Laika: Turning the Story of the First Dog in Space Into a Graphic Novel

By Comic Heroes on at

In 2002, at the World Space Congress in Houston, Texas, one of the founding myths of the Space Race was finally exposed. Dr Dimitri Malashenkov, who had been part of the team working on Sputnik 2 in November 1957, revealed that, contrary to the official statements issued by the Soviet Union, the dog on board the satellite had not survived in orbit for a week. In truth, she had died about five hours after take-off, in a highly panicked state, falling victim to a combination of stress and a cabin temperature exceeding 100 degrees Fahrenheit.

Having achieved a remarkable propaganda coup with the launch of Sputnik 1, the first artificial satellite, Soviet premier Khrushchev had ordered the follow-up mission to take place within weeks, to capitalise on this success and to tie in with the 40th anniversary of the October Revolution. But the mission needed an added element, a new achievement to press home Soviet supremacy. And that was a stray mongrel named Laika.

Her story is the subject of Nick Abadzis’ beautiful, elegiac graphic novel published by First Second Books in 2007. “The genesis of the book was when I read about Laika when I was a child,” Abadzis told us. “The idea that a dog was Earth’s first space traveller was cool, but I couldn’t get over the thought that she’d been sent on a one-way trip. It really terrified me and stayed with me.”

It was the 2002 revelation about Laika’s death that ultimately prompted Abadzis to start work on the story. “I’d always been a real space and history nut, and had wanted to do something about the Soviets. I thought it’d make a great subject for a short strip but, as I read and researched, the project snowballed and I became obsessed with filling in the blanks, making it authentic rather than some Disneyfied cutesy dead dog story.”

Ordinary Lives, Historic Moments

“Laika also seemed to be a way to tell a story about a pivotal time in history – the beginning of the Space Age and the Age of Information that we live in now. It was a moment when there was a huge change in the way human civilisation viewed itself, and this little representative of caninekind, so often said to be our best friends, somehow got caught up in it. Around her were the lives and loves of ordinary Russians, kindnesses and hurt, all orbiting this incredible event, and I wanted to show it all in the book.”

Over a period of four years, Abadzis undertook extensive research, reading old newspapers and books, talking to historians and scientists.

“At the British Library, a very helpful librarian translated some Russian texts for me. And I unearthed some taped interviews with Oleg Gazenko [the scientist who selected and trained Laika] in the Smithsonian’s Archive, which were enormously helpful from a visual angle, as I got to see the kinds of environments in which he worked, as well as getting a sense of the man.

“I also went to Moscow, where I was hoping to gain access to several institutions and conduct interviews, but none of them replied to me until about two years after I wrote to them – things moved glacially slowly compared to the rate I was creating the book. But I did get to visit the Museum of Cosmonautics, where a fantastically helpful lady got me an invitation to look around Korolev’s house, which is preserved as a private museum. I wasn’t allowed to take pictures, but I got to stand in his study and spaces he worked and thought in, which was a thrill and enormously helpful in helping to comprehend his character.”

"I became obsessed with filling in the blanks, making it authentic."

Sergei Pavlovich Korolev is one of the real people depicted in the book. The charismatic director of the Sputnik programme, he had been sentenced in the 1930s to ten years in a Gulag work camp for alleged crimes against the state.

“The original idea was to do a trilogy, about Laika, Gagarin [the first man in space] and finally Korolev, with the final volume bringing together threads from the first two,” says Abadzis. “However, in the process of research and writing, I distilled it all down into one central story and realised that all the themes I wanted to illuminate could really be done within the confines of one book.”

Understandably, although he’s off-stage for much of the latter part of the book, Korolev remains a driving force throughout it. “He was an extraordinary man, who almost through sheer force of will and sleight-of-hand convinced the Americans that there was a power equal to their own aero-industrial complex present in Soviet Russia, when in fact all the USA was really up against were a few well co-ordinated design and engineering bureaus,” Abadzis explains.

“He was certainly a mercurial and very complex person who achieved so much under enormous pressure from his superiors. He loved his country but had a lot of issues with the way he was treated. Reading between the lines of his documented life, I believe he was also a dreamer, a romantic of sorts. Certainly possessed of enormous passion and a huge imagination, which was balanced with serious engineering chops.”

Another key character is Yelena Dubrovsky, an empathic lab assistant employed to look after the dogs used in the program. She is a fictional creation, Abadzis says: “From all the research I was doing about the way the cosmodog training program was run and the way the different Soviet bureaus interacted, it just seemed logical to me that there would be someone to fill her role. But when the book was finished one of my contacts – a guy very knowledgeable about the Soviet space program – unearthed a picture of a woman who looked just like her and who actually worked at the kennels in 1957.”

And of course there’s Laika herself, whose backstory is entirely imagined. Extrapolating from the fact that she was caught as a stray, Abadzis shows her being abandoned in Moscow in 1954, then surviving on the streets until dogcatchers pick her up. In an appropriate stylistic touch, her growls and barks are conveyed very much in the European comics idiom. “I’m probably as steeped in American and British comics as I am in the European stuff, so I’m not sure where that came from, other than a desire to not sound clichéd. I wanted her to be expressive, and to anthropomorphise her as little as possible, so I suppose that’s where all those sorts of sound effects come from.”

Having completed his research and writing, Abadzis drew the book in a “very intensive stretch that lasted about 10, maybe 11, months, as we wanted to get it out in time for the 50th anniversary of the Sputnik launches.”

Methods and Influences

Asked how he worked, Abadzis reveals: “I drew pages first in a soft pencil, inked them using a lightbox to save time erasing the marks, then the linework was scanned and cleaned up in Photoshop. I was working with a colourist, also to save time, although all the ‘painted’ effects are mine – they were added at the scanning stage and put on as layers by myself with very specific instructions as to what they were and how they should look.

“The speech balloons are a part of the original art, and the text is a font based upon my own hand- lettering, but including ‘variable’ letters so it doesn’t look too samey.

“As for my artistic influences, it’s all the usual ones – a lot of Franco-Belgian cartoonists, including Hergé, Baudoin, Bob and Johan De Moor, José Muñoz, Moebius. All those guys. I don’t think I can ever keep the Schulz or the Crumb or even the Posy Simmonds out of my comics work, either. And there’s a very deliberate tip of the hat to Hergé in Chapter 4, which I’m sure you can spot...”

Laika won the 2008 Eisner Award for Best Publication For Teens, but it’s very much a work for all ages. Its depiction of the protagonists is measured and non- judgemental, illustrating people toiling under trying circumstances. This approach, free of histrionics, makes Laika’s death, silent and unseen, all the more moving.


This article first appeared in Comic Heroes, the world's best magazine for all your comic book needs. From Marvel and DC to indies and graphic novel classics, pick up the latest issue and back issues here, from MyFavouriteMagazines.co.uk, and follow the mag on Facebook.


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