On November 3, 1957, the Soviet Union launched Sputnik 2 into orbit with a single passenger on board- a small dog called Laika. She was the first living creature to venture into space.
Laika was also the first astronaut (or cosmonaut, to use the Russian term) to die in space. She died several hours after the launch, though this fact wasn’t made public until 2002. To meet Khrushchev’s goal of launching Sputnik 2 in time for the 40th anniversary of the 1917 revolution (Nov. 7, by the Gregorian calendar), less than a month after Sputnik 1 launched on Oct. 4, shortcuts had to be taken; there wasn’t time to allow for the satellite’s safe return to Earth.
The graphic novel Laika by Nick Abadzis (2007) tells the story of this unwitting space pioneer, originally named Kudryavka (for her curly tail), through the eyes of members of the space program, including Chief Designer Sergei Korolev, a former political prisoner; Dr. Oleg Gazenko, who trained Laika; Dr. Vladimir Yazdovsky, who allows Laika a day to play with his children like an ordinary dog, before her fatal mission; and Yelena Dubrovsky, who cares for the dogs in the program, and forms a particular attachment to Kudryavka/Laika. Abadzis also introduces us to the two families with whom Kudryavka interacted before, as a loose dog roaming the streets, she was caught by dogcatchers and sent on to the Soviet Air Force. One of these families wanted her, but couldn’t keep her; the other didn’t and put her out on the streets.
We also get a sense of Laika’s point of view as well. Though often this is through other characters’ interpretation of her thoughts and feelings.
Unfortunately, given the current cultural mindset that disregards anything more than a few years old, most people probably don’t remember Laika. Through his words and drawings, Abadzis gives us both the facts of the mission as well as an engaging story.
As to the actual Laika, Oleg Gazenko had this to say in 1998: “The more time passes, the more I’m sorry about it. We did not learn enough from the mission to justify the death of the dog.”
He was right.
One of the strengths of the comicbook industry is that the marriage of text and artwork allows for almost infinite possibilities in story telling. Like film or TV, the “camera” can change angles for dramatic effect, shifting from a wide panoramic “shot” to an extreme close up as we go from one panel to the next. And, as with traditional literature, stories can (and do) touch on all aspects of the human condition. The graphic novel The Arrival by Shaun Tan (2006) tells the story- entirely in pictures- of a man who emigrates to a strange- even surreal- new country, finds a place to live, finds work, makes friends, and finally sends for his wife and daughter. Depending on the mood Tan is trying to set, each page has anywhere from one to dozens of panels. One double-page spread that comes after our nameless main character boards a steamship has 60 thumbnail-sized panels of various cloud formations. A visual indication that it’s a long trip, perhaps?
After the man has found a place to live and hung a photo of his family on the wall, we have a page broken into six small panels at the top and one large one at the bottom (the pages aren’t numbered, unfortunately). Reading from left to right, the three upper panels show a close-up of his wife in the photo; his daughter in the photo; a flashback to his holding his daughter’s hands as he gets ready to leave. Below that, the next three panels show the man looking at the photo on the wall as the “camera” pulls away, until, in the large bottom panel, his is just one of 28 windows along that wall of the building. Is this meant to convey that he’s just another face in the crowd, part of the teeming millions of the city?
That’s up to the individual reader to decide. With no words in The Arrival, what a particular scene might mean is left open to interpretation.
Like I said the medium of comics and graphic novels- and it is a medium, not a genre- allows writers and artists to touch on all aspects of the human condition. The Arrival, like Laika, is an excellent example of that strength.
Copyright 2010 Patrick Keating