Nick Abadzis is the author of the graphic novel Laika, a luminous telling of the story of the first dog sent to space. Laika has won many awards, including an Eisner award (a comic book version of the Oscar’s). It was nominated for a National Cartoonists’ Society Division Award (best comic book) and a Harvey Award for Best Original Graphic Album, among many other honors. (Read my review of Laika in the journal Society and Animals: A Graphic Novel raises Ethical Issues: Laika. by Nick Abadzis.)
Abadzis has graciously agreed to share with Animal Inventory readers his thoughts on creating a canine character. Enjoy the interview below, and for more information on Nick, visit his website at www.nickabadzis.com.
(Special thanks to publisher First Second, the journal !Journalista!: The Comics Journal Weblog, and the site Comics Reporter for linking to this interview.)
I asked Nick to select his favorite image from Laika to accompany the interview. In reply, he explained, “I found this incredibly difficult … But if I had to pick a single image, then I suppose it would have to be the splash panel on page 52 [above], which encapsulates everything that the book is about.”
Animal Inventory: Your graphic novel Laika has won lots of awards and accolades, but did you encounter any resistance along the way from publishers, editors, distributors or readers who did not think Laika’s story was worth telling? More specifically, how did people respond to the focus you place on Laika’s perspective, and the amount of time you devote to Laika’s side of the story within the comic?
Nick Abadzis: I didn’t really encounter a problem with that once I’d placed the story with [the publisher] First Second. The problem I had prior to that was interesting publishers in the story at all, which surprised me. As far as I was concerned, it was a modern myth, an extraordinary tale from any perspective you cared to come at it from. But I didn’t get much interest at all from British publishers, although that might have been as much about their antipathy to comics storytelling as much as anything. (Most publishers here are more open to graphic novels now, especially as they’ve discovered that it gets young, reluctant readers reading.) My plan was also to take it to some French publishers – the French love their graphic novels or “bande dessinee” as they call them, and several publishers there had been very encouraging about another project I showed them. But after playing with the idea to do a short strip based on Laika’s last few days, the more I thought about it, the more it seemed crying out for a deeper treatment, a biography, if you like. I had to do it justice, from canine, human, scientific, political and historical viewpoints. I decided I had to do some in-depth research. I put together a more detailed proposal for a longer work just before a trip to the USA. I took it around publishers there and got a very good response. Mark Siegel of First Second jumped at it – he just got what I was trying to do straight away and he encouraged me to follow my muse and get it right. We agreed that we had to make it fair and allow a variety of viewpoints from different characters: Laika’s would be the most difficult to get right. Mark was very generous in allowing me the room I needed to tell the story the way I wanted to tell it.
We’ve actually had an extremely good response to the book from librarians and historians and also from the space journalism quarter. I’ve been blown away by the way it’s been received. Although it was broadly marketed as a “teen” book, it was never conceived or written with that idea exclusively in mind. It’s for anybody who is interested in animals or history or the space age and how it came to be. Inevitably, you do get the odd person wondering aloud, “Why all this fuss over a dumb dog?” My answer is, “Read the book.”
AI: I have often encountered people who believe that it is impossible for someone to get “inside the head” of another species — and this renders all artistic representations of animals invalid. How might you respond to that sentiment?
NA: To be honest, I find it sort of pitiable. It’s an extremely egotistical stance and an absolute failure of imagination. Does that mean that only a dog can write about what it’s like being a dog? They may wait a long time for that one, although it’s one piece of writing I’d really like to read, too. This is what art is for, after all: to stretch the way humanity perceives the universe around them, to imagine different viewpoints. Imagination is what allows us to make great scientific and philosophical leaps just as much as it allows us to empathize with our environment and the other creatures we share it with.
You always run the risk of anthropomorphizing an animal character, of course. I was very careful about that: characters in the book do this, but whenever any of the characters who are dogs are seen on their own, I made very sure that they behaved like dogs, not people. That said, there are people who believe that animals don’t have emotions and don’t experience fear or anger or even love, aren’t there? I don’t mean to say that animals necessarily experience emotions in the same way as human beings do; for one thing they don’t have the benefit of the huge emotional memory that humans and perhaps even other primates tend to. Indeed, I think the way human beings experience emotion varies from person to person and culture to culture but I daresay that anyone who works with animals, whether they be farmer, veterinarian or scientist, would agree that individual animals have different personalities.
Even if you agree that you’ll never completely and accurately understand or convey what it’s really like to live as another species, why not try? It might open a few other doors. There are religions in this world that talk of the idea of a person finding their own animal spirit guide. Whether I believe in that or not, I’d hate to discount such a lovely idea on the basis that my own solipsistic viewpoint rendered exploring it through artistic interpretation pointless. One of the functions of myth in human culture is to understand the abstract; the viewpoints we can’t rationally describe or comprehend. The story of Laika is a modern myth; we need to attempt to look at it from her point of view too. I made sure the book presented a variety of viewpoints, but hers is just as valid as any other. If they’d have sent up a dolphin or a squid I would have been obliged to try to tell it from their point of view, too. That might sound absurd, but I think that it’s the duty of any artist or storyteller who takes on this sort of subject matter and who is worth their salt to at least attempt to do that. On this occasion, I’m delighted that what I tried to do seems to have worked for a lot of readers.
AI: Aside from reading historical accounts of Laika’s life, how did you go about inhabiting Laika as a character? How was the process different from or similar to inhabiting a human character?
NA: There aren’t actually many extant accounts of Laika’s life. Most of my research was spent building a picture of what her life would’ve been like as a trainee cosmodog in the kennels of IMBP, and I got this from a variety of sources, including some helpful space journalists and historians. Much of the information about Laika herself was written after she was selected for the Sputnik II flight, so although I had good information about her personality, I had to imagine what her early life might’ve been like. There are still a lot of strays on the streets of Moscow as I saw when I went there, so that part wasn’t too difficult to imagine as you could see it with your own eyes. I interviewed a friend and some friends of hers who live in Moscow about what a general attitude to these street mutts might be, both now and historically. Suffice to say they’re not tolerated well.
As for Laika’s character, I guess I drew on all the dogs I’ve ever known but as I mentioned previously, I was determined not to anthropomorphize her too much. She was a dog, she had to behave like a dog and not a cutesy cartoon character. That would’ve been too easy and I think I would’ve tipped the story over into easy sentimentality. That said, I did imagine what I might’ve felt like if she happened to have been my dog, which is where a lot of Yelena’s love for her came from.
AI: Were there any animals in your personal life who you looked to for inspiration? If so, what elements of those animals can we see in Laika?
NA: I don’t own any animals as pets anymore, although as a family we owned various species of mammals, reptiles and fish growing up. It was a zoo. The closest to a real world model for “my” Laika is my brother’s dog Zippy, who is very old now. He’s a very well-loved family mutt. This might surprise some people, who might assume on the basis of reading this book that I’m an outright dog lover (I am, but I’m pretty keen on animals generally) but I owned a cat as a child who was very dear to me. He was a pretty crazy animal, a common moggie [British affectionate term for a domesticated or mixed-breed cat] who behaved more like a loyal dog – I still miss him.
AI: In the process of researching, writing and illustrating Laika’s story, did you learn anything new or unexpected about human-animal relationships? about dogs or animals in general?
NA: I learned that there are no easy answers in this technocratic society of ours, but that’s what makes it all the more important to ponder big questions, especially as regards our relationship with animals and also the environment.
As a culture, we Westerners purport to love animals – and we do, but in a very normalized, particular and deliberate niche. We don’t respect them much, but then we have a problem respecting ourselves and other human beings a lot of the time. If animals are pets, it’s fine, we know how we’re supposed to respond to them. If they’re wild, we don’t seem to care as much, except in a distanced, somewhat rarified manner, as if they’re there for our entertainment on some amusement park ride. I don’t think we really comprehend on a deep cultural level what the word “extinction” means and how many animal, insect and plant species are on the verge of that. If they’re animals bred for scientific experimentation, then we just look the other way most of the time (and I’ve been as guilty of that in my time as anybody). All of this stuff needs to be opened up and looked at, put on the table and debated. That’s part of a much broader human problem though, which is to do with the way that we communicate, both with each other and with our environment.
I learned that animals are a part of us, so deeply embedded in what makes us human that the way we treat them and the environment has got to change, to be refined or we let a part of ourselves die. That sounds perhaps a little declamatory and dramatic but that, basically, is what it comes down to. As a species, if we’re to survive and evolve and allow the rest of the planet to do the same, we have to change the way we think and therefore, the way we interact with it.
AI: What kind of impact do you think representations of animals in art or writing can have on what humans think about animals and how we treat them?
NA: That’s a very broad question. It can do some good or some bad, depending on the quality of thought that went into the original representation. I know that cartoonists have a tendency to make little anthropomorphic characters based on animals – we all do it, I do it – which can endow them with the human qualities we might wish they had. But real animals aren’t like that, they don’t speak, and so we have to remember to speak for them and in a responsible way. Perhaps, speaking from a cultural perspective, we need to anthropomorphize them less, or create more stories and representations that try to respect them as their own sorts of creature, rather than indulge this tendency to humanize them. I’m not saying we shouldn’t do that, just that we should try other approaches too. It would help with the way we think about animals as part of human culture.
As far as my work goes, I just have to hope that the graphic novel I created allows people to meditate and reflect upon some of the questions thrown up by this particular episode in history. Ultimately, it’s up to individuals to arrive at their own opinion of what impact such representations have; it’s my job to tell stories as powerfully and honestly as I possibly can. And to keep doing that, which I will.