Review – Pride of Baghdad
Written by: Brian K Vaughan
Art by: Niko Henrichon
Lettered by: Todd Klein
Release Date: September 2006
Pride of Baghdad is a Vertigo title by Brian K Vaughan and Niko Henrichon. Niko is known for a lot of cover work for Marvel and DC. BKV is known for his work on Lost, Saga, and Y The Last man, among other titles. Published in the mid-2000s, Pride of Baghdad came out at a time when the Vertigo logo was almost always a sign of a fantastic book. Pride of Baghdad was printed as a complete volume, as opposed to the more traditional serialized format.
The creators based Pride of Baghdad on a true story of lions who escaped the Baghdad Zoo during the Iraq War in 2003, specifically an American bombing during the Fall of Baghdad. While initially rooted in truth, the story told about these four lions is ultimately a fictionalized story of four anthropomorphized lions. A beautiful book, Pride of Baghdad offers us a rare setting and a unique story.
Review – Pride of Baghdad continues below
The story is simple, our four lions leave the zoo after the bombing and explore their freedom. Our lead characters and their interactions with the world are where the writing shines. You’re offered a variety of perspectives and personality types. Each member of the pride stands out, from the hopeful revolutionary, to the jaded elder looking to live out their days peacefully. The group really feels like a family that has lived together for a while too.
I’m always a little skeptical when folks write with anthropomorphic characters. It’s important that we remember how brutal nature can be. Pride of Baghdad balances that very well. It’s obviously a story written by humans but it doesn’t humanize every aspect of nature. The mating rituals of lions are portrayed as normal for them, but with just enough human sadness. They ultimately act more like animals than humans, and that’s the key.
On its surface the writing can be enjoyed as a family of animals trying to survive, or you can look beneath the layers to mine the interesting ideas. It also wasn’t until my second or third read that I truly understood the allegory. At first I thought Pride of Baghdad was just about discussing zoos, and missed the deeper discussion. This made me like the book even more. Even then, the perspectives are balanced and the story doesn’t tell you how to feel, it just offers questions. The journey is thoughtful and the ending poignant. The book gives you so much to think about, if you want it. However, it’s subtle enough that you don’t feel bludgeoned if you just want to read a pretty book.
The highest compliment I can pay to this gorgeous artwork is that you could pull all of the speech bubbles from the comic and it would still be an incredible read. Pride of Baghdad is a book where every page is used to tell the story and the art carries so much of that story. Even the pages used for credits or to end the book lend themselves to the story in subtle ways.
The artist really balances the natural look of the animals with just enough humanized emoting that you can follow their feelings. It’s a tricky balance to pull off but Niko nails it. They’re given just enough emotion that you can read the book without dialogue and still understand them. Fajer is, perhaps, the most exaggerated of the animals, but you look past it because he’s just terrifying to look at and it works.
The art in Pride of Baghdad leans on reds, yellows, and oranges, which works given its locale, but it never feels same-y. There’s a depth to the use of color that I find irresistible. On its surface I don’t think to call the book colorful but flipping through the pages you realize just how rich and diverse the colors are. In the wrong hands you could see someone trying to make the art look more cartoony.
I did review The Deluxe Edition, so it’s worth mentioning the additional content. If you like this book, the deluxe edition is worth it. I would buy an Absolute of this, if I could. In the Deluxe Edition, you get a bunch of early text and artwork for the book, which is a nice bonus. They printed the proposal for the book, and an outline, which gives some interesting insight to the writing process. There’s lots of sketch and pencil work to comb through, too, if you’re as fascinated by the process of drawing animals as I am.
It might sound like I’m in love with this book, and that’s because I am. It’s a perfect book, in my eyes. Pride of Baghdad truly shows the potential of comics. It’s one of those books you give to people who are unfamiliar with comics. I’ve handed it off to many folks who want to try reading comics, but I know they wouldn’t respond to standard fare. It’s also often the first book I hand off to expose someone to Brian K Vaughn for the first time.
Pride of Baghdad is a story that belongs in comics and lends itself to the art form. There’s no need to see it adapted or transformed. It’s mature without being explicit, and serious while still being entertaining. The art is gorgeous and the pacing is perfect. The ending is brutal, poignant, and appropriate for the setting. When I say that, I mean both the end of the story of the Pride, as well as the final words of the book. “There were other casualties as well.” Every time I finish Pride of Baghdad, my eyes burn a little. It’s a book I’ll never forget and can’t recommend enough.
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