27 December 2006

Review: Pride of Baghdad

Pride of Baghdad
By Brian K. Vaughan and Niko Henrichon (DC/Vertigo, 2006; $19.99)

If judged solely on its artwork, Pride of Baghdad would be deserving of serious consideration as the best graphic novel of the year, so beautifully striking is Niko Henrichon's presentation of a wartorn Baghdad, as seen through the eyes of a trio of lions who've escaped from a safe, if undignified, life in captivity, only to bear witness to the utter brutality of mankind. His animals are amazingly expressive, both in their faces and their body language, as he imbues each one with a distinct personality without humanizing their features in the least. Henrichon doesn't take any shortcuts here, either, offering up lush, detailed backgrounds that firmly establish a sense of place in each scene and effectively render Brian K. Vaughan's well-intentioned dialogue unnecessary and, at times, intrusive.

Working from a nugget of truth, Vaughan attempts an ambitious bit of alchemy, embellishing the lions' tale of survival as they journey through the ravaged outskirts and streets of Baghdad -- a world gone mad, over which they have no control. As in Ex Machina, which started out strong before hiccupping on overdoses of ham-fisted political subtext, Vaughan frequently overplays the metaphor. There's a particularly discordant flashback early on, as Safa -- the eldest of the two female lions -- recalls life in the wild via a gangrape scene that comes off as ill-conceived as anything in DC's gritified superhero stories of the past couple of years. There are several other similar, if less distracting, moments throughout the story where he belabors the obvious instead of trusting Henrichon to deliver his message through the images, enough so that what should have been an instant classic is knocked down a peg or two to worthy effort status.


Henrichon's work here is absolutely revelatory, though, and deserving of every single bit of praise its earned. I'm looking forward to checking out Barnum!: In Secret Service to the USA now, which totally eluded my radar when it was published a few years back.