Comic book writer Brian K. Vaughan's new graphic novel, Pride of Baghdad, is a stunning work of art and literature that tells the story of four lions that escape the Baghdad Zoo after it was bombed by US forces. Like most of his comics (Y: The Last Man, Ex Machina), the book seamlessly mixes politics and narrative storytelling in an easy-to-digest format. Vaughan spoke to us from his Los Angeles apartment about his new book.
Mercury: Where did the story for Pride of Baghdad come from? It seems like that project took more effort and time than a smaller project—why devote so much energy to this particular project?
BRIAN K. VAUGHAN: First of all, it was some effort for me, but more so for Niko Henrichon, the artist, who really did the heavy lifting. He had to draw 136 pages—not just pencil, but also ink and color all himself. Where it came from? I'd wanted to do a talking-animal book, just because I've done every other genre and I really wanted to push myself. I thought a talking-animal book would be a good excuse to get rid of some of my crutches. Comics have done that well—from Scrooge McDuck all the way to Maus, talking animals have been a big part of comics. This was also back in 2003, when the Iraq War was at the forefront of my mind and I had a lot of conflicted feelings about it, so I also wanted to write a book about Iraq. When I saw this little-reported news story about four lions who escaped the Baghdad Zoo, the two great tastes combined into one project, and Pride of Baghdad was born.
Did you have to study talking animal books before you started the project?
Not study—it's weird to say you're a big anthropomorphized animal fan, but ever since I was young I loved Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH—the inspiration for The Secret of NIMH—and Watership Down and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, whatever. I think Animal Farm was the biggest influence, especially because it was a book that I read in fifth grade for the first time with no understanding of the political allegory whatsoever and still loved it. And then I read it again in high school and loved it for a different reason and then again in college and loved it for an entirely different reason.
What do you make of the attention the book has gotten so far?
Most of my books seem to have a bigger audience with people who don't normally read comics—I think the hardcore audience is looking for Spider-Man and Batman, the characters they grew up loving. Which I don't fault them for—I'm not a superhero snob, I love those characters as well. But I seem to do okay with the civilian population, which I'm very grateful for.
What is it about your writing that attracts people who aren't comic book geeks?
I'm not trying to be humble, because I'm incredibly pompous and I do think I'm a genius, but it really is my artists. I like artists who are accessible—who, if you've only read the Sunday comics before, you can follow one of my comics. That is deceptively hard to do, to tell stories that your dad can follow. It is sort of a weird medium, and to be beautiful and innovative as an artist and still stay accessible to a mainstream audience is really hard. But the artists I've co-created these books with are really good at it.
How careful do you have to be in mixing politics into your work?
I don't even worry about it. I can't imagine that my stuff appeals to anything beyond a very narrow demographic. It's all stuff that I desperately want to read, but I can't imagine that anyone else has any interest in. So I just write for myself. I always start with what is a good story. I've never tried to force my politics on anyone and I've no interest in writing or reading a preachy polemic about whatever wacky feelings I have about some subject matter. As long as it's a good story, people will read anything. Pride of Baghdad's been very telling. Some people are like, "This is extremely heavy-handed allegory," and other people are like, "What are you talking about? It's completely apolitical." I just like it to be participatory and let the readers have their own feelings.