Review – Pride of Baghdad

Follow A Pride that Comes After the Fall

Pride of Baghdad cover

Overview

Synopsis When four lions are released from the Baghdad Zoo during bombing in 2003, they head into an unfamiliar world, determined to survive and find a new home together.

Author Brian K. Vaughan

Artist Niko Henrichon
Publisher Vertigo
Genre Historical fiction

Length 136 pages

Release Date September 2006

Prior to the American invasion of Iraq, the Baghdad Zoo was the largest zoo in the Middle East, housing over 600 animals. In 2001 alone, the Zoo boasted an estimated 1.2 million visitors. Closed for renovations shortly before the invasion, the Baghdad Zoo planned to reopen in April 2003.

In March 2003, fighting between American and Iraqi forces damaged the Zoo, incidentally releasing several animals; many more were released later by keepers or stolen by looters. Among the animals freed were several lions, wandering until American soldiers recaptured most of them.

Four lions serve as the principal protagonists in Brian K. Vaughan (Saga, Doctor Strange: The Oath) and Niko Henrichon’s graphic novel, Pride of Baghdad. Through four very different sets of big cats’ eyes, Vaughan and Henrichon follow the devastation of war and the search for peace when the familiar is disrupted.

Four lions freed from captivity
And he ain’t lyin’

Content Guide

Violence: Several animals are harmed and killed in the graphic novel, whether by bullets or bombs. Animals bite and scratch each other. Humans and animal corpses are displayed. Someone is trampled after falling.

Sexual Content: In a flashback, a lioness is assaulted by a lion; it’s implied she’s assaulted by others. Two characters sneak away for some intimacy. A male lion is said to have had multiple partners. A few characters make crude remarks.

Drug/Alcohol Use: None.

Spiritual Content: A character mistakenly believes their sudden liberation is a sign from heaven. Someone references hell. Someone compares a palace to heaven.

Language/Crude Humor: Maybe the big house cats learn foul language from visitors, because they (and a couple humans) wind up taking God and Jesus’ names in vain a few times, as well as slinging around a few uses of d***, h***, b****, and b******, plus one unfinished “son of a…” and one use of “bloody.” A female character is referred to as a w****.

Other Negative Content: Characters threaten each other.

Positive Content: Characters rescue and aid one another in times of peril. The four lions, despite their differences, work together towards a common goal. A lion chooses not to kill potential prey.

Planes fly over Baghdad Zoo
Zill had never seen such big birds before

Review

“The sky is falling!” a bird cries as it swoops over the Baghdad Zoo shortly before two fighter jets scream past overhead. An omen, perhaps, of things to come. Whatever the future, tension weaves throughout the cages, and our four lions each view the seeming portents distinctly. When they’re released from the Zoo after a series of mortar strikes, our protagonists must determine how to proceed, despite their differing viewpoints. What does life hold for them now?

Noor has longed for this day. She remembers little of the wild before her capture, but she recalls the thrill of hunting. Food handed her by humans holds little interest. “What kind of life is this?” she snarls shortly before she and the others are liberated. Safa’s view is grimmer, recalling the dangers of the wild and preferring the relative safety of the cage. Her fear of freedom clashes with the limitations Noor sees in their cells. Ali, Noor’s cub, has known no other life than the Baghdad Zoo. He has no impression of a world beyond the walls. And Zill, leader of the pack, is a bit more chill. Sure, the wild has a gorgeous horizon to admire, but at least captivity afforded three square meals a day. Wild antelope aren’t too keen on becoming dinner, you know?

Stampede of animals fleeing Baghdad Zoo
This stampede would be much more organized if the animals just went two-by-two

After the bombing, our lions find themselves thrust into the wide world — freedom given, not earned. Vaughan provides them a space for their perspectives to collide and shift as they sift through this new world opened to them. Ali’s a child insulated from the wild who must assume greater responsibility and adapt quickly to the unknown. Zill has his apathy challenged when he’s thrust into a position of leadership, providing for a family he never needed to care for. Noor faces the harsh reality behind her dream of a better life and the struggle she never knew would be present. Safa is reintroduced to a difficult realm she thought she’d left behind and, being older, struggles to face the challenges ahead.

The lions’ lives are rocked by war and cataclysm, and each character must work together while individually coming to terms with the changes around them. Their comfortable home, gone. Their stable food source, eliminated. Their notions of freedom and security, challenged. It’s a powerful allegory Vaughan and Henrichon weave, subtle in its execution, apart from a few heavier-handed moments. For most of the graphic novel, we learn to empathize with the plight of our protagonists and see the changing, war-torn landscape through their eyes.

Lions argue over meal
A pride of lions vs. a lion’s pride
Read Between the Lions

The direct lines between the lions and specific human perspectives aren’t necessarily clear, but each lion feels intended to represent some individual or groups of individuals impacted by the Iraq War. The specifics are murky but the general parallel sits front-and-center: a family, torn from their home by war, forced to wander and search for shelter and sustenance, each member considering their future differently. If you have ever felt uncertain about where you were and dreamed of reaching a place or position you wanted to be, a good chunk of Pride of Baghdad will resonate with you. What does it mean to belong or find a home when both seem distant or, more tragically, stolen? Feelings are poured liberally into the cauldron: a sprinkling of excitement, a heaping dose of uncertainty, and a whole lot of fear. The resulting dish is garnished with hope, and I invite readers to discover whether hope is a mere decoration or a vital theme.

Comics have long been a medium allowing readers to see pieces of the world they don’t frequently interact with, and allegory can distill political and social concepts into a narrative without feeling preachy, combative, or inflammatory (or, at the very least, they should strive to do so). Comics selecting animal protagonists over human characters provide analogues to human experience, using personification to analyze tragedies and current events while not feeling too on-the-nose. I was often reminded of Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely’s WE3, which admirably injects its narrative with social commentary without ever feeling pushy. Pride of Baghdad often possesses the same tone, save for a few images or blunt statements.

Tanks bear down on lions
Our lions must be careful where they tread

WE3 and Pride of Baghdad are constructed upon the same premise — previously captive animals seek a home after they’re released from their confines. Unlike WE3, however, the ending to Vaughan and Henrichon’s graphic novel may sit poorly with some readers. The final scenes are intended to evoke thought from the audience, another layer added to the violence and injustice rippling through the prior pages. Vaughan and Henrichon leave us in a place where we sit back and ponder the narrative leading up to the story’s climactic moments. Or, it appears, that’s the hope. I found myself disgruntled with the last pages. Instead of considering the poignancy of Pride of Baghdad’s closing panels, I sat frustrated, wishing for a different climax.

The ending — and the graphic novel as a whole — wishes to evoke sympathy in the reader. These lions, like the people caught up in the Iraq War, have lost everything. Their futures are no longer secure. As they wander, seemingly aimlessly, we wish they find the security they seek. With their ending, Vaughan and Henrichon challenge our empathy, guide it in a different direction. The concept has merit — there is more than one way we can sympathize with a character — but this challenge comes bluntly. Though based in fact, it feels like a hammer to the senses.

The lions look over war-torn Baghdad
“As a wise man once said: Everything the light touches is our kingdom.”

Our pad-pawed protagonists become the collective face of a nation wandering through turmoil, grief, and change. Baghdad burns. The world has been irrevocably altered. How do you react to sudden tragedy and calamity? How do you adapt when the comfortable and familiar are wrenched out from under you without explanation? When reason flees, what remains? Save for an abrupt ending, Vaughan and Henrichon explore this notion admirably. For 136 pages, you can look into the eyes of a lion and see yourself. The allegory is not perfect, but maybe you can still spot similarities, whoever you are and wherever you are… and wherever you’re going or hope to be.

Positives

+ Chilling depiction of Iraq War
+ Relatable animal characters
+ Worldviews worth wrestling with

Negatives

- Unsatisfying ending

The Bottom Line

The ending may leave a bitter taste, but Vaughan and Henrichon's graphic novel serves up a feast for the senses for most of its page length.

 

Story/Plot 7.5

Writing 8.0

Editing 8.0

Art 8.5

8.0

Nathan Kiehn

Nathan has loved comic books and graphic novels for as long as he can remember, ever since his father handed him a digest sized volume of "Marvel Age: Spider-Man." He's dedicated a lot of time and effort to exploring the far reaches of the Spider-Verse, but he's also been known to dive into other corners of the Marvel Universe and maybe even stuck his nose in a Batman story arc or two (just don't tell Spidey).

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