Laika was just a mutt wandering the streets of Moscow when she met with destiny. She was brought into the burgeoning Russian space program and became the first living thing from Earth to be launched into space, onboard Sputnik 2 in November 1957. Unfortunately, the dog would only live about four hours in the rocket, before excessive heat killed her. She might have lived had the Russians taken more time to design the capsule inside Sputnik 2, but the shuttle was rushed into production in just a month --- Nikita Khrushchev was so impressed by the success of Sputnik 1 that he called in top scientist Sergei Pavlovich to rush the next launch to coincide with the 40th anniversary of the Bolshevik Revolution.
Laika remains one of the most famous dogs to ever live and a symbol of the Cold War aggression between Russia and the United States. In Nick Abadzis’s graphic novel of the same name, Laika becomes so much more, as do the human beings who catapulted her into history.
Abadzis, a British writer who spent months researching this book, even journeying to Moscow, starts his story with Pavlovich’s release from the Gulag in the late 1930s. From then on, Abadzis jumps back and forth in time with wild yet precise abandon, going from Pavlovich’s near-death trek to safety after his release from prison to the day of the launch of Sputnik 1 and back in easily followed vignettes.
He also gives Laika a backstory that parallels Pavlovich’s. Since so little is known about Laika --- even her breeding heritage is debated --- it’s conjecture on his part, but it’s wonderfully imaginative and fitting. Laika deserves a story of her own for the advancements in technology and space exploration that she helped make possible.
Abadzis has a soft, reserved style, a rare gift for subtlety and understatement. In an age of overcrowded pages and panels stuffed full of long dialogue balloons, it’s refreshing to read a graphic novel that is not overwhelmed by wordiness.
It’s clear, too, that Abadzis has done his research. LAIKA is filled with fascinating details on the Russian space program and the people inside of it. Pavlovich, still bitter about his false imprisonment and treatment in the Gulag, had a near-impossible task laid out for him when he was commanded by Khrushchev not only to construct a second rocket to launch but also to make it even more newsworthy than Sputnik 1. The only way to top the first event was to put a living thing in orbit.
Pavlovich lived up to his end of the bargain, but the cost to him is clearly shown in LAIKA. It’s a tender and engrossing work that deserves praise for shedding light on one of the most noble and steadfast victims of the Cold War.
Reviewed by John Hogan on September 4, 2007