Pride of Baghdad was an absolutely riveting graphic novel that took the real-life story of how a pride of lions escaped the Baghdad Zoo in April of 2003 during an American raid of Iraq when it was under Saddam Hussian’s rule.
This anthropomorphic tale centers around four lions in the Baghdad Zoo- male leader Zill, older female Safa, younger Noor and her cub Ali. These four lions go on to characterize how different Iraqi citizens have coped with the cruel reign of Hussian, although truly the tale is universal in scope. In the beginning, Noor waxes poetic about life in the wild to her son, although captured very young she truly has little memory of it, with Zill adding in his memories of sunsets on the far horizon. But it is Safa who truly remembers that life in the wild was dangerous and unpredictable, as she remembers the hungry times and her attack by male lions that left her traumatized and blind in one eye.
Noor dreams of escape aided by the other zoo animals, but unexpectedly she is given her wish when a bombing destroys the barriers at the zoo and the lions and many other animals make their escape. With a mix of hope and trepidation, the lions enter the city and find out their new freedom comes at a heavy cost.
The three adults quarrel often, as they all have different expectations based on their previous experiences. Safa is the most hesitant, her past has led her to be more accepting of captivity and the safety it affords her. Radical but at times unrealistic Noor scoffs at Safa, but Safa’s practicality comes in handy at certain times. Zill, the fading leader holds on to the dreams of the past and isn’t always up to the task when troubles arise. All the while, Ali has loyalties to all three, and his innocence in the face of the true realities is heartbreaking to witness.
The artwork was perfect. I am amazed that I have not seen other work by Niko Henrichon, as his pencils and details elevated this story. The panels are well placed and guide you through the entire story, with some amazing one and two-page spreads. His animals are incredibly realistic, yet their expressions convey so much emotion. The colors aid in the story as they move from the earthen tones at the zoo and the lion’s memories of the wild, and then through the fiery orange colors of the war-torn streets of the city.
Author Brian K Vaughan, now famous for the Saga series, effectively raises questions about the various interpretations of liberation. Can freedom be given or does it need to be earned? Can one feel pride during their captivity or does it only come when you fight for freedom? Should we hold onto the supposed greatness of the past or realize that change comes with a cost? How many sacrifices need to be made? The four lions show aspects of all these questions and more, that a narrative with people wouldn’t have conveyed as well.
The conclusion, while expected, will tear you to pieces. I loved this graphic novel and it will absolutely be on my Best Of list this year. Its illuminating clarity will make you think for a long time on the perils of war.
To know more about the real-life incident read The Guardian article about the sad deaths of the lions and many of the other zoo animals.