Review: Laika

(Part of me wants to keep writing this, adding more to it, but I’m going out of town for a few days and I wanted to post it before the anniversary.)

Fifty years ago on Nov. 3, a formerly stray dog the Russians called Laika became the first earth creature in space. Despite the official claims at the time, Laika died about five hours into her flight.

Nick AbadzisLaika (First Second) expands on the dog’s story, as well as telling story of the humans around her. It remains a sad dog story, sure, but it’s also a sad human story – it’s about the choices we face to serve our own ambitions, the sacrifices we make for what we believe in. Told through Abadzis’ roughly graceful art, it’s a tale made all the more moving through the comic format.

After initially introducing Sergei Korolev, who has just been released from prison to aid the Soviet space program, the first few chapters are lead by Laika, initially dubbed Kudryavka (“curly” in Russian), as she weathers one cruelty after another – from an uncaring first owner to the harsh reality of life as a Moscow street dog. Abadzis never anthropomorphizes Laika even when she’s the center of the action. She’s always just a dog.

The book shifts toward the human characters after Laika is caught and picked to be part of the space program. Hired as an assistant dog trainer, Yelena, an invention of Abadzis, quickly becomes the reader’s surrogate. She loves Laika and the other dogs under her care, but her excitement quickly fades as she realizes this job will quite often mean losing the animals she loves. Sworn to secrecy about her position, Yelena is forced to be alone in her pain as she faces Laika’s fate and sweetly cares for the dog until the launch.

While Abadzis’ sympathies are clearly on Laika’s side – she is the title character, after all, and the one we follow from life to death – none of the human characters are presented as villains. Even Sergei Korolev, perhaps the coldest character in the book, is merely doing what he feels he must. When he chooses Laika to be the dog to go into space, he sees it as an honor for her. One of the leading scientists in the space program, Oleg Gazenko, provides the conscience of the book, expressing the conflict of the heart science too often brings.

Although based on reality, Abadzis inserts magical touches throughout, such as Laika’s dreams of flying, several people naming her Kurdryavka due to her curly tail, and even Yelena being neighbors with Laika’s original owners. The effect is subtle, but all these things point toward the bigger idea that Laika was fulfilling her destiny of becoming the first animal in space.

Abadzis’ ability to tailor his page layouts to suit the action is masterful. Dream sequences have a gentle fluidity while tense moments of drama are created with rigid, small panels. Also inescapable is that Laika is an adorable dog. Abadzis doesn’t draw her in a overtly cutesy or cartoony way, but even through his stylized realism, Laika’s personality comes through. This makes the story all the more powerful and painful as readers are constantly reminded of just who this dog was and what she looked like.

It’s a heartbreaking story, but Nick Abadzis tells it with beauty. Laika is a wonderful tribute to a little stray dog that changed the world.

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