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Pride of Baghdad Review: Four Lions Taste Bitter Freedom
Brian K. Vaughan’s graphic novel for Vertigo is illustrated by Niko Henrichon, and charts a fictional account of a true event. During the 2003 bombing of Iraq by American forces, four African lions inadvertently escaped their zoo.
This is such a beautifully strange angle to tackle a conflict with. One that has been covered in so many ways before. With this tale we see it through the eyes of beasts, who exist detached from the troubles of humankind. Their fight for survival is nonetheless one that works as allegory and metaphor, and more importantly one we can empathise with.
The story is under two hundred pages, so the characters are mostly archetypes. There is the lioness Noor, impatient and tempestuous mother of young cub Ali, a naive child born in captivity. There is the old and scarred lioness Safa, who is cynical and world-weary, but has a heart of gold. And finally Zill the alpha male, who is not as interesting as the others really, playing more of a straight role.
Though they are free of all human bickering, Vaughan paints them with a human brush. The animal kingdom is just as conflict-ridden as humans, with different tribes, rivalries, love/hate relationships. As soon as the lions escape the destruction of their cage, they are forced to dodge bombs, and other predators while making sense of the new reality before them. Ali has never even seen a horizon before in his life, and subsequently undertakes a brief rites of passage, with a glorious visual pay-off at the end.
The art is potent with vibrant colours, Henrichon’s style is neat, coherent yet also has a scrappy vibe about it, the spirit of lions streaks across the pages. The expansive double-page spreads are worthy of making the reader pause in appreciation.
Pride of Baghdad is a heartfelt snapshot of a turbulent time through new eyes. The characters voice thoughts which represent different viewpoints of the war through metaphors. But much like the lions, Vaughan is not so much interested in commentary of human behaviour or their politics, than he is in how his characters confront new realities thrust upon them.