Zero Gravity | Laika’s Nick Abadzis

laika-header.jpg In his emotionally moving new graphic novel, British cartoonist Nick Abadzis tackles the tale of Laika, the pooch who became the first earthling to enter outer space.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Laika (:01 First Second)
208 pgs. FC; $29.95 hardcover, $17.95 softcover
(W / A: Nick Abadzis)

 

It’s rare to find yourself getting teary-eyed over a dog who died fifty years ago. But Nick Abadzis’ new graphic novel, Laika, elicits that kind of heartfelt emotion.

 

The cover to Laika by Nick Abadzis. Click thumbnail for a larger image.A British cartoonist and writer, Abadzis is best known for his UK Comic Art award-winning comic strip, Hugo Tate, as well as Landscape of Possibilities, a limited edition flipbook published in tandem with Paul-Peart Smith. He’s also known for his work with children’s books, which include Blottvoomer’s Volcano and The Dog From Outer Space. Nimbly bridging the gap between realism and whimsy, Abadzis’s work is packed with emotional nuance and attention to detail.

 

His latest book, Laika, is a rigorously researched account of the Moscow stray who became the first living creature in space that breathes fresh life into a scientific milestone, attributes a personality to an international canine icon, and provides a detailed look back at the space race—all while raising thought-provoking questions about the nature of trust, and technology’s relationship to humankind.

 

We caught up with Abadzis via phone during his press tour for Laika, and got the inside story on his writing process, the challenges of working with historical material, and his future projects.

 

What drew you to the story of Laika? When/how did you get the inspiration for the comic?

 

It’s a weird one. It’s one of those stories that’s been with me ever since childhood. I was always really aware of it, I was always really aware of her being an icon of the Soviet cosmonaut program. It was always her and Yuri, that was all you heard about, it was all really mysterious and enigmatic. It was always one of those long-held fascinations.

 

Interior sample from Laika by Nick Abadzis.I remember reading an article on the BBC website talking about the fact that there’d been a world space symposium where a senior Russian scientist stated that that whole Laika mission hadn’t gone the way it was reported. She had died around the fourth or fifth orbit, rather than a few days later, as was previously reported. And that was the moment at which I thought, hey, there’s more than meets the eye here. I’d always been interested in the whole cosmonaut thing, so it seemed like a logical starting point. In those days, I envisioned something short, a 10 to 12 page book, very strictly documentary. But it grew.

 

 

The book is extensively researched. What were some of your favorite discoveries while learning about Laika?

 

The biggest thing was the role of [Sergey] Korolyov. I’d heard of him, but I’d never gone into extensive detail about the Soviet space program since I was a teenager. He was this shadowy figure, and nothing was known about him widely at all. He was basically a hero of the regime, he was somebody who was greatly important. It was his willpower and his force of personality that really got the whole ball rolling. Sputnik 1 certainly wouldn’t have been sent up there without his efforts. And all this mystique can make it seem as though he’s this shadowy figure, but he was as human as anyone else. So he was the first thing who really caught my attention; there’s this human character here, and all of the things he was very passionate about point to this romantic ideal. He was clearly a tactical player. He convinced his superiors that he was interested in building an ICBM(Intercontinental Ballistic Missile), which paved the way to build a satellite.

 

As for Laika herself, there’s really not that much information. It’s all anecdotal stuff, or what you can piece together from the general information on how they trained the cosmodogs. So, even finding out small things about her, you get very excited. It’s a kind of detective work. Most of what’s recorded was in the month prior to Sputnik 2. She was chosen for her personality, because she tolerated the training better than the other dogs. She was patient. Why she was patient, there’s no evidence for that. So that was one of the things in the book that I felt I should provide some evidence for, some idea of how a dog might behave that way.

 

And then you have Oleg Gazenko, who was a very technical guy, very involved in the scientific aspects of the space program. He was the one who operated on Laika, and implanted the sensors used to monitor her in orbit. [And then there’s Gazenko’s boss, Vladimir Yazdovsky], who took Laika home with him one day to play with his kids, to be a real dog for a change. That’s just amazing to me, the fact that he clearly cared for her enough to do that.

 

One of the most striking and touching things about Laika is your decision to focus on the animal cruelty aspect of the Sputnik 2 mission, foregrounding Laika’s emotions and reactions to the project, instead of focusing on the mission’s importance to the space race. Why did you choose to approach the story in this way?

 

An interior page from Laika. Click thumbnail for a larger image.I tried to be as even-handed as possible. One of the first positions I took was that I would treat each character as a person or animal who’s reacting to the pressures of society, and the regime under which they worked. I really wanted to be sympathetic to that. I really wanted to get under the skin of these characters. So although they’re scientists, although they’re physicians, they’re sympathetic characters. That was probably the first requirement I made of myself. It would have been easier to be a lot harsher, and portray them as experimental animals, but that would be a disservice to the people involved, and the hard choices they had to make. That evolved out of my desire to make everyone very human, to treat them as characters who were working under the yoke of great hardship. It was a very different world. You have to account for certain values. I wanted to make sure they were rooted in a very real, understandable world, even though it was 1950s Russia.

 

Yelena is one of the most sympathetic characters in the book. Is she based on a real person?

 

Initially, I got the idea for Yelena—because I would say she is my own creation—she was very, very loosely based on a woman who worked at the Soviet Space Bureau some years later, a woman who was very good at training animals, specifically dogs. She had worked for the Russian state circus, and had a great rapport with dogs. But she didn’t work there until 1960, 61. There was not much information available about her, but there was enough to infer that there were women working in the program, so it wasn’t much of a leap to imagine a woman working with Laika. After writing the book, I was talking with another writer, Chris Dubbs, who worked on a book called Animals In Space, and there was a picture of a woman standing with the cosmodogs, and it was Yelena. She looked for all the world like the character I’d invented. Which is one of those really bizarre coincidences that shows you truth is stranger than fiction.

 

The book frequently comes back to the idea of "destiny," and the concept that fate is unavoidable. Do you think that going into space was Laika’s destiny, or just a choice made for her by some ambitious humans?

 

I think it was a choice that was made for her, really, looking at it from a slightly different angle, with the benefit of hindsight. It was as much circumstance as a decision made by any one individual. But Laika is an honored Russian heroine. She’s actually having a statue built for her in one of the subway stations. And she’s also in a frieze outside a museum. She’s acknowledged as the first living being in orbit, and honored as a hero. She is part of the history of space exploration, and of animal experimentation. All of those potential viewpoints are presented throughout the book.

 

You use a lot of small panels and tight layouts, giving the story an almost filmic quality, and allowing your readers to see small shifts of emotion on your characters’ faces. Is this a style common to your work, or one used just for Laika?

 

An interior page from Laika. Click thumbnail for a larger image.I think it’s something that I guess I have developed. A lot of my work is about the undercurrent of emotions that plays with things. I also wonder, and I’m just being playful here, if my style comes from England, where we like to pack everything into such tiny spaces. I think the whole language of the comic strip is incredibly flexible, emotionally, and that’s something that we don’t portray as much as we’d like in the form. So the page structure is working deliberately in service of that. And it’s also to do with pacing, and drawing the reader in, so they feel it firsthand. I like to get in characters’ skins and walk around in them, and that was one of the tools that enabled me to do that.

 

There are modern bands named after Laika, songs about Laika, and sci-fi novels where Laika survives. Why do you think Laika’s story has become such a pop culture touchstone?

 

She’s the first living being from Earth in orbit. She went further and higher and faster than anyone had before. Plus, she was a pooch. She was a cute dog. Dogs catch people’s imagination. Man’s best friend and all that. That’s a given. She’s also got a great and catchy name.

 

But all that aside, I think the wonder and awe that her journey represents, and also the loneliness—that idea that we’re all alone is exemplified by that little dog. The dreams of the human race were with her. Fifty years later, it’s pretty incredible to think about. It’s no wonder that she’s been elevated to that point as a pop culture phenomenon.

 

I found the book beautiful, heartbreaking, and thought-provoking. Did you experience a similar range of emotions while creating Laika?

 

Abadzis in Moscow, while researching for Laika.There were long dark nights of the soul in the making of this book. I was talking about getting in the human characters’ skin and walking around in them, but you can’t do that with a dog, you’re just injecting your human emotions into them. So it was a challenge to get inside that doggy personality. It’s difficult to describe. As a child, I responded to Laika’s story from the emotional point of view. As a teenager, I looked at it from the technical standpoint. So I’ve run the whole range of emotions. But when it kind of came to portraying the detail of stuff, the parts of her life which I can only imagine and weave around the real history, I did certainly get wrapped up in the emotions, especially toward the end of the book, when she’s in her little capsule. Everything I felt, I put down on the page.

 

What do you hope readers take away from Laika?

 

She’s sort of easily forgotten, though she has become this icon. But there was a real dog there, and I guess I want to provoke people into remembering that. It’s 50 years, almost, as we’re talking, since she was sent up. It has been 50 years since Sputnik 1 was launched. So we’ve had 50 years of the space age. Today, we’re almost being changed by our technology. We don’t use technology the same way as we did 50 years ago, and over the next 50 years, it’s likely to change even more. I guess I don’t want to forget our emotion. It’s easy to get wrapped up in the technology, and focus on that. Laika represents this awe and this wonder, and this looking out by the human race at the universe, and if she can represent something like that, it’s a very, very positive thing.

 

Any new projects in the pipeline that we can look forward to?

 

I’m working on a new novel that I guess, in an emotional sense, picks up where Laika left off. It’s to do with the idea of immigration to the West. It’s to do with my family history—I’m a piecemeal person, a sort of melting pot, even though my parents lived in England. It’s meant to be relevant to all of the West, a sort of broad sweep. Fundamentally, the story’s about two guys who come to England: one is black, Jamaican, and speaks English, and the other is Greek and doesn’t speak any English. Time-wise, it’s got a much wider sweep than Laika. It goes into the modern day, and then on into the future. So I’m setting my target and my ambitions high. Whether or not I pull it off…well, that’s part of the process. This new book will be very much more of a memoir in some ways, though aspects of it will be fictionalized.

 

You seem drawn toward using comics as a vehicle for historical fiction.

 

Well, whenever you’re dealing with historical information, you fictionalize it a bit. I think the medium of comics allows you to be a hell of a lot more intimate than film or plays. Right now, there are so many experiments going on to expand comics as a medium, so many artists working with new ideas of what comics or graphic novels can be. It’s such an exciting time to be a graphic novelist. I’m exactly where I want to be with that. We are living in the proverbial golden age of cartooning—graphic novels, certainly. I’m really thrilled to be a part of it. | J. Bowers

Click here for an 8 page preview of Laika, courtesy of :01 First Second Books!

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