Nick Abadzis masterfully blends fiction and fact in the intertwined stories of three compelling lives. Along with Laika, there is Korolev, once a political prisoner, now a driven engineer at the top of the Soviet space program, and Yelena, the lab technician responsible for Laika's health and life. This intense triangle is rendered with the pitch-perfect emotionality of classics like Because of Winn Dixie, Shiloh, and Old Yeller. Abadzis gives life to a pivotal moment in modern history, casting light on the hidden moments of deep humanity behind history. Laika's story will speak straight to your heart.
Questions for Nick Abadzis
Jeff VanderMeer for Amazon.com: What inspired you to pick this particular topic for a graphic novel? And why, for example, a graphic novel as opposed to a strictly written account?
Abadzis: I'd known it was a good story since I was about six years old. It had always been at the back of my mind as a story to tell. In 2002, new information came to light about the Sputnik II mission and specifically Laika's death. That was the spark, although back then I envisaged something much shorter. It, uh, grew. Why a graphic novel? Well, comics are my language. It's the medium that I'm most familiar and comfortable...so it was first choice.
Amazon.com: What most surprised you while researching Laika?
Abadzis: There were a few things. I had no idea there were so few Soviet engineers and scientists involved in the nascent space program--not to trivialize their incredible achievement but, in many senses, they just winged it, borne along in great part by Korolev's force of will and political maneuvering. Also it was interesting to find out how much the Soviet scientists cared for their cosmodogs. Events conspired to make Laika a sacrificial passenger on board Sputnik II, but they really did honor their canine cosmonauts. There's even a statue of Laika in Moscow. Perhaps this book will go some small way to re-establishing her position in history: whatever the circumstances, and whether you agree with what they did or not, she was the first earthling in orbit around this planet.
Amazon.com: Was there anything that didn't make it into the graphic novel because it just didn't fit?
Abadzis: There was quite a bit, actually. I could have done with another hundred pages. But I'd taken a bit of time to write and thumbnail it (which I do at the same time) and when that stage was finished, the publisher and I realized that the 50th anniversary of the Sputnik launches was fast approaching. When I first pitched the idea to Mark Siegel at First Second, neither of us realized that it was so close. It felt like we needed to be a part of that, so I drew it extremely fast--two hundred pages in a little over eight months. It's an understatement to say that it was extremely hard work. What got left out was a longer explication of Laika's origins; the scenes with Mikhail, her first owner were much longer.... Originally, I did have an idea of doing three books: Laika would be the first, Gagarin the second, and a full-on comic strip biography of Korolev [the driven engineer on the project] would be the final part that would bind together events seen in the first two. Maybe one day. Certainly, elements of Korolev's life that I felt were important to the story made it into the final version of the book.
Amazon.com: Did you worry about the sentimentality inherent in the situation? How did that affect your decisions in creating the graphic novel?
Abadzis: I suppose it would have been easy to make it another cutesy, twee, and overly saccharine dead-dog story but that wouldn't have been true either to my taste or to the socio-political system and culture I was attempting to portray. Laika--the real Laika--was a cute dog, as photographs attest. There's no getting away from it, and there's plenty of evidence to suggest her owners thought so, too. I didn't want to anthropomorphize her, at least not to the extent that she was spouting speech/thought balloons like, say Tintin's Snowy (which works just fine for those books). Having made that decision--which I didn't really feel was an option, in any case--I knew that to really do it justice, I'd have to do a lot of research. The sentiment of the story, such as it is, would take care of itself and be implicit in certain character's actions or words (or not, as the case may be).... All that said, it'd be disingenuous to suggest that, in dealing with a true story that involves dogs and their owners (even if they happen to be scientists in a Soviet cosmodog program), there wouldn't be a bit of emotion. There's plenty (and I hope the reader feels it). But there's also the harsh reality of the time, the place and the confluence of events that put Laika into space.
Amazon.com: What are you currently working on?
Abadzis: I'm currently working on a new graphic novel for older readers called Skin Trouble, which is also for First Second. I'll leave it to your imagination as to what that's all about, suffice to say it'll be an ensemble piece, character-wise. I've also got a children's graphic novel in the works. Can't say anything about that at all, but I'm looking forward to drawing it.