Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Pride of Baghdad

I haven't read a bad book yet by Brian K. Vaughan, and Pride of Baghdad is not an exception. The hardcover came out some time ago, it's only been a month or so since the softcover release which is definitely a great buy if you passed the first time (like I did). The book is a tragic tale steeped in metaphor as a group of lions make way into the warzone of Baghdad after their zoo confines are destroyed in an urban attack. It's got character, action, pathos, and, um... animal gang rape.

Certain archetypes are attached to the lions and their animal companions, tho the story keeps focus on the family aspect, if not as a dysfunctional one. As they travel out of their enclosed habitat for the first time, several other animals are introduced and the reader gets to play a little game of applying the various metaphoric traits of nations or ideals to each encounter. The quaint moments are offset by the suddenly violent (and graphically so), no doubt culling from the countless tales of woe from that much maligned region. It's easy to take the anthropomorphism as a gimmick, not unlike some Disney parable for grown ups, but I think it goes a bit farther than that. Take, for instance, the I'm-totally-not-kidding scene of gang rape. It's told in a flashback from the story's matriarch and is very strange to read because early in the book it's almost out of nowhere. At first I was pretty put off, I found the idea ludicrous, of bizarre context, and slightly insulting as narrative. I still feel that way on the surface, but only because it's hard to separate what you know of the animal kingdom with how it's presented in the story. It's a gut reaction to shun it off as some kind of writer's cliche to garner sympathy while simultaneously trying to create a resolved female lead, a tactic that rarely works (and if you've been reading comics for any number of years, you know exactly what I'm talking about). However, this story is literally metaphor after metaphor, and it is all too easy to forget that violence against women is a serious fucking problem in other parts of the world. Vaughan's reasons for including the commentary in this way are his own, and maybe the oddity or shock of its execution does its job. We can stroll through Crate and Barrel and sit in any number of Starbucks in a massive cultural denial, only to be passively reminded of humanity's evil by way of a lioness' scarred face. Does the book weigh heavy in that way? It does, and not just by the preceding event which is in fact a very small segment of an overarching theme. Vaughan sends the characters through various and random scenes of violence that stifle the protagonists as they look for some kind of sanction, it could be any family's story. Vaughan wraps this meta-metaphor around what is reported to be the inspiration for the book-- an actual account of escaped lions during the war in the Middle East! There would seem to be no solace for animal or man in the landscape of war, and do not count on this book-- no matter how beautifully illustrated-- to provide a happy ending. It's a juxtaposition that is hard to ignore, these greatly humanized animals amidst an almost dreamlike warscape.

Which brings me to the art. Oh, man, the art. Niko Henrichon shows not only a mastery of the animal form, but also of environment and color. Each page is stunning in and of itself, and the book is peppered with "wow" moments that you'll want to look at again and again. Scenes that switch from idyllic to horrific are rendered with incredible detail. Colors as themes impress wonder, small moments of peace, and impending dread. The lions themselves are drafted at levels superior to most you've probably seen in mainstream art, I'd place Henrichon fairly high amongst the illustrators of wildlife. It's not just the lions, either, it's the monkeys, the horses, the turtles. And the bear. Of course the bear! And the tanks and the explosions, and... well, you get the idea. It really is an amazing thing to see this quality of art applied to such a story.

If you're an artist who hasn't seen this book, you are missing out. If you're a reader with some level of social consciousness, it's a story you'd do good to read. It's a gateway book on both the political and graphic level. Finding the symbolism and metaphors is only half the enjoyment of the read, and perhaps you may change your mind on some of those interpretations on a re-read. I mean, who is that bear, really???

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