“Work with animals is a source of suffering to all of us. We treat them like babies who cannot speak. The more time passes, the more I’m sorry about it. We did not learn enough from the mission to justify the death of the dog.”
~~ Oleg Georgivitch Gazenko, 1998
There was really a dog named Laika, and she touched the stars 50 years ago. Laika was the abandoned Russian puppy who was destined to become Earth’s first space traveler.
On November 3, 1957, the Soviet Union made headlines and history when they launched Sputnik II into orbit around the earth. The satellite had a passenger: a brown and white mutt named Laika.
Nick Abadzis brings her story to life in a haunting and bittersweet graphic novel, Laika, published by First Second Books. In 200 pages, he manages to portray the Russian attitude toward space conquest at the time, the grueling schedule that the scientists were forced to follow, and the heartbreaking decisions that the trainers of the dogs in the program had to make.
Laika began her life as the unwanted offspring of a highborn lady’s dog. Given to a boy as an “attitude change,” she was locked up and abused before being thrown away. A series of events led Kudryuvka (Laika’s original name) to Yelena Dubrovsky, the trainer with the Russian space program. Both Yelena and Dr. Gazenko began to understand the sacrifice that both the dogs and the people involved in the space program were asked to make during the Space Race between Russia and the US.
The graphic novel opens with scenes of the frozen Russian gulag and a man named Korolev. Eighteen years later, he is the Chief Designer of Sputnik. Buoyed by the success of the successful launch, Prime Minister Khrushchev demands that his space program launch a second orbital vehicle within a single month…this time, with a living creature on board.
Laika, one of many dogs at the Institute of Aviation Medicine, has been trained for flight travel. She bonds immediately with her caretaker Yelena Alexandrovna Dubrovsky and endears herself to the other scientists as well. No dog is better suited for space travel, and Laika is slated to make a trip from which she will never return.
Laika dies five hours after she is launched on Sputnik II. Unlike later missions, no provision was made to ensure her safe return.
The historical facts of Laika’s life and the characters that surround her were exhaustively researched. There’s Sergei Korolev, the head of the program, whom we meet as he is walking out of one of Stalin’s gulags, whence he had been banished in the great purges, and who becomes a driven monster, forever scarred by Siberia. There’s Yelena Dubrovksy, the space medicine program’s animal handler, who has a preternatural ability to connect with the space-dogs, but who is also a scientist and Party member who is clear-eyed in confronting their eventual fate.
For the most part Abadzis maintains a simplified cartoon style. At moments of great importance, however, he renders the figure of Laika more three-dimensional. As Laika sits in the red light of her capsule, mere moments before takeoff, she becomes highly realistic. Sometimes scenes are black and white, like stills from a movie. Other times they are two page spreads that drill home the wonder or the horror of a given moment. And in dreams, the lines that make up a panel grow soft and colourful.
Abadzis talks to Jeff Vandermeer at Amazon.com about making the graphic novel:
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. 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.
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 manoeuvering. 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 honour 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.
I could have done with another hundred pages. But I’d taken a bit of time to write and thumbnail it 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 would be the final part that would bind together events seen in the first two. Maybe one day.
I suppose it would have been easy to make it another 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. I didn’t want to anthropomorphize her, at least not to the extent that she was spouting speech and thought balloons like Tintin’s Snowy. 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.
When Comrade Yelena visits Laika for one last time she can hear the dog saying her name with every bark, even when Yelena is too far away to hear them. She dreams that Laika is calling out to her for help.
No one can walk away from this book untouched.