Pride of Baghdad (2006)
Graphic Novel one shot. Writer: Brian K Vaughan, Artist: Niko Henrichon, Letterer: Todd Klein. Published by Vertigo Comics in 2006.
The newest work from Brian K Vaughan (Y the Last Man, Ex Machina, Runaways), Pride of Baghdad is an original graphic novel, based on true events, telling the story of four lions who escaped from the Baghdad zoo during American bombing attacks in 2003.
Vaughan tells the story by anthropomorphizing the four lions and the animals they encounter, giving their perspective of living in captivity and dealing with the realities of war. For most of the book, there are no human characters (we never see the face of any human), and there is no narration. This is the lions’ story, which means that Vaughan could not fall back on his tried-and-true tendency to infuse pop culture references into the dialogue.
Clearly, Vaughan’s biggest influences in writing the book are Art Spiegelman‘s Maus and George Orwell‘s Animal Farm, which Vaughan has admitted in interviews about the project. He uses his anthropomorphizes characters allegorically, to examine life under authoritarian rule, and how some adapt to their reduced freedoms, some prefer the security they get in authoritarian systems (lack of freedoms or not), and others instinctively fight for their freedom, even if they can hardly remember life with it. The parallels between the different perspectives of the lions and different animals and the different tribes that make up the citizenry of Iraq are obvious, but the subtext of the book goes beyond living in Iraq to raise questions about post-9/11 America.
The book succeeds in presenting the different viewpoints without becoming a polemic, mostly because the book works just as well as a simple animal tale with or without the allegory. Upon being freed from the zoo, the lions have to deal with other hostile escapees, struggle to understand the world beyond the zoo walls, roam the war torn streets of Baghdad, then finally confront a hostile predator that represents the old powers that once held them captive. Vaughan quickly crafts characters in Zill, Noor, Sofa, and cub Ali that draws in the reader, involving us in their lives and struggles. Their story is a real page-turner, one that ends far too abruptly.
It’s better to leave the reader wanting more than over-staying your welcome, but I do think the book could’ve stood to go a little longer. The ending of the tale was pre-determined by the historical record, but Vaughan could’ve fleshed out the middle a bit more. Not long after you really get into it, the book ends. It’s a worthwhile read, but its brevity keeps it from becoming more than that. It feels a bit like Vaughan was dipping his feet in a new storytelling technique, a successful attempt that I hope will bear fruit to another similar tale in the future (no, not in a “Pride of Fallujah” kind of way, but perhaps another animal allegory tale).
Aside from Vaughan’s imagination, the other big strength of the book is the art of Niko Henrichon. The art is both beautiful and dynamic, making this a graphic novel to own just to look at. Henrichon is able to make his animal characters emotive and expressive without making them cartoonish. The art is realistic, with the animals moving and interacting with their environments in natural ways, acting like animals and not humans in animal masks. Particularly compelling is Henrichson’s ability to make the lions’ enemies look sinister and terrifying, without breaching the realistic tone of the book. He is truly an artist to look out for, and probably the best discovery from the book.
Ultimately, Pride of Baghdad is a brief tale worth checking out for its compelling look at war and its stunning art. Too brief a book to be a true classic, it serves as yet another example that there’s seemingly nothing that Brian K Vaughan can’t do in the world of sequential art.