Laika, by Nick Abadzis: Ground Control to Major Dog / by David Anderson

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There was some study that came out a while ago that showed that the reason tragedies are popular is because sadness can be cathartic--there's a certain amount of dopamine or something that gets injected into your system to cushion the sad and keep it from making you suicidal most of the time. That little dopamine dose makes sadness tolerable, but also likeable, in a weird way. Makes sense when you think about it--why else would you go to see sad movies? Why the eff was Shakespeare popular? Shouldn't sad stuff be bad? And isn't bad something worth avoiding? So then why the hell did I read Laika?

Well because it's good, but that's a story for another time. Kidding, now sit back and imagine you're reading this in the soothing voice of James Earl Jones. Okay, my writing style probably makes that impossible.

Laika is the story of, well, Laika. You know, the Commie Space Dog that died like five hours after being launched into The Great Whatever.  It's like how you know how the Titanic ends, but a lot better than that movie; it's historical fiction, based on lots of research with first-hand historical resources, but with a lot of fictional dialogue and dogs that can smile. We already know how it ends, but the journey there is the interesting part.

It follows several threads in sequence, starting with Sergei Pavlovich, the Russian missile scientist who becomes the chief director of the Russian space program years after being released from a gulag. His desperate attempt to find shelter from the snow after his release sets the tone for the rest of the story, with destiny being the main theme. From there we're introduced to the family whose dog birthed a litter containing "Kudryavka", or "Little Curly", who would later be renamed "Laika" shortly before her ascent into orbit. But between Little Curly's birth and death we see the life she led that brought her into the arms of a veterinarian student who tried her very best not to get emotionally attached to the dogs she cared for in between the rocket tests they were used for. There's a pretty wide variety of characters here, all of them affected by Laika in big ways. By chronicling Laika's life and its watershed moments, both from what the papers said and from what can only be guessed at, the feeling of destiny only intensifies.

What I like in the dialogue is how human it makes the characters. You might have seen movies like The Right Stuff or October Sky or something where everyone hears about Sputnik and freaks out--"Oh no, the Russians are coming!" (Actually I don't think that happened in October Sky.) But I like this story because it's a lot more real. It's about the people in the Soviet space program as much as it is about the dog, and you can see how torn some of them get between their personal feelings and their need to be professional, as well as some of the paranoia that pervaded the Soviet bureaucracy. They're normal people, and the Soviet system has simply placed different problems on them, not made them alien to conventional thinking and life. I don't see a lot of that and you know I have a thing for new perspectives in stories and other media.

Yelena, the veterinarian, can't help but project her own voice and pretend that the dogs speak to her even as she tries to remain professional and detached. Oleg does the best job he can, but increasingly finds himself at odds with his superiors over the treatment of the dogs. Sergei's ambitions are vast, but he's still haunted by his time in the gulag. Nick can write great characters and the ways in which Laika affects all of them make her first and only voyage much more emotional.

He especially spends a lot of time building a character for Laika as a strong headed runt who wants to see the people she loves again, which is where a lot of the emotional power comes from. Obviously dogs' brains aren't that capable, but this is a work of historical fiction so it's okay to ignore that for the sake of a story that's one part Disney and three parts cold hard reality.

I'm kind of iffy on the art style. On the one hand, it works for its intended purpose. Characters are cartoony and it is especially capable of giving animals expressive powers and a certain level of anthropomorphism. It is very good at giving the reader an aesthetic that manages to be both inviting and also capable of relaying tragedy without losing the warmer feel of the style. Yeah you'll have dogs puking and bleeding and dying but they can still look adorable.

Of course on the other hand character poses and shapes can get kind of weird.  They kind of look like they're made out of smudgy clay. Also, the sheer number of panels on a single small page means Nick does a lot of his art in low resolution. We get more story, but told in tiny frames. Still, he does some interesting action sequences and panel transitions, some of which remind me of a Matrioshka doll, and he has pages where he really busts out the talent for important moments, like when we see Laika's rocket for the first time.

Hilary Sycamore, the colorist, uses the classic drab colors of the Cold War, but also uses more virbant colors and shading to depict rural life and dream sequences. Shading isn't too complicated most of the time but like Nick her A-game is saved for the giant moments and important dream sequences. So, on a personal level I'll indecisively oscillate between liking and disliking the style, but in general I think it's good enough for print.

I don't know if you'll get an emotional hit from it like I did. It was a long read, what with the content density making each page a long trip, but he uses that time to make you attached to that dog. It's a cynical tale ultimately; Laika's orbit didn't give much valuable data, and people who worked on the project said it was a waste of resources. For me, seeing the final flight got me all depressed. I mean, I'd be lying if I said I didn't like that dog enough to miss her once the story ended. Maybe you're not made out of jelly like I am though, so you might have a better time of it.

TL;DR: Laika is like Old Yeller but more interesting and historical. I don't know if you'll like the art style but you will definitely enjoy the story (and possibly also be sad for a week).

Laika is written and drawn by Nick Abidzis with colors by Hilary Sycamore. It is published by First Second Books. You can ask for it in your local comic book shop, or, support Spandexless by purchasing from our Amazon web store.