Page 45 Review by Stephen
Bet none of you saw this one coming, but what have we had as Page 45 Comicbook Of The Month so far? Black and white musings on being a Dad; multi-media semi-fiction disguised as autobiography; black and white London crime; quiet but tense foreign thriller from Fantagraphics' Ignatz line; challenging metaphysical essay on the power and glory of the imagination... About time we had a full-colour crowd-pleaser about a pride of lions set in the war-torn wreckage of modern Baghdad.
Except that's not all this is at all. Certainly this happened (the zoo was bombed by us and lions escaped to roam the city) and yes, on one level it is about their fate. But it also works as a metaphor in a couple of ways beyond man's treatment of animals. They stand for innocents caught in a conflict not of their making, and - on another entirely - this is about the country itself, catapulted into civil war following the vacuum left when we broke Iraq's back and then failed to fix it fast enough. It's about the individual factions who may well have cooperated if they had created their own freedom but, having it had it thrust upon them by outside forces, used it instead to settle old scores or fight for control for themselves. Here Noor - the mother of the lion pride, strong and passionate and burning for freedom - tries to engage with a Cantaloupe long before the sky fills with noise and bombs above them:
"I shouldn't even be here, Noor. And if my herd knew about our meeting..."
"This isn't the time for old grudges, antelope. Not when liberation is within our reach."
"Liberation? But the birds are saying..."
"To hell with the birds. We can't wait around for some miracle to change the world for us. We have to take control of our own destinies."
"Save the platitudes for your cub. What are you suggesting?"
"You, me, the camels, the mountain goats, all of us... we've spent too long bickering with each other when we only have one real enemy -- the keepers. If we work together, I think we can take them."
"Don't be ridiculous."
"Here me out. The keepers know that if they ever set foot in our pit, my group would slaughter them. But the humans are foolish enough to lower their defences around your kind. It would be a simple matter for one of you to gore a keeper, take his keys --"
"And do what with them? Assuming we'd be willing to risk our lives for something so insane, what would we do with the keys?"
"That's where the monkeys come in."
"Monkeys? You've been sitting in the sun too long, Noor."
"They're already on board! They've even promised to open both our cages first."
"And why do I get the feeling that the first thing you'd open would be my jugular?"
The Cantaloupe's proven wrong about Noor, but she is right about the monkeys who break their promise the second they're free and steal Noor's cub. The parallels are so poignant it's painful, and if you think this is going to be cloyingly sweet or twee your first rude awakening will be the giraffes' necks exploding in a bloody spray of pulped flesh and shredded bone. Maybe it'll be the second actually, for the lions each have a different perspective on all this. Old Safa, for example, remembers her life before the zoo when she was raped in the wild, and Vaughan manages not so much a balanced perspective on "before and after Saddam" but instead a catalogue of "before and after and after that" horrors (wait until you discover what lies within the palace), whilst in order to keep your attention firmly on the animals' perspective, you don't encounter any living humans until right at the gut-wrenching end.
As to Niko, his creatures are fierce and lithe, whilst his lighting is sublime. A sandy light is cast by a hazy sea-green sky, and he draws the most frightening tanks I've seen, erupting over the horizon and splintering the tree trunks in their path.
I think this is going to surprise you; it certainly surprised me, and it'll upset any young children, so please be warned. It has all the power and beauty of an early piece of feature-length Disney animation, but none of its sentimentality - just its heartbreak and suffering.