’s Gandalf!” Margaret Atwood says in the closest her soft alto voice gets to a shout, pointing at a costumed nerd with a staff and a wizard’s hat. She’s on the floor of the annual Day-Glo carnival–slash–trade show that is Comic-Con International: San Diego, and the 76-year-old author is surprisingly calm among the hordes. “You’re a big Lord of the Rings fan, right?” I ask her. She turns, gives a quarter-smile, lightly punches me on the shoulder, and says, “Ask me anything.” Before I can, she launches into a miniature lecture on the 19th-century literary roots of Tolkien’s epic. “I’m the person who’s seen all the movies and can tell you, in one scene, one of the characters has a wristwatch on.”
In other words, it turns out that Atwood — one of the most esteemed writers of literary fiction of her generation — is a geek, even if she hates that word. When I describe her that way, she stops me mid-sentence with a stare. “I beg your pardon?” she says. “Do you not identify as a geek?” I ask. “I’m too old,” she replies. “You know, this split into ‘geekdom’ and ‘other people’ — that happened fairly late in the game.”
Still, Atwood is in San Diego in order to reach out to those who would identify as geeks: She’s promoting an upcoming work, out in September, the first volume of a planned graphic-novel trilogy called Angel Catbird, illustrated by Johnnie Christmas and colored by Tamra Bonvillain. Given her pedigree, one might expect it to be a high-minded piece in the vein of Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis or Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home. In fact, it’s a pulpy superhero comic, complete with genre tropes: a sullen loner granted tremendous powers (in this case, the abilities and physical attributes of both a bird and a cat), a sneering and hideous supervillain, and an extremely hot woman who’s inexplicably attracted to the protagonist. The book has its tongue planted firmly in its cheek, with decidedly un-Atwood-like dialogue such as “My plan is succeeding! The time is at hand! The super-splicer has been perfected!” But it’s also been made to promote one of her pet causes, animal safety. As such, there are periodic interruptions in the narrative to give facts about proper care for cats and birds.
Atwood’s been a fan of the superhero genre since she was a child in Canada. As we stand outside a booth selling plastic busts and action figures of Daredevil, Superman, and the Punisher, she waxes nostalgic about the characters whose adventures she devoured in the 1940s: Captain Marvel, the Human Torch, and Plastic Man, to name a few. “We didn’t have these, but if they had existed, I would have had them,” she says, pointing at the figurines. Then her head swivels toward a group of fans dressed up as Power Rangers who are having their picture taken. “Oh, look at this! Isn’t this cute?” she says. “They’re doing an action pose!
“Mandrake the Magician was, oddly enough, the first superhero, if you can imagine such a thing, and his superpower was he gestured hypnotically,” she says as we wander near the white plastic pillars that surround the booth of her publisher, Dark Horse Comics. “That’s what he did. And then people went to sleep. It wasn’t really very vigorous.” Atwood loves giving little impromptu graduate lectures on history and literature like this: Bring up Game of Thrones and she talks about The Accursed Kings, the mid-century French novel series that partially inspired it. Bring up superhero costumes and she waxes about a Sumerian song cycle involving magical vestments. (“And Ngeshtin-ana becomes the first scribe to the gods,” she concludes after a six-minute retelling. “There, that’s my seminar on that.”)
Atwood is famous for two of the English language’s grimmest dystopian novels, 1985’s The Handmaid’s Tale and 2003’s Oryx and Crake. As we make a pit stop not far from the DC Entertainment booth, with massive murals of Wonder Woman, Aquaman, and their fellow Justice League members, I ask if she thinks that the convention represents hypercapitalism at its most brutal.
Atwood gestures in a semi-circle at the sardine-packed crowds. “This is the valley of the shadow of buying and selling,” she says. “But out of this valley of the shadow of buying and selling comes sufficient money to generate artistic time for a number a different artists in a number of different areas, would you not say?” Atwood has published more than 40 books, including her reliably best-selling novels. “I tell this to all young writers: How are you going to eat?”
The novelist has been to Comic-Con once before, helping to promote a collection of stories written in tribute to Ray Bradbury, and I ask what she’s learned at the gathering. She pauses for a moment. “People really like moments when they don’t have to be themselves, when they don’t have to be stuck in their usual daily persona,” she says. “In ancient Rome, it was the Saturnalia. In ancient Greece, it was the Dionysian festivals. In medieval Christianity, it was Mardi Gras. The chance to be somebody else, to disguise yourself, to take on another persona, and, at some of those moments, to mock authority, because there were moments when that was permitted.”
Atwood says the other thing Comic-Con taught her was how to write a scene in a recent story from her 2014 collection Stone Mattress, in which a fantasy author gets interviewed at a convention. “She’s being interviewed by a Klingon,” she says with a deep chuckle. “I apologize, I haven’t read that one,” I say. Atwood stares at me. “You will, though.” I wait for another laugh. It doesn’t come.
When Atwood does a crowded autograph-signing session at the Dark Horse booth, the following she’s built is on display, with a much higher proportion of Terry Gross haircuts and middle-aged women than you’ll see in most Comic-Con lines. They come bearing Angel Catbird posters and well-worn copies of her books. Atwood has satirized book tours and even helped develop a piece of technology called the LongPen, a remote device that lets her “attend” a book signing without leaving her home. Here, although she occasionally cracks into smiling chatter — after a fan tells her she named her terrier “Atwood,” the author grins and says, “I think there’s something just slightly twisted about that” — she mostly maintains a poker face.
One line member tells Atwood she doesn’t know who she is, hasn’t read any of her books, and wants to know which she should start with. The author shoots her that stare. “So you want me to say who I am. Well, I’m secretly Glinda the Good Witch in disguise, and the best novel that I wrote is called the Iliad,” Atwood says, deadpan. “What?” the woman asks. “The Iliad. It’s about the Trojan War,” Atwood replies. “Okay, I will look for that,” the woman says, flustered. Atwood smiles, but only slightly. “I was lying. You should probably find The Handmaid’s Tale,” she says, signing a poster.
*This article appears in the August 8, 2016 issue of New York Magazine.