Nick Abadzis talks "Laika," the First Dog in Space

Nick Abadzis is best known for '90s works like "Hugo Tate" and the Vertigo miniseries "Millennium Fever." Both were cult hits and at the time seemed like the first stage in a long career in comics, but then Abadzis dropped off the map.

Thankfully, he's resurfaced this year with "Laika" from First Second Books. A story about the Russian space program, the book focuses on Laika, the dog launched aboard Sputnik II. The book is suitable for young readers but it's not a children's book about a dog, rather a complex, thoughtful and emotional portrait of the Soviet space program and the people involved in it. It is also Abadzis' most expansive and moving book to date.

CBR News sat down with Abadzis to discuss "Laika" and what project he'll launch into next.

You seemed to have disappeared after the release of "Millennium Fever" in 1995. What have you been working on for the past decade?

Well, the bottom fell out of the UK comics market in 1995 but I carried on doing comics, one way or another. This situation did mean, however, that there was no longer any kind of forum for the more personal or experimental kind of work that I wanted to pursue. I did a lot of work for children's publishers, among them several graphic novels (the "Pleebus Planet" books), which I wrote and drew.

I worked for the BBC, co-creating various educational websites and I worked on a children's literacy scheme, also creating graphic novels. These are now being used in schemes to teach English to non-English speakers.

I also did and still do a lot of editorial work. I'm a development editor for a company that creates various children's magazines (I always make sure there's a comic strip or something related to comics in those projects) and I also work as a consultant for several other publishers.

Around 2000, I think I realized how much I missed the freedom of doing more personal work like "Hugo Tate" and so began incorporating it into my work life again. Privately, I'd never stopped being an artist, never stopped drawing my own stuff, but it hadn't occurred to me to self-publish it in a while (that's how I started out). So around then I began working again in earnest on smaller, more personal projects alongside the editorial stuff, but maybe they weren't so visible in the USA.

What inspired you to create "Laika?"

The germ of the idea probably occurred to me as a kid, at least inasmuch I became aware that she'd been shot into space aboard a satellite and was the first living being to orbit Earth. It caught my imagination, and it made real space history an enduring fascination for me. In 2002, new information came to light about her exact fate on board Sputnik II, and that inspired me to research further. As these things do, it blossomed into an idea for a story, a sort of imagined biography of her life that could also allow me to explore all the Soviet space history and interesting characters that peopled it, like Chief Designer Korolev.

Korolev is a most fascinating character. I was amazed at his very existence: a former gulag prisoner who becomes the leading force of the Soviet space program which helped changed the world as we know it and no one has heard of him.

When the USSR crumbled, so much information about these figures that were behind the Soviet space effort came to light. But Korolev is an extraordinary individual whichever way you look at it; he survived Stalin's purges, he was remorselessly determined; his willpower was in many ways responsible for ensuring that a Soviet space effort even existed. He was behind many of the most remarkable moments in history, and at the time, nobody was even allowed to know who he was, not even in his own country. His is a remarkable story. I have thought of revisiting Korolev - we'll see.

There's your authors note at the end of the book in which you note that all the phases of the moon depicted are accurate to the day. Just how much research went into the book?

I'm not sure from a scholar's point of view it would count as absolutely exhaustive, but from mine it was. I was determined to make the final graphic novel as authentic as I could. I trawled through a lot of literature, although there is comparatively little on Laika herself. There is some good information on the cosmodog program itself if you look for it, though, in books by various excellent space historians like Asif Siddiqi and Chris Dubbs.

I got in contact with Asif Siddiqi and he very kindly helped with further information. I bugged a few other journalists and space experts on other technical matters and generally immersed myself in all the info I could find; there's a fair bit on the Internet if you dig. I went to the British Library where I was put in contact with the head librarian of the Russian collection; she very kindly translated some useful anecdotal information from some obscure, old, Russian technical books and memoirs for me. I also unearthed video documents at the Smithsonian Institute that helped me enormously from both the point of view of visual reference and in finding the character of Dr Oleg Gazenko, who featured as an interviewee in those. I also traveled to Moscow to visit various institutions there, mainly Korolev's house to get a sense of the man. It's now a private museum. It was also important to see Moscow itself, get a feel for its culture and people.

How much did the story change between your original idea and the final book and how much of that was due to research?

Ah, that's the real question. A lot. Originally, I had notions of including Yuri Gagarin as well as Korolev, but, as it turned out, that's got to be another book. I imagined it might be straight documentary at first, but then my storytelling instinct took over. Storytelling is my forte so I began putting the book together as a piece of historical fiction, which would allow me a little room for emotional maneuver. I knew I wanted to keep as much as possible to the recorded facts but I also knew I wanted to look at the story from as many viewpoints as possible.

I mentioned that the Space Medicine interviews from the Smithsonian's video archive was very helpful and that certainly had a bearing on how I portrayed Gazenko. Everything I'd read about him hinted at a careful, honorable character but I was delighted to find on the interview footage that although this was so he also had a sparky sense of humor. This chimed with what I'd deducted, but it was nice to have it confirmed. That was the sort of thing that boosts your confidence in interpreting events, to go with an instinct and make a character work but remain as true and respectful as you can to the individual (Gazenko is still alive, as is Boris Chertok).

Laika herself was another matter, as there wasn't too much info although I knew she had this odd-sounding bark; 'Laika' means 'barker'. I used the generic info I had about the cosmodog program to flesh out her training but to a large extent she became her own character.

The promotional material and the book's description make it sound as if it's a title aimed at young readers and offers a dog's view on the Soviet space program, and that's there, but it's also much, much more than a cute pet story.

I hope so. I tried to layer the book through with various other dramatic threads. The fiction and comics that I tend to most enjoy has that sort of aspect to it and so I guess it came naturally. Everything falls into a marketing bracket these days, which is understandable to an extent, and anything comics-related tends to be thought of as intended for a youth audience. But I think the appeal of the form is broadening. I personally find comics to be the most flexible and extraordinary storytelling language that humankind has invented, so I'm happy if anything that I do contributes to the medium being more accepted as an art form and means of personal expression.

What was the challenge to tell a lot of the story from the "perspective" of the dog but not anthropomorphizing her at all, you're simply working in an almost documentary fashion.

It would've been easy to do it from the dog's point of view, make her talk, make her overly cute; "Disneyfy" it. And that would've robbed the tale of any import or emotional currency it might've had, in my view. I didn't really see that as an option at all, but it was obvious I had to allow a reader to identify with her somehow. When I was in Moscow, I saw loads of stray dogs, and it just put me in mind of the kind of life Laika must've had. I just concentrated on making her seem real. It was a challenge, yes, but in a way it just made me work harder to solve narrative problems so that a reader could get an insight into things from her point of view.

Your pages are very dense. Some of them have more than 20 panels on them. What do you feel is important about the way you tell the story?

Layouts and the way they're used can be one of the subtler tools in the grammar of comics. You can create the simplest six-panel grid and that'll do just fine, or you can create complex rhythms with the way you compose the panels on a page. A lot of it is about pacing, about influencing the rate at which a reader scans a page. I think this is an aspect of comics grammar that isn't really given as much attention as maybe it should be, because it's an incredibly effective way of engaging a reader's emotions. The story itself should work on their intellect of course and hopefully the artwork engages their aesthetics. But layout and pacing can help with the whole emotional undercurrent of the story. It's incredibly important.

I actually think I got a little dense around chapter two, but never mind. It creates the correct sense of claustrophobia. I think the density of the pages also has something to do with the fact that I live in England where there's no space. Life seems like that so you replicate it on the page!

How has it been working with Mark Siegel and the people at First Second books?

Laika sketch

I love working with them. They have a nose for unusual, offbeat projects and they also have the will to back them. They're very supportive, but they know when to leave you alone too. You really can't ask for much more.

So what's next for you?

I'm doing another project for First Second which, in one sense, picks up from where Laika left off, emotionally speaking. It'll be a complex project but very satisfying when finished, I hope. I have another GN project for kids on the go, and a bunch of other irons in the fire. It's an exciting time to be cartoonist; there's so much good work out there at the moment. I hope to be contributing to the field for a good while yet.

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