On 3 November 1957, Laika, a mixed-breed dog rescued from the streets of Moscow, died aboard the Sputnik 2 spacecraft. She was the first animal to orbit the Earth. The first human was the Russian cosmonaut, Yuri Gagarin, in 1961 and later that year Alan Shepard became the first American astronaut. Since then the space race between the USSR and the USA, increasing numbers of humans and animals have travelled in space with some, tragically, not returning to Earth. The Russian scientists who designed and engineered the Sputnik 2 spacecraft made no provision for Laika’s live return. They claimed she died when the oxygen supply expired. The true cause of her death from overheating (cooked?) on re-entry was not revealed until 2002.
For many, Laika is a hero. Her life (but not her death) is celebrated in popular media or mainstream culture. For people who love dogs and care deeply for all animals, particularly animal rights advocates, she is remembered as one of many millions of animals who suffered and died in research and experimentation.
Nick Abadzis’s graphic novel, Laika, tells her biography as the ‘abandoned puppy destined to become Earth’s first space traveller.’ In 200 pages of cells or comic-style illustrations, the story is told of the rescued dog from Moscow’s streets, her human carers, and the scientists involved in the space project. Abadzis travelled to Russia, visited special Sputnik II archives, and interviewed experts in his research to write and draw this book.
There are many challenges involved with writing animal biographies, as I’m learning as I write the life story of Topsy, the female Asian elephant electrocuted to death in Coney Island, New York in 1903. We may be more used to reading biographies of humans but there are, of course, challenges to writing them as well. So, there are similarities and differences in writing biographies regardless of species. However, there are two big differences in animal biography that I identify. The animals can’t speak for themselves as humans do. Their lives are not as documented as humans. Consequently, writers of animal biographies rely more on their imagination and creativity to tell the stories of animal lives.
Abadzis successfully navigates this challenge with a balance of fact and fiction. In comments at the back of the book, he notes that his depictions of scientists were based on real historical figures, but he imagined Yelena, the woman who cared for Laika in the laboratory’s kennels. ‘Later, it came to light,’ he notes, ‘that someone very much like Yelena really existed at the kennels where Laika was kept.’
Abadzis’s style in telling Laika’s story as a graphic novel is a design that consists of six to ten cells for each page. Only a few pages include fewer illustrations, which are larger drawings and, for me, more interesting to gaze upon. Graphic novels come all different designs, of course. My preference is for those whose style varies the design and number of cells on the page. But please don’t let this comment put you off from reading Laika. It’s a great book that tells a moving story.