Unusually for a graphic novel, Pride of Baghdad documents a true story, albeit one more unlikely than the plot of most fiction.
During the 2003 bombing and invasion of Baghdad, workers fled the city zoo, opening the door to all sorts of mayhem in their absence. Some animals were stolen by looters, and others managed to escape after mortar damage to their enclosures.
Among those which broke free were a pride of lions that prowled around war-torn Baghdad until running into American soldiers. One of the lions apparently tried to attack the soldiers, who promptly shot them all dead.
The unusual war story is chronicled and embellished by Brian Vaughan, who wrote for a wide range of Marvel and DC comics before turning out this award-winning release on the Vertigo imprint. You’re most likely to have come across him for his Ex Machina work.
The premise of the escape is padded with anthropomorphized conversation between the lions (bringing obvious Orwell parallels), exploring the nature of captivity. There’s argument between the lions over whether it is better to be held captive by benevolent keepers, and fed regularly, or live free with the possibility of going hungry.
It’s easy to start to draw comparisons, in a novel you come to with political expectations, between the zoo keepers and the previous Iraqi regime or US occupation, but it’s not that simple. Vaughn hasn’t followed Orwell’s lead here, and the interaction between the lions and the various species they meet are not supposed to be an allegory for the nations involved in the war.
Vaughn himself has said in interviews that he never intended certain species to represent political groups so neatly, so it’s a futile exercise to try and map current affairs onto the creatures. That’s not to say that there’s no political commentary in the book – it’s decidedly anti-war – but this is first and foremost the story of a family attempting to find safety. If the lions represent anyone at all, then it is more likely to be those in Iraq displaced or killed by a war they never asked for.
It’s an overtly political book, that much is obvious. Choosing to write a novel based in Iraq is flagrant, but it can become all too distracting to try and pin political labels on the various species of animals that appear throughout the story.
Expecting wide open plains outside their walls, despite being virtually institutionalised, the landscape which the lions escape into is more urban jungle than savanna.
Both the lions and the landscape are captured brilliantly by the illustrator Niko Henrichon, who manages to capture a perfect atmosphere and desolation in the landscape. The glowing reds in some scenes could be taken straight from a sunset on the African plains, but actually depict a bombed and burning Baghdad. The whole menagerie of characters are accurate, but given a convincing range of emotion – a unique talent that was vital for this novel to work.