by Nick Abadzis
Nick Abadzis has been working away for many years as a cartoonist yet has never really had that high a profile. I first met his work in Deadline magazine with the excellent Hugo Tate, which quickly evolved from a crude, almost stick like illustration style single page strip into something far deeper, far more involved and a far richer comic altogether which eventually resulted in the epic (and sadly unavailable in collected form right now) Hugo Tate in America. This showcased the major talent that would surely anyday be recognised some time soon.
But that was many years ago now and since then there’s been very little Abadzis to go around. But finally, back in 2007 came the announcement of Laika. A major new project from Abadzis at last. But a strange choice of subject perhaps? A major new graphic novel about a dog? How much mileage can one get from a dog, even one as famous as the first dog in space? Luckily, thanks to Abadzis’ talent and obvious love of his subject, the answer to that one is easy. Laika is an incredibly good read, and far, far more than a dog’s tale. It’s a tale of science, of achievement, of bravery, of loss, sacrifice and above all of hope and love. Abadzis has seamlessly blended fiction and fact all through the tale to produce something that rings so true that you can feel it becoming the official version of events in your head. With Laika, Abadzis does what only the best fictions manage and rewrites reality to create something genuinely mythic.
The book tells three main stories; Korolev, scientist, engineer, architect of Russia’s space program. Yelana, the lab tech responsible for looking after Laika. And Laika, little Laika, so desperate to please, so wanting to do well, a perfect Russian cosmonaut taking step after step uneeringly to her death. Each character is written with depth and feeling, lending a real emotional core to a time in history where the world suddenly altered forever. We see the triumph against a climate of fear and suspicion for the scientists, we see Yelana’s bond with Laika develop to become so strong that we feel her intense pain and grief in the end. And more than anything we see the incredible life and journey of little Laika. Abadzis perfectly captures what we all assume to be the prevailing spirit of the age, both on a worldwide scale and in the intense personal and professional lives of all involved, both human and canine.
(Good dog Laika. Just part of the training she went through. Art from Laika (c) Nick Abadzis. Published 1st Second)
And the art? It’s equal to the scale of the writing and the story. Abadzis has come an awful long way from his earliest strips of stick figure simplicity. Panel after panel, page after page of incredible storytelling that captures every nuance, every moment. Whether it’s the cold work of the engineers, the love of the lab tech for her charge or the details of Laika’s short, tragic and quite unbelievable life, Abadzis’ art manages to tell it all simply, effectively and memorably.
The pacing throughout the book slowly builds and builds from the planning and testing stages through to the final tragic launch. It’s done perfectly both in atory and artwork.
(Abadzis’ artwork from Laika, showing just how much emotional impact his art conveys when simply illustrating one small dog. (c) Nick Abadzis. Published 1st Second.)
Abadzis ends the book with a famous quote from Oleg Georgivitch Gazenko (The man responsible for Laika’s training and selection):
“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”
And that’s the terrible truth with Laika. It was a one way journey, necessitated through Khrushchev’s desire to celebrate the 40th anniversary of the October Revolution with another propaganda victory to match that of Sputnik I. Yet Sputnik II’s little dog gave her life for little scientific advancement and a hollow propaganda victory that soon fell apart as the world questioned why she was sent up to die.
Laika’s a really excellent book that manages to tell us so much about this amazing time in our past and should act as a clarion call to us today that we owe it to ourselves to look up once more in wonder and ask ourselves why we’re not walking amongst the stars once more. As I wrote this review the news of NASA’s plan to return to the stars was being questioned purely on monetary grounds. But what is never mentioned is the absolute necessity of exploration as a means to discover more about us as a species, to give us dreams and aspirations. We should take to the stars with awe and wonder.We owe it to so many brave souls and we owe it to one small Russian dog.
Nick Abadzis has a website. He recently won a 2008 Eisner Award for Laika as best publication for teens. Congratulations obviously. He’s also the creator of the excellent Trial Of The Sober Dog, which is being serialised in The Times in the UK, but he’s posting it on his blog – episode 1 is here.
Richard Bruton read Laika and then sat outside gazing up for a while. It’s something we should all do more often.