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Pride of Baghdad


From one of America's most acclaimed comics writers -- a startlingly original look at life on the streets of Baghdad during the Iraq War inspired by true events. In his award-winning work on Y: The Last Man, Volume 10: Whys and Wherefores and Ex Machina #28 (one of Entertainment Weekly's 2005 ten best fiction titles), writer Brian K. Vaughan has displayed an understanding of both the cost of survival and the political nuances of the modern world. Now, in this provocative graphic novel, Vaughan examines life on the streets of war-torn Iraq. The experience is made all the more evocative by the lush, spectacular artwork of Niko Henrichon.

In the spring of 2003, a pride of lions escaped from the Baghdad Zoo during an American bombing raid. Lost and confused, hungry but free, the four lions roamed the decimated streets of Baghdad in a desperate struggle for their lives. In documenting the plight of the lions, Pride of Baghdad raises questions about the true meaning of liberation -- can it be given, or is it earned only through self-determination and sacrifice? And in the end, is it truly better to die free than to live life in captivity?

Based on a true story, Vaughan and Henrichon have created a unique and heartbreaking window into the nature of life during wartime, illuminating this struggle as only the graphic novel can.


The Daily Yomiuri (Tokyo): "...ultimately, Pride of Baghdad is not a story meant to provide answers, but to stir thoughts. And in successfully doing that, it shows just how powerful the graphic novel format can be."

The York Dispatch (Pennsylvania): "Sure, the lions talk with one another and other animals, but there aren't any 'Hakuna Matata' moments in Pride of Baghdad. Instead, this is a story about illusions and bitter truths. It's a battle of raw nature against human violence and insensitivity. In that sense, Pride of Baghdad seems to channel works such as Watership Down: A Novel and The Plague Dogs."


Brian K. Vaughan took a half hour on a Saturday afternoon recently to speak with me from his home in West Hollywood about his latest graphic novel. I asked if he was a native Californian. "I'm originally from Cleveland, Ohio. Then I lived in New York for about ten years. I was an NYU Film School nerd. My wife went to grad school at UCSD, so we lived in San Diego up until just a couple of months ago. We had planned to move back to New York, but Hollywood stuff sort of popped up, so we sold out and are now doing our time in Los Angeles.""What was your experience, as a kid, with comics?"

"It started, I imagine, like most kids, with my parents bringing me home a couple of issues of Spider-Man when I was home sick one day. I think at first I didn't really understand them. I thought they were an activity book, where the panels were meant to be cut out and put in a certain order. I still have photos of me as a kid cutting out valuable early issues of Amazing Spider-Man and pasting them next to panels from Battlestar Galactica comics."

"Does that hurt to see?"

"A little bit, I guess. But it's also fun to see the formative years of a comic-book creator. I guess from the beginning I was trying to make my own."

"When did you first encounter a graphic novel?"

"Everyone's definition of a graphic novel is different, but if you count the collection of individual comics, that was probably when I was 12. We were on a family road trip, and I bought Watchman at a comic-book store and read it in one sitting in the back of the family van on the ride home to Ohio. That was the first time that I recognized there was a creative hand behind these characters. I was immediately obsessed and knew I wanted to write comic books for a living."

"What's it like to get to do, as an adult, what you dreamt of doing as a child?"

"It is pretty surreal. There's nothing quite like that moment when your first check with Spider-Man on it arrives. I think that will always be the benchmark for me. There are still times when I walk into a comic-book store and, when I see my name, I sometimes wonder if I'm in a coma and this is sort of a Matrix world that my brain has created to keep myself going. It's hard to believe."

"Pride of Baghdad is based on real events. When did you first hear about the escaped lions?"

"In 2003, I had two different ideas for two subjects I wanted to do comic books about. I wanted to do an anthropomorphized animal comic. It sounds strange, but comic books have a pretty great tradition of doing talking-animal books -- whether it's Scrooge McDuff or Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles , all the way up to Maus . It's something comics have always done particularly well, and I thought it would be a good genre in which to push myself to do something unlike anything I'd done before.

"On the other hand, I also wanted to do a book about the then-impending Iraq war and my conflicted feelings about it.

"I'd never thought of combining the two, but then there was a brief news story from an overseas news outlet talking about a pride of four lions who had escaped a Baghdad zoo after it had been shelled open. They were released into the wild streets of Baghdad during the initial invasion of 2003. As soon as I read about it, the two ideas melded in my mind and Pride of Baghdad was born."

"What further research did you have to do?"

"I'm a research junkie, so I took a two-pronged attack. One, I found out as much about lions as possible -- about their behavior -- to try and accurately reflect what their personality might be like if they could communicate in a human fashion. More importantly, I tried to learn as much about Iraq as possible. Not just what Baghdad is like currently, but the history of the region. I wanted to talk about that area throughout history through the eyes of different characters.

"I spoke with a rescue veterinarian named Mariette Hopley, who I thank in the back of the book. She rushed to Baghdad immediately after the invasion to do what she could with the animals. I tried to independently corroborate as much of the information as I could from the small news story, and to get as many inside details as possible."

"How did you come upon Niko Henrichon, from Quebec, to illustrate the story?"

"My editor, Will Dennis, suggested him. When I pitched the idea, we originally didn't have a particular artist in mind. If you ask artists what they hate to draw, the two things you'll hear most often are cars and animals. It's hard to get the perspective just right, it's something they're not asked to draw often, so usually it's a struggle for most of them.

"Niko had done another graphic novel called Barnum, with a writer named Howard Chaykin. It happened to have a few panels with circus animals in it, and the animals were good. We thought, based on that, that we'd have him draw a few samples. We knew as soon as we saw the new, more lavish, painterly style he was using, and more importantly the way he captured the characters, that he was the one.

"We didn't want something that would be too Disney or too much of a caricature. We wanted to be more grounded in the real world. At the same time, we wanted the animals to be able to express emotions, in sort of the way your dog might express emotions so that you can tell if it's sad or happy. He walked that tightrope perfectly."

"Given the fact that you are kitty-corner on the continent from one another, how did you collaborate?"

"It's really the norm in comics these days. Most of my collaborators are Canadian, but I've also worked with Croatian artists and Spanish artists. The Internet has changed everything. It facilitates collaboration.

"Niko and I talked a few times over the phone in the beginning, but over the course of the three years it took to make this, it was just daily e-mails. It was nice to have the benefit of working on a graphic novel as opposed to a mini-series or an ongoing comic where the deadlines are really punishing. If you release a comic 22 pages at a time and you come up with a great idea in the fourth issue, but you needed to have planted something in the first issue, you're doomed. We had the luxury of always being able to go back and do exactly what we wanted. We wanted to take as much time as possible to make it perfect."

"What are some of the challenges you face as a writer in putting together a multilayered story like this while only using dialogue and text bubbles?"

"My scripts resemble a screenplay. Much more description goes into the visual layout than into just the dialogue. It's a process of editing and of trying to say as much as possible with as few words as possible.

"The pictures, especially when you are working with someone as talented as Niko, convey so much more than the dialogue. I would get Niko's pages, and he would have said something with images much better than I had with the words, so I could just pare away at it."

"What do you make of the growing popularity and mass acceptance of graphic novels?"

"It's long overdue, I guess. Right now there's maybe not the benchmark work that there was in the 1980s. There's not a Maus or a Dark Knight Returns or a Watchman, but, at the same time, if you loved one of those books in the '80s, you didn't have that many to choose from. Now there's such an unbelievable variety of graphic novels. It's an embarrassment of riches.

"I've found that, for the most part, we comic book fans and creators tend to be a pretty self-loathing bunch. I think we're always convinced that people frown on our work. But, really, it seems like very few people under the age of 50 aren't completely wowed and impressed by people that create comics. I think for the most part that we don't give the public enough credit. They like anything that's a good story."

"Do you think there's a chance that as graphic novels become more accepted by mainstream audiences they'll lose their edge?"

"No. I can't imagine. Like I say, it's a medium. I don't think you can ever destroy a medium.

"I think comics have always been particularly good at talking about political issues -- whether it's been political cartoons or whatever. It's not a coincidence that when we drop propaganda pamphlets on other countries they are often in the form of comics. There's just something inherently powerful about that combination of words and images that engages readers."

I comment to Mr. Vaughan that every review I have seen of Pride of Baghdad is unreservedly positive. "Were you expecting that?"

"I guess I'm one of those guys that doesn't think that high concepts should mean low-brow. I usually do come up with ideas that, on the surface, sound pretty disastrous. I do Y: The Last Man, which is ostensibly about a boy with a monkey being chased by women on motorcycles or a mayor in a jet pack. And this is talking animals addressing a currently ongoing war. It does sound sort of ludicrous.

"I write the stories that I want to read, and I'm always shocked that anyone else has interest in them. This time around, having the benefit of Niko's art, I sort of knew that people would respond to it."

Many of the reviews I have read draw positive parallels between Pride of Baghdad and Animal Farm. "What's it like being compared to Orwell?"

"Oh, that would be preposterous! He's my favorite author and a huge influence. It's obviously very gratifying if anyone thinks that.

"I didn't write this wanting to shove my own political beliefs down readers' throats. The beautiful thing about an allegory is that your interpretation is infinitely more important than my intent. I did want to leave readers enough room to inject themselves into the story."

"At the end of the book you thank your wife for letting you use her San Diego Zoo membership card. Was that part of your research?"

"Yes, it was. We lived in Hillcrest for the three years while my wife went to UCSD. I'm always the recluse shut-in writer who stays inside and pounds away at the keyboard all day, but I did take a few days to go over and watch how lions behave in captivity.

Vertigo, 2006, $19.99, 136 pages; by Brian K. Vaughan; art by Niko Henrichon

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