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Book Review: Pride of Baghdad by Brian K. Vaughn and Nico Henricson

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It takes a special kind of writer to regularly splatter their brain children over 20-odd pages of cheap newsprint. For those few writers that have the talent and the creativity, the rewards of making a living cutting brand new worlds wholesale from personal mental firmament are minimal, so they'd better love what they're doing. In the tiny ranks of these comic writers who love their job, there are even fewer who stand out as supernova bright as Brian K. Vaughn.

Brian is the scribe responsible for Ex-Machina, which blows the doors off The Watchmen as an attempt to portray superheroes in a real-world setting. His teen superhero series Runaways offers a fresh and infinitely interesting spin on what it takes to be a hero, even as it blurs the lines between good guys and bad guys. His science fiction series Y The Last Man is a twisted journey of self discovery. Drawing equally from Stephen King's The Stand and James Tiptree Jr.'s The Screwfly Solution, it beats them both in the grand smackdown of post apocalyptic speculative fiction.

It's no wonder that his stand-alone graphic novel Pride of Baghdad turned out so remarkably well. The genesis of this little high-concept gem was a news report about a quartet of lions that escaped from the Baghdad Zoo during the U.S.'s 2003 bombing of Iraq. The lions were starving, frightened out of their minds, and half-dead from exhaustion and exposure, so the U.S. Army mercifully put them down. The twist to this comic is that the story is told from the lions' points of view.

This seems like a stupid idea. I'm always wary of anthropomorphising animals. If taken too far, you get extremist terrorist organizations like P.E.T.A. and its hyperviolent sock puppet A.L.F.. Conversely, it can end with regurgitated pabulum like Barney the Dinosaur or with stupid, rich, idle people dressing their pets in leather bomber jackets and Harley Davidson paraphernalia.

However, anthropomorphization done right can result in fine religious allegory, such as Richard Adams' Watership Down and Neil Gaiman's Dream of a Thousand Cats. It can also facilitate a masterful deconstruction of revolution, as in George Orwell's Animal Farm.

Under less skilled hands, this comic could easily have been just another political screed about how bad the United States is. It could have focused on an evil American Military cold-bloodedly gunning down four poor defenseless animals. It doesn't. Instead, Pride of Baghdad is a well crafted, impeccably told tale that is entertaining, poignant and tragic.

The story of Pride of Baghdad works well. As Brian walks the lions through the wreckage of Baghdad, the Pride keeps a running commentary that explores heavy ideas like the fate of civilians during a war, the price of freedom, and the loss of caregivers.

The scene that resonated most with me was when the lions came across a turtle who recounted the ecological disaster that the Hussein government unleashed during Operation Desert Storm. I participated in that operation from Saudi Arabia. I can tell you that this turtle's story doesn't even scratch the surface regarding the devastation that occurred outside the Iraqi and Kuwaiti oil fields.

But that's what I like about this story. Brian doesn't browbeat you with the obvious, nor does he ever give in to the often overwhelming urge to preach. As we read the story we get the point: war is bad. He leaves it at that, preferring concentrating on giving us believable characters and a great story to preaching.

The other half of Pride's creative team, Nico Henricson, is relatively new to American comics. His first graphic novel, Barnum, was well drafted, if a bit stiff. With Pride of Baghdad he pulls out all the stops.

There are no substantial humans in this tale, but they're not missed. Nico gives the animal characters a wide range of expression and movement that brings out their human qualities. At the same time, he keeps the lions true enough to source material that they are believable as animals and the story can retain a realistic feel.

The backgrounds and landscapes of Pride are phenomenal. Nico is a master of stylized detail and it's on full display in these pages. He gives us a guided tour of a little slice of hell on earth, and we come away the better for it.

There's no colorist credited, so it's a pretty safe bet that the color choices are Nico's. He applies a bit of a fade to the dull browns and oranges in the outside scenes, which gives the story an effect recalling some of Ridley Scott's lens choices in Black Hawk Down. It's a great implication a sort of martial haze. It evokes a feeling of unease that is suitable for this type of story; you have the idea in the back of your mind that there's danger around every corner.

Pride of Baghdad is solid work by a team that meshes well. It's an intense, sad story that is intelligent, relevant, and superbly drawn. It's a short film on paper that's worthy of an Oscar, or in this case an Eisner. Pick it up and give it a try. You will absolutely not be disappointed.

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  • This article has been selected for syndication to Advance.net, which is affiliated with newspapers around the United States. Nice work!