Pride of Baghdad original graphic novel
Writer: Brian K. Vaughan
Artist/Cover artist: Nico Henrichon
Letters: Todd Klein
Editor: Will Dennis
Publisher: DC Comics/Vertigo imprint
Price: $19.99 US/$26.99 CAN
As U.S. casualities continue to mount in Iraq and the issue impacts the upcoming elections, it comes as no surprise that Pride of Baghdad is turning heads. All I needed to know was that it was being penned by Brian K. Vaughan. From his super-hero stuff to more thought-provoking fare in Y: The Last Man and Ex Machina, Vaughan rarely, if ever, disappoints, and this original graphic novel isn’t about to put a dent in that winning streak. Still, Pride surprised me a bit, as what makes the script interesting is a dichotomous approach that balances harsher story elements with a genuinely innocent tone, something I didn’t expect from this writer.
When U.S. bombs and missiles tear through Baghdad as the 2003 invasion begins, hundreds of animals are let loose from the city’s zoo. Among their number are four lions, but not all of them relish their newfound freedom. The elder lionness, Safa, remains physically and emotionally scarred from her time in the wild, while her competition, the younger, more powerful Noor, yearns for the freedom she’s never experienced. Along for the ride are Noor’s ambivalent mate, Zill, and her precocious cub, Ali. The quartet of feline beasts makes its way across a torn cityscape, a lush jungle and back into a warzone, and as they search for answers, they also seek to reconnect with their feral instincts.
Artist Niko Henrichon achieves what few have done before him: he steals the creative spotlight from Brian Vaughan. The visuals here are definitely the book’s greatest strength. I was immediately reminded of Leinil Francis (Superman: Birthright) Yu’s art, and, to a lesser extent, that of Salvador (X-Men) Larroca. The artist walks a fine line between realism in his portrayal of the animal characters and depictions that allow them to emote clearly for the reader. The level of detail to be found, both in terms of how the animal characters are portrayed and in the backgrounds, is dumbfounding. It calls for the reader to go through the book a second time to ignore the diloague and story and simply appreciate the vistas the artist offers. The colors convey the lush, arid and hostile nature of the various environs the lions traverse as well.
At first, there’s an undeniably Disney-esque vibe at play in this story. It’s fair to say that the main characters bear more than just a passing resemblance (and not just physically) to characters from The Lion King. That initially saccharine comparison is a bit off-putting, but it doesn’t take Vaughan long to overcome. There’s a key moment when a darker, more grave tone makes itself known in the book in the first act. Vaughan lets his audience know that this is no family-friendly quest for freedom, no happily-ever-after fairy tale.
The main conflict here isn’t in the pride’s efforts to survive in strange new circumstances, but in the differences in philosophies between Noor and Safa. What’s most interesting about it is that neither is right. The elder lioness has allowed personal tragedy and emotional scars to taint the entirety of her experiences as a free animal, whereas naivete is dominant in her raised-in-captivity counterpart.
Given the backdrop and circumstances of the plot, it’s not surprising to find an anti-war moral in the story. We see innocence and safety lost in a pyrrhic victory of liberation. It’s also easy to see an Iraqi insurgency represented in Zill. The once docile lion is transformed by the end of the book into a fighter, taking on a more powerful, more dominant enemy by outsmarting him and using the resources around him to cause critical damage. We also see that freedom given rather than chosen doesn’t lead to the happy ending that certain “liberators” might expect.
Pride isn’t quite as edgy as what one expects from Brian Vaughan, so I found it a little puzzling at first. Ultimately, I like that this is a significant diversion from his usual fare. The cynicism isn’t as overt, but the idealism is. It’s still trademark BKV, but with a much softer side that surprisingly effective at drawing the reader into a shattered society of intelligent animals. 8/10