Review by Frank Plowright
Pride of Baghdad was prompted by Brian K. Vaughan seeing news reports of animals once housed in Baghdad Zoo roaming the city as battle raged between American and Iraqi troops early in the 21st century. He then set a great rod for his back by deciding to relate his narrative from the viewpoint of four lions.
Nico Henrichon takes on a task that many comic artists might want to body swerve. Humans are barely seen throughout the story, and the credibility of the book rests on his ability to convince with talking animals in an otherwise realistic setting. It’s only very occasionally that he resorts to cartoon style exaggeration, and for the remainder of the book remains true to the lions themselves. His animal sequences are beautiful, and his pages of terror and desolation equally skilled.
There have been attempts to impose allegorical themes of liberation and the price of freedom on Pride of Baghdad, but the narrative evidence is extremely thin, despite the setting. If it is allegory, it’s poorly handled with points very stretched indeed, and Vaughan’s track record indicates a writer of greater capability. Better to take the story at face value of lions resenting captivity and taking their opportunity when it arises.
Initially trapped within the zoo, and scheming to escape, the carpet bombing of Baghdad provides that opportunity, and Zill leads his pride through the empty concrete. Lioness Safa’s cynicism and resentment is shaped by age and experience, while the younger Noor is scheming and practical. The cub Ali is the voice of exuberance.
The true puzzle is the wealth of acclaim this very slender story generates, including the 2008 Harvey Award for Best Graphic Album of Original Work. Vaughan also attempts to remain true to the nature of the beasts, but then applies very human characteristics to explain nature. There are a wealth of literary precedents with Rudyard Kipling immediately coming to mind, but the dialogue here rarely convinces. At it’s worst it’s soap opera bickering. There’s a sequence where the lions encounter a bear and you could be reading Wolverine fighting Doctor Doom. Grant Morrison’s We3 humanised animals in a different context, but far more convincingly. Then there’s a misjudged rape sequence. It’s the sole flashback, and adds nothing that couldn’t have been conveyed in another fashion.
This a slim and partially flawed story that aims high and falls short, but isn’t the masterpiece some would claim. Don’t come with that expectation and Pride of Baghdad ought to prove a pleasing diversion worth a look for the art alone.