On November 3, 1957, a stray dog named Kudryavka became the first animal to reach the Earth’s orbit. She never returned. It was never part of the plan for her to return.
Just one month previous, on October 4, 1957, the Soviets successfully launched the first spacecraft into the planet’s orbit: it was called Sputnik 1 and its influence spread all over the world. This was the time of spies and secrets; this was a time where intelligence agents were directing the course of the world; this was a time when the world seemed divided into being Capitalist or Communist and no one was able to trust anyone else. For the longest time, the United State of America had been positioning themselves as this technological powerhouse, the juggernaut of advanced thinking and development. Space, the stars, the wider universe, had become the sort of grand fantasy and both the Soviets and the Americans were racing to see who would be the first to explore it.
With Sputnik 1 (which actually didn’t do much: it sort of just sent signals down back to Earth, where people were encouraged to tune into with their radios; the Soviets, though, made sure that Western, especially American, frequencies were able to pick up the signals) the Soviet Union loudly announced itself as an underestimated force in the changing world, far more advanced than their enemies had the rest of the world believe that they were not only winning the Space Race, but the overall Cold War as well.
Elated and anxious at the successful launch, as well as for sticking it to the Americans, Nikita Khrushchev had the launch of the next satellite moved up to be as soon as possible, to coincide with the Bolshevik Revolution on October 7. Chief designer Sergei Pavlovich Korolev and his team hastily constructed Sputnik 2, getting the bright idea to send a living creature into orbit, if, for nothing else, to prove that it was possible for them to do so. Now, animals had been launched into sub-orbital space for some time already. The Americans sent up monkeys and fruit flies, but the Soviets put dogs into their spacecrafts, so an animal launch was nothing new, but the idea of being able to launch a creature into outer space was too enticing for them to turn down.
This whole situation immediately calls to mind the words of Ian Malcolm: these scientists were so preoccupied with whether or not they could, they didn’t stop to think if they should.
After extensive training, the Soviet Space Program settled on this little stray dog they had picked up from the streets of Moscow, because she had “an even temperament.” She was called Kudryavka, Zhuchka, and Limonchik before given her final and most famous name, Laika. She captured the imagination of the entire planet and her eventual death created such a backlash against the Soviets that they lost traction and favor in the entire Cold War.
Laika’s legacy has grown over the years. She’s appeared in charming picture books, like “Laika: The Astronaut Dog” by Owen Dewey, which features some really cool illustrations, though the plot where aliens intercepted Sputnik 2 and took her off on a wild adventure seem to undermine her ordeal to me. Arcade Fire has adopted her persona for their album, Funeral, while one of the most innovative animation companies in the US used her as their name. Her character in Jonathan Hickman and Nick Pitarra’s “Manhattan Projects” was always a shining moment, even when the main book started devolving into repetition.
In honor of the anniversary of her flight, I wanted to look at two different comics about Laika: “Laika” by Nick Abadzis and “Limonchik” by Mikkel Sommer.
Many have pointed out there’s something innocent about animals, that we give them this instant empathy. Many years later, in 1998, Oleg Gazenko said that “work with animals is a source of suffering…we treat them like babies who cannot speak.” The Soviet Space Program didn’t learn much of note from sending the dog into orbit.Continued below
Domesticated animals have this, like, trust, this willingness to comfort, befriend, and show affection; such a betrayal of that (like by I dunno, sending them into space with no intention of bringing them back) triggers unease. I don’t know if I agree that we treat dogs or cats or whatever like babies, but I do think we develop a strong companionship with them that’s nothing like our relationships with other people.
That might be why “Laika” by Nick Abadzis — with colors by the great Hilary Sycamore (“Battling Boy”), and published by First Second (there’s also a version targeted more toward kids from Square Fish) in 2007 — is one of the most devastating pieces of media I’ve yet to encounter. It’s not only that Abadzis doesn’t shy away from showing animals in peril — and if he had, I think that would have been a cop-out to the rest of his ambitions with this book — it’s also that he also goes to great lengths to clearly show how ambition trods on the innocent, even if there’s little innovation.
Abadzis blends fact and fantasy for the book, creating characters to help give the story a stronger emotional connection as he traces Kudryavka’s life from her beginnings as a neglected puppy of a stupid boy, to her time running on the streets with another mongrel, to her eventual adoption by the Soviet Space Program. Actual historical figures appear throughout the comic, from Korolev, trying hard to distinguish himself as a good patriot though he was imprisoned in a gulag, to Gazenko, Yazdovsky, and Khrushchev, all with something to say about the future of the Soviet Union, Kudryavka, and her destiny. It’s the fictional characters, though, that bring the narrative to life, the characters who Abadzis connects to Kudryavka: the poor woman Tatiana and her daughter, whose own dog birthed Kudryavka; the merchant woman wanting nothing other than to get rid of all the strays; the dog catchers; and, most importantly, Yelena Dubrovsky, the lead trainer and dog behaviorist for the Soviet Space Program.
All of this is delivered in expressive and animated artwork. Abadzis doesn’t care for going full-out with his perspective work, and it gives his background this askew and disjointed appearance that captures the askew and disjointed time period. His characters and caricatures aren’t pretty, and you can feel how tough a life most of these people have experienced. He establishes a twelve-panel grid system, packing in a lot of information and setting this book into a rhythm like a countdown clock — appropriate because he breaks away from this for the final launch, and that sequence is all the more powerful. He also makes the conscious effort not to anthropomorphize the dogs, especially Kudryavka, and their real and genuine behavior help make the story feel altogether authentic and honest.
This is a book filled with painful moments. It doesn’t help that you know what’s coming for this little dog and every escapade she escapes from only leads her closer to her eminent demise. The scene in the marketplace is heart wrenching, especially because here, more than ever, Abadzis gets into the true callowness of stubborn citizens. Georgi, the despicable dog catcher, may be bad, but he’s nothing like the homely merchant’s wife, all too eager to get rid of the dogs her husband welcomes but not willing to accept responsibility in the misfortune she throws on them. There’s a few dream sequences where Kudryavka dreams of flying, of finding some loving and tender arms, and though she’s generally loved in every situation she finds herself in, it takes a hard heart not to be moved by her basic desires.
But the book is also filled with moments of great life. Kudryavka’s first time in zero-G where she experiences the ability to actually fly, is exhilarating. She’s a funny dog and Abadzis approaches her with a gentle humor as she gets into scraps, taunts dog catchers, and screws up that neglectful boy’s games. You’re with Yelena Dubrovsky when she embraces the dog and they have simple walks around the rocket launchpad.
Though it’s a heartbreaking and devastating book, Abadzis never lets it be cold or clinical. Part of the reason it has such an profound and poignant emotional impact is because he infuses so much life into Kudryavka. He gives her something that we can relate to.Continued below
Yes, “Laika” is about how the first creature went up into outer space, but it’s also dealing with so much more. Laika or Kudyvaka or Limonchik or whatever is all of us, the smaller creature caught up in the bigger squirmish. We’re the ones who suffer through the ambitions and maneuvers of people with authority, we’re the ones overheating and suffocating while the people with power celebrate and party far far away from us. We’re the ones who only want to find some measure of comfort and affection within this wider world.
Nick Abadzis had turned in a truly stunning work with “Laika,” and it’s a fitting tribute to an unlikely cosmonaut. By never shying away from the truth or brushing over what happened he also managed to create something truly memorable and powerful.
On the other end of the spectrum is the mini-comic from Latvian cartoonist, Mikel Sommer, “Limonchik.” If “Laika” was trying to say something profound and poignant, “Limonchik” is just out to take vengeance. It might come off as silly, or even subverting some of the ambitions of Abadzis’s work, but goddammit does it feel cathartic afterward.
A meteor falls from the sky, and from out of the wreckage emerges little Limonchik, her eyes bursting with energy. She pays a visit to the gravesite of her the lead rocket designer and turns her gaze toward the rest of the planet.
“Limonchik” is a simple story, short. It clocks in at 24 pages, all of them splashes, and is almost entirely silent. This, though, isn’t a book about plot, but about a moment, about Sommer’s artwork, about the idea of hubris. When Limonchik unleashes her vengeance, you can’t help but look at the destruction and think, “Yeah, we probably deserved this.”
Sommer’s small story is also a great exercise in pacing and control. The images show off just enough for you to get an idea about what’s going on in the wider picture. The linework is scratchy, almost like it’s been carved in on the page, the colors murky and off-putting. It’s a really cool thing to flip through and just look at, a nice fantasy coda to a tragic story.
Though the Soviet government reported that Laika lived for about five days in orbit, and that they poisoned her food to humanely euthanize her, it was revealed much later that she had made it about five hours into the flight before she died. The spacecraft quickly overheated and her heart rate was going about three times the normal exercise rate. Her remains were incinerated when Sputnik 2’s engines gave out and it burned up in the atmosphere.
It’s been 58 years since the launch of Sputnik 2 and Laika’s death, but it’s still a story that lingers and it’s still worth paying attention to. Human beings can achieve great things, but when ambition comes before safety or concern, when a project is rushed and all the parameters aren’t put into place, many things can be hurt for no reason at all. Nick Abadzis delivered a powerful tribute to the space dog and Mikkel Sommer’s vengeance fantasy does help make a fun coda to it. Laika lives on.
(By the way, Nick Abadzis also drew alternate endings to the story. They’re worth looking at as well.)