Laika by Nick Abadzis

I need to preface this review with a warning: There will be spoilers.  Although the events of the book are historical fact and therefore what happens isn’t really “spoiling” anything, I feel it’s better to err on the side of caution.

Laika by Nick Abadzis is a graphic novel about the Soviet space program – specifically Sputnik and Sputnik II – and a dog named Laika, whom the Soviets sent into space on Sputnik II with no plans for a return journey.  It’s also the story of the scientists and engineers who worked with her.
Laika begins with a man named Korolev making his way out of a gulag.  He was a political prisoner put away on false charges, and now he’s been allowed to leave.  Eighteen years later he is leading the Soviet space program.

The story then switches to our furry friend Laika, and her path to the space program is a twisty one.  She’s the unwanted puppy in a high-ranking government official’s home, then given to a young boy who doesn’t want her and abandons her on the street, then a stray who takes up with another dog for protection, and finally a captured dog taken to the space program.  There, Laika is taken under the care of Yelena Dubrovsky, a lab technician whose job it is to care for the dogs in the space program and ensure they are healthy for training.

The story is a good one, but it takes awhile to get to the good bits.  The beginning is a bit meandering – the parts with Korolev are not terribly interesting and can be a little confusing to readers who don’t fully understand the context.  Laika’s long road to the space program is also a bit tiring at times, and I feel like Abadzis dwelled too long on that journey.  I don’t think any parts should have been omitted, but perhaps condensing them a little would have helped.

Once we’re in the space program, things pick up quite nicely.  Abadzis does an excellent job of showing what training the dogs undertook, who was involved in the process, and how those working with the dogs felt about their work.  There’s a pretty intimidating culture of fear there – Yelena and a few of her fellow scientists and engineers often will not speak up about the welfare of the dogs for fear of reprisals.  At the same time, the scientists and engineers also feel that the work they are doing is of vital importance (it is a precursor to sending a man into space, after all), and they’re not fundamentally opposed to it.  This serves to humanize the characters.  Instead of two-dimensional puppy-killers or bleeding-heart animal lovers, they’re fully realized people, and the reader, as a result, feels for them.  And of course, we feel for the dog intensely.  A book about a dog dying is never not going to be a tearjerker.

The art in Laika didn’t really work for me.  It was difficult for me to tell the difference between the male characters, partly because the shape and design of the faces of the same people seemed to shift from panel to panel.  At times, Yelena’s face is very boxy, other times it’s more round, sometimes her lips appeared thin, sometimes thick, and so on.  I knew it was her because of her blonde hair worn up in a bun (and because at this point in the story, she is the only female), but at those moments when her hair was drawn down, she looked like a completely new character.  The full-color helped, since I could use hair color to identify people, but since most of the male characters had brown hair…well, it was tough sometimes.
Aside from the character’s physical inconsistencies, the art just wasn’t my style.  I prefer cleaner, prettier lines, and Abadzis’ art is sketchier.  He uses facial lines almost excessively, and they make the characters look downright evil sometimes (they’re not).  This aspect is simply a matter of taste, though.

I feel like Laika might have a hard time finding its audience.  There’s a cute dog on the front cover, which means it should appeal to young kids, but the reader really needs some background knowledge of the space race and the Cold War to fully understand what’s going on.  Then again, this is a story that can function on two levels and thus might appeal to both the younger and older set: the younger kids may only follow the story about the dog going into space (which may very well be enough for them), while the older kids and adults should understand both the story and its context.  Still, I’d recommend Laika most for those older kids since the book opens with Korolev leaving the gulag and takes a bit to get to the actual dog.
In an interview with Abadzis on Amazon, Abadzis says he deliberately tried to avoid making the book overly sentimental, which he accomplishes by not anthropomorphizing Laika.  It’s a good decision, but Abadzis’ feelings on the topic still come across pretty loud and clear.  After all, he closes the book with the following quotation from Oleg Gazenko, a scientist who worked on the project and one of the main characters in the story (and I also feel it’s the best way to close my review):
“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 this mission to justify the death of the dog.”
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  1. says

    I read this one about a year ago and agree with your review. I thought it was interesting because I didn't really know the story, but it needed a little more… something to make it really good.

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