Subjective Ramblings and Peripheral Thoughts from the Edges of a Comics Studies Project
Pride of Baghdad masterfully makes the familiar strange and represents conflicting perspectives on the war in Iraq through the comics tradition of talking animals. It is an entertaining read that encourages thought.
Vaughan, Brian K. and Niko Henrichon. 2006. Pride of Baghdad. New York: Vertigo.
Comic book writer Brian K. Vaughan is famous for his long-running series Y: The Last Man and Ex Machina. He has also written for DC and Marvel. Pride of Baghdad was his first self-contained graphic novel. Niko Henrichon had his first big break with the 2001 graphic novel Barnum! and has since worked on several major series, including Sandman, Fables, and Spider-Man.
Pride is based on a true story. During the 2003 bombing of Baghdad, a pride of lions was freed from the city’s zoo and wandered the streets before being found, shot, and killed by US forces. Vaughan read about the story and found in it a convergence of two things he “really wanted to experiment with”: anthropomorphized animal comics, which he regards as a comics tradition, and the Iraq war, because “it was all I was thinking about at the time.”
Pride tells the lions’ story in a beautiful, funny, and tragic interpretation. It starts with showing the life of the lions in captivity, ending suddenly and with a bang, as an exploding mortar sets them free. They wander the city, meeting other animals, including a cynical Tigris-dwelling turtle and a mad bear that had been part of Uday Hussein’s private menagerie. Finally, after getting to witness a sunset over a beautifully rendered Baghdad, they meet their end by soldiers’ guns, just like their real-world inspirations. Vaughan’s script establishes believable characters and an emotional story. Henrichon’s artwork is stunning, providing precisely what Vaughan had hoped for: they have a realistic quality with a hint of emotion.
There is no doubt that the story is political allegory, but it is not as one-sided as those tend to be. The four lions that make up the core cast of characters embody different perspectives on the war in Iraq. Noor, a young lioness, yearns to escape from captivity and embodies the young revolutionary who wanted to topple Saddam even before the US entered the fray, whereas Safa, the older lioness, painfully remembers “life in the wild,” or the lack of stability before Saddam, and is willing to trade a little freedom for security. There is also Zill, whom Vaughan called a “benevolent opportunist” and whose viewpoint the writer summarized this way: “I don’t care if the Americans are in charge [or] if Saddam is in charge–is my electricity on today? Is my family safe today? Do I have a job today?” Finally, there is Ali, the cub who does not know life outside of the zoo. He was born in captivity and represents children who had not known a world without Saddam; the idea of such a world is abstract and difficult to explain.
The graphic novel is an attempt to imagine how the world changed for the Iraqi population in the shadow of American planes and Iraqi tanks, focusing on one event in war-torn Baghdad. When Pride was first released, Vaughan said that he wanted readers “to experience the suddenness with which these animals’ lives were changed” and to tell the story of how “the pride copes with and responds to the new and dangerous world they have been thrust into.” Many scenes are drawn with a “filter” of warm or cold colors that help establish the city as something alien; this, as well as the use of talking animals rather than human beings, is used masterfully, and makes the everyday and familiar seem strange by forcing a shift in readers’ perspectives and expectations. Pride‘s handling of war-torn Baghdad in this way confronts readers with an environment and experience that only those who were there can claim to truly understand and that even they must have found alien.
Pride of Baghdad is an entertaining read that encourages thought. It is a beautiful story about something ugly. It is a funny tragedy. This mix of impressions permeates the story, making Pride a read that does not encourage dichotomy; beyond representing Saddam’s regime as imprisonment, it does not take an explicit stand, either promoting or condemning the war in Iraq. Rather, it tries to show how difficult it is to make easy sense of an event like war.