REVIEW SUMMARY: A memorable, one-sitting read.
BRIEF SYNOPSIS: A fact-based graphic novel about the first animal sent into space.
PROS: Great basis for a story; the fact-based details and meaty character portrayals enhanced the reading experience; artwork lends itself to the mood of the story.
CONS: The launch scene laid on the sentimentality a little too thick.
BOTTOM LINE: An affecting story that is sure to have lingering effects after reading it.
Laika is a graphic novel based on the factual events surrounding the launch of the Russian satellite, Sputnik II; specifically around the first living animal to travel in space: the dog named Laika. Three story threads follow the main characters: the dog, of course; Chief Designer Sergei Korolyov, the scientist behind the space program project who is trying to redeem his reputation since his internment as a political prisoner; and Yelena, the dog trainer who readies Laika for her fateful (and ill-fated) mission.
Three brief sentences describing each story line does not really do justice to the amount of material presented. There is a surprising amount of substance here, both fact-based and fictional. Laika’s story follows her from pup to astronaut, concisely depicting the hardships she endures, like bratty kids with daddy issues and brutal dog catchers. Eventually, Laika makes it into the hands of Yelena, a newcomer to the Russian space program and happy to do her small part for the good of the country. Yelena is unable to detach herself from the animals and develops a particular fondness for Laika, who has just the right temperament for the job. There is also some background into Korolyov’s early years as a political prisoner and his self-assigned fate with destiny. Abadzis does an excellent job with all these characterizations. You feel like you know the characters and what they’ve been through. Additionally, there are several factual details about 1950’s Russia and the Sputnik mission itself (dates and technologies, for example) that enhance the overall setting and mood of the story.
The story itself, as might be expected, hinges on the cold, hard truth of animal experimentation, and that card is mostly not overplayed. Some amount of heart-string tugging could naturally be expected, of course, but the eventual scene of that fateful Sputnik II launch laid on the sentimentality a little too thick. Overall it was still very well-handled and effective, to be sure, but nonetheless it was noticeable in that later scene.
As for the artwork, Abadzis’s character renditions are drawn consistently so it’s not hard to keep the characters straight. The drab coloring works perfectly against the Russian winter, the stark atmosphere in which the story takes place, and the seriousness of the situation. Additionally, the publisher (First Second) seems to have spared no expense in producing a book with nice, thick pages and a comfortable heft.
Tying all this together, Laika is an affecting story that is sure to have lingering effects long after reading it.
(Note: There must be something about this subject that makes for great stories. Andy Duncan’s 2001 novella “The Chief Designer” [reviewed here] is another excellent story revolving around the Russian space program, in this case around Korolyov and beyond.)