BOOK REVIEW: Hellboy, Vol. 1: Seed of Destruction by Mike Mignola

Hellboy, Vol. 1: Seed of DestructionHellboy, Vol. 1: Seed of Destruction by Mike Mignola
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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This four-part story presents Hellboy’s origin and then transitions to an account of how Rasputin attempts to co-opt an adult Hellboy in service to the Russian mystic’s demonic master. That sounds disjointed, but it’s not because Rasputin is integrally involved in Hellboy’s origin. Movie fans may notice that that description mirrors the plot of the first Ron Perlman “Hellboy” movie (2004.) It does, and this volume serves as an influence on that movie (also, the bound collection of the component issues was issued in conjunction with the movie debut.) That said, one shouldn’t be concerned that one will get a repeat of the same — the connection is largely limited to the broad-brush strokes of the story. The opening (Hellboy’s origin story) shares common visual and narrative elements with the movie, but beyond the origin story the two stories diverge. The middle act shares little in common other than a few Easter eggs. The conclusion has some visual and narrative similarity, but not nearly so much as the opening.

For those who have no idea what the blazes I’ve been going on about, Hellboy is a comic book superhero in the form of a demon-child who was summoned to Earth during World War II through the activities of Rasputin in conjunction with a Nazi agency dealing in the occult. [The Nazis hope it will allow them to turn the tides of the war, but Rasputin has his own plans.] The British-American scientist (Professor Bruttenholm) who finds Hellboy raises him. As a grown man, Hellboy becomes a “paranormal researcher” – i.e. he fights supernatural threats. He works as a team with Liz Sherman (a pyrokinetic woman) and Abe Sapien (a fish-man,) under the direction of Professor Bruttenholm. [Though, while Hellboy ages slowly – or stopped aging as an adult, the Professor is quite elderly by the time this story begins.

The central question of this series is nature versus nurture amped to eleven – i.e. whether someone born to such a bleak fate as demonhood can be redeemed by a good upbringing and positive role models. What is created is a character who is rough around the edges but abundantly aware that he has more to worry about than most with respect to tilting toward the dark-side [and that the fate of all who he loves does as well.]

If you’re interested in the character of Hellboy and his “band of misfits,” this volume is the perfect place to start. I think there is a reason the movie drew particularly heavily on the origin story panels – Mignola does a fantastic job of creating a unique and engaging character. If you’re a reader of comic books, I’d highly recommend this one.

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BOOK REVIEW: Doom Patrol, Vol. 1: Crawling from the Wreckage by Grant Morrison

Doom Patrol, Vol. 1: Crawling from the Wreckage (Doom Patrol, #1)Doom Patrol, Vol. 1: Crawling from the Wreckage by Grant Morrison
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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I’d never heard of Doom Patrol until I recently saw a teaser for the television show (which have not seen.) That lack of familiarity made for a nice surprise. I was aware from said trailer that the team consisted of “broken” individuals, and that mental illness featured prominently in these characters’ makeup. What I didn’t know is the degree to which the Doom Patrol dealt in the strange and weird – and I do love tales of the weird. So, it’s a bizarre / dysfunctional team mashup (like “Guardians of the Galaxy” but less heroic and more mentally ill) that takes on the kind of psychedelic villains one might find in “Doctor Strange.” [I realize I’m crossing the DC – Marvel divide with my comparisons, but – owing to the movies – Marvel is much more broadly known at this point.]

I was familiar with Grant Morrison from one of my favorite Batman stories, “Batman: Arkham Asylum – Serious House on Serious Earth.” And this collection of seven “Doom Patrol” comics – while a little more brightly drawn and lighthearted – share the mind-bending surreality of that book. Though in this book the trippiness is supernatural.

The seven comics included in this volume include the four parts of the “Crawling from the Wreckage” story, plus: “The Butterfly Collector,” “The House Jack Built,” and “Imaginary Friends.” Robotman (Cliff,) Crazy Jane, and Rebis (an amalgam of Larry Trainor / Negative Man and Dr. Eleanor Poole) are the principal heroes of the “Crawling from the Wreckage story, though Joshua Clay (Tempest) and Dr. Niles Caulder play supporting roles. (Caulder is this team’s wheelchair-bound, genius leader. Yes, like in the X-men. While this team is less well known, it does go back to the early 60’s so I don’t know who copied who, but I know both sides seem to have snatched ideas on occasion – or maybe great minds do think alike.) The “…Wreckage” story involves the threat of an imaginary universe (Orqwith) spilling into the world as we know it. The team is established in the first two books, and we are introduced to the opposition in the form of “The Scissormen” (faceless villains that – literally – cut people out of this reality.) Then in the third and fourth installments Orqwith is introduced, and the heroes much go there to bring an end to the threat.

“The Butterfly Collector” and “The House that Jack Built” together present a story of Rhea Jone’s disappearance from the hospital. (Jone’s character is at times a member of the Doom Patrol known as Lodestone, but in this comic book she is mostly unconscious.) One of Crazy Janes’ personalities figures out how to open the portal that the kidnapper must have used. Crazy Jane and Robotman cross over to confront the villain, Red Jack. (Yes, sort of an “Alice in Wonderland” thing going on.)

In “The Butterfly Collector” we are also introduced to Dorothy, a hideous-looking little girl whose imaginings can come to life in the real world with disturbing consequences. The last book in the collection, “Imaginary Friends” imagines Joshua Clay watching Dorothy while everyone else is out. Joshua is a minor character in the other books in this collection, but in this one he is the hero of the hour. The story involves Dorothy’s imaginary friends who’ve come to exact vengeance. We learn that Dorothy developed these friends because she couldn’t make real friends owning to her appearance, but then she had to get rid of them when they got out of hand. Incidentally, tales of woe are a repeated refrain with this team. That’s what creates the team’s uniqueness. There’s an intriguing contradiction. Normally, a reader might envy a superhero, but with the Doom Patrol envy is not where the mind goes.

As I said, I love a good tale of the weird, and this was one strange tale after another. The book is both entertaining and also thought-provoking. If you enjoy comic books and graphic novels, this one is worth reading.

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BOOK REVIEW: 30 Days of Night, Vol. 3: Run Alice Run by Steve Niles

30 Days of Night Vol. 3: Run Alice Run30 Days of Night Vol. 3: Run Alice Run by Steve Niles
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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This volume picks up at the end of the vampire raid on the Los Angeles FBI offices, a raid whose primary goal is to retrieve the remains of Stella Olemaun. The vampire-savvy agent, Alice Blood, seems to be the sole survivor (more properly, only one not turned into a vampire for Eben Olemaun’s army of the undead.) The balance of the book turns Eben Olemaun’s war in a new direction, toward the European old guard. In the original book, this division is introduced between the old-world vampires who want to remain myth and quietly live out their immortal days, and the hot-headed American vampires who are eager to war and watch the world burn.

I enjoyed this volume more than the previous one, but not nearly so much as the original story. Sadly, I suspect the reason that I preferred it to the last volume is that it’s so fast-paced and action-packed that I had no time to notice that it’s often not clear why characters are doing what they’re doing (or, more damningly, that they sometimes adopt behavior that seems at odds with the character as established through his or her recent behavior.) While I seem to have leap-frogged material and may have missed an answer, I continue to be perplexed by an anomaly from the original book and that’s why Eben is so easily able to defeat any other vampire. He’s vampire superman, and it’s not clear why he should be.

As I wrote in my review of Volume 2, at this point the series doesn’t really distinguish itself among the mass of modern-day vampire stories. The original book, I felt, did build a novel concept that made it more interesting and intense than usual. The book is well-written and gruesomely drawn, but so are tons of other vampire stories. Having read three volumes, I’m over this series, but it is well constructed – if a bit Hollywood.

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BOOK REVIEW: 30 Days of Night, Vol. 2 by Steve Niles

30 Days of Night Volume 230 Days of Night Volume 2 by Steve Niles
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

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[Note: this isn’t the Vol. 2 that follows immediately from the original book.]

I enjoyed the original three-issue “30 Days of Night” series. That book imagines a vampire attack on Barrow, Alaska during the winter when the sun does not rise for weeks. That concept of eliminating one of the vampires’ greatest vulnerabilities while putting the survivors in the demoralizing state of being hunted in the darkness and brutal cold makes for a visceral story.

While I thought this volume was written and drawn well (and quite similarly to the original – same writer, different artist) I have two gripes. First of all, I guess owing to the immense success of the franchise which resulted in many series and sub-series, it’s quite confusing to pick up the order of storytelling at this point. After reading the original book, I read Volumes 2 and 3 (sometimes labeled “Ongoing”,) thinking they would follow up on the Vol. 1 [the original] that I’d read. However, while I could follow the story, there was clearly a substantial gap in time and events. It seems like the Vol. 2 and Vol. 3 that I read (labeled “Ongoing”) were fitted together, but at least one series must fit between this Vol. 2 and the Vol. 1 that I read. Even scanning through a Wiki-page on the overall series didn’t really lend me clarity — though I had no desire or inclination to read through 30 summaries to figure out where this Vol. 2 and 3 belongs. [Especially as I don’t intend to read further as the series seems to have devolved from that gripping and unique Barrow, Alaska plot to being just another modern-day vampire story.]

So, the story of the Vol. 2 that I read is essentially Sheriff Eben Olemaun first feeding his way through a rebuilt [security super-maxed] Barrow before going to Los Angeles to do both more recruiting and turning, and then attacking the LA FBI offices in order to retrieve the remains of his wife, Stella. [My first clue of discontinuity was that at the end of the first [first] volume, Eben is dead and Stella was alive, and in this book those tables were inexplicably turned.] The other “half” of the story revolves around an FBI agent, Alice Blood, who is apparently the FBI’s star Vampire-slayer. We find out that she is the one who killed Stella, though she seems a bit broken up about it. Being the virtuous hero, Alice is also fed up with the bureaucratic moral ambiguity of her employer.

Getting around to my second gripe, it’s that this isn’t really a satisfying story arc as a standalone entity, it’s just carrying a story through. To clarify, I’m not saying it doesn’t stand alone because I’d missed who knows how much of the preceding story and didn’t understand. In that sense, I thought they actually did a great job of making clear what was going on without getting bound up in a lot of “as-you-know-Bob” exposition. What I’m saying is that this book gives one a chain of action without providing much understanding of motivation. I will grant that my not understanding the motivation in the first chapter is probably the result of not reading the immediately prior issue. However, I didn’t see much convincing motivation for anything in this volume. I saw that Eben wanted his wife’s head and torso back, but as he seems to have zero of the devoted husband and law enforcement professional left at this point and is just monstrous killing machine, it’s hard to know why he would care.

Long story short, I thought this book was alright, but not particularly satisfying and that the ordering is quite confusing. I picked up all three volumes I’ve read on Amazon Prime, so no great loss there. However, I mention that so no one else expects the Volume 1, 2, and 3 presented on Prime to present a contiguous story. Continuity issues aside, I don’t think the story still distinguishes itself from the massive number of modern-day vampire tales available today.

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BOOK REVIEW: 30 Days of Night, Vol. 1 by Steve Niles

30 Days of Night, Vol. 130 Days of Night, Vol. 1 by Steve Niles
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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This story takes the run-of-the-mill vampire tale into more chilling territory by setting it in Barrow (a town on the northern end of Alaska that sits within the Arctic Circle) in the dead of winter when weeks pass without sunlight. The vampires, thus, figure they have a month to feed without having to hide from the light, or risk being staked to death in their sleep.

On the day of Barrow’s final sunset of the year, the Vampires send in a scout to destroy all communications – starting by stealing and burning all of the residents’ cell phones. As I thought about this after reading, it was one of several points that strained credulity, but I have to say the visceral setup these people being trapped in darkness while being hunted kept me from being too skeptical at first reading. (I don’t know what cell service is like in Barrow but it seems like eliminating a tower would be more probable means of success than steeling a huge number of individual phones. To be fair, the scout does knock out the central communication hub as well, and maybe the reader psychology of being without personal communication (a cell phone) in the world we’ve grown accustomed to makes this course more intense – if absurd.)

The vampires, literally, chew through most of the population in short order. We do get some sense of the futile resistance put up by locals – particularly the protagonist and sheriff. [I would assume in a town like Barrow everyone over six-months-old possesses at least one firearm, and that likelihood is not disregarded, which makes the inconsequential resistance more chilling.] While the pacing feels slightly fast, it does get the scenario down to a manageable few to be hiding out together in a single building. (There is another major vein of strained credulity with regards to the people hiding out while maintaining core temperature, but – again – it was engrossing enough that I wasn’t much distracted at the time.)

I give the resolution high marks for being clever and gripping, but I will say that it felt to me like it unfolded too quickly and was too easy. I suspect that that may have to do with this being a serialized story. While I will say that the story is successfully wrapped up as a stand-alone arc (no mean feat as this is often a fail in serialized graphic novels or comic books,) the one eye toward setting up the continuing story arc may have contributed to this ending’s rushed feel. (Or maybe it was too much story for the allotted pages.)

I found this to be an intense and riveting read. If you like vampire horror, you’ll probably enjoy it.

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BOOK REVIEW: Memetic by James Tynion IV & Eryk Donovan

MemeticMemetic by James Tynion IV
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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This story takes what happens to a brain on memes to an extreme (if absurd) conclusion. (To get the most out of the story, one needs to understand “meme” in the sense Richard Dawkins coined the term. Not just as a popular image one sees repeatedly on social media, but as any cultural artifact (image, idea, symbol, fashion, etc.) that behaves in a manner analogous to a gene – spreading, mutating, etc.)

In the story, a meme (featuring a sloth) goes viral. All is benign, at first. People are spending far too much time blankly staring at the meme because it engenders a euphoric feeling, but that doesn’t seem so bad (and — quite frankly – it’s not much different from how people engage with social media and online games in real life.) Then, like a time-release bomb in the brain, something is triggered and people start bleeding from their eyes, screaming, and engaging in Zombie-like behavior. [Except, as befitting a story about memes, the mindless activity of these “zombies” is designed to perpetuate the meme — rather than the eating of brains.]

The story plays out in two interwoven arcs. At the center of each arc is an individual who is – at least at first – immune to the meme by way of a “disability.” One story features a college kid who is color-blind, and the other a retired Colonel who is visually impaired so he can only see vague shapes (i.e. either glaucoma or cataracts.) The college kid’s story is the more human-interest piece, with him just trying to survive the apocalyptic world when he feels challenged enough by his usual world. The Colonel leads a team to try to defeat the meme by tracking its author.

In one sense, the perfect power of this meme and its ability to mutate to more effectively spread itself may feel ridiculous. However, without spoiling the story, I will say the author does offer a kind of explanation that may help quell the mental rejection. I’ll leave the reader to determine whether they think it helps or not. But, more importantly, I think it’s a story that knows it’s venturing into preposterous territory, and that’s kind of the point. We don’t necessarily see the freakish way we respond to memes and the online world, and so this story blows the problem up to absurd scale to make the reader more aware. [It’s also fun.]

I delighted in “Memetic.” I found the concept thought-provoking and the telling entertaining. It’s not just a concept, it offers a strong story. I’d highly recommend this graphic novel for those who find themselves aware of, and disconcerted by, how many people in their immediate environment are entranced by their phones.

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BOOK REVIEW: Tremor Dose by Michael Conrad

Tremor Dose (comiXology Originals)Tremor Dose by Michael Conrad
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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Full disclosure: I love trippy, mind-bending stories that use strategic ambiguity to keep one guessing about what’s truly happening. This is that type of story. The setup is brilliant and gets the book off to a captivating start. A college-aged girl is talking to some type of researchers, describing her dreams. The intriguing bit is that we find out that a man appears in this girl’s dream, and that what drew her to the research institute was a flyer with the man’s picture on it and a heading that read “Have you dreamed this man?” That had me hooked. Is this a Freddy Kruger scenario? Something else? I didn’t know, but I wanted to.

While this is a type of story I enjoy, it’s also a subgenre that’s easy to foul up. Capturing the unique logic and illogic of dreams is no simple task. Too ordered and dream becomes indistinguishable from base reality. Too bizarre and it becomes more of an acid trip than a dream. Then there is the challenge of balancing the maintaining of consistency with keeping the reader guessing. There is definitely a varied level of surrealism across the various dreams, but I can’t say I was bothered by this. Actually, the nature of comic is conducive to conveying some elements of a dream state even in a realistic setting – i.e. we pick up in the middle of events and jump from one locale to the next in different panels.

I felt “Tremor Dose” did pretty well with these issues. When I was perusing reviews, considering reading this book, I noticed a few comments about pacing issues at the end. I can definitely see people’s problems with regards to pacing, and I think it is largely a matter of the type of story being told. By that I mean, because one is trying to figure out what is base reality, if there is a base reality, when the climax and resolution are compressed it feels rushed because one’s mind is so engaged with trying to piece together what is happening. I don’t think the flow would have been as much of a problem. [One might reasonably ask whether this is something I would have noticed if I hadn’t seen it mentioned? Possibly not, but I think so. When I got to the end-reveal, I found myself stopping to think about whether the end made sense / was consistent with the story up to that point. I think that’s what creates the rushed feel is that one has to stop to mull rather than reading through it.]

The artwork is unique. It’s pencil-drawn and is not like what one typically sees in graphic novels. I don’t really know anything about comic art, and, so suffice it to say, the drawings weren’t distracting nor did they leave me confused. That’s about all I ask for in graphic novel artwork.

I enjoyed this story, and if you like stories that move in and out of layers of dreams, you’ll likely find it a worthwhile read.

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BOOK REVIEW: Bangalore: A Graphic Novel by Jai Undurti, et. al.

Bangalore: A Graphic Novel: Every City is a StoryBangalore: A Graphic Novel: Every City is a Story by Jai Undurti
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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This book collects nine stories communicated via comic strip artwork. As the title suggests, the principle theme is Bangalore. Not much else unifies the nine works. That’s not a complaint or criticism. The book works fine, but the artistic and writing styles do vary radically. The stories include historical pieces, science fiction, crime fiction, and non-fiction – delivered in various tones from dark and gritty to light and playful. [I suspect it is only subtitled “A Graphic Novel” because that’s the only existing term that’s vaguely accurate. While it’s sometimes the case that a collection of stories with little connective tissue is called a novel – this one has no connective tissue beyond Bangalore-ness (no common characters or overlapping events.) But “Illustrated Stories” would be even more confusing to readers because it would sound like a children’s book (which this definitely isn’t) and it wouldn’t convey that the panel graphic style of comic books is employed.]

This isn’t to say that there aren’t cross-cutting ideas. I said Bangalore was the book’s theme, and I meant that. It’s not just the setting for these stories. As such, one sees a few recurring ideas that are central to Bangalore’s unique nature. Those who know anything about Bangalore probably know it as “India’s Silicone Valley.” So, it’s not unexpected that one recurring concept is technology — as well as technology gone awry. If one knows two things about Bangalore, the second is probably that its growth rate has been phenomenal. When India was newly independent, Bangalore was a fraction of the size of Chennai (Madras), and now – at an estimated 12 million people – its India’s third largest city, having edged out Kolkata (Calcutta) for that position. This has led to a lot of concern about urban decay, particularly among those who knew it as “the garden city” back when it was a popular retirement destination. The idea of nostalgia murdered by rampant growth, therefore, plays heavily into the collection.

I’ll briefly mention each of the pieces. Sorry, I know nothing about art, and therefore am unable to comment on the various styles. I just know they cover quite a gamut from monochrome to dark and desolate to bright and cheerful.

-Bangaloids: This is a piece of dark humor that plays with the aforementioned idea of technology gone awry.

-The Incredible Story of Gunboat Jack: This story explores issues of home and how it changes for one from youth to middle age. The tale shows a boxer in his prime juxtaposed with his past-prime self in a city that has grown away from him as he aged.

-No More Coffee: This is a simple story of a broken heart, but what’s cool is how it contrasts futuristic tech with a setting of India Coffee House. (For those unfamiliar ICH it’s one café among a chain owned by the Coffee Board of India that is tasty, simple, inexpensive, and like walking several decades into the past.)

-81, Richmond Street: This tells the tale of a crime famous in the annals of Bangalore.

-The Missing ATM: This comedic story features an ATM guard who has an ATM stolen out from under him while his sits on the midnight shift. While it’s humorous, it also deals with issues of class and moral dilemmas. [This was probably my favorite.]

-11th Main 9th Cross: This spare piece explores the issue of urban decay.

-Mileage: This is dark story features a man speeding home who has an accident, and is forever changed in an unexpected way.

-Beneath: This story is different in that it ends with Bangalore, but doesn’t begin so.

-My Story: This is a nostalgia piece by someone who was born and raised in Bangalore, who went away, and who comes back occasionally to find an everchanging city.

I enjoyed this book, and would recommend it – particularly for anyone with any experience with Bangalore.

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BOOK REVIEW: American Vampire, Vol. 1 by Scott Snyder and Stephen King

American Vampire, Vol. 1American Vampire, Vol. 1 by Scott Snyder
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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This graphic novel includes two distinct, but interconnected, stories presented in an interspersed fashion (i.e. each chapter presents a piece of each story.) The first story, written by Scott Snyder, is set in flapper era Hollywood, and revolves around a hardworking aspiring actress, Pearl, who is lured into a den of vampires by a big-name actor who she has a celebrity crush on.

The second story, by Stephen King, is set in the wild west and tells the story of a violent bandit named Skinner Sweet. Sweet is also turned vampire when he is “killed” by a vampire whose business activities are disrupted by Skinner’s rogue ways. The connective tissue between the two stories is the character of Sweet, who is a background character in Snyder’s story – playing a sort of mentor / guide who Pearl is only reluctantly and skeptically willing to accept.

Like Blade, character from Marvel Comics and the movies of the same name, Pearl and Sweet have enhanced capabilities in comparison to the old “European” vampires. These enhancements are similar to Blade’s, as well. The American Vampires don’t instantaneously fry in sunlight, and they are stronger and faster than their old-world counterparts. I suspect that in both cases, these enhancements are meant to make things interesting, given that – in both cases — these characters are at a disadvantage in every other way (i.e. they are outnumbered, they have many fewer resources, and they are far less experienced.) Unlike Blade, the “American Vampires” morph into nastier and more monster-like versions of themselves when they go on the attack.

The stories are straightforward, though skillfully crafted. In the first, Pearl is turned and then goes out for some payback, her best friend getting caught up in the action as well. In the second, Sweet plays out his vendetta against a lawman who was his nemesis. We get additional insight from a man who wrote up Skinner’s story as a work of fiction, but then came out as having really been writing the truth – much to the amusement of a skeptical audience. Flashbacks throughout this author’s talk layout the Skinner Sweet story. One does get the sense that immortality has had a tempering effect on Sweet, who doesn’t seem so prone to be mean for meanness sake. Although, this might be deceptive as we don’t see much action by him in the Snyder story.

I found the artwork to be well-done. While I don’t have expertise on the subject, I could follow the panels with no problem, and that’s about all I need out of them.

I was engrossed by this book. It can’t be claimed to being original, but it is an adept execution. If you are interested in vampire stories, this is an interesting take on them.

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BOOK REVIEW: Pride of Baghdad by Brian K. Vaughan

Pride of BaghdadPride of Baghdad by Brian K. Vaughan
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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I generally dislike books for adults which anthropomorphize wildlife. Except for “Watership Down” and “Animal Farm” I can’t — off the top of my head — think of another book oriented towards adults that I liked that did so. However, Vaughan’s book tells a stirring story that could pretty much only be told by anthropomorphizing its wildlife characters – because those characters are the only characters through most of the story and the intensity of the story revolves around their internal experience.

It’s the story of a pride of lions that escaped from the Baghdad Zoo during the Gulf War. The four lions were – for a time – roaming the streets of war-torn Baghdad looking for food. The story blends fiction with way-points of fact established from the accounts of soldiers.

Vaughan does inject some of the harsh reality of the natural world into the book, and so it doesn’t fall completely into the pit of anthropomorphization, and — by doing so — he creates a more visceral experience in the story.

It’s a short but gripping story. Vaughan succeeds in facilitation of the reader’s consideration of what it must be like to be an uncomprehending creature placed in humanity’s most incomprehensible condition – warfare.

An appendix to the book includes the proposal and notes, which clarifies some of what was actually known to have happened as opposed to what is either speculated or fiction.

I found this book intriguing and would highly recommend it.

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