Friday, December 10, 2010

Book-A-Day 2010 # 310 (12/10) -- Pride of Bagdhad by Vaughan and Henrichon

It's amazingly easy to trivialize something, if you want to. "Four talking lions from Saddam's zoo meet a highly symbolic end after an aimless odyssey." There you go. Of course it's not fair, but that's the whole point of trivializing something: to make it trivial.

It's not quite as easy to aggrandize a work of art, and it takes longer -- short descriptions are always reductive. (Witness "A young girl travels to a distant land and murders the first person she meets, then teams up with 3 strangers to kill again.") But it would be possible to spin a paragraph-long, ecstatically-positive description of Pride of Baghdad as well, with phrases like "geopolitical allegory," "fabulistic realism," "gem-like luminosity," and "shattering climax."

The truth, as usual, lies somewhere in the middle: Pride of Bagdhad is a thoughtful, strong story, marred slightly by being a bit silly and a bit too obviously Meaningful. (The note at the end, tying it into the real news story that inspired it, is the final dig in the ribs, where writer Brian K. Vaughan mutters under his breath, "Did'ya see how touching I was?")

Beast fables used to serve to illuminate human behavior by putting recognizable characters into animal roles and satirically observing them; that was the method of Aesop, and most of his imitators. Vaughan, though, wants to work in a modern, blunter style, in which the animals are innocents (to the extent that's plausible) and humans are outside forces, all-powerful and unknowable, who destroy nature at every turn, and pervert the poor innocent animals no matter what they do. (Or perhaps "innocent" isn't the right word -- "powerless" may be better.)

And so Pride of Baghdad follows four lions from the Bagdhad zoo: a mature male, his like-aged mate, an older and wiser lioness [1], and the requisite innocent, a very young male. The story opens on what might be a typical day in the zoo for the lions and other inhabitants, except that this is the day American forces reach Bagdhad, dropping bombs as they go. Chaos erupts, the zoo animals are freed and run wild, and the four lions escape for a journey through several landscapes that show the nastiness and overwhelming power of humans (broken up by a flashback or two), before the inevitable bad end.

Luckily, Vaughan doesn't try to make the lions noble and unspoiled; they bicker and squabble, plot and complain, and aren't united in purpose for more than a moment or two at any point. But they're still the poor downtrodden (magnificent, powerful) animals caught in the middle of a human war; that's the central point of Pride of Bagdhad, and can't be avoided. If you can stand a little didacticism in your fiction, Pride of Bagdhad is impressive: the four central characters ring true (for talking lions), and the secondary animal-characters fill their roles well. And Henrichson's art, which I haven't mentioned before, is gorgeously, luminously detailed. (The book doesn't say specifically, but it doesn't credit a colorist, so I believe Henrichon is responsible for all of the art.) But reading it does feel not unlike being led around by the nose -- the view is excellent, but the obviousness of the steering is annoying.

[1] Who, if this were a real pack, would be equally the male's mate, but that would veer too far from the cozy lion-nuclear-family Vaughan is crafting.

Book-A-Day 2010: The Epic Index

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