Publisher: Vertigo Comics
Writer: Brian K Vaughan
Artist: Niko Henrichon
Originally Released: September 2006.
“Freedom can’t be given, only earned.”
Vertigo’s Pride of Baghdad tells the true story of the four African lions who escaped from Baghdad Zoo following an American bombing run back in 2003. Written by multi award-winning author Brian K Vaughan and illustrated by the supremely talented Niko Henrichon, it drew no small amount of critical acclaim on its initial release, and with good reason. And, just over a decade after it hit shelves for the first time, I decided to once again dig into this hugely affecting original graphic novel to try and break down some of its truly unique appeal.
More than just a moving anthropomorphic story about a quartet of lions trying to survive in a horrifically unfamiliar world, Pride of Baghdad is primarily an allegorical tale featuring several conflicting viewpoints of the Iraqi war. Through the eyes of the different characters, Vaughn and Henrichon examine the contentious war from all sides, never espousing one philosophical approach as ‘correct’. In fact, they only really reach a consensus about the fact that death is the only thing that’s truly guaranteed in conflicts like these.
It’s remarkably raw and thought-provoking, even outside of the immediate emotional investment in the characters. In a matter of pages, Vaughan manages to not only establish the social dynamic within the zoo, but also to introduce us to the different members of the ‘pride’, each with their own unique philosophies and idiosyncrasies.
Safa is the one-eyed matriarch of the group, and is also the only one who can actually remember the “freedom” of the outside world. As such, and based on her own traumatic experiences, she can see the true horror in the concept, and believes that sometimes the mere idea of freedom isn’t necessarily something worth fighting for.
Noor, the other female, is far more idealistic, viewing their captivity as a form of oppression and trying to broker an escape with other animals prior to the bombs being dropped. She’s very much the epitome of “freedom at any cost”, even though she lacks any real understanding of just what that freedom may ultimately involve.
Ali, Noor’s cub, is the youngest of the group, and represents the sense of naïve, childish optimism that frequently goes hand-in-hand with the pursuit of freedom. To him, everything is fresh and exciting, and even though he realises fairly quickly that the outside world is loaded with danger and uncertainty, he still manages to retain his youthful excitement throughout the course of the story.
And finally, we have Zill, the lone adult male. Zill represents the cynicism, the “why bother?” attitude. His life isn’t great, but nor is it particularly bad, so he remains weary and hesitant throughout the story – for the most part, at least.
Each of these characters helps to give us a conflicting view of the concept of freedom, and Vaughan digs deeply into these viewpoints while still managing to focus on the immediacy of the situation. As a result, Pride of Baghdad is a book which certainly benefits from repeat readings, with more and more of the intelligently-crafted subtext bleeding out onto the pages with every fresh read-through.
Visually, Niko Henrichon does a stellar job of conveying the emotion of the characters, from fear to anger to frustration to hope, and his fluid, immaculate pencils manage to perfectly capture the frantic danger of war-torn Baghdad. Everything is presented with an unflinching sense of realism, and Henrichon is chiefly responsible for bringing the horrors of the “real world” to life on the page. He nails both the emotional and action beats with ease, and the supporting cast of characters, from the wary antelopes to the hulking, egomaniacal black bear, are all given an unmistakably human range of emotion.
As should be expected, the pair stay steadfastly away from anything resembling a happy, Disney-esque ending, providing us with a raw and realistic account of the lion’s desperate bid for freedom. Indeed, their entire journey resonates even more deeply with the knowledge that this actually happened, and while there’s undoubtedly a significant level of artistic license at play here, the core concept – the contradictory nature of “freedom” – is difficult not to feel moved by.
As I mentioned above, Pride of Baghdad is a book that will stick with you long after you’ve put it down, and the themes and emotions explored within these pages still feel every bit as relevant today as they did a decade ago. Vertigo Comics have made their living by producing inventive, thought-provoking works of art, and if you’re putting together a list of their most affecting releases over the last twenty-five years, Pride of Baghdad has to be right at the top. Highly recommended.