WARNING: THIS PIECE SPOILS THE END OF THE BOOK; ALTHOUGH TO BE HONEST, IT'S A BRILLIANT COMIC AND FOREKNOWLEDGE OF THE ENDING WON'T RUIN YOUR ENJOYMENT OF THE STORY IN THE SLIGHTEST...
I'll be honest from the outset and admit that I've never actually read George Orwell's novel Animal Farm, which means that the limit of my exposure to animal parables as social commentary goes about as far as watching Dumbo once as a kid and Happy Feet a couple of times as an adult. If you're like me, you too might make the mistake of assuming that Brian K Vaughan and Niko Henrichon's anthropomorphic graphic novel Pride of Baghdad, which features the adventures of a familial group of lions in the Iraqi capital, would deliver a similar heart-warming tale of triumph in the face of adversity. The first clue to the contrary would be to read the news story which inspired the events, when in 2003 a BBC headline reported "Four starving lions which dug their way out of a Baghdad zoo have been shot dead by American soldiers, the military says". The news article itself is a harrowing read, reminding us that the most humane course of action can often be the most tragic, and that this is nowhere more true than in a warzone. It's easy to see why Vaughn was moved to elaborate on the timely tale and bring it to a wider audience.
It's a brilliant concept that really sells itself. In fact, the buzz around the comic during the months leading up to it's release in 2006 was phenomenal, based only upon a premise of the storyline and the value attached to Vaughan's name, as a writer of compelling and intelligent, yet slightly off-beat thriller comics. The anticipation of Pride of Baghdad was that it could represent a real coming of age for comic books, and at the same time become one of the first big break-out hits to reach a mainstream literary audience. The fact that the book fell a little short of those lofty expectations is perhaps due to Vaughan's decision to play up the methaphorical aspects of the story and to create a challenging juxtaposition of animal parable with hard war-violence, when the audience maybe expected instead a more palatable high-concept action adventure with animal protagonists, along the lines of the popular We3 (also released by Vertigo). I'll admit that I myself was slightly surprised at first by the fact that the animals speak; it's a narrative device which attracts comparison to juvenile cartoons like The Lion King. But the characteristics that are displayed by the animals are unmistakably human, particularly in their flaws, of which there are many.
In fact, the storyline basically consists of a series of encounters with animals of various species, as the small group of lions venture outside the zoo into the war-torn and deserted Royal city. As they try in vain to make sense of their confusing and perilous surroundings, the lions meet a number of animal characters who each seem to represent an archetype for the different problems and unrest which has blighted the Region since the invasion and intervension by Western military forces. I won't spell out any of these allegories here; partly because I don't have a strong enough grasp of the situation in the Middle East; but also because that really would spoil much of the enjoyment of reading the story.
The artwork of Niko Henrichon is fantastic, and considering the fairly linear nature of the plot and the cinematic aesthetic being used, his strong visuals are vital to support the pacing and storytelling of Vaughan's script. The character designs are convincing and consistent; it's no mean feat to create a series of realistic animal figures and faces, which can also convey distinctly human characteristics and emotions, across the wide range demanded by this story. Henrichon's linework is loose and scratchy enough that the animal motions never seem stiff and that the action jumps off the page. He colours his own work here as well, using a pallette of oranges and browns to convey the sandblasted setting of the story. In the final few pages, as the sun sets on the tale (figuratively and literally), the colour scheme morphs to red, then dusky brown and onto deep midnight blue-grey - just one of many examples of how Henrichon uses colours to establish the setting and atmosphere of scenes throughout the book.
The most successful moments of Pride of Baghdad are largely the ones that pass in silence, and allow the artwork to tell the story on it's own. And there are enough of these moments that the 136 page duration can be devoured in a little under an hour. However, you will find yourself compelled to reread the story, if only to absorb in the gorgeous artwork for a second and third time round. I'll admit that some of the metaphors are a bit forced, and can occasionally pull the reader out of the reality of the story; but the underlying moral, summarised by the maxim "Freedom can't be given, only earned" rings true and is compellingly argued. The fact is that now, in 2010, 7 years have passed since the events which inspired the story, and 4 years since the comic first saw publication; and yet still no solution has been found to the civil unrest in the Middle-East. Until a time when that is not the case, Pride of Baghdad is going to be one of the most entertaining and relevent comics on the shelves.