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Laika Paperback – September 4, 2007
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Laika was the abandoned puppy destined to become Earth's first space traveler. This is her journey.
Nick Abadzis masterfully blends fiction and fact in the intertwined stories of three compelling lives. Along with Laika, there is Korolev, once a political prisoner, now a driven engineer at the top of the Soviet space program, and Yelena, the lab technician responsible for Laika's health and life. This intense triangle is rendered with the pitch-perfect emotionality of classics like Because of Winn Dixie, Shiloh, and Old Yeller. Abadzis gives life to a pivotal moment in modern history, casting light on the hidden moments of deep humanity behind history. Laika's story will speak straight to your heart.
Questions for Nick Abadzis
Jeff VanderMeer for Amazon.com: What inspired you to pick this particular topic for a graphic novel? And why, for example, a graphic novel as opposed to a strictly written account?
Abadzis: I'd known it was a good story since I was about six years old. It had always been at the back of my mind as a story to tell. In 2002, new information came to light about the Sputnik II mission and specifically Laika's death. That was the spark, although back then I envisaged something much shorter. It, uh, grew. Why a graphic novel? Well, comics are my language. It's the medium that I'm most familiar and comfortable...so it was first choice.
Amazon.com: What most surprised you while researching Laika?
Abadzis: There were a few things. I had no idea there were so few Soviet engineers and scientists involved in the nascent space program--not to trivialize their incredible achievement but, in many senses, they just winged it, borne along in great part by Korolev's force of will and political maneuvering. Also it was interesting to find out how much the Soviet scientists cared for their cosmodogs. Events conspired to make Laika a sacrificial passenger on board Sputnik II, but they really did honor their canine cosmonauts. There's even a statue of Laika in Moscow. Perhaps this book will go some small way to re-establishing her position in history: whatever the circumstances, and whether you agree with what they did or not, she was the first earthling in orbit around this planet.
Amazon.com: Was there anything that didn't make it into the graphic novel because it just didn't fit?
Abadzis: There was quite a bit, actually. I could have done with another hundred pages. But I'd taken a bit of time to write and thumbnail it (which I do at the same time) and when that stage was finished, the publisher and I realized that the 50th anniversary of the Sputnik launches was fast approaching. When I first pitched the idea to Mark Siegel at First Second, neither of us realized that it was so close. It felt like we needed to be a part of that, so I drew it extremely fast--two hundred pages in a little over eight months. It's an understatement to say that it was extremely hard work. What got left out was a longer explication of Laika's origins; the scenes with Mikhail, her first owner were much longer.... Originally, I did have an idea of doing three books: Laika would be the first, Gagarin the second, and a full-on comic strip biography of Korolev [the driven engineer on the project] would be the final part that would bind together events seen in the first two. Maybe one day. Certainly, elements of Korolev's life that I felt were important to the story made it into the final version of the book.
Amazon.com: Did you worry about the sentimentality inherent in the situation? How did that affect your decisions in creating the graphic novel?
Abadzis: I suppose it would have been easy to make it another cutesy, twee, and overly saccharine dead-dog story but that wouldn't have been true either to my taste or to the socio-political system and culture I was attempting to portray. Laika--the real Laika--was a cute dog, as photographs attest. There's no getting away from it, and there's plenty of evidence to suggest her owners thought so, too. I didn't want to anthropomorphize her, at least not to the extent that she was spouting speech/thought balloons like, say Tintin's Snowy (which works just fine for those books). Having made that decision--which I didn't really feel was an option, in any case--I knew that to really do it justice, I'd have to do a lot of research. The sentiment of the story, such as it is, would take care of itself and be implicit in certain character's actions or words (or not, as the case may be).... All that said, it'd be disingenuous to suggest that, in dealing with a true story that involves dogs and their owners (even if they happen to be scientists in a Soviet cosmodog program), there wouldn't be a bit of emotion. There's plenty (and I hope the reader feels it). But there's also the harsh reality of the time, the place and the confluence of events that put Laika into space.
Amazon.com: What are you currently working on?
Abadzis: I'm currently working on a new graphic novel for older readers called Skin Trouble, which is also for First Second. I'll leave it to your imagination as to what that's all about, suffice to say it'll be an ensemble piece, character-wise. I've also got a children's graphic novel in the works. Can't say anything about that at all, but I'm looking forward to drawing it.
Classic dog-story themes such as loyalty serve as a backdrop for this fictionalized account of Laika, the first living creature launched into outer space. A charming and scruffy little dog, Laika survives an uncaring master and life as a stray before becoming part of the Russian space program circa 1956, just as the Soviet Union had achieved a huge victory over American competition. With a stilted romanticism that doesn't fit the story's tone, Laika is established as "a very special dog," but soon the focus of the complex tale turns away from the dog to Yelena Dubrovsky, the trainer responsible for preparing Laika and the other dogs for the rigors of testing. Through Dubrovsky, the progress of the program and the incredible pressure on the scientists are given effective form. The rough-hewn art, similar to the Joann Sfar's work on the Dungeon books, makes the characters appear constantly nervous and uncertain, lending immediacy to the all-pervasive atmosphere of strict formality and enforced patriotism. An extensive bibliography of sources is appended. Karp, Jesse
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Nick Abadzis’ LAIKA is a fictionalized account of the short life and sad death of Laika, the Soviet space dog. Be forewarned: it’s a three-handkerchief, bucket-of-tears kind of novel.
Laika’s story is one of loyalty and trust repaid with callous abandonment and deception, and the injustice of this tale resonates deeply. “Do not worry,” Laika is told, again and again. “Trust me.” Meanwhile, death waits for her, implacable.
Reading Abadzis’ graphic novel, I found myself saying “It’s not fair! It’s just not fair!” A very childlike reaction, one that I’m usually too jaded, or too adult, to voice so vehemently.
But the pointless suffering of an innocent animal tends to trigger that kind of vehemence. We want to the world to be less cruel, and when we see a devoted animal suffering and dying precisely because she’s so devoted, then the rationalizations we’re usually able to make as adults don’t work so well anymore.
Abadzis isn’t the first artist to engage with Laika’s tragic history. One of my favorite films is Lasse Hallstrom’s My Life as a Dog, available from the Criterion Collection. It’s the story of Ingemar, a young Swedish boy growing up in the fifties and struggling with feelings of abandonment and betrayal. Ingemar’s father is gone, his mother is desperately ill, and no one wants to tell him that his dog isn’t coming back. Sent away to live with relatives, Ingemar sits and looks at the stars and thinks of Laika, who got sent into space without any food, left there to die. “You have to compare,” he tells himself. “You always have to compare.” His grief at being sent away is sustainable, if only because he identifies with Laika, who had it so much worse.
There's also a subtle criticism of "the system" here, because the humans involved are rarely individual monsters. They have feelings and make decisions within a web of social demands that inevitably lead to Laika's tragic end, and we cannot help but feel that her caretakers are also victims of this web, like her.
The visual art style is generally clear and focuses on telling the story. The one downside is that the human characters have many lines on their faces, and it can be difficult to discern what the artist is trying to tell us with these lines. Are they emotion? Age? Sometimes the faces feels a bit scratchy without a clear reason why, as if everyone in this tale is haggard.
Regardless, this is a story worth telling, and Abadzis has not shyed away from its sadness, weaving together both the human and the canine points of view in a narrative that is compelling and enlightening.