It took 50 years, but Laika finally learned how to speak. The first living creature to enter the earth’s orbit found her medium, in the form of Nick Abadzis, a veteran British comic artist and children’s book author.
The book, which borrows its name from the first space dog, tells her tale pitch perfectly, in a way that only a graphic novel can afford. There’s no Disneyfication here—no talking dogs, easy answers, or forced happy endings, and while Abadzis’s view on the matter does come through in glimmers in a reading of the book, the question of non-voluntary sacrifice at Laika’s core is never really resolved.
It’s clear that, after years of research and a general immersion into the subject matter, Abadzis still doesn’t know all the answers. However, he has become something of an expert in the process, and the day before I arrived at this year’s SPX, the author was delivering a speech on the subject, as he had done earlier at the National Air and Space Museum, in nearby Washington DC.
The 50th anniversary of the sputnik space launch just occurred, and you gave a speech not too long ago on the subject.
I did a presentation at this convention, yesterday, and I did one for some librarians and journalists in New York, and I also do one at the National Air and Space Museum here in Washington DC, so that was three very different audiences, but all very interested in a graphic novel. Suddenly I’m realizing that, although they’re different audiences, if you get the right book, it can unite them.
So each one of these talks that you gave on the subject was filtered through the book?
Yeah. The presentation is supposed to be kind of an insight into the creative process that produced the book. But, as always with these things, it’s kind of a compacted idea of what actually went on. It’s always difficult to trace a path backwards and say what you did, afterwards, so what I did the real presentation about was the research process and stuff that is pretty easy to explain, like how you designed the characters, and how you based some of them on real people from history. I made some of them up.
But it was really interesting—kids were interested and adults were interested. Professional people were interested, so, yeah. I was really kind of quaking before I made any of these presentations. I’m a professional cartoonist—good at being alone, not great at being in front off crowds of people, but it seemed to go down well. They seemed to enjoy it.
I was under the impression, since the speech was given at the Air and Space Museum, that it had to do a bit more with the history of the space program. Was that a big part of it?
Yeah, that was certainly a part of it. Laika, the book, is really a piece of historical fiction. I guess that’s the best way to describe it. So I’ve been at pains to point out that, although it’s broadly true, there’s a section of it that’s out of my head, which is Laika’s early life.
It’s tough to retrace the life of a stray dog.
Exactly. So it therefore has to be a piece of historical fiction. But the later chapters had to be highly researched, and there are characters in it that are a part of soviet space history.
There are still some really larger than life characters in the book. There’s Korolev, who is released from the gulag at the beginning. Is he based fairly closely on what we know about him?
Yeah. That story of him getting out of the gulag is all true. That all happened. He was a pretty driven character, which I why I chose that portion of his life to set up that aspect of his character up. You can’t do that with many historical characters—point to one instance and say, “this is what formed that character.”
In his case, it was fairly easy to boil it down. He was a driven character for a number of reasons, but the fact that he was a victim Stalinist purges and ended up in this gulag, which he was then recalled from, in reality, I think he was recalled from it a number of times, and shipped back and forth between a number of prisons before they decided what they could make out of him.
He’s a big part of the reason why the whole mission went down the way it did. He really pushed to have the whole thing go down in a month.
Yeah. It’s really pretty incredible. Having really been interested in the guy’s life for so long now, it’s still difficult to really try to inhabit the his mind, to understand the character, to capture it for the book. It’s still difficult for me to grasp how driven this guy must have been. He almost willed the soviet space program into existence, through a little maneuvering and a very clever political imagination. I guess “manipulative” would be a word to use, but I can’t help but not quite see him that way. From his point of view, it was all for a greater good, but alas, there were individuals who suffered in light of that.
The primary female character, Yelena—is she based on a real person?
She isn’t—or she is…This is an interesting story. When I first read up on the Institute of Aviation Medicine, where she was supposed to have worked, I was aware that there would be female character there at the time, but there was no record of a female dog carer, until years later—’60, ’61.
That particular lady worked in the Moscow Space Service, and she trained dogs as part of the experimental animal program that continued after Sputnik 2. But around ’55 or ’57, I wasn’t aware of anyone like that existing. So, as far as I was concerned, when I was writing the book, she was a figment of my imagination.
But after I had finished the book, I was speaking with another author who had written a factual book about space—Chris Dobbs. I got ahold of his book, and there was this remarkable picture of this one woman, dated from around 1957, which looks exactly like the character that I had drawn. So it was a case of one of those bizarre coincidences, where truth is stranger than fiction.
[Continued in Part Two.]