Pride of Baghdad, by Brian K. Vaughan (writer) and Niko Henrichon (artist)
Vertigo, 2006. 136 pages.
In 2003, Pride of Baghdad explains, the Baghdad zoo suffered damage under U.S. bombing of the city, setting loose a number of animals, including a small pride of lions. According to the novel the pride consists of Zill, an alpha male (who doesn’t seem that alpha), two lionesses, Safa and Noor, and Noor’s cub, Ali. Let’s visit the story at some length (spoiler alert: it’s not very good):
Noor is trying to plot an escape from the zoo with other animals, says she has the agreement of the monkeys, but the antelopes aren’t going for it. The bombs drop and the lions (as well as the other animals) are freed, but Noor is pretty upset about this, because “Freedom can’t be given, only earned.” Safa likes captivity because she was lion-raped in the wild, and stays behind while the other lions go watch a giraffe get bombed, after which Ali is kidnapped by monkeys. Zill and Noor can’t swim across the monkey-moat to rescue Ali, who is not fond of the pretty hip gang he’s fallen into (“Be cool, Ali,” the head monkey advises. “Us orphans gotta stick together, right?” I’m imagining this monkey voiced by Louis Prima.) Safa stages a sneak attack and kills some monkeys, then gets Ali back. Noor has mercy on an antelope. Zill yells at Noor and Safa which is a turn-on, so he and Noor slip off to do it, leaving Safa and Ali to talk to a grumpy turtle, who explains nothing at great length except “the walkers” keep fighting. Zill has little stamina. Noor is depressed. Tanks drive by. The lions walk to the city and refuse to eat a dead human, because humans used to feed them? It’s OK though, they find some horses, but get sidetracked fighting a bear. Zill kills the bear with a horse-attack. All the lions climb to a roof to see the sunset, at which point they are all gunned down by American troops. Private So-and-so worries, “Those things aren’t wild out here, are they?” Sarge (or someone) consoles him. “No, not wild. They’re free.”
I’ve got a number of problems with this book. I don’t generally read graphic novels, and have not thought deeply about the genre, but am pretty confident I can pick out where they missed the boat.
On a level of style, the art is good, and has a lot of potential even when it lacks; but the pacing is just terrible. Whether the blame falls on the writer or the artist, time is simply not allowed to pass in a meaningful way. While reading the first dozen or two pages the feel is: “Bomb! Wow that was a bomb. Uh-oh. Bomb! So many animals! Bomb! Monkeys. Monkeys! Kill all the monkeys! Phew I’m glad we killed the monkeys.” Maybe the authors were trying to communicate the split-second drama of withstanding an aerial raid—although I think the kidnapped-by-monkeys aside threatens that interpretation—but there is nowhere a pause wherein real tension can be established or felt by the reader. In a medium as visual as a graphic novel the reader must be more deliberately guided than in a prose piece; the reader’s eye is guided by the images as much or more than by the words. From the moments before the bombing to the last scene in which the pride has been gunned down by soldiers, it feels like the whole event has taken about twenty minutes. As much tension and drama the authors attempted to convey by action, it feels as if they and we, the readers, had too little time to process the drama well enough for it to mean much. Huge events can happen, battles and wars can be decided, in less time—but those who experienced those events will tell how time slowed.
On a literary level the book is no less problematic. The lions are anthropomorphized but the author can’t seem to decide where to come down on the level of humanity they have. Talking animals can be done fine. Think Winnie the Pooh, Narnia, Redwall, Animal Farm. But in any of those works can be found a clear decision whether the animals will display a more animalistic or human side; this novel falters and tries to form a gray area which doesn’t work. The lions can be very liony when it comes to prey and folksy wisdom (“You don’t look a gift horse in the mouth…you eat him.” Yuk yuk.), but if they’re going to be predominantly liony, I can’t be expected to form an opinion on lion rape, or for that matter think it’s sexy (is it supposed to be sexy?) when one lioness demands the male lion “take” her. The lions are alternately ravenous and ready to eat whatever, and reticent to feed on basically anything—an antelope that rejected an offer of freedom; a dead rhinoceros; a dead human.
The book is perhaps meant to be an experiment in telling the story of a non-combatant in the Iraq War, capturing the confusion and helplessness of being a civilian. Perhaps it is meant to be allegorical to the struggles of the people groups pre-existent to the conflict, how they related before and after the initiation of war. If any of those possibilities are the case, they fall flat.
If telling the story of non-combatants, it should have dwelt less on the ignorance of animals of what was happening around them. If a sort of allegory, it should have, well, less clumsy about it. A cursory reading allows that maybe a discussion between a lion and an antelope about freedom might be analogous to different people groups in Iraq, but it isn’t at all clear. Besides, I’m not entirely sure what it does to the lions-mirroring-humans idea when all the actual humans are literally faceless. Besides the Iraqis shouting, unseen, from tanks, the American troops at the end are darkened to unrecognition.
On a practical note, I take serious issue with the assertion that a single M-16 shot could take a grown male lion, especially it being a torso wound.
Finally, the last few pages of Pride of Baghdad are simply insulting. The artwork follows a bird flying over the burning city. The pages read:
“In April of 2003, four lions escaped the Baghdad Zoo during the bombing of Iraq.
“The starving animals were eventually shot and killed by U.S. soldiers.”
“There were other casualties as well.”
Above all else this callous disregard of human life discounts the idea that the lions stand for anything besides lions. I’m not sure what sort of message the author could be trying to convey with that last line besides a “screw you” to whoever thought innocent human casualties were not more important than or even as important as lion casualties. Anyway, if Vaughan wanted to convince anyone the lions were to be specially mourned as victims of U.S. aggression, he should have kept them what they were—animals. Then we could’ve thought about it.