Tom Spurgeon's Web site of comics news, reviews, interviews and commentary

September 1, 2007

CR Sunday Interview: Nick Abadzis



imageLike many devout followers of the first alt-comix generation, I first became aware of the cartoonist Nick Abadzis through his Hugo Tate serial in Deadline during comics' post-Maus, pre-Marvels churn as well as the book's subsequent, partial collection, Hugo Tate: O America. Hugo Tate was an ambitious, sprawling work with the sensibility of a modern novel, a comic that lingers in memory as a signature book of that brief but expansive period in the art form's history. Abadzis briefly registered on the scene as a writer at Vertigo but found his cartooning niche doing graphic novels for various traditional book publishers. He's kept his hand in the more tradition side of English-language comics as an anthology contributor; he's attended the Small Press Expo in Bethesda, Maryland and done some self-published books as well.

imageLaika was one of the first books I can remember being announced for the First Second line. Signing Abadzis to a book-length, full-color project did as much as anything in staking out that publisher's unique artistic niche. The story of the world's first space traveler, a dog sent up in the Soviet space program, Laika is a curious and engaging mix of moods, approaches, formal strategies, soap opera, psychological profiling and history. It's also, like most of the author's work, unmistakably Abadzis'. The cartoonist was nice enough to work with me on this interview in very speedy fashion due to the imminent arrival of this new work into bookstores and comics shops nationwide. I had a fun time talking to him.


TOM SPURGEON: Nick, other than a Project: Superior short, I can't remember seeing a lot of recent comics from you. What exactly made you decide to get back into comics with such a massive work as Laika?

NICK ABADZIS: From my point of view, I'm not getting back into comics -- I never left. But I can see how, from the USA, it'd look that way. As a cartoonist, I started in the late '80s contributing Hugo Tate to Deadline and also wrote scripts for mainstream institutions like 2000AD and Marvel UK to support that work. In the mid-'90s, when the bottom dropped out of the UK scene and forums for alternative comics like Deadline came to an end, I carried on doing comics -- which, apart from writing one mini-series for Vertigo, was work for children -- either as a cartoonist or an editor. In 2000, after a couple of years doing stuff for the BBC and creating GNs for a children's literacy scheme, I first attended SPX. I'd wanted to get back to doing some of my own more personal work again, and that was one of the things that gave me a shot in the arm to do it. The aim was always to do a longer work as that's the form that most interests me.

SPURGEON: Eddie Campbell is I think a fan of your children's book work. Can you talk about that work, and how it might have changed your approach to comics?

ABADZIS: Good old Eddie. I guess the work that he's talking about must be the Pleebus Planet books, as opposed to the literacy scheme GNs, which were pretty stiff. I'd do more Pleebus books if I got the chance. Mr. Pleebus himself was a character who first cropped up in Deadline, in Hugo Tate's dreams, to be precise. He was also a background character in various pubs and bars that I'd draw: he'd only ever say "Pleebus" so you could presume he'd been in the bar for a long time. I thought he'd make a good character for children as he seemed like a benign sort of fellow and shopped a few proposals around some children's book publishers. I was having an exasperating experience with DC getting a second mini-series off the ground; it didn't feel like the right direction to go and Orchard Books gave me a green light. So I spent the next four years producing one 62-page Pleebus GN yearly for them.

It was bit of a case of "out of the frying pan," though. The demands of a children's publisher were very different from comics -- I think the Pleebus books would have been far more whacked-out had I been given carte blanche. Apart from a couple of understanding editors -- who commissioned the books -- there was this slightly snobby attitude on the part of the management there, almost like they were soiling their lily-white hands by publishing comics. It was all a bit Victorian. Things have changed here a little now, thankfully. A little, but not a lot. Although I was creating comics that I liked, there was still this sense of being reigned in. I missed the freedom of doing Hugo Tate and the other strips I created for Deadline. I thought about self-publishing again -- I'd done some mini-comics during the Deadline days with Steve Whitaker, who is known mostly as a colorist -- and eventually I did get around to doing that again. All of which fed into the eventual creation of Laika, I think.


SPURGEON: Why did you decide to go with such densely packed narrative pages? I'm not used to seeing that many panels a page in a standard-sized trade, and your comic is stuffed with them.

ABADZIS: I had a lot of story to tell and I took the decision to condense some stuff down rather than dispense with it completely. A lot got excised. I found myself thinking, at one point, that I could distill everything down to pictograms -- ultimately, you can boil comics down into a form of hieroglyphic writing, but I think in this case it would've been at the expense of emotional punch. You can play with the focus of comics, how near or how far you get to your subject but you have to be mindful of what you might sacrifice if you lose all your nuanced material. Pictograms with emotional punch -- that's an experiment for another book (I can imagine it looking something like ancient Chinese paintings). I wanted to make the reader less passive, and one way of doing that is making them work, both emotionally and with the rhythm of the panels, the arrangement of text and imagery and the ratio between those elements. It's all important.

That said, whenever you finish a comics project and look back at it with the benefit of hindsight, there are always things you'd change. I'd have liked some extra pages to allow chapter two a little more room to breathe. I could've added another 50 pages or so but I'd committed to two hundred at this point and I was working against time anyway. You must respect your reader, that's imperative, and all the grammar of comics is there to help you do that but I had to get the story out of me. In the end, I just went with what I had and tried to make it accessible and make it flow. I hope it still managed to draw you in.

SPURGEON: I would love it if you could give us some idea of your research. I know that you traveled some, but beyond that I'm not sure of the scope of what you dug into.

ABADZIS: I read a lot. First of all, I just brushed up on my childhood interest in the space race between the US and the USSR via a few readily available books but very quickly I found there wasn't much on Laika in those bar the odd, fleeting mention. I went to the British Library and dug around; I was put in contact with the head librarian of the Russian collection there and she was very kind in translating a few morsels of information from obscure old Russian technical books and memoirs. I hunted on the internet and bought a bunch of out-of-print books; during my research more books about that period of the USSR's history were published. Quite late in the day I came across a children's book by a guy called Chris Dubbs called Space Dogs; that was helpful in giving me info on the names of many of the other dogs. Asif Siddiqi's Sputnik and the Soviet Space Challenge was invaluable, as was James Harford's biography of Korolev and Paul Dickson's Sputnik: The Shock of the Century.

I contacted various space experts around the globe for advice on certain technical matters. Asif Siddiqi, one of the USA's foremost space historians was particularly helpful, especially in helping me detail the command structure of IMBP. I asked all sorts of people for help with, for example, what sorts of supersonic aircraft the Soviets had in the 1950s and to help with accuracy of military uniforms. It didn't help that the Soviets were so secretive and kept few records about this sort of thing.

One thing that no-one could give me a categorical answer for was precisely when Laika was put into the capsule -- before or after the rocket was rolled out onto the launch pad. Was she put into it while the rocket lay on its side in the assembly rooms or was she put in later? Was the capsule, with the dog inside, hoisted to the top of the rocket upright and fixed there, or was the poor animal allowed to languish on her side with the rest of the rocket while it was stacked together? On this particular query, there was a lot of speculation, on my part and the experts' but no-one could say absolutely for sure. In the end, I found a narrative solution to the problem that fit with one of my characters' journeys. I came up against some strange problems like that.

imageProbably the most interesting seam of information I came upon was at the Smithsonian, which has a Video History Archive. One of the things available to researchers was a whole bunch of taped interviews and transcripts with Oleg Gazenko and some of his colleagues. I got to see what the real Gazenko was like and there was also a lot of visual material on IMBP that was very useful.

After I'd finished the second draft and it was time to begin drawing, the BBC showed an excellent docudrama called Space Race that heavily featured [Sergei] Korolev. A little too late for me, unfortunately but it did give me one useful detail that made it into the book: that the engineers pissed on their rockets before they launched them.

And, finally, I did also travel to Moscow. I wrote to RSC Energia, formerly OKB-1, Korolev's design bureau in the hope they might let me take a look around. I also wrote to IMBP, a couple of times in fact, and I even tried to contact Academician Gazenko through the Academy of Sciences but none of them replied and I was on a limited timescale. The Museum of Cosmonautics did reply though and through them I managed to get an invitation to look around Korolev's house, which is now a private museum. Besides all that, it was important for me to go to Moscow, just to get a feel for the place and the people.

SPURGEON: You're not only using these figures as historical role-players, but investing them with personality and marching them through a lot of straight-up drama. How did you go about researching the personal side of your characters, the way they interacted with each other, and how much of that was invented?

ABADZIS: I took care to build in real historical detail which I culled from various sources -- Asif Siddqi's Sputnik and the Soviet Space Challenge was excellent for that, as was James Harford's biography of Korolev and even the video interviews with Gazenko -- who didn't seem to like Korolev much. Little incidental details, like Yazdovsky taking Laika home with him to play with his kids, the story of Korolev finding the loaf of bread in the snow, [Anatoli] Blagonravov taking his favorite cosmodog home with him when he feared for her safety. The book is layered through with a lot of real historical detail like that.

As for the interaction of the characters -- and the addition of my own fictional ones -- I had to recognize the fact that, although I wished to make the book as accurate as I could, often I would err on the side of drama. I was dramatizing the story and my own themes would creep into the telling of it, whether consciously or subconsciously. My Gazenko and Korolev are based upon the real people but they are, inevitably, my versions of those people, characters in a book. It's unavoidable. You can read all the factual stuff you like in research, then it's best to forget it all and concentrate on telling the story. You'll remember the important stuff when it's time to employ it.

Occasionally, in visual terms, I fibbed a bit to heighten drama -- for example, I went a bit James Bond on the control room at the end. No way did the Soviets have bunker like that at that time; it was probably more like a dugout filled with a bit of equipment. But that wouldn't have looked as cool and, hey, ultimately I'm a cartoonist. I also exaggerated the size of the R-7 rocket and added the box room device to the gantry, which they didn't have anything like until [Yuri] Gagarin was launched. But these were visual embellishments; all the facts are straight up.

imageSPURGEON: You keep mentioning Sergei Korolev, a grand figure of 20th Century history and a major player in your narrative. What became important to you in what you learned about him that you wanted to portray in Laika?

ABADZIS: He was a fascinating individual whose sheer force of will was largely responsible for making the Russian space program happen with relatively few resources. At least, that's compared to the US Aerospace industry, which was gearing up to provide everything that the space effort there would need at the same time. But he's far less celebrated than comparable figures of the 20th century, certainly less than his immediate opposite, the infamous Werner Von Braun with all his Mickey Mouse Club appearances and Nazi history. That's partially because of the fact that Korolev's identity only came out when the Soviet Union fell and perhaps partially because worldwide media culture simply isn't as turned on by real space history anymore. Perhaps it's just a failure of imagination on the part of our culture, I dunno.

Korolev was a massively determined man, damaged at some level by his experiences at the gulag during Stalin's purges. Gazenko called him a "typical product of the Soviet system of that time. He had been imprisoned but he still worked hard for his country." In a way the whole story of Laika is begun by the inhumanities that are done to Korolev; it's a cycle of abuse that continues throughout the book. For all his flaws, for all his politicking, it's a romantic dream wanting to build rockets to go to the moon, which he managed to do by astonishing political sleight-of-hand. He was commissioned to build ICBMs and later convinced Khrushchev that the fact that these rockets had enough power to lift a vehicle into orbit was incidental. That may or may not be true. If he'd ever admitted otherwise, he'd have been incarcerated again or worse. He had a great detractor in the form of a guy called [Valentin] Glushko who was a genius engine designer and every bit Korolev's equal. I wanted to put all that in the book, but there wasn't room. Glushko just makes a couple of cameos. Again, through sheer force of personality, Korolev pushed past him, anyway.

I personally like to believe that Korolev was both a grand romantic, a maverick and a visionary, but I'm not sure that he could've been an entirely pleasant character to have been around. Oh, and did I mention that he helped kill a dog? Getting his dream off the ground was more important to him than anything.

SPURGEON: You mentioned trying to get a hold of Oleg Gazenko, who is still alive; was there any contact with living people at all, or people that knew the principals, in your research? Were attempts at face to face contact made?

ABADZIS: Yes, I did attempt to contact both institutions and people. I presented myself as a storyteller rather than a cartoonist; still didn't get much joy but now I've been to Moscow I realize that any and all of those institutions are glacial in terms of how fast they move.

SPURGEON: Was it difficult working with history that in a sense is that raw? Was there any tendency to overplay certain aspects knowing the final fate of the Soviet Union, for instance?

ABADZIS: With regard to the idea of raw history, I'd come up against the whole idea of how to/how not to treat it when I was setting up a children's magazine in the early 2000s based on the Horrible Histories books here in the UK. I remember having a fairly heated discussion with my managing editor about how we should treat the installments that dealt with World Wars I and II. She wanted to maintain the same level of jokiness throughout but I argued that there were people who were still alive who remembered fighting in the trenches and losing comrades and that we should be respectful of that. We could still tell jokes about the institutions involved, the people, and the absurdity of the situations they find themselves in, but don't take the piss out of the horror of the experience. And it's easier to be funny about the long dead than it is about recent dead anyway, for good reasons. No-one can remember the horror, we can only imagine it.

But I'm digressing. With regard to Laika, I did try to be careful and was mindful that certain people were still alive. I don't know if anyone in Russia has read the book yet. I don't think the final fate of the Soviet Union had that large an effect on the way I wrote the book... you attempt to put yourself in the hearts and minds of your characters and they certainly couldn't see an end to it.


SPURGEON: Since I assume Laika's pre-space program owners were a fabrication, can you describe how you created those characters, and what you hoped to communicate through their specific quirks and personalities? Because there are certainly parallels between Laika's two sets of owners, and certainly those are characters of a certain class and position within Soviet society that we only see in those characters.

ABADZIS: Well, what I wanted to evoke in the reader is a sense of empathy with the characters. I suppose that was my starting point. Plus you want to take them on a journey, one that gives them something, even if the characters are pretty broad, deliberately so in chapter two. Laika's on record as being an even-tempered animal who wanted to please and who put up with a hell of a lot in terms of her training. This was why she was chosen as primary candidate for the Sputnik II mission. So I wanted to explore how that might have come about, but also the kind of patterns that might have reoccurred in her life to put her in a situation where she became the only living being from this planet ever to have been rocketed into space without the intention of getting them back.

You can take all the potential stories that might've led up to that fact and put them in a pot and come up with anything: I tried that and it didn't fit. It seemed better to keep it pretty unspectacular and almost cliched, with the idea of the sweet little kid who loves her dog. It's concise character development, and that worked for me after the earlier ideas that I dumped. I knew the real Laika was approximately two to three years old when Sputnik II came about -- could she have had any puppies? That was an idea I looked at and dropped. That would've dovetailed in with Korolev's own troubled relationship with his daughter, another sub-plot that got dropped.

In truth, I think the real Laika's story was probably a bit less colorful than what I portrayed through the characters I chose but certainly as banal. Banal in the sense that fate conspired to put her where she ended up, and nothing extraordinary intervened. I saw stray dogs all over the place when I was in Moscow, so not much has changed. A friend who lives there told me that one of the pastimes in the suburbs, in those big Stalinesque tower blocks, is shooting dogs. We went to a market out there and saw a bear chained up. It was supposed to be dancing, but it didn't look like there was a lot to dance about around there, whether you were a bear or a human. I guess, through the characters, I was trying to put a sense of both the randomness of life and its coincidences across, even through a fairly tightly-structured graphic narrative.

Each of the main characters in chapter two have an analogue somewhere else in the book, through whom that character's themes are developed. With the exception of Korolev, there's no one human character who runs all the way through the story. One of the themes of the book is escaping cycles of abuse (or not, as the case may be) and why they occur. Certainly Mikhail was created in service of that. But if you're honest and follow the line of a character, that can change how you write the story. In this situation, certain things were fixed because of what's recorded, but it was interesting to riff on certain suggestions I came across in research and play them out through my characters -- some of whom were based upon these real figures in history, some of whom were fictional. But you read between the lines and you flesh things out. Maybe this isn't exactly the way it happened, but you're creating a sense that events might have unfolded this way and the characters weave in and out of the real history and support it.


SPURGEON: Can you describe the point at which the book started to come together for you, where you could see the way it ultimately turned out? What is the biggest difference from the book as it turned out in comparison to the book you originally conceived of?

ABADZIS: I often have an amorphous idea of what a story could turn out like -- a sort of story goal, if you like. But any one thing during the process can change that and make the creative outcome totally different from how you thought it would be. Originally, very early on in the process (as in the first piece of promo artwork I did to sell the proposal), Laika talked. That very swiftly got thrown out; I don't think I was ever actually serious about that. Empathy and sympathy and working to evoke those from the reader are good; sentiment and anything twee isn't. Laika is already cute and she's a dog with dog behavior; it was tough but one of the things I was sure about was if she was going to be anthropomorphized then it should be, as far as possible, through the eyes of a human character. You want to engage the emotions of your reader without making them throw up and the only yardstick I had to go by while writing was my own feelings. And my own limitations as an artist, I guess. Anytime I caught myself going saccharine I pulled back; I worked hard on boiling the story down, both factually and, I hope, to a sort of emotional truth. That maybe sounds a bit pompous, but that was definitely a big part of the process. I think I got there about halfway through the first draft; thereafter it was about shaping the second draft to get the sense of the irrevocable; a dog and a few people caught up in an invisible game between two superpowers.

It got to a point where it really took flight, actually -- sorry. It was certainly the most rewarding creative experience of my career. During the drawing, I was sometimes making six pages in a day -- pages I liked! I'm quite a fast cartoonist, but that was quite a speed for me.


SPURGEON: What was the significance of those pages with a yellow background?

ABADZIS: Summertime: late afternoon sunshine.

SPURGEON: I thought it might have something to do with time, but I couldn't be sure.

ABADZIS: It does have something to do with time: it's signifying the end of an era. It's the comfortable time before the sudden change, the calm before the storm.

SPURGEON: You wrote a fascinating couple of paragraphs about Dudley Watkins for the Read Yourself Raw site. How do you think the classic British kids comics from cartoonists like Leo Baxendale and Watkins has an influence on your work?

ABADZIS: They were among my earliest influences. Ken Reid and Baxendale were hilariously misanthropic and anti-establishment, Watkins was gentler perhaps but no less surreal when he wanted to be and punchy with it. They could just create whole worlds on a page and so, naturally enough to my child-mind, that's what I wanted to do too. I was always told I was reading too many comics at school but my mother encouraged it as she saw no problem -- it was all reading.

It's probably a weird thing to say, but I think that Watkins, and Herge, taught me subtlety at an early age, that you could have broad stuff going on next to these very tiny moments of time also, panels that served no more than to show a character's split-second register of an emotion. For example, every Oor Wullie strip was topped and tailed by Wullie sitting on his bucket considering that day's story, never more than a single page. In a way it was the brevity of Watkins' work, the need to tell a story in such a short space that made it so clever. He was a master at riffing on the most basic situations and building a story's plot around it.

I remember my mother always liking Oor Wullie in particular. It was sort of working class, in that all he had to his name was a pet mouse and a bucket and that, together with his friends and his imagination, was all he needed to make him happy. I'm not sure if she recognized that the artist was the same guy, but Mum loved Desperate Dan and Lord Snooty so maybe that's why she liked Oor Wullie. Although Wullie existed in a sort of happy working class 'tween wars world, it appealed to her because she recognized it. Her family was incredibly poor and as a little girl she used to search bombed-out buildings for comics -- she grew up in south London which was heavily bombed during the Blitz. Something about that association entered my psyche at a very early age; the thought of this little girl searching bombed-out buildings for old issues of The Dandy so she could read Desperate Dan. So I guess the connection and the influence is an emotive one too but I can still pick up the work by those artists today and get completely absorbed by it.


SPURGEON: I remember your book being one of the first First Second projects discussed out in the open. What's the editorial support for Laika been like? Do you work well with an editor? What does a great editor do for you?

ABADZIS: The best editors know when to leave you alone! And they know how to prod you and kick your ass, gently. Everyone needs that sometimes. FS has been very supportive and they gave me a great degree of freedom to pursue the telling of the story the way I wanted to and I'm very grateful for that. They also gave excellent notes on the first draft -- Mark Siegel gave me some great pep talks on art and Tanya McKinnon gave superb notes; she was responsible for suggesting some small but far-reaching structural changes that really, really helped certain characters be defined. A few friends also read the book; I got some excellent, insightful notes on the first draft from Jason Little and a lot of encouragement from some other cartoonists, Jessica Abel, Matt Madden, Paul-Peart Smith, Patrice Aggs.

SPURGEON: Was there anything you didn't get into the book that you originally wanted to?

ABADZIS: There's a version of Laika that's 800 pages long, in my head. There just wasn't the time to do it. I wanted to tell Gagarin and Korolev's stories too -- maybe it's a trilogy, a phantom trilogy right now, one day to be completed. There's the Glushko/Korolev rivalry I mentioned, Korolev's troubled relationship with his daughter to name but two things. You could pick almost any stage of his life and it would be fascinating, but the book is ostensibly about Laika. Well, I found him fascinating and contradictory; the challenge is putting across some of the man's personality to readers who might otherwise not. As for Laika herself -- Kudryavka, rather -- I wish I could have put my hands on any of the original documentation about her, but that wasn't to be.

SPURGEON: Laika seems to provide multiple entry points. I can imagine fans of the space race, dog lovers, and fans of historical drama all liking it, and the age range of who could read it and enjoy it seems pretty up and down the charts, too. Was that intentional on your part? Is there a reading or an access point to your work that may not be apparent on a first glance, one that you value that maybe isn't the place most of your readers will come from?

ABADZIS: In 2002, when I first had the thought to do the story as a comic, I'll admit it was pretty one-dimensional: "Ooh, dog in space, cool." I thought I could just do a straight up documentary, which would have been an entirely valid approach. But as I began reading up I realized that to do it justice in any way at all I'd have to do some research, and then I realized I'd have to plug gaps in all that research. My natural instinct is to do that as a storyteller, so I followed that. That's when I really became aware of how it could have a wide appeal. But I was also determined to tell the story for myself; I'd become kind of obsessed with it. But that's when you know something good is happening, you're beginning to live and breathe the characters. I wanted it to appeal to people and so did Mark Siegel who completely understood that when I pitched the idea to him. I want more people to read my book, and I want more people to read comics. Maybe some people will come to the book thinking it's just about a cute space dog: good. It is that but hopefully they'll get a little more from it than that.


SPURGEON: The feeling that stayed with me coming out of Laika was a sense of the story as a series of human kindnesses within a system or set of circumstances that didn't necessarily value those parts of the human condition. How sympathetic were you in the creating of this book towards the positions in which each character found themselves enmeshed?

ABADZIS: Pretty sympathetic, I guess. After all, you can't choose where you're born or in what political, religious or cultural system you're brought up in. You make your own decisions as you get older, but you can't help but be formed by the environment and system around you. The real challenge for anybody, or any of the characters in this book, is to see over the top of the wall of that.

SPURGEON: What's next, Nick? You're not going to slip away from us again, are you?

ABADZIS: Nah. I've got another two GNs in the works, plus a slew of other projects -- some as an editor too. The big one is for FS though. It's called Skin Trouble and it'll be a very different project from Laika. Parts of it are set in Alexandria, Jamaica, London and New York. I'm also hoping to get a complete Hugo Tate out there reasonably soon, as about half the original strips were never collected. I'm really enjoying the work I'm doing right now.


* cover to the First Second book, out this month
* panel from Hugo Tate
* stand-alone illustration of Laika
* Hugo Tate, O America cover
* one of the Mr. Pleebus books
* page from Laika; note the number of panels and the use of insets
* Oleg Gazenko illustration
* Sergei Korolev illustration
* fictional characters brought in by Abadzis to represent Laika's earlier owners
* Laika still talks, but only if the listener is drunk
* one of the yellow pages
* a dramatic panel sequence
* one of those moments of kindness that are found throughout the book
* a stand-alone Laika-related illustration from Abadzis' site


Laika, Nick Abadzis, First Second Books, soft cover, 208 pages, 9781596431010, September 2007, $17.95


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