January 01, 2007

War and Happy Endings Don't Mix

This book was a nomination for the graphic novels category of the 2006 Cybil Awards.

Of the various socially topical graphic novels released this year, only one deals with the harsh realities of war through the eyes of those living creatures least able to understand or affect its course, but who are no less affected by it. Pride of Baghdad, by Brian K. Vaughan and Niko Henrichon, is inspired by the true story of a small pride of lions that escaped from the Baghdad Zoo during American bombing in 2003. Hungry and desperate, they roam the deserted, destroyed streets in search of food and safety.

Vaughan and Henrichon's version is a harsh, emotional story about survival in the face of war, as well as war's cost to all living things in its wake. The patriarch lion, Zill; his two wives, the matriarch Safa and the younger, more impetuous Noor; and his son, Ali, reluctantly decide to leave the dubious safety of the decimated zoo. Their keepers had tossed one last carcass at them before fleeing, and then the walls of their enclosure were torn apart by explosions. They argue about the cost of freedom versus safety as they discover that the city streets aren't any less dangerous. Is it worth it to be free under these conditions? Does it even compare to the freedom Zill and Safa remember from before their life in the zoo?

The lions' life becomes a microcosm of the important questions faced by the war's human victims, but this is no Disney Lion King. The demons the four lions must face are all too real and have nothing to do with the circle of nature. In fact, the end of the story is ultimately quite violent and harsh, which is why I had mixed feelings about this piece. There was almost no room for hope; the best this story offers is the opportunity to learn from one's mistakes and not repeat them. Sadly, this is an all-too-accurate reflection of the horrors of war; but as a result, this isn't a piece I'd recommend for middle-grade or even young YA readers. It's definitely a 13-and-up story in terms of the message readers will take away from it.

However, I can't say enough about either the importance of that message or the excellent artwork. Henrichon shows a real skill for draftsmanship and a nice artistic sensibility in terms of color and composition. The idea of anthropomorphized animals might annoy some readers, but the lions' facial expressions are nicely done and aren't too cute or Disney-esque. The visuals are exactly what this story calls for. Highly recommended, but with the caveat that this is not an uplifting piece.

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