Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Review: Laika, by Nick Abadzis

by Oksana Lushchevska, The Pennsylvania State University 

Nick Abadzis’ Eisner Award-winning graphic novel Laika balances realistic and historical presentation of competing ideologies in the USSR and the USA during the Cold War period. It portrays a satellite experiment conducted for the 40th Anniversary of the October Revolution, led by Nikita Khrushchev (1894-1971), First Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union. Telling the stories of three different characters, Sergei Pavlovich Korolev, Yelena Dubrovsky, and a dog named Kudryavka (known in history as Laika), Abadzis presents a story of traumatic experience, personal dislocation, and achievements. 

The story of prominent Soviet rocket engineer Sergei Pavlovich Korolev (1907-1966) begins in the first episode of the novel. He returns from the GULAG exhausted and weak, but his belief that he “is a man of destiny” keeps him alive (9). Korolev travels to Kazakhstan, where his life changes after he becomes the Chief Designer for the first Soviet satellite. He is a man of duty and needs to follow Khrushchev’s orders. His new task is to achieve a new milestone and send a living being into Space.

Yelena Dubrovsky works as an assistant in the dog-training laboratories for the Soviet Air Force. Early in her career, Yelena believes she is honestly serving the state and that there is nothing that can prevent her from doing so. In spending time with the dogs, she becomes strongly attached to them, especially to a curly one named Kudryavka. When she learns that Kudryavka will be a rocket dog and “the most famous dog in history” (132), Yelena understands that she needs to keep her work a secret. According to Korolev’s plan, the dog will be sent into Space without returning back. This becomes a very complicated emotional issue for Yelena.

Kudryavka’s life is constructed around her desire to trust people. Abadzis depicts a number of characters in the dog’s life. A poor woman Tatiana and her daughter Liliana care for the dog’s well-being. But they cannot keep Kudryavka, so they give her to Mikhail Korovin, an unhappy boy. He dumps her into the water. At that point she is caught by the dog catcher and given to the Air Force. When Kudryavka begins to trust Yelena, she is selected to go on a space mission to prove “the superiority of the [Soviet] socialist system” (21). Kudryavka receives the new name Laika from Korolev, who chooses her as the “sacrificial passenger” on the rocket and names her after her barking (lai) (138).

Through colors in the illustrations, Abadzis separates the public Soviet sphere from the private one. The colors in which he depicts emotions and feelings of the main characters are mostly dull or rich in deep scarlet, blue, brown, and black. Some moments of private life are colored in white and green. The illustrations are attractive not only because of the color palette, but they also contain interesting details. Abadzis is very attentive to representation of Soviet culture. He depicts workers’ uniforms, their everyday clothing, and essential Soviet attributes of the offices such as portraits of Lenin and Marx, and the symbol of the hammer and sickle.

Abadzis also addresses some negative aspects of Soviet life, such as neglected children (Mikhail Korovin), blat, or the use of connections to obtain goods in short supply or a good job (Dubrovsky is Major General Petrovsky’s niece, which helps her to work in the secret service), the miseries of Soviet life (obsessive drinking), Stalin’s purges, and the Khrushchev Thaw (Korolev’s release from the GULAG). The novel will resonate with a wide audience as well as researchers interested in representation of Soviet ideology, culture, and the history of the space race presented in contemporary texts for children and young adults.

Laika. By Nick Abadzis. New York: First Second, 2007 

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