After three plus years of hearing them, another story set around a war-torn Iraq isn’t exactly breaking new ground. In order to pull it off, a writer needs to find a device which, if not wholly original, is at least intriguing enough to get anyone past the first page. Luckily, Pride of Baghdad has that little something extra. Brian K. Vaughan (Ex Machina, Y: The Last Man) seems well aware of the “battle fatigue” surrounding Iraq and uses the war as a backdrop for subtle truth in a heartfelt tale of family and how the cost of freedom affects everyone'even a lion.nn
The story is based on a true incident from 2003: During the first wave of American bombing in the Iraq war, the Baghdad Zoo was destroyed, and four hungry lions found themselves roaming the capital city during a truly intense time. In Vaughan’s anthropomorphized interpretation, the oldest male, Zill, has grown accustomed to captivity while reflecting back longingly on the life he led before his capture. His mate Noor dreams of being free and roaming the jungle like any lion should. Her cub, Ali, is the innocent of the group, and Safra, the oldest female, remembers all too well the reality of the outside and has the scars to prove it. Using a technique lifted from Animal Farm and every kid movie ever made, all the animals are given a voice to narrate their stories, but once the first casualty occurs, it becomes apparent that this is no children’s tale.nn
The hardest part of using an animal as the protagonist is getting the reader to care, but Vaughan’s characterizations are so perfect, one can’t help but be pulled in right from the start. Every animal’s point of view explains their feelings about the “keepers” and “walkers” (humans) and their role in the destruction or assistance of the animals’ lives. Vaughan easily could have taken the opportunity to use the story as a political rant, but that would have been too obvious and would have detracted from the emotional force. Instead, he sneaks in references only where it benefits the character, such as when Ali and Safra encounter a turtle who recounts losing his entire family to an oil spill during the first Gulf War.
Canadian artist Niko Henrichon, a relative newcomer'this is only his second graphic novel'has the artistic talent to match and, at some points even outshine, Vaughan’s storytelling. Taking scenes that could have come off as downright comical in any other hands, Henrichon gives the story a strikingly realistic and beautiful look. His pencils, use of color and selection of “shot” for each particular scene help to define the animals with all the little detail they need to keep everyone engaged. If the writing weren’t just as good, the book would be worth the price for the art alone.nn
The only drawback is that Ali, the cub, feels a little too close to Simba of The Lion King. Yet that could be an intentional choice because of the way Vaughan keeps moving between the light-hearted romp of a Disney story and the harsh realities of war just to remind everyone that this is no fairy tale. By using animals, the story is able to play with readers’ emotions and keep them on their toes by offering surprises at every turn. No one wants to think about an innocent creature being affected by a war in which they have no stake.nn
Light on politics and heavy on heart, Pride is a tight story in which no panel is wasted; there is no “padding” in what Vaughan has called his proudest moment in comics. During wartime, happy endings are hard to come by, and freedom may look better from the outside, but sometimes the result is worth the risk. Even for a lion.
PRIDE OF BAGHDAD
nBy Brian K. Vaughan & Niko Henrichon