Nick Abadzis's graphic novel "Laika is a haunting, sweet biography of Laika, the first dog in space, who died five hours after she was launched on Sputnik II. Laika was a victim of the political vicissitudes of the Kruschev regime and its desire to push the propaganda war against the USA by elaborating on the triumph of Sputnik by launching a living organism into space.
The book walks a fine line between fancy and faithfulness to the historical facts of Laika's life, populated with exhaustively researched, fleshed-out characters who are charming, complex and frustrating. There's Sergei Pavlovich, the head of the program, whom we meet as he is walking out of one of Stalin's gulags, whence he had been banished in the great purges, and who becomes a driven monster, forever scarred by Siberia. There's Yelena Dubrovksy, the space medicine program's animal handler, who has a preternatural ability to connect with the space-dogs, but who is also a scientist and Party member who is clear-eyed in confronting their eventual fate. There's Oleg Gerogivitch, who runs space medicine, and who understands the realpolitik of working for a driven semi-madman like Pavlovich.
In addition, there's a host of fictionalized and fictional characters — the families who interact with Laika as a puppy, the cruel dog-catchers, the spear-carriers and hangers on who conjure up a world of space madness, cruelty, noblesse and vision.
Abadzis's artistic style put me in mind of Tin Tin — the little doggy with the curly tail didn't hurt — a childlike, cartoony line that is nevertheless expressive and expansive. It nicely complements the subject matter, contributing much to the sweetness of the story, and serving as counterpoint to the exhaustive research.