Adventures in Reading: Brian K. Vaughan’s PRIDE OF BAGHDAD

Pride of Baghdad

So, I did something pretty crazy the other day; something pretty wild. I went to the library(Yeah, put that in your tablet device, and call me a cave man.)! As I perused the offerings of this building full of books, I realized, “Oh, I bet they have graphic novels,” and you know what? They did. It’s weird, I very rarely think to go to the library anymore. As a kid, it was one of my favorite places, and was part of my weekly routine. I wouldn’t ever go there with an agenda either. I would spend hours leafing through books, and discover novels that I would have never thought to seek out otherwise. It’s a magical place, you know?

While on my library “expedition” I stumbled across Brian K. Vaughan‘s Pride of Baghdad. I had heard of this short graphic novel awhile ago, but honestly never gave it much thought. It’s not connected to any known franchise, or continuity, and is a stand alone, “true story” of a pride of lions that make their way through a war torn Baghdad during the first bombing of Iraq. Yeah, that’s “kind of” interesting, but not something that would make me run out to my local book store(Or library, all things considered.), and rush up to the proprietor yelling, “Where is the Pride of Baghdad! I need it! NOW! If you can’t find it, then you’re a racist. A lion racist!” The thing about this graphic novel that caught my attention was writer Brian K. Vaughan.

I’ve written about this elsewhere, but why not engage in a little redundancy. You know, just for fun! My interest in a comic series/graphic novel is entirely predicated on the talent that worked on the books. Even when it comes to more traditional comic book heroes and stories. Batman/Superman/Wolverine/etc are only as good, or interesting, a they are written to be. Concepts can be “cool,” sure, but if it’s not a well written and constructed story, then that’s all they will be, and “cool” doesn’t usually mean “good.”

I’ve read some of Vaughan’s output in the past; mostly, Y: The Last Man, and I liked it quite a bit. It was funny, fresh, and forward thinking; even considering that it’s a little pandering to political correctness, but I digress… Vaughan has a real knack for presenting us with characters that are interesting, likable, and even a little bit complex. The only other thing of his that I’ve read was a collection of Batman stories(Another library pick up. Thank you, library!) that he did, and honestly, they weren’t that great. Hell, they even show his complete misunderstanding of the character, and his sense of humor is constantly at odds with the “serious” nature of the stories. They were tonally all over the place. So, going into Pride of Baghdad I wasn’t really sure what to expect. The fact that this story isn’t connected to any other known property made me optimistic; as he could do pretty much whatever he wanted, and not find himself beholden to anything.

To tell it’s story, Pride of Baghdad let’s it’s animal characters speak, pretty much just like they were human characters. The difference is that every once in awhile they’ll make animal like observations about their surroundings, and what they think the larger world must be like. They’ve been in a zoo for a large part of their life, and within the pride there are different perspectives on this situation. The younger lions, Noor, Zill, and young cub Ali, pine for the life they were taken away from or have been told about, like, the “joy of the hunt,” or watching the sun “being eaten by the horizon.” On the other end of the spectrum, there is the wise, old lioness, Safa, who thinks that life in the zoo is better than anything she ever experienced outside. The hardships that she endured at the hands of “freedom” have left her traumatized. Understandably so too.

Safa’s back story is the darkest portion of the book. So much so, that it almost feels a little out of place. She is gang raped by other lions while out in the wild, and by putting human characteristics on the characters it comes across as pretty brutal. Yeah, I know, gang rape should be disgusting and brutal. I’m not disputing that at all, but for most of the story there is a surprising amount of adherence to how lions actually react to things in nature. So, the scene comes across as a little bit “manipulative,” and “exploitative.” It’s more of a “hindsight” observation, though. As I was reading it it totally worked. Listen, I’m not a monster, or anything.

There’s a few moments in this book  that feel similarly out of place. Although, those observations came to me in the immediate as I was reading the story. They stick out for largely the same reasons that Safa’s back story does. There’s such an adherence to the attitudes of the “animal kingdom” that when the animals make “kind of” political statements they cease to be their characters and become vessels for the writer’s voice. Like when a “preachy” sea turtle comes out of the Tigress river and tells of the horrors that oil drilling causes in the animal kingdom. It’s not that it’s poorly written, but it just feels at odds with the way the characters are set up to be. You know, animals; that react to the world around them as animals. The other “out of place” moment, comes from the young lioness, Noor. At a certain point Zill ignores her opinion about how best to proceed, and her reaction is very curiously, and humanly aware, “Now that you’ve finished spilling your seed into me, my opinions are worthless, is that it?” It’s very clearly a feminist statement about the worth of female opinion, but it feels like a weird onus to put on lions. It is indicative of Vaughan’s previous work, but it didn’t need to be so heavy handed. Especially considering that, in a weird and natural way, lions are kind of feminists to begin with.

In the wild, the survival of a lion pride is totally dependent on the work that the females do. They represent the most capable of a pride; as they do most of the heavy lifting, in terms of survival. Like, hunting, and protection from other prides(Just as a side note, it’s kind of funny to think of lion prides like they were street gangs warring over turf. Seriously, imagine a lion, or lioness, wearing a bandanna with a gang symbol on it, holding a machine gun. Your welcome, by the way.). Like I said, it’s indicative of his work, but it wasn’t necessary to go out of his way to make the point. It would have been much more elegant, and “natural” if he had just stuck to the way it is in actuality. Well, it would have at least been more consistent.

Some of the best moments in the book involves the characters interacting with other species of animals. Early on, there is a great scene with Noor and an antelope, as she tries to convince the stubborn finicky creature, that they should incite some type of revolution and break out of their “prison.” Using real “food chain” dynamics works really well, and is surprisingly plausible. A  lot of what is said in inter-species conversation is all based on how these animals actually act towards each other in nature. I mean, I’m not an expert; I’m not a zoologist, or anything, but I have watched a considerable amount of National Geographic, and Discovery Channel(Well, back when they were actually focused on different cultures, and wild life. Remember when they had programming with a modicum of educational value. Man, that was a long time ago…), so, I have some awareness of these real dynamics. Like I said, these moments represent the best moments of the story, and make up the bulk of the events. So, it’s more enjoyable than not.

This is “inspired” by a true story, and probably isn’t representative of the reality of the situation in any way, but that doesn’t mean that the mere concept isn’t an interesting one. The way Vaughan has chosen to frame this story, is one of family and survival. It’s equally compelling and exciting. He gives the characters just enough humanity to garner our sympathies(Other than the before mentioned odd, and out of place “social messages.”), and empathy. I liked these lions, and wanted to see them make it. They have a sense of morality about them, and having characters struggle with their moral compasses in the face of survival makes for some great drama. It’s story telling 101, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t effective.

Even with all the “darkness” that is present in their journey, the book is thankfully light, and even funny in certain places. It never feels like a dour experience, and that’s a testament to Vaughan as a writer. He has a really fantastic grasp on pacing, for the most part, and knows when to bring some levity to the situation without ever making it feel forced. There’s a lot of “dark humor” in this book, but such is life, you know? He takes advantage of the “animal perspective,” and ignorance of the outside world, like the fact that their surroundings are being bombed to hell, to make some really macabre funny moments. They are probably the only times in the story where the “political statements” don’t come off as “preachy.” These scenes allow the reality of the situation make the points; without having them told to us through out of place dialogue.

Lastly, I’d like to briefly discuss the work of artist, Niko Henrichon. Some really fantastic stuff. It’s “cleaner” than I usually like, but he finds the perfect balance of a “comic cartoon” style, and a more realistic/naturalistic approach. Some of the panels are truly stunning, and I was more than once taken aback by their beauty. He captures these scenes with all of their horror and simultaneous abstract beauty. There’s an odd romance to “war torn” landscapes, and he captures them really well. I was, in equal measure, both stunned and repulsed. He doesn’t pull any punches, and it’s probably the most successful element of the book.

I enjoyed Pride of Baghdad, but didn’t love it. It has a lot to do with Brian K. Vaughan’s choices. His ever present “author’s voice” works really well in something like, Y: The Last Man, but feels out of place in this story. He didn’t need to be as pandering as he is. As a compelling story of family and survival, it’s a success. As a political and social allegory, it’s a little too heavy handed, superficial, and muddled to really make an impact. To be fair though, this was written back in 2006, so, the fact that the politics are a little “out of date” makes sense. It’s definitely worth checking out. It’s a short read; I finished it in about forty minutes. Also, if you get it from your local library, the barrier for entry is non-existent! If it was a movie I’d say give it a rent. It’s worth your time, but I don’t imagine it’s going to blow anyone’s mind.

Here’s an example of the books before mentioned “dark humor.” It makes it’s political point without being leading, and heavy handedIt also may be my favorite moment. No, I’m not “fucked up!”  Maybe you’re just a stick in the mud of the Tigress. So there…

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