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Saturday, March 7, 2015

‘Pride of Baghdad’ written by Brian K. Vaughan, illustrated by Niko Henrichon

From the BLURB:

In the spring of 2003, a pride of lions escaped from the Baghdad zoo during an American bombing raid. Lost and confused, hungry but finally free, the four lions roamed the decimated streets of Baghdad in a desperate struggle for their lives. In documenting the plight of the lions, PRIDE OF BAGHDAD raises questions about the true meaning of liberation – can it be given or is it earned only through self-determination and sacrifice? And in the end, is it truly better to die free than to live life in captivity?

‘Pride of Baghdad’ was the 2006 stand-alone graphic novel written by Brian K. Vaughan and illustrated by Niko Henrichon.

Fair warning: this is not The Lion King of your childhood. You could probably guess that if you’re at all familiar with Brian K. Vaughan’s work – Y: The Last Man, Ex Machina or Saga, take your pick – this guy likes tough stories. ‘Pride of Baghdad’ is actually based on a true event from 2003, about lions that escaped from Baghdad zoo, amidst the bombing of the city by US troops. So it’s already grounded in pretty gritty reality, by Vaughan manages to add layers upon layers of intrigue and disturbia to an already pretty upsetting story.

We follow two lions – a cub called Ali and older lion called Zill – along with two lionesses, Ali’s mother Noor and oldest among them Safa. When we meet them, Noor – the leader of their ramshackle pride – is concocting yet another doomed-to-fail plan to escape from the zoo and get back to the wild she remembers from her cub-days. Safa is always sceptical, and doesn’t want to leave the safety of the zoo and daily meals provided for by keepers – Safa has her own memories of the wilderness, and they’re not all happy ones. Ali, meanwhile, doesn’t know what a horizon is and Zill is getting old, fat and grumpy.

One day the sky starts falling – fighter jets fly over head and the keepers throw a zebra carcass into the lion pen, a meal that’s meant to last them days, possibly weeks … and then the zoo is blown up and all the animals escape – Noor, Ali, Safa and Zill included.

We follow them as they roam the fallen city of Baghdad, encountering the outside world for the first time since they were each (except Ali) plucked from the wild and caged. The outside world as beautifully drawn by Niko Henrichon is burning: stark oranges, reds and yellows fill the page along with plumes of smoke as they walk through the debris of a bombed city. When the lions find their way into Saddam Hussein’s palace, it’s a stark contrast to the burning world outside but still eerie –like a mausoleum.

Brian K. Vaughan hauntingly imagines these lions roaming “free” for the first time. But he takes this anthropomorphism to another level – there’s sexual tension between Zill, Safa and Noor and a truly sickening flashback to Safa’s life in the wild provides some clues as to her craving for the confines of a cage. Ali’s encountering of a tortoise brings some not-so-subtle political leanings to the story, with talk of the “black water” that humans fight over. And there’s real heartbreak to this story too – as there’s bound to be from the outset, when Noor prophetically says that freedom should be earned, not given freely.

It’s quite impressive really, how Vaughan manages to tie this rather odd true-story of a bombed zoo (giving me hints of Sonya Hartnett’s ‘The Midnight Zoo’) to the wider political arch of why those bombs were falling in the first place … But he does so, and it’s a compelling – if depressing – tale.


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