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The War at Home

 

Pride of Baghdad

Brian K. Vaughan, Niko Henrichon

DC/Vertigo, 2006

Rating: 4.5

   

Ex Machina: March to War

Brian K. Vaughan, Tony Harris, Chris Sprouse

DC/Wildstorm, 2006

Rating: 4.0

 

 

Posted: January 31, 2007

By Kevin Forest Moreau

The roster of talented, thought-provoking writers working in mainstream comics is arguably deeper and more impressive than it's ever been. It's a testament to the diversity of voices, styles and ideas on display these days that we've evolved beyond the point of wondering if there'll ever be another Alan Moore. (For the record, there is -- his name is Grant Morrison.) Just as it's hardly a stretch to say that we're currently witnessing the prime of the two best athletes (Tiger Woods and Roger Federer) ever to play their respective games, it's hardly hyperbole to posit that we're in the enviable position of watching some of the most original and impactful writers the medium's ever seen come into their own.

And you'd have to put Brian K. Vaughan near the top of that list. As Y: The Last Man and Ex Machina ably demonstrate, there's not another first-tier comics writer today who balances character development, exciting concepts, suspenseful action and real-world social issues with anything approaching the same flair. Case in point: March to War, the fourth volume to collect the ongoing Ex Machina series, blends the engrossing policy discussions (no, that's not an oxymoron) of an episode of The West Wing with intriguing glimpses of a larger, complex background story to rival NBC's current hit Heroes.

In the four-issue arc that gives the collection its name, it's February 2003, and the administration of New York City Mayor Mitchell Hundred -- who once soared the skies as the world's only known real-life superhero, the Great Machine -- must deal with the inexorable and inevitable beginning of the war in Iraq. Hundred's decision to allow a peace march to proceed gets him pilloried in the press, and when the marchers -- including his former staffer Journal -- are attacked with what appears to be Ricin gas, the mayor begins to wonder if the attack isn't an attempt by one of his enemies to injure him politically. To make matters worse, a couple of racist citizens decide to retaliate by murdering an equal number of "ragheads," regardless of their religion or national origin, and a couple of cops screening subway riders shoot and kill a suspect who turns out to be a mere drug user instead of a terrorist.

Watching Vaughan weave these torn-from-the-headlines scenes together with Hundred's legally questionable hunt for the bomber (aided -- nay, prompted -- by his usually antagonistic, tough-as-nails police commissioner, no less) makes for an intellectually absorbing experience, and Tony Harris' photorealistic artwork adds to the air of comics verite. "Life and Death," a smaller arc originally published in the two-part Ex Machina Special, isn't as rewarding in its presentation of Hundred's "arch enemy," an unhinged animal activist who can talk to and command his furry friends. But Chris Sprouse's stiffer artwork comports itself better than expected, and Hundred's cold, efficient means of dealing with his nemesis is affecting and provocative.

If it's easy to imagine Ex Machina making the leap from the comics page to a dense, satisfying TV serial (although probably a cable series), it's even easier to picture Pride of Baghdad as a feature film -- although despite the presence of talking animals, it certainly wouldn't be as a kid's movie. Gorgeously rendered and colored by Niko Henrichon, the based-on-a-true-story Pride concerns a pride of lions that escapes from the Baghdad Zoo during an American bombing run in the spring of 2003. If that sounds either precious or potentially heavy-handed, it's neither: Vaughan uses the notion of wild animals loose in the streets of a bomb-ravaged city to explore concepts of freedom and the cruelty of war (subjects that don't lend themselves to animated-movie cutesiness) without falling into sermonizing. When two of the lions come across a dying comrade chained to the wall of an Iraqi palace as a pet, it sparks a thoughtful debate about the nature of the relationship between man and beast that can't help but raise thorny questions about the role of liberators and the liberated.

Pride envelops the reader into its world slowly and surely, expertly acquainting us with its cast of characters: the scarred older lioness Safa, who prefers captivity to the uncertainty of life in the wild; the headstrong Noor, leader of the group, who rails against confinement; Noor's innocent male cub, Ali; and Zill, the aging male, who slowly regains some of his old spark. By the time the lions' Iraqi zookeepers, spooked by the sight of American warplanes soaring overhead, hastily throw the animals a carcass to eat as they flee, we're as acquainted with, and as invested in, the four of them as we are with any human characters in a traditional comic or graphic novel.

Good thing, too, since there are no humans to be seen for most of the book, just a desolate and menacingly quiet Baghdad, sparsely populated by various zoo escapees and other animals, all beautifully realized by Henrichon. His depictions of a gutted and empty city are in their own way as photorealistic as Harris' work, his landscapes and street scenes dusted in red-orange hues. This still, sun-baked quality makes the occasional burst of action all the more startling, nicely aided (and the stillness nicely contrasted) by the artist's jagged lines in scenes of animal combat.

I won't spoil the ending here, except to say that it also raises questions about perception vs. reality as they pertain to the war in Iraq. That Vaughan does so without falling into the minefield of rhetoric, both literal and conservative, that dominates our op-ed pages and cable news shows -- despite clearly holding strong opinions on the subject -- is an impressive feat in itself. That he does so in an elegant and attractive graphic novel filled with talking animals, and very quickly makes you forget that there's anything out of the ordinary about any of it, only underscores his status as one of the most versatile and gifted talents working in fiction, graphic or otherwise.

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 Ratings Key:
 5.0: Breaks new ground
 4.0-4.9: First-rate
 3.0-3.9: Solid
 2.0-2.9: Mediocre
 1.1-1.9: Bad
 0.0-1.0: The worst

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