I’ve heard a lot of good things about Pride of Baghdad, the “graphic novel” by Brian K. Vaughn and Niko Henrichon. It got a big push in my neck of the woods; Vaughn came to Dearborn to speak at the Arab-American National Museum, did a Q & A, even hung out at Green Brain Comics (The Best Comic Book Store in Michigan) afterwards.
I didn’t attend the event, because I hadn’t read the book. And it’s neither in my nature or my budget to shell out twenty bucks for a book I’ve never read by an author I’ve never read, no matter how pretty the pictures are. And so I waited for the book to come to my library.
I’m glad I did.
There are spoilers for both Pride of Baghdad and Justice League of America 1-6 within, along with potentially disturbing images from both.
Pride of Baghdad is about a group of lions that escape from the Baghdad Zoo during the current war in Iraq. Now, I don’t need to tell you that the Iraq War is a very, very contentious topic in our politically-charged times. Pride of Baghdad, however, is not exactly political, insomuch as you cannot categorize it as being Left or Right, for the war in Iraq or against it.
I think the book is against war in general, but it doesn’t make a specific statement on this specific war. We have a wise and embittered turtle who puts forward the general viewpoint that war is a meaningless waste of life, an unceasing cycle of unthinking violence. The same point that has been made in every anti-war story, especially when it’s an allegory.
I’m not saying it’s a bad or invalid point; just one we’ve seen before. At the same time, Vaughn refuses the story to be as simple as all that. The story is anti-war, but it is also pro-freedom. And, as a dialogue bubble is helpful enough to point out:
Or, as the back cover blurb explains,
In documenting the plight of the lions, PRIDE OF BAGHDAD raises questions about the true meaning of freedom – can it be given or is it earned only through self-determination and sacrifice?
And so rather than say, “War is bad, we never should have invaded” or “People were suffering, we needed to help them”, it says both, juxtaposing them and asking us to discuss and decide for ourselves.
It also contrasts the luxury of the zoo (of captivity, of order) with the dangers of freedom. And it does this through some pretty decent character work, and some fairly horrific sequences.
(Tiny thumbnail for the squeamish; click to enlarge.)
On the one hand, this image crystallizes this contrast between freedom and safety. It has a strong visceral impact. At the same time, it’s a friggin’ giraffe getting his head blown off. I really didn’t need to see that.
And then there’s the gang rape. Yes, you read that right.
If I didn’t need to see the giraffe, I really, really, really didn’t need to see that. But, at the same time: this flashback gives us vital insight into one of the lead characters, explaining why she prefers the safety of a cage to the wild. It makes for a strong contrast between her and the other lions, who want freedom but don’t necessarily understand what it entails. She is the wisest and the oldest, because among them she alone has been hurt by the world.
So: the gang-rape, like the exploding giraffe, makes sense character-wise, thematically, and plot-wise. Can one then fault Vaughn for using it?
I don’t have an answer to that one, but I can answer a related question: did I like it? No. I didn’t like the gore, I certainly didn’t like the rape, and I wasn’t particularly fond of the story. I can appreciate its artistry and technical felicity, but I can’t say I really enjoyed it or got a kick out of it.
I’d like to say that it moved me to think about the nature of freedom, but it didn’t, not really; everything the book wants to say is said, and more succinctly, on the back cover copy.
From what I’ve heard, Vaughn never intended it to be a deep work; just an entertaining, shallow read that raises a few questions and makes your heart go doki-doki. For me, it didn’t work; it left me kind of cold.
And I think the gore/sexual violence might have had something to do with that, which is strange, because those were the most visceral (if not exactly the most enjoyable) parts of the book.
And one thing comics have over prose is the ability to crystallize thematic threads and character in a iconic, visceral way. I think it might even do a better job of this than film, because while film moves in time, comics linger, allowing the image to burn itself into your brain.
Pride of Baghdad got me thinking about the use of sensationalist material in thematically relevant ways; this same question (or perhaps a better word is uneasiness) was aroused in me by Justice League of America # 6, the concluding chapter to the Tornado’s Path story arc by Meltzer, Benes, Hope, Leigh and Sinclair.
To recap briefly: the Red Tornado is tricked into assuming a human body. An intelligent and well-dressed Solomon Grundy steals the android body with the intent of becoming immortal. He fuses it with the Amazo android for reasons I still don’t quite understand, and tries to kill Reddy for reasons I still don’t quite understand. The Justice League of America reforms, asses are kicked, and Reddy is restored to his android body.
Some of these things, from my viewpoint, don’t exactly make sense plot-wise. But they do make sense thematically and emotionally, which I feel is one of Meltzer’s strong points.
Reddy, Grundy, and Amazo echo one another thematically. All three could be accused of not really being alive. The thought of Grundy, however more intelligent in this incarnation, being a mastermind is, from a plot standpoint, blatantly ridiculous.
But as someone who has died again and again, supposedly comprised of unliving swamp matter and therefore “not alive”, not counting, he provides a perfect foil for the Red Tornado. Making Grundy intelligent actually makes sense thematically: if Grundy is dumb and the Red Tornado intelligent, than one could argue that Grundy is non-living and Reddy alive, using intelligence as the test.
By making Grundy intelligent, it negates that argument retrospectively; Grundy is intelligent now and therefore alive, therefore he was always alive, even when he was not intelligent. And so, Meltzer defines life not as sentience, but as existing.
But, you know, I don’t even think that’s the real thematic question; “what makes one human/do androids dream of electric sheep” is one of those facile themes that keep science-fiction writers up at night. I think the real question (and one that I personally find much more interesting and satisfactory) is one of personal identity.
What makes Solomon Grundy Solomon Grundy? Is it stupidity? No, not if he’s intelligent. Is it the fact that he keeps coming back to life? What if he did become immortal: would he still be Solomon Grundy?
There must be some essential thing that defines him, and it’s not anything as simple as a name or an origin story.
What makes Red Tornado Red Tornado? Is it his android body? Well, if you take that away, he’s still the Red Tornado. How about his tornado-blast arms? If you take those away, does he cease to be who he is?
That’s a visceral image.
And, like those in Pride of Baghdad, it’s an image I never wanted to see. And, again, like those in that other work, it’s an image that crystallizes the story’s thematic concerns iconically.
Reddy is not defined by his android body; after all, we saw it taken away from him and he’s still the same person. And he’s not defined by his arms; he’s lost one. What do we define him as then? How do we boil him down? Is it even possible to explain the mystery of personality, of the soul, in a single gulp of verbiage?
If I had to define Red Tornado in one fell swoop, if I had to sum him up, from the little that I’ve read, I’d have to say that he’s good.
He’s one of the good guys, he does the right thing, he doesn’t give up.
Reading some of the old JLA/JSA team-ups in which he appeared, he always seemed to be bungling everything. But that didn’t make him any less good, and he never stopped trying. No matter how bad the odds.
And that is how I would define him. Albeit, that’s how I would define most of DC’s heroes. But there you go.
How then, do we define Solomon Grundy? He’s a bad guy. He’s selfish, crude, and angry, completely without charm (even with a nice suit). And Meltzer & Co. gives us a nice iconic image to define Grundy as well.
Well, maybe nice is the wrong word. Because if I didn’t want to see Red Tornado’s arm pulled off, I certainly didn’t want to see Grundy eat it.
But at the same time, that pretty much sums up Grundy, doesn’t it? Sensationalist, yet it works: and thus, I’m ambivilant. I’d much rather these points be made is less gruesome terms; at the same time, wouldn’t that be less visceral?
And, since Reddy is good and Grundy is bad, Reddy wins. In a desperate fight for his life, he kills Grundy by cutting him in half.
But… superheroes don’t kill, do they?
Well, this isn’t the first time Grundy has died. And we know he’ll come back, probably dumb as a brick again.
But while we could excuse it before, as Grundy wasn’t really alive, we can’t do it now. We’ve seen a Grundy who is just as much alive as Reddy. Granted, Reddy is acting in self-defense.
This confrontation between Reddy and Grundy is deliberately mirrored in the big JLA/Amazo fight.
The Amazo Android is generally thought of as non-living, as Grundy and Red Tornado were before him. And he is generally defined as evil. Because he is evil and the JLA is good, they win, destroying the non-living android.
But wait. This one has many of Red Tornado’s memories. He’s not acting out of malice. He just wants to go “home” to “his” family. When he is rejected, he acts out violently. He is befuddled as the Justice League (his friends!) attacks him. He calls out for the Tornado’s wife as he expires.
This Amazo is capable of memory and thought and bewilderment. He is a figure of pathos, destroyed by the Justice League of America simply because he is evil: something he hasn’t chosen.
Which brings in the whole question of free will. Do we get to choose who we are, or are we born with it innately? Is personality programmed into our genetic code? Can we help being who we are? Do we have any control at all?
These are heady questions for a Justice League of America story.
I’m not sure if Meltzer asks them as deftly as I would like; I think the pacing is a bit off, to be frank. A bit too slow in the middle stretch and a bit too rushed elsewhere. I’d really have preferred to spend several days with Red Tornado; I’d like to see the characterizations developed a little bit further.
Another problem I had with it, and one I had with Identity Crisis as well is the meta-textual captions. The opening of that controversial story dwelled on the craft of the novelist, and mused that by starting with minor characters, the author opens up the possibilities that anything can happen.
In this story, Red Tornado reminds us that this is a story about love and friendship and history and destiny and passion and coming-of-age. I can’t imagine anyone actually saying that about themselves. It’s too cute for me.
But otherwise, I enjoyed this story. It wasn’t great, and sometimes I wondered if it was even good, but all-in-all, I’m more likely to re-read it than to re-read Pride of Baghdad, ostensibly the more “important” of the two stories I’ve talked about today.