“Published almost 20 years ago, this graphic novel still feels frighteningly current. Pride of Baghdad focuses on the events of the 2003 invasion of Iraq and bombing of Baghdad. During the bombardment, the once-thriving city zoo was left abandoned. Reportedly many animals starved to death, while others were stolen by looters, and yet others – among them a small group of lions – managed to escape. This pride of lions reportedly roamed the ruins of the city for several days until they were discovered by US soldiers. ‘Pride of Baghdad’ imagines the dreams, fears, and misadventures of these creatures in the days before their death – spoiler, they (like so many innocent victims of that conflict) all perish in the end.
To give you just a quick flavour of the story, our four anthropomorphised lions – Noor, Ali, Safa, and Zill – all have different take on the current circumstance. Thrust into the wide world, some embrace freedom while others long to return to the safety of captivity. We see flashbacks to traumatic events and dreams of brighter futures, but at its heart this is a simple tale of one family’s desire to find a home. This desire is shattered, however, by the realisation that the land has been ravaged by decades of conflict. There is no peace, no wilderness, no home to be found. There is only oil, and war.
The brilliance of Vaughan’s storytelling here is in something I like to call ‘obvious-subtlety’. Like Orwell’s ‘Animal Farm’ and Adams’s ‘Watership Down’, these so-called creature-fables are told through the eyes of the non-human, creating a distance which softens the blow of tragedy and invites the reader to fill the gap with their own experience. There’s no hiding the truth of what’s happening, after all, one of the thrills of a graphic novel is that it’s graphic. One particular panel shows an exploding giraffe – quite possibly the definition of non-subtle. But also, the author isn’t trying to force-feed you any kind of ideology. The message may be subtle, but the medium delivers it with obvious, through sometimes blunt, precision. And while bluntness may not be the best way to change the world, generations of activists have proven that sometimes we need hammers just as much as we need poems to shatter the walls around us.
– Philip Webb Gregg