Pride of Baghdad by Brian K. Vaughan and Niko Henrichon
Brian K. Vaughan made a career exploring the complexities contained in simple questions. What would happen to the last man on earth? What if a superhero became mayor of New York? His answers to these questions show an understanding of all facets of human politics and reveal mundane aspects of human nature in the context of fantastic situations.
Pride of Baghdad takes the fact that "in April of 2003, four lions escaped the Baghdad Zoo during the bombing of Iraq. The starving animals were eventually shot and killed by U.S. soldiers," and attempts to explore the complexities in the simple question "What happened?"
The story gives us the rare perspective of characters wholly innocent of the events that affect them; the lions have no means to fix their situation and no tools to understand it. It's a twist on the unfortunate fish, taking it out of the water and shooting it into space. The characters are forced to make meaning out of a totally foreign situation, an effort I thought would illuminate the most about the human condition.
Instead, Vaughan adheres to traditional storytelling, creating tangible conflicts that detract from that perspective, while demonstrating an ignorance of basic animal behavior. The oldest lion of the pride is a bitter female named Safa, with no interest in the freedom the younger female, Noor, desperately seeks. A flashback explains this bitterness as the result of a gang-rape by a band of male lions. Lions don't gang-rape. In a fantastic world, accurate representation of animal behavior is besides the point; but this story explains real events set in the real Baghdad. Furthermore, the rape is unnecessary for establishing Safa's jaded attitude towards freedom. The scarcity of the wild would be enough to establish a desire for the luxuries of meal-a-day captivity.
Unnecessary conflict is created again when, while exploring a bombed-out palace, the pride encounters a giant bear. A fight happens, the female lions are thrashed and the male lion, Zill, comes to the rescue. Zill defeats the bear, Fajer, by defenestrating him into the path of a pack of Arabian horses stampeded by Ali, the cub. A forty-pound lion club stampedes horses over a standing two-ton bear. No matter how big the object is, horses avoid stepping on anything that isn't solid ground. They won't walk over iron sewer grates because they feel the hollow ground.
My real problem with the zoological inaccuracies is that they occur in unnecessary conflicts. The situation provides enough conflict for the narrative.
The art is a solid success. Working in a restrained palette, Niko Henrichon communicates a unified environment while maintaining the individuality of the elements of that environment, all in shades of orange. When we see the pride in Baghdad proper for the first time, the color communicates the fire of the bombing, the heat of the desert, the material of the buildings, and the pride in a stunning spread that is made of the black of the lines, the white of the text bubbles, and the orange of everything else. Henrichon uses the same restraint in most environments, so the tanks or "lions of Babylon" are a shade of green only subtly different from the surrounding trees.
The exquisite use of the restrained palette heightens the effect when he veers from it. So the white Arabian horses look as mystical to us as they do to the lions, and the sunset of finally released brilliant reds is as wondrous to us as to Ali who has heard stories of "the horizon" since his childhood, and the American flag patch is as foreign as if it arrived in Baghdad by meteor.
On a more positive note, Vaughan demonstrates amazing skill in showing the different animal cultures in brief but brilliant moments. Simple differences in diction instantly illuminate the cultural differences between lions, antelopes, giraffes, monkeys, and turtles and brief phrases imply lifestyles and cosmologies. (Monkeys are gangsters. Giraffes believe in an apocalyptic deliverance. Turtles are crotchety.)
What happened to the four lions shot by American soldiers in Baghdad? It's a great question, but Vaughan's answer doesn't live up to the potential. A Vaughan fan might forgive the faults of Pride and enjoy the art and successes, but a first-time reader would be better served by reading his back library than this well-intended but ultimately inadequate story.
Pride of Baghdad by Brian K. Vaughn