The Pride of Baghdad by Brian K. Vaughn and Niko Henrichon, published 2006 by Vertigo (imprint of DC Comics), graphic novel, tells the story of a quartet of starving pride lions who escaped the Baghdad zoo during the US bombing of Iraq. This story is inspired by true events and packs an emotional punch to the gut in the telling.
The cover of this graphic novel drew me in immediately. Another thing that drew my attention was the author: Brian K. Vaughn, who also wrote another favorite graphic novel series I read that won the coveted Eisner award, titled, Y: The Last Man. The bookseller at my favorite comic bookstore stated that Vaughn and his publisher had no idea how well received this graphic novel would be and had sold out of x-amount of copies in a record amount of time. I managed to find a hardcover copy of The Pride of Baghdad and bought it. I read it quickly and wasn’t prepared for the emotional journey surrounding a set of pride lions who find themselves free after their zoo has been bombed by US forces.
We see Baghdad through the eyes of the lions–Zill, Safa, Ali and Noor, who are rummaging around the war torn city of Baghdad. Their zoo has been bombed and they are left to fend for themselves. The keepers of the zoo had fed them and then abandoned them to their fate. The sky is full of fighter jets and the city streets look empty. We see them duck and doge artillery fire and bombs as they try to make safe passage through the city. They run across civilian casualties as well as the casualties of other animals caught in the crossfire. The author emphasizes the utter helplessness and ignorance of these deserted animals. They are innocent bystanders, caught in the middle of a conflict that they know nothing about.
Safa is an old lioness, who is blind in one eye. She has lived much of her life in captivity and doesn’t care to go back into the wild. There’s a flashback of her being raped by four other lions. When the zoo is bombed, she decides to stay behind. She prefers living her life in captivity instead of being free and had considered the “keepers” her friends. Soon, she gets a rude awakening in learning the truth about her keepers, when it turns out that they tortured other animals. Zill is more of an “opportunist” according to the author, someone who is concerned about the here and now. Ali was born in captivity and knows nothing of life outside it and Noor is more of a fighter, a survivor, who feels that freedom should be earned and not given.
Most of the story is spent with the lions trying to find food and relative safety. They run into a bit of lawlessness from the other zoo creatures after they have been freed from captivity. Before the zoo was bombed, Noor had been plotting to escape and had tried to convince the other animals to help with no success. She couldn’t convince the other creatures that they could all rise above their baser instincts to work together. She later proves it, when the antelope, apart from her herd, comes across the pride who are starving and looking for something to eat. Zill and the rest want the antelope as food but Noor intervenes and lets her go. There are a couple of battle scenes where the group run into other wild animals – like a blood-thirsty bear named Fajer.
The climatic conclusion left me sucker punched. During the fall of 2003, as the US forces try to gain control of Baghdad, US soldiers opened fire on the four pride lions. It leaves you with a question of why? What happened? I’m sure they hadn’t planned on being confronted with zoo animals let loose in the streets of Baghdad. Anyway, the author kind of ends the story on a cynical note stating that “there were other casualties.” The artwork was well done as was the plotting of this story. There are brief moments of humor and levity and other moments of pity and outrage. This graphic novel was recently released in paperback. It’s a quick read with an emotional punch and I highly recommend this title to graphic novel fans. My grade, B+. It is rated for Mature readers, price for hardcover $19.99 and $12.99 for the paperback. I’m sure most libraries might have a copy as well.