Monday, June 21, 2010

Laika's Nick Abadzis Finds a New Orbit

Words: Christopher Irving . Pictures: Seth Kushner

    “Don’t spare the feathers, mate,” Nick Abadzis quips to a low-flying pigeon that whizzes past his head in a kamikaze-like Hitchcock-ian dive. He’s sitting in a park in Carroll Gardens, Brooklyn with a cup of coffee and a coffeeshop pastry. A new New Yorker, Abadzis and his family just migrated three months prior from England.

“I don’t know where I fit in yet,” the soft-spoken Nick confesses. “I’ve been welcomed by a lot of very kind people who have helped me find my feet here.”

Abadzis has found his footing in terms of the American comics market: his 2007 graphic novel, Laika, garnered awards from the Eisners, Publisher’s Weekly, Kirkus Reviews, and YALSA. Laika is the true story of the dog sent up to die in the launch of Russia’s Sputnik II satellite in 1957, and uses Abadzis’ clean visual style to convey a story told in non-linear segments.

“With me, everything is about storytelling and making sure it’s as immersive as possible, emotionally and intellectually immersive, so that you get drawn into it and hooked early on,” Nick elaborates. “Then you get caught up in the characters: you’re not worried so much if something’s drawn in an incredibly cool way. My art’s expressive, anyway. I don’t sit around worrying about whether or not I’ve got the correct thickness on my brush. I whack it down and make sure, and go back and fix it if it doesn’t look right.”

The simplicity of Abadzis figures, with their fluid ink lines, eschew perfect detail for clear and bold storytelling design. Conversely, Laika is a complex story, as Abadzis draws parallels between the innocent dog, her keeper, and the head of Russia’s chief designer of their space program. As Laika endures trial and hardships, the reader is made aware of Russia’s willingness to send a dog in space to die – for the sheer sake of propaganda – and the dog’s inevitable and predicted fate creates a foreboding sense of sadness permeated in four colors.

    “It was a story from history that I happened to think was a really good one and worth exploring and broadening, and I’d wanted to do something about the Russian space program, because I’m really interested in Russian history (and history in general),” Nick admits. “I’d played around with this idea of doing a longer work that outlined the life of Korolev, the chief designer. I boiled it down to the idea of doing a short strip about the life of Laika, which was going to be twenty-five pages long. As is often the case with me, the idea got bigger and bigger as I researched it.”

    Nick’s fascination with Laika’s tale goes back to his childhood, the mystique of the cosmodog’s plight fueling him to learn more.

“When I was a child, the Soviets were very secretive, because the Cold War hadn’t yet ended,” he notes. “There was very little glamour about the Soviet space program, very little knowledge or information available. With the American space program, you could go out and buy books on it and find out anything you wanted to about who built which rocket, what the thinking behind it was, and why they used apes instead of dogs as experimental animals. Those kinds of things were very easy to research and find out.

"The dog is glossed over in most space history books of that era, sort of a tragic necessity, but I realized that the Soviets must have had this whole program. It stuck in my head: ‘Why didn’t they get her down? Why couldn’t they get her down, and why did they just leave her to die in space when they got the cosmonauts back?’ It was a piece of modern mythology that I hadn’t fully digested as a child.

“In 2002, more information came to light about Laika’s mission, where the Russians admitted that she hadn’t survived as long as they said she had at the time. That piqued my interest in the whole thing again.”

Laika presented several obstacles for Abadzis: the dog’s origins start as a stray from the streets of Russia, and certain records weren’t accessible, leaving him to fill in the blanks where necessary.

“It was all absolutely true to life, and I was diligent about making sure it was rooted in actual events, even down to certain pieces of dialogue,” Nick affirms. “The only stuff I made up was where I had to necessarily make narrative leaps to connect parts of the story to other parts of the story, but I diligently researched the training of the cosmodogs and how that all took place.

    Perhaps his biggest obstacle stemmed from his position as a cartoonist:

“I wrote to the Institute of Science in Moscow to see if I could gain access to any old files. I didn’t even receive a reply from them until after I’d been to Moscow and done my research at the Museum of Cosmonautics and at Korolov’s house. Since the book has been published, more information has come to light about the cosmodog program. But, at that time, it was well nigh impossible for me, a certified non-academic, to be able to gain access to it, so I did the best I could with what I could find.

“If you’re a cartoonist (and this has something to do with the way cartoonists are perceived in literary and scientific circles), a lot of people I wrote to, space journalists and space historians, weren’t sure what I was and what I was doing. I think they were a little afraid I was going to make it into a very saccharine story that was anti-science or tell the tale from one particular point of view, something I was actually very, very keen to avoid. I didn’t want to do that at all; I wanted to show a story that was inclusive of a lot of points of view, and that included researching the scientific angle as well as all the other takes on it –a more modern ethical angle was something I realized I’d have to put in as a more thematic thing.”

    Nick didn’t always dream of being a cartoonist, but it seems an obvious career choice for him in retrospect:

“I left college and did a year’s foundation of art at Chelsea College, ostensibly to take a year out and figure out whether I wanted to do fine art or illustration,” he muses. “I was confused: I knew I wanted to do something that combined my love of storytelling with art. It seems woefully obvious now what that would be, but it wasn’t at the time, because there was no real comic industry to speak of [in England].”

It took a trip to the States in the mid to late 1980s for Abadzis to finally discover the potential of the medium, one that was continuing to grow beyond the confines of superhero escapism, and into more adult territory.
“I’d gone to an American school for three years in Switzerland, and had this friend from New York, in Westchester County. I spent various summers in my teens visiting him. He later moved to Manhattan and had an apartment on the Upper West Side, so I stayed with him a lot and got to know the city really well. It was being here, and visiting his brother in Boston, and going to a really good comic book store where I discovered the Hernandez Brothers. I thought ‘This is it. It’s been staring me in the face the whole time.’

Love and Rockets, the groundbreaking black and white comic book from brothers Gilbert and Jaime Hernandez, combined adult content while retaining an infectious fun streak.

    “There was a much bigger comics industry over here,” Nick notes of England. “We had Warrior, Escape and 2000 A.D., and a few great comics like that that were very influential are really well remembered. I came back and got a job at [comic book store] Forbidden Planet, and through that got to know a bunch of people. Someone told me there was a job opening for a color separator with Marvel UK. I went and got that job, and that’s how I got into Marvel UK, and met guys like Steve White, who’s now the head honcho of comics at Titan UK. I worked for him as his assistant.”

    Marvel’s Brit office repackaged American Marvel comic books in the form of magazines and weekly periodicals. They also produced a few original books, and employed future comics stalwarts like Grant Morrison, Alan Moore, and Dave Gibbons – masterminds of the British Invasion of American comics.

“I learned the ropes as an editor the Marvel way,” Nick recalls. “It was very good, because we’d get visited by lots of esteemed personnel from the US Marvel offices: Archie Goodwin came to town once, and I remember going to lunch with him and what a lovely man he was. He was an incredibly genial and lovely individual, very generous with his time and insights, I remember., I met Stan Lee once, and managed to shake the great man’s hand, so we had a lot of that.

“It was a great place to have an apprenticeship and learn the editorial ropes, to straighten out my lettering, learn coloring, learn how to pace a story. The guys I learned from were Steve White and John Tomlinson, who were these old hands (John went on to edit 2000 A.D.). There were lots of writers, too: Kevin Hopgood was an artist there, David Hine was an inker, and I’d get to ink a lot of stuff we’d commission. It was an excellent training camp, but my heart was set on doing another kind of comic: I was brought up in Switzerland and was caught up in the crossfire between European, British and American comics. In a sense, living where you did in Britain meant you had it all. However, comics were changing and the sort of thing I was into meant there was this more demanding and authorial side of things that I wanted to explore, so I left Marvel in the end of 1988 to go freelance and got a studio with John Tomlinson and a designer named Steve Cook.”

Life’s a series of events that happen when you’re in the right place at the right time, such as Nick learned from his new studio:

“As it happened, Brett Ewins and Steve Dillon were starting up the magazine Deadline in the cubicle next to where we were renting our studio. Steve said to me one day ‘Look, Brett Ewins and Steve Dillon are next door and are starting up their own comic. Why don’t you go see them?’ We didn’t even have a proper wall, so I just stuck my head over the partition and said ‘Hello, I’m a cartoonist. Can I show you my portfolio?’ They picked out this stickman character I had at the very back of the portfolio. They weren’t interested in this more detailed stuff that I’d done, and said ‘How about him? Can you do two or three pages of this little stickman every issue?’ The reason I’d done him as a stickman was because I’d wanted to get out of the trap of feeling like I’d have to draw everything figuratively, because I wasn’t that confident an artist in those days.

 “This stickman was Hugo Tate, a character that grew and became quite an important part of Deadline
Steve once called it the heart of Deadline; he said ‘If Tank Girl’s the guts, then you’re the heart.’”

“It was an anthology comic but was magazine sized and to begin with black and white – color came later,” Abadzis describes Deadline. “It was a comics and music magazine that was very youth-orientated, and we were the snot-nosed new kids on the block who were at first, I think, slightly resented by the older guard. They were a little suspicious of us because we were trying new things and were doing so with the zest and spunk of youth.”

Hugo Tate started as a simplified stickman, but gradually evolved into looking more like a normal person with a smiley face head; eventually, his eyes became wider-set and his mouth simplified, and he even gained hair (first a cartoonish swish off his forehead, soon becoming longer hair parted down the middle). A twenty year-old punk in London at the strip’s onset, Hugo dealt with the death of his father, as well as his trying to find himself on the streets of New York City, and then through a cross-country trip with a homicidal maniac.
The reader’s connection to Tate, a swearing, irresponsible punk, is more easily built through the simplification of his features:

“I think you’ve got to give your reader a certain amount of ability to fill in,” Nick reveals. “In an emotional way, that hooks them in more, and they fill in more of what happens between the gutters of panels. My art is more about suggestion, and allowing the reader to find those sorts of things implicitly. I don’t over analyze it, and I’m very much about picking and choosing certain moments in time that will communicate the story as effectively and plausibly as possible.”

    The British comics scene was exploding by the early ‘90s, but it unfortunately wouldn't last much beyond the end of the decade, a short-lived burst of experimentation and inspiration.

“There appeared to be things happening in British comics for a while at the beginning of the nineties,” Nick observes. “Hugo Tate was very popular; a collection of the second series of that called O, America won a UK Comic Art Award. I had a newspaper strip in the [now defunct national newspaper] The Sunday Correspondent. Things looked like they were happening in British comics for a while, for five or so years, until 1995, and then the bottom of the market fell out completely. Deadline died, Crisis disappeared, Revolver had already gone – all these titles that had been forums for a more experimental and progressive kind of work just seemed to disappear overnight, practically.

Velocity by the Pleece Brothers was another fantastic self-published mini – I think that was a landmark British comic, but eventually Warren and Gary found they couldn’t afford to keep funding it from their own pocket and nobody seemed prepared to support them. Gary went off to do his own thing, and Warren became a DC artist after that. And we lost possibly the greatest British self-published comic of the nineties. There’s a lost generation of British cartoonists who went off into video games, or the mainstream, or did what I did and wrote children’s books for a few years. There was no longer any kind of an industry to support them so they had to diversify.”

Nick contributed occasional stories to 2000 A.D., and wrote the 1995 DC/Vertigo mini-series Millennium Fever, and also started creating his own graphic novels for the younger set with his successful Pleebus Planet series.

“Even though I wasn’t perhaps on the international scene’s radar, I was still creating comics. I loved doing those Pleebus books and they seem to be highly regarded. We have a thing called PLR or ‘Public Lending Right’ in the UK that pays you a nominal sum of money every time a book authored by you is borrowed from a library. I still make more from the Pleebus books in PLR than anything else I’ve ever done.”

The failure of the marketplace, coupled with a “bad divorce,” kept Nick from producing comics at the full steam ahead level he had with Hugo Tate. But after succeeding in comics once, it’s hard to not go back; Nick was no exception to the boomerang behavior of lapsed cartoonists:

“And, eventually I found my way back into the mainstream comics side of things. I came over here in 2000 and went to SPX for the first time, and that reignited my sense of there being great possibilities in comics, in the art scene that derives from the language of comics. I’d been going to Angoulême a lot [the International Comics and Bande Dessinee festival that takes place in Angoulême, France every January], but to some extent there’s always a language barrier there. I’d been trying to break in there, and it’s tougher to do because of that language issue.”

Nick kept a toe in comics by packaging comics-centric websites for the BBC, as well as working with England’s Eaglemoss Publications on packaging a magazine based on the Horrible Histories book series by author Terry Deary, a humorous look at the history of the world. While working for Eaglemoss (incidentally, with other Deadline and Marvel UK alumni), Nick helped launch The Classic Marvel Figurine Collection and the DC Comics Superhero Collection, historical magazines that feature hand-painted metal figurines of Marvel and DC characters, respectively. Abadzis not only writes the historical copy for the magazines, but also plays in the superhero sandbox by providing covers.

“Those are old loves and they never die,” Nick admits.

    Nick played around with Rashomon-esque point of view with The Trial of the Sober Dog, a weekly comic he wrote and drew for England’s own paper The Times. Sober Dog follows the co-dependent relationship between main protagonist Marco and his college antagonist, Joe, and flips perspectives between them, Joe’s wife, and Marco’s best friend. Witty, charming, and with a believable dose of human drama, Sober Dog proved to be just as much a trial for its creator as its cast of characters during its six-month life.

“That story was something done on the hoof,” Nick admits. “They rang me up and said ‘We’d like a graphic novel, please.’

    “I said ‘You want a serialized graphic novel?’

    “‘Yes, we want a serialized graphic novel, and we want it to last between thirty to thirty-five weeks. Can you do it?’ They wanted something rather Posey Simmons-ish with a lot of text, as well as illustration, because they were worried something that was pure comic strip would frighten off their readers. They said ‘Basically, we want it to go in there in two weeks’ time.’

    “‘Wait, wait. You want a graphic novel, but I’ve only got two weeks to come up with it?’
    “‘Yeah, essentially.’

“I like a challenge, but even this was insane. I had to give it a lot of consideration and knew I had to do something I could have fun with and bang out. The truth is I flogged my guts out on it, because I had to stay ahead of a two-week deadline for the whole period I was on the strip all the while having to come up with something reasonably coherent. Each page would stand alone as a discreet episode that would be entertaining to your average Times reader (who is not used to reading comics), but I had to make it work as its own overall story. That was hard work. I think what ended up being published in the Times is like a published first draft. I’d like to go back to that story and insert more scenes that got left on the proverbial ‘cutting-room floor’.

    “What they did towards the end was went ‘We decided we want to wind it up before Christmas, after all. Can you wind it up in six episodes?’

    “I said, ‘Wait, I’ve written twelve, like you asked.’

    “‘Okay, okay, but can you do it in six? We need it in six.’

    “I had to throw out material that I had written, and plot threads that were going to be wound up in one episode got shrunk down to a speech balloon here and there. Then, halfway through that final run, they said ‘It’s really, really popular. Would you mind doing it in twelve episodes?’

    “They didn’t really have any idea of how much work went into creating one page of comics and at that point I was exhausted so I said ‘I can’t, sorry.’ So it got wound up rather abruptly in six episodes rather than twelve. But, in my head, that original twelve-page ending is what I’m going to go back and redo, plus the fleshing out of some of the characters’ backgrounds so the reader’ll get a better insight into why they behave the way they do.”

“I used to work episodically, with everything that I did. I was used to writing small, episodic chunks of story to fit within a few pages of an anthology comic, because that’s how British comics evolved. At some point, I think I outgrew that and was always chafing and needing to write a longer work. I love comics, in all their forms, and I think I’ve been very lucky to have been exposed to different sides of the comics industry at significant junctures of my life. Really, I think I felt I had to come to the source, or certainly one of the sources.”

    “After Laika hit really big here, my wife said to me ‘Why don’t we go live there for a while? You’ve got loads of friends there,’” Nick reveals. “I made a lot of friends in the cartooning sector here over the years, through visiting various conventions and festivals. We thought we’d put in for a green card and see what happened, and were surprised when we got the most over the top green card there is – the ‘Alien of Extraordinary Ability’. I keep my brain in a little tank, just in case.”

    So, Nick, his wife, and five year-old daughter moved to Brooklyn just a few months ago so Nick can take a stab at making it as a cartoonist in America. As tumultuous as the American comic book industry has been, it’s in better shape than the struggling British one.

“There’s a huge pool of talent in Britain,” Nick reflects. “I know a bunch of younger cartoonists who, sadly, nobody on the international circuit knows they exist, because there’s no working forum for them to display their work. A lot of them self-publish and do their mini-comics. It’s difficult for them to get seen off of their own shores. I always wrote and drew my own material, so in that sense at least, it was tougher for me to find work…

“There seems to be so much more opportunity here, and I admit that I got tired of wading against the tide back home. British publishing, for all their lip service and supposed good will towards the medium and language of comics, you’ve sometimes got to stand firm against a lot of misunderstanding of what is achievable in comics, against old prejudices and snobbery. That gets to me sometimes.”

    Abadzis continues to do the figurine magazines for Eaglemoss, as well as juggling several comics projects, definite and posed. His next big graphic novel has a more personal and autobiographical slant:

“I’m working on a bunch of different projects now, one of which is called Skin Trouble, which is for First Second,” he reveals. “That’s very loosely based on my Dad’s life and is about immigration and migration. Now I’m an immigrant myself, and this is a theme I’m interested in exploring. My Dad was an Alexandrian Greek who was born in Egypt, and he came to England via France and Belgium. He stayed when he met my mother, but he still traveled a lot, which is why I was born in Sweden and lived in Switzerland. We spent a lot of time traveling around, summers in Greece. I never felt particularly British, and this is my attempt to take some of that biographical information and put it into a coherent story and worldview. That’s a long, slow project that I’ve been working on for a few years, and it will take me a few years yet to finesse it and get it to where I want it.

“One of the things I want to do is a complete collection of Hugo Tate – I think there deserves to be a complete collection of all the Deadline strips. It’s something of a period piece now, as it takes place in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s; it’s very Generation X. I think that would definitely find an audience. I get asked about that more than anything else I’ve done.

“There are other things I’m working on, a plethora and bits of pieces. I’m working on a book with Simon Fraser and Gabe Soria, also for First Second and I’ve just finished a nursery rhyme strip for the same company. That’ll come out in a collection next year, I think.”

With so many new ideas, does Nick plan on pursuing any old ones, specifically the Eisner-winning and critically acclaimed Laika?

“There was an idea knocking around about doing a sequel to Laika, but I think if I did that it would take me until I was sixty,” Nick quips. “I’m burned out on the Russian history thing for the time being.

“There’s a project I’m really into doing that I have serious interest for. It’s got a science fiction slant to it and will be the time I’ve tried my hand at straight science fiction. It’s all to do with music and the idea of music and creativity in our culture and where it’s going with our current technology-based creative processes – where it all might end up. As ever, I’ll also be working on a bunch of children's projects too – I don’t see a contradiction between working for both younger and older readers.

“Comics are that flexible, right?”