Damn those boys for making me cry like a man. It’s always a given that any story involving animals will hit me right where it counts, and Pride of Baghdad is no exception. Based on actual events that occurred in 2003, this intelligent, thought-provoking, and ultimately heartbreaking tale by Brian K. Vaughan (Runaways, Ex Machina, Y: The Last Man) and Niko Henrichon (Barnum!) introduces us to the titular pride of four lions who escape a Baghdad zoo during an American bombing and embark on a thrilling and dangerous journey through the war-torn city. Along the way, they are forced to address the harsh reality of being free in a world that has gone completely awry.
Told entirely from the viewpoint of the animals, who speak as people do, we’re offered a fascinating glimpse into the everyday life and culture of the great beasts. Vaughan develops the pride of lions as a complex and slightly yet wonderfully dysfunctional family. In other words, like a real one. The events of the story take place in the better part of one day, creating an overall adrenaline rush that is well suited to a wartime drama, and Vaughan’s tight plotting and straightforward storytelling keeps everything moving along smoothly and efficiently.
Vaughan’s choice of protagonists is a brilliant one as well. Animals are always the great unifiers of fiction, since their lack of racial, political, or national allegiances, as well as their perceived innocence, allow them to elicit sympathy from any reader, regardless of where they fall on the cultural and political spectrum. Using animals as tragic characters also has the uncanny effect of simultaneously softening and heightening the emotional impact, and the graphic novel medium amplifies this by providing the sort of immediate dramatic power that just can’t be found anywhere else, whether it’s prose fiction, film, etc. (see the classic Maus for further proof).
Like the thoughtful writer that he is, Vaughan is never too obvious or heavy-handed, despite his use of such a potent and politically-charged narrative setting. Through the lions’ eyes, we’re offered a sober and effectively naïve outsider’s perspective on the chaos. Also, Vaughan’s approach to the concept of death is much more realistic than is common in mainstream comics. There is no cheap, theatrical melodrama or long, pseudo-Shakespearian deathbed monologues here, leaving us with no easy comforts and little else but the quick, unforgiving finality.
Henrichon’s lush, affecting, and obviously well-researched artwork, with its rich, fiery-toned coloring, creates an environment that truly captures the majestic atmosphere of the desert, as well as the quite-shocking violence that occurs in both the animal world and our own. His depictions of the animals are fantastic, making them into completely believable characters. Henrichon demonstrates a vast range of emotion and expression and endows each animal with their own distinct visual presence, something that is certainly not an easy task. The beautiful spread of the lions’ emergence from the zoo to finally get a view of the wide open landscape is as awe-inspiring as their exploration of what looks like one of Saddam’s abandoned palaces is spooky.
One of the major themes that seems to appear all over the book is the idea of freedom, and the meaning and cost of it. Other analogies involving rape, the gray morality of violence, and the many dilemmas present in our current political climate can be inferred as well, and, in many ways, the cultural microcosm that is the zoo at the beginning of the story has many parallels to our own cultural “zoo”. The one theme that really sticks out, though, is that of life and family. The loving interactions between the lions are so rich with character that you forget about the usual notions regarding the Iraq conflict that have been hammered into our collective, media-saturated consciousness. This allows the book to almost become a fun, family adventure story, albeit one where Mom talks with zest about sending a horse’s intestines spilling onto the sand (they’re still lions, after all). That sort of innocence is fleeting, however, and we’re brought crashing back when humans emerge into the dialogue at story’s end, which leaves quite a bitter taste on the reader’s proverbial palette in regards to the unquestionably horrible nature of war, violence, and the cultural misunderstanding that is at the heart of such conflicts. As food for thought goes, the reader is left with quite a meal.
My only reservation about Pride of Baghdad is that the characters aren’t allowed to develop even further, but this sort of wishful thinking seems to be part of the point. Life does not always have Disney endings, and everyone isn’t always allowed to live happily ever after. This relative brevity makes everything we do important, even something as seemingly small and mundane as viewing a sunset. Ultimately, it is up to the reader to decide how deeply the story acts as an Animal Farm-like allegory for current events. Either way, the politics and social commentary, while certainly present, take a much-appreciated back seat to the sheer, heartbreaking mess of it all. So cry away, boys and girls. Cry away.