Brian K. Vaughan and Niko Henrichon, Pride of Baghdad

From last weekend’s Left of Cool column.

 

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Dead or injured people are news; dead or injured animals are human interest. We’re acclimatised, to an extent, to violence against other people. It’s all over our newspapers, it’s part of our entertainment. Which is why, like many people, I can (upto a point) watch movies or read books in which human beings are tortured, mutilated, exploded, but an injured animal has me in tears.

In 2003 during the American invasion of Iraq, four lions escaped from the Baghdad zoo. They wandered about the city for some time. Eventually they were shot by U.S soldiers. The story received a great deal of international attention, and formed the basis of Brian K. Vaughan and Niko Henrichon’s graphic novel, Pride of Baghdad.

The most notable thing about Pride of Baghdad is Henrichon’s beautiful art. There’s a clever use of colour here, with a palette of oranges and reds to portray the destruction of the city. It’s a relief to us almost as much as to the lions when they encounter the green of forests or the cool blues of shadowy interiors.

The early sections in the zoo establish different animal species as having different temperaments, a fact that is illustrated when Noor, the younger lioness, is unable to negotiate an escape plan with an understandably nervous antelope. Other animals are less skittish; the monkeys are thuggish, dishonourable survivors, while the giraffes seem to believe in an apocalyptic religion (and the elephants are kindly but they’re dumb?). The lions, as protagonists, are less one-note. Noor romanticises the idea of freedom, while the older lioness Safa is more cynical. Zill, the adult male, is a pragmatist, while lion cub Ali acts as a sounding board for everyone else’s ideas.

It’s tempting to read into all of these positions a straight allegory of various attitudes towards war and freedom. It doesn’t help that Vaughan has his characters make pronouncements of the order “you have to earn freedom”. The subject matter ensures that the reader is already on high-alert for signs that this book is Really About the plight of Iraqi civilians during the war.

Even leaving aside the awkward implications of having animals potentially stand in for brown-skinned people, Pride of Baghdad is at its weakest when it attempts to anthropomorphise its characters. An example of this early in the book is when we learn why Safa is sceptical about the perfect freedom of the outside world. Safa is older and more experienced and might well be expected to understand that the world outside is a dangerous place. Instead, we’re shown that her caution stems from a gang rape by a group of lions in her youth. There’s a long tradition in mediocre writing of having traumatic rape substituted for female character development. It is depressing to see that even non-human female characters cannot escape this trope, particularly since lions in nature do not gang rape. Those are human crimes, and it is when Vaughan lets his characters act like lions picking their way through human civilisation that they seem most real.

But are the deaths of four lions really what we should be focusing on, compared with the larger horrors of the Iraq war? There’s a hint that Vaughan is alive to the problems of the choice to dwell on the (comparatively easier to stomach for an American audience) heroic story of a group of animals rather than the human tragedy of the citizens of the country upon which his own was waging war. After the death of the lions and the explanation that theirs was a true story we are presented with a full spread of Baghdad at night and the deadpan sentence “There were other casualties as well”. Which is all very well. But we are not reading of these other casualties, as they aren’t the stories the author has chosen to tell. If Vaughan wishes to draw attention to our proclivity to pay more attention to lions than to people, he has done so by writing an entire book about lions. He might want to rethink that strategy.

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