Friday, April 24, 2009

Not just another dead dog story (Or, Fictional History, Part 3)

About a year ago, I checked out Matthew Brzezinski's "Red Moon Rising: Sputnik and the Hidden Rivalries that Ignited the Space Age" from the library. The book richly detailed the early Soviet space program and gave a brief insight into the life of Sergel Korolev, the USSR's "Chief Designer." While a good introduction, I felt I didn't have a great insight into Korolev's mindset.

I recently found some in an unexpected place: Nick Abadzis' graphic novel "Laika." This was another case of "Fictional History" (or, in other words, "History") coming to the forefront, which I have written about a couple times before, including Louis Riel's comic-strip biography.

History, as I wrote, is determined by those who write about it -- with the author's personal impressions unavoidably influencing the outcome. "Laika" is no different, and in fact fictionalizes the story more than most, but it at least is up-front about doing so. The story of the eponymous Laika, a stray from the streets of Moscow who in 1957 became the first mammal to orbit the Earth (barring any alien abductions), the graphic novel gives Laika -- and Korolev -- interesting back stories and puts them on parallel paths that fatefully intersect.

Left and below: In one of the books more illuminating scenes, Korolev explains his motivations to the dog he will send to an uncertain fate. (Click to enlarge.)

Since Laika's story is on the historical record, I don't think it's really spoiling the ending to say that Laika eventually meets the same fate as "Old Yeller," "Sounder" and countless other literary dogs. But Abadzis does a good job in showing how the stories of Korolev, Laika and animal trainer Yelena Dubrovsky (whom I believe is a fictional composite character) interrelate in the grand scheme of things and how all contributed to the growth of man's knowledge. The end of the novel is surprisingly upbeat and hopeful despite what happens to its main character.

The art is simple, but works really well in terms of establishing the cold Russian winters, the urban Moscow streetscapes and the steppes of Kazakhstan where the story takes place. Abadzis doesn't make it too cartoony. While dogs are shown talking among themselves, they do not talk directly (outside a brief dream sequence) to the humans, who have realistic, adult conversations about the topic on hand.

The Swedish-born Abadzis won an Eisner Award (the comics' equivalent of the Oscars) in 2008 for "Best Teen Graphic Novel," and I think that audience will respond to the deep storytelling of "Laika" well.

While the morality of using animals for such experiments is both then and now a topic of controversy, all the main characters are presented sympathetically. Quite refreshing to my eyes was the lack of Cold War ideology presented in the novel. While it is very clear that Nikita Kruschev (who appears in a few panels) is backing the Soviet space program as a propaganda coup against the United States, the scientists are shown to be working for science as best they could under the limitations of a party system.

While the otherwise-excellent Louis Riel biography might have been a little more realistic and its subject a little more historically important (at least to Canada), "Laika" is a more personal story and one that I think resonated more -- and I say that as someone who doesn't like "dead dog stories."

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