Any preconception that I had about graphic novels presenting simplistic or cartoonish stories was shattered by this book. Laika, is a complex story that focuses on the deep relationships that can be formed between humans and animals. The graphics and text work in concert to portray the action and emotion in this story, especially in the dream sequences where Laika imagines that she is flying. Readers who are familiar with graphic novels will appreciate the quality of the artwork and dialogue. Readers who are new to the genre will be easily caught up in the story that is being told.
Laika is the story of the first dog to go up in space. It’s not a spoiler to tell you that she doesn’t come back. But Laika is really the story of the dog’s — and her people’s — life before she’s launched in Sputnik II’s tiny compartment. The Cold War, the space race, the USSR during that time, common human cruelty, loss, privation, powerlessness… all these provide a context and backdrop to Laika’s story, so the heavy feeling starts a few pages in and continues to the end of the story. There are compassionate and kind people throughout, of course, which only increases how sad you feel while reading it.
Laika’s entire story, as conceived by Abadzis, is heartbreaking but there are certain moments towards the end that I found particularly easy to identify with. 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. That she’s scared and uncomfortable and just wants to get out and play. Anyone who has ever owned a pet will be familiar with this feeling. When the pet is missing or in pain, it’s difficult to keep from emphasizing with it. How much worse then when the dog in question is imprisoned in a capsule and shot into the sky? Abadzis doesn’t just show Laika’s plight. He makes you feel it in the core of your being.
The last page of this book contains a quote that offers a 1998 statement from Oleg Georgivitch Gazenko. In it, he laments the way that Laika was misused. “We did not learn enough from the mission to justify the death of the dog.” It’s a dead dog book. Anyone who knows the story of Laika will be aware of that. But above and beyond the obvious this is an ode to dogs themselves. To the animals that we befriend and love and, ultimately, destroy. It’s also about history, humanity, and the price of being extraordinary. No one can walk away from this book and not be touched. Consider Nick Abadzis a name to watch from here on in.