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  • Storyworld/Umwelt:Nonhuman Experiences in Graphic Narratives
  • David Herman (bio)

In Nick Abadzis's Laika (2007), a graphic narrative based on historical events surrounding the use of dogs as "test pilots" in the early days of the Soviet space program, the title character is a dog originally named "Kudryavka," or "Little Curly," after the shape of her tail (27).1 Subsequently renamed "Laika" ("Barker") by Sergei Korolev, a rocket designer who had been imprisoned in the Gulag during Stalin's purges in the late 1930s, but who went on to become the architect of the Sputnik missions, the dog is conscripted into "an experimental scientific program to loft animals on vertical rocket flights into the upper atmosphere" (80). As part of this program, Laika, who forms a bond with research assistant Yelena Dubrovsky, is strapped into a massive centrifuge and also subjected to zero-gravity conditions during a parabolic jet flight. When Khrushchev demands that Korolev launch Sputnik II just one month after Sputnik I, to commemorate the 40th anniversary of the Russian Revolution and underscore the superiority of the Soviet space program vis-à-vis its U.S. counterpart, Laika is rocketed into orbit with no provision for recovery, dying (probably from stress and overheating) only hours into the flight—notwithstanding the Soviet government's claims that a system for painlessly euthanizing the dog had been put into place (189-90).2

In the two-page sequence reproduced as figure 1, Abadzis uses a complex layering of words and images to suggest what Laika's final moments may have been like. Setting Laika's diminutive size against the hulking Soviet rocket in orbit around the earth, the sequence also draws a starkly ironic contrast between two scenarios, one imagined and the other actual. On the one hand, the imagined scenario involves a dream or fantasy in which Laika is cared for and spoken to compassionately by the woman who originally adopts her, and with whom the dog appears to associate "Mistress Yelena" of the space program; in this embedded dreamworld, Laika is empowered to fly on her own volition (see also 51-55). On the other hand, the actual scenario involves the dog's final confinement, isolation, and painful death, all for reasons of political ambition. [End Page 156]

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Fig 1.

From Laika, pages 178-79.

© Nick Abadzis. Used with Permission of First Second Books.

Because of the way it is situated in a larger narrative context, figure 1 involves a layering of no fewer than four experiential frames. Interpreting the sequence as a whole requires mapping individual images onto these (and potentially other) frames, as well as assessing the functions of shifts among frames.

Frame 1: One frame corresponds to the inferences about Laika's condition which, in the pages that follow, the launch crew formulates on the basis of information received via medical telemetry. This telemetry, made possible by sensors surgically implanted in the dog (147; 180-84), reduces the qualitative richness of Laika's experiences to quantitative data based on her physiological responses to events.3

Frame 2: Green-bordered images, echoing the color of the rocket itself, figure what Laika's own experiences may have been like on board the spacecraft. On the one hand, the green borders serve to mark which images (in this sequence as well as the pages that follow) correspond to Laika's experiences in the present moment, in contrast to the unbordered images marking other, non-current or non-actual domains of experience. On the other hand, the borders also evoke, through the metonymic associations of the color green in this context, the larger Soviet military-industrial complex that launched the rocket in the first place. Hence the borders suggest how Laika's final moments are bounded or limited by the technological apparatus that now contains her. [End Page 157]

Frame 3: As already indicated, the images featuring the woman interacting with Laika hark back to the earlier dream or fantasy (is it Laika's, the woman's, or the narrator's?) in which the dog is being cared for and at the same time set free.

Frame 4: Bookending the first two images...


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pp. 156-181
Launched on MUSE
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