From the first time I heard about “Pride of Baghdad” I was intrigued. A graphic novel based on the true story of a pride of lions released from the zoo during the bombing of Baghdad? Just the cover captivated me, (since every copy I saw in stores was wrapped, this was often all I got a chance to see), the eyes of a male lion staring out beneath iron bars and rubble. I had wanted to read it for so long, but always made excuses not to buy it. But over winter break I discovered, overjoyed, that Borders was having a Buy One, Get One Half Off special with graphic novels, and used this as the excuse to purchase “Pride of Baghdad” and the hardcover edition of the first two volumes of “Y: The Last Man”- both, I realized later, written by the fantastic Brian K. Vaughan.
“Pride of Baghdad” follows four lions- the young pride leader Zill, the young cub Ali and his mother Noor, and the old, half blind Safa- after they are released from the Baghdad Zoo during the chaos of a bombing. It begins with the four in their pen, Safa content with her home at the zoo, while Zill and Ali live complacently and Noor attempts to plot escape with the gazelles- the four of them an obvious allegory. All of their plans and ideals are thrown aside, however, when United States fighter planes fly overhead and drop bombs that destroy the cages of the zoo. And from there, I won’t detail much.
I think it’s a little hard to write about “Pride” without letting loose any minor spoilers. I would love to talk about the end, and how every time I read it I get choked up. I would like to talk about all the symbolism that pervades throughout the novel. But I don’t want to ruin anything for you. And to be perfectly honest, I’m not sure I understand all of the symbolism. But I’ll try to mention it without ruining anything for you, I promise.
“Pride” is comparable to “Animal Farm”: You can read it without understanding the whole allegory, and it’ll still be a beautiful, powerful piece, but the entire time you’ll be wondering what it is you’re not getting. I don’t think I know enough about the history of the Middle East to understand the allegory fully, but I wish I did. Honestly I’d like to sit down with a study group (anybody in?) and discuss the symbolism and allegory within “Pride”. There are layers and layers beneath what you see on the surface, which is, in large part, what makes this book so great. Does Fajir the bear represent fundamentalist Islam or the after effects of Russian involvement? What about Rashid the pet? And how exactly should the reader interpret the last spoken dialogue? I could go on, rambling to myself about symbolism I don’t fully understand, but I’d rather not give anything else away.
Artistically, “Pride of Baghdad” is breathtaking. The art is by Niko Henrichon, who utilizes a style that I find rather unique. The landscapes are vibrant and beautiful, and styles alternate between detailed and realistic, to sketchy and semi-stylized. Every panel, though, is beautiful in it’s own right. Whole page splashes of landscape are jaw-dropping, and panels of action are beautiful and descriptive of the movement.
When I first started reading “Pride of Baghdad” I had an initial reaction that I think a lot of other readers will have: for about a second I considered the possibility of an animated version. And the idea of one has even come up in interviews with Vaughan. (Luckily, Vaughan has stated that, unlike his other two projects, he has no intention of turning “Pride” into a film.) Because a few pages in- probably around the rape scene- you realize that such a film couldn’t be done. I don’t see how any animation studio could capture the emotion or recreate the beautiful art style that are so crucially incorporated into this story. To be perfectly honest, I’m not sure any studio worth it’s salt would be willing to tackle such an intense, powerful story. Don’t let the idea of talking animals fool you. This is not The Lion King. I wouldn’t want it made into a film simply because I would be far too terrified they would find some way to botch it. No, I am content with what I have. I’d rather not risk ruining this story with film.
“Pride” is a relatively short graphic novel- but it will stay with you forever. This is possibly one of the most powerful stories of our generations’ war yet told. (I’m not going to say it’s comparable to Maus, but…) “Pride” doesn’t take sides, and it doesn’t preach. It is just a story; one of those that give me that burning feeling in my eyes every time I finish it. If I were of lesser masculine character I would surely be bawling at the end. Just, water fountain. Every time. But of course that’s not how it is. Cuz I’m so manly.
…What? No, my contact’s just messed up.
Pride of Baghdad – Brian K. Vaughan and Nicko Henrichon