Friday, September 08, 2006

In the name of freedom: Pride of Baghdad
by Brian K. Vaughan and Niko Henrichon

Shortly after I received an advanced copy of this book from the good folks at Vertigo, I had the opportunity to crack its cover. I found myself so taken with the art and intrigued by its premise that I immediately sat down to give Pride of Baghdad a quick read. Immediately afterwards, I found myself mightily impressed with it as a critic, and completely won over as a reader. I soon came to the conclusion that, all things being equal, this is the book which would finally put Brian K. Vaughan's name in the minds of that wider audience he's deserved for some time now. And the fact that it would also go a long way towards cementing Niko Henrichon's reputation as a gifted storyteller and illustrator proved to only sweeten that thought. I then came to the conclusion that it was also the single best new original graphic novel published by a mainstream imprint that I’d read so far in ‘06.

Now, after my third--no, wait, it's actually the fourth--reading of this fully painted beauty, I can honestly say that I believe in my original assessment all the more. Pride of Baghdad is not just exceptional, it is just about perfectly balanced in tone and delivery, and nearly perfect in execution and presentation. There's not a wasted word, brush stroke, nor even the shadow of a seemingly untrue or "off" moment in evidence. The story ebbs and flows according to its own internal logic and cosmology, quite effectively creating its own universe which allows the reader to not just accept, but fully believe in the lives and dreams of a cast consisting almost entirely of talking animals. And that’s only a quick sketch of a few of the attributes which make Pride of Baghdad such an exceptional read.

As noted at tale’s end, Pride is loosely based on events which took place in the early days of the US invasion of Iraq. Specifically, "In April of 2003, four lions escaped the Baghdad Zoo during the bombing of Iraq." The text goes on to providing a terse summary of how things concluded, but anyone save an abject sentimentalist or starry-eyed individual would have to know that these beasts' gaining an unexpected freedom would likely end in tears. Of course, other fluids will be spilled, too. The only real question is whether those effusions would be accompanied by wails of human or animal origin, and in what proportions.

Still, and despite an underlying tone of the inescapable nature of fate which lends the proceedings an almost palpable tragic weight, there are more than enough ironic moments and doses of situational humor, as well as insight into and illumination of the [in]human condition, to help alleviate any undue sense of despair or bleakness of tone or the almost palpable weight generated by the inescapable nature of the lead characters’ collective fate. Vaughan and Henrichon have done this bare bones scenario--and the comics medium--proud, not by concentrating on the darkness and doom of the situation, but instead by looking to life, and hope--even the fleeting hope provided the characters by the slim chance that each of them will somehow achieve their own, individual impossibly bright futures. All of these divergent strands intersect at the novel’s end in a manner which ultimately makes for an incredibly touching, effective and affective read, and a book that succeeds on several levels simultaneously.

And these are but a few of the more important aspects of Pride of Baghdad which mark it as a graphic novel. It’s entertaining and even exciting, but it’s not all laughter and eye candy, and it’s certainly not a simple children’s story. It doesn't just lightly touch on disturbing subjects or opposing perspectives; instead, they are explored with range, rigor and subtlety in a believable manner through the actions, interactions and arising conflicts of the book's characters, and via the impact that the twists and turns of plot have upon their hearts, minds and fortunes. Best of all, in the tradition of truly great tales, it doesn't necessarily tell the reader what to think or even feel. Not that the reader will be immune to either phenomenon. Rather, this is a novel which challenges the reader to both interpret and think these events through in their own manner, and one which is quite capable of provoking deep thought and surprising feelings long after the actual reading experience has finished.

And that’s but one attribute which marks a piece of effective and memorable and perhaps even important art in my estimation. It’s something that has real and lasting impact upon the viewer yesterday, today and probably in the future. Pride of Baghdad, which begins its explorations at the point where most other “war stories” end, with the simple truth that innocence is but the first casualty of war, surely will continue to inspire thought while entertaining its readers today and in the days to come.

And you can’t ask for much more than that from a comic, if you think about it.

Pride of Baghdad
by Brian K. Vaughn and Niko Henrichon published by Vertigo Comics


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