One of the things I have long-loved about the European style of storytelling, and the reason why I have consumed everything from Agaton Sax and the Moomins as a child through to The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery as an adult, is that it is not afraid to tell it like it is.
Life may have its whimsical, magical moments, those special moments of wonder and belonging that make the spirit soar but it is also dark, sad and distressing, and all of the examples given, and many more besides, have shown their willingness to depict and discuss both sides of the existential coin.
Atlas & Axis, a delightful comic series from the hand of Pau, a Spanish writer/illustrator based in Mallorca who you can sponsor on Patreon, joins this illustrious line of fine, nuanced and truthful storytelling, unafraid to be lighthearted and joyous but brutal and realist when it is called for.
And for a series set in the early Middle Ages, with anthropomorphic dogs taking the place of humans, it is called for a great deal.
Much like the human Middle Ages when death and destruction were everyday facts of life, and expectations for happiness were short-lived (though not non-existent; hope springs eternal in the most unexpected of time and places), life for our two delightfully gungo protagonists, Atlas & Axis is often difficult and heartbreaking in the extreme.
In the first volume alone of this four-part comic series, which ends far too early, leaving you wanting considerably more of their adventures, the village that best friends forever Atlas & Axis share with friends Raposa, wise Canuto and Atlas’s sister Erika, is pillaged by wolf-like Vikings, with all the men killed and the bitches and puppies taken away “north”.
It’s a horrifying moment for both dogs, and a startling break from the opening pages where thoughtful, considered Atlas and a far more impulsive and adorably dimwitted Axis, are acting like two good friends do, all gentle teasing, wisecracks and catching up on the former’s most recent trip away from which he has returned with a mysterious parchment which talks of a magic bone which gives its possessor an always-filled food bowl.
It’s a quirky riff on the concept of a McGuffin, an object or device that spurs a plot right along, but any excitement stemming from its existence, which Canuto alas cannot shed light on before his death, is quickly dissipated by the horrors Atlas & Axis find in their now-destroyed village.
It spurs them to go “north”, although that is a vague idea for the two – although wise Atlas is more knowing and adept than his companion so their quest does not degenerate into a wild goose chase (and trust me, if there were actual wild geese, they’d fit beautifully right into Pau’s imaginatively-realised animal-filled world) – to find Raposa and Erika but also to seek revenge which they duly deliver after a sidetrack or two.
Their attack on the Vikings is purposeful, bloody and sustained, and though they meet sweet bear barkeeper and eventual good friend Honey and the love of Atlas’s life Mika (who keeps disappearing to his lovelorn frustration), and even exploding ewes (who are, wait for it, terrorists), and while it’s all cosy and wonderful, it’s also really, soul-saddeningly grim.
Just like life, of course.
That’s the magic of Pau’s storytelling, which is rich with emotion, joyously whimsical, and ferociously intelligent and socially-aware, often all at once – it acknowledges both sides of life’s equation and the narrative is all the more powerful for it.
Along with a substantial and engaging narrative that will have you turning the pages so fast you may get papercuts (trust me, you won’t mind), there is Pau’s expansive, luminously beautiful artwork.
Even in the most searingly emotional of scenes, we are treated to gorgeously-rendered panels that feel wonderfully, vividly alive even when, alas, the characters who inhabit them are not.
As Atlas & Axis race north, and then east to help prove the theory of evolution is true by finding woolly mammoths and Tarse, the link between wolf and dog (who turn out to be far more sophisticated than either protagonist expects), and on and on, one immersive adventure after another, we’re treated to stunningly beautiful, richly-colourful landscapes that entrance and inveigle and into which you happily descend along with Atlas & Axis who race through them with alacrity, glee or panicked urgency, depending on what is going on at the time.
In many ways, these two endlessly supportive friends, who may bicker a little and get separated more than either would like, remind me of Astérix and Obélix, the hilariously heartfelt and satirical series from Goscinny and Uderzo, who similarly race d madly hither and yon on grand adventures, who showed a cheeky disregard for convention and who were gifted with superlatively well-drawn landscapes too.
Atlas & Axis, the first collection of which came out in 2011 and which has been published in Spanish, French, Dutch and eight other languages, is certainly reminiscent in spirit of the longrunning French series, but is most assuredly its own uniquely beguiling creation too.
For a start, while the dogs of the series are anthropomorphic in many ways, they are still dogs.
They sniff each other’s butts in greeting or to initiate intimacy, they sniff turds to determine who is around and what they might be like, and as Axis winningly remarks in one of the first pages of issue 1 as he greets his long-absent friend “I’e had nothing to do but rub my bum on the carpet …” to which an amused Atlas retorts ” You need to get your carpet cleaned … Seriously.”
They’re also inclined to chase down sheep to eat, or in the case of the Tarse, keep a herd of them for quick and easy consumption, thus proving that you can dress a dog in clothes and make him interested in the origins of life, but that doesn’t mean they won’t stop acting like dogs.
This faithfulness to all matters canine gives Atlas & Axis a unique feel, making them both very human and very doggy, a combination that allows them to be all kinds of things, and which powers the series on page after page with wit, wisdom and an authenticity of life experience that will endear this brilliantly-clever and emotionally-resonant series, which can take its place in the grand canon of European storytelling with head held high and absolutely no need to even remotely consider putting its tale between its legs with shame.