Friday, October 15, 2010

Pride of Baghdad by Brian K. Vaughan

Pride of Baghdad is a one-shot graphic novel by Brian K. Vaughan, one of my favorite comics authors partially due to his fine work on Y the Last Man. The graphic novel is based on a true story of a pride of lions who escaped a Baghdad zoo in 2003. Vaughan takes on the challenge of depicting animals like humans while still trying to convey animal thought with varying degrees of success. Pride of Baghdad seems to be a love it or hate it type of graphic novel judging from reviews I've read, so I will most likely be fielding some complaints at this upcoming book club at Koelbel Library on Sunday the 24th at 2:00 p.m. Here are some questions to chew on until then.

1. Many of the one-shot graphic novels we've read lately such as Orbiter, Eternals, and now Pride of Baghdad have ambiguous or abrupt endings. Is this tendency unavoidable due to the nature of a one-shot graphic novel?

Personally, I think this could be the case. As Gaiman mentioned in the afterword for Eternals, he had to add a few issues to the end to get the whole story in and even then the graphic novel felt rushed in my opinion. I'm sure there are some one-shot graphic novels out there that do not have ambiguous or abrupt endings, but this is a hurdle that many authors face.

1a. As Jeremiah has noted in past meetings, Vaughan tends to write abrupt,
ambiguous, or even "gearshift" endings in which he leads one direction then ends on a completely different note. Is this a weakness as a writer or could it be construed as a purposeful style?

Vaughan knows that his m. o. is writing abrupt and striking endings. He clearly has an anti-war stance and it seems likely that wanted to use his style of endings to have one with maximum impact. As Jeremiah noted, Brian K. Vaughan has said himself that he hates happy endings, so this is clearly a purposeful style. I would argue, however, that if he continues to write every story with predictable "unhappy" endings, this could be interpreted as a weakness.

2. There's no avoiding noticing the visual similarities between Hendrichson's art and Disney's The Lion King. Should Hendrichson have avoided the cartoony style? Does the style work for this story?

Some of us were instantly reminded of The Lion King, others like Richard were not at all. It was argued that the style could have purposely been used, again for maximum impact. The comparison between a peaceful life in the wild depicted in the Disney feature versus Vaughan's war-torn desert environment would pull on the old heart strings for sure.

3. Why were the faces of the U.S. soldiers obscured?

Throughout the whole story, there were no human faces. Perhaps this was because it was supposed to be an animal-focused story. The faces of the soldiers were also not important, they are almost a faceless malevolent force to the pride of lions instead of individual humans. Finally, the focus seemed to be on the American flags on their uniforms rather than their faces, so it seemed more important to depict their American origins.

4. Let's say the lions did not come across the herd of white horses in the streets of Baghdad. Should the lions have eaten the dead "keeper" despite the fact that humans were the ones who fed them?

We didn't get to this one during the club. Any thoughts on this? Perhaps eating the "keeper" would have been a turning point. When the lions enter the wild, their previous misconceptions, tendencies, and survival instincts should be completely changed. However, Noor still did not eat the gazelle back in the zoo, so perhaps the pride would have held on to their domesticated survival tendencies.

5. What do the white horses represent?

Nature in a war torn environment. Going the cliche route, they could represent hope. In context, the pride saw that food was indeed available outside of their zoo cages even though they did not end up eating the horses.

6. What is the significance of the horizon? Why haven't the lions seen the horizon?

The horizon was something that the older lions saw when they grew up in the savannah, but haven't seen since in their cages since they are in a cove in the ground. The horizon could have abstractly represented the freedom that the lions were seeking in the first place. The male lion never gets to answer whether it was "worth it" or not, but perhaps escaping the zoo and experiencing the wild and the beauty of nature made the tragedy it led to worth it.

7. The pride of lions opted to leave the zoo once their cage was destroyed. Should they have left despite the fact that leaving caused their eventual end? Would they have met a similar end if they'd stayed?

Clearly can’t continue to live there, they can stay and hope that another bomb doesn’t fall in the same place or travel elsewhere to potential safety. They had no way of knowing that leaving would have caused their deaths, the logical choice was to leave.

8. Noor tries to convince the antelope that predator and prey can live and work together in safety. Is this plausible for animals held in captivity?

The lion’s word was good, they did not eat the antelope. Perhaps this could represent various warring groups in Iraq such as the Kurds and the possibility of living in peace and uniting. Animals held in captivity do likely forget their survival instincts since they do not have to hunt for food. Predator and prey living in peace could happen.

9. The back of the book calls Pride of Baghdad "provocative" and "politically nuanced." Do you agree? What, if any, political message did you take away from the graphic novel?

There was a pretty hamfisted political message in Pride of Baghdad. It clearly has an anti-war and anti-violence agenda. I would not go so far as to say it was nuanced, but some of the underlying messages and symbols were thought provoking.

10. Pride of Baghdad's detractors cite overt sexism between the male and female lions. Did you sense this? If it is accurate in the wild, should anthropomorphized lions be depicted this way?

It could be interpreted as symbolism of a culture, Iraq is a male-dominated culture. Lion prides also have strict gender roles, with males as the leaders and females as hunters. Pride of Baghdad was heavy on portraying female lions as sex-starved, but otherwise most of the gender roles were accurate.

11. Has Disney ruined the possibility of media ever depicting "serious" talking animals? Should animals be depicted with the ability to show human thought and reasoning? Were the animals in Pride of Baghdad too human? What could be done to combat this?

I would argue that the story almost could have been pulled off without any dialogue whatsoever. The dialogue did not serve much at all in the story. One of my biggest criticisms of the book was that the characters did not develop throughout, so what is the point of having dialogue? The tragic ending and some of the symbolism could have been much more interesting and nuanced. Animal Farm was the only film in recent history to be able to pull off talking animals with any seriousness, but in most other situations, it's impossible.

12. The palace in which the bear is found is likely supposed to be Saddam Hussein's. Why is this included?

The bear represents the hopeless and nihilistic thought that would occur in such a bad situation. Bear shows just how awful you can be in this situation. Main male lion was complacent, so this fight forced him to get up and fight. The horses, palace, everything represents the decadence and money. Perhaps because the huge gap between poor and rich caused the problems in the society that we have seen in the story.

13. Some forms of media are criticized for being praised just because of having a tragic ending. Is this the case in Pride of Baghdad?

Considering the love it or hate it nature of the book, I think this is possible. When someone is emotionally touched by a form of media, this may inflate their overall opinion of it. This is similar to critics giving ambiguous or confusing works of art high praise because they do not understand it, so it must be good.

14. Could Pride of Baghdad have ended any other way? To paraphrase the back of the book, can freedom be given or does it have to be earned?

The death of the lions was pretty inevitable. In a best case scenario, the lions could have been rescued and shipped off to another zoo, but this seems unlikely considering the disaster that's was going on in Iraq at the time. Venturing off from the cage represented freedom that they had not experienced at all or in a very long time, but led to their eventual demise. Freedom cannot be given or earned, it must be appreciated. As mentioned in question six, freedom is an abstract concept for everyone. No one can truly feel "free" until their parameters for freedom have been filled. In this case, I think the lions did earn freedom. They endured many hardships to witness the beauty of nature in a manmade war-torn environment.


  1. Pride of Baghdad Discussion coments

    1. Ambiguous endings,to me, are not about the writer, nor the vehicle of the graphic novel, but about the limitations of the subject matter. Y the Last Man, even though the ending is ambiguous, there is a lot more back story.
    2.Hendrichson's art has an edginess to it. Don't think Disney includes dead bodies in their movies.
    3. Metaphor for all who oppose freedom.
    4.The lion's keeper's are also the one's who have enslaved them.
    5.The white horses are hope, opportunity.
    6. the horizon is the future. Living a safe and secure life, they've had no need to look ahead.
    7. The lions could not have predicted they would die if they stayed or left, but they were bombed if they stayed.
    8. If food is always provided by keepers, perhaps natural instincts fade.
    (like domestic cats who forget what to do with mice)
    9.It is political, fairly obviously, about the subject of freedom and whether it has to be earned to have it.
    10. No comment.
    11. No. Animal Farm did a wonderful job of showing talking animals showing human thought and reasoning. The only problem I ever had with it was that I started to see people I knew in real life as talking animals.
    12. No comment.
    13/14.Well, it's not an ambiguous ending. If you consider the subject people in all the skirmishes the U.S. has had, a majority of them have been in the crossfire, just as the Iraqi people have been. Quote by Jefferson--People who don't value their freedom, don't deserve it.

  2. I find it interesting that each of the last four months, I entered the comic book reading club feeling a dislike for the book we were going to talk about. Two of the last three months, I gained an appreciation of the literature from the discussion and can say either I "like" it or it's "good," and even though last month's book (Eternals) is still terrible I gained an insight from it (as I mentioned in the comments section, that age doesn't necessarily equal wisdom).