Jul/Aug 2007  •   Reviews & Interviews

War As We've Never Seen It Before

Review by Maryanne Snell

Pride of Baghdad.
Brian K. Vaughan and Niko Henrichon.
DC Comics. 2006.
ISBN 1-4012-0314-0.

There have been many attempts in literature and film to portray the realities and horrors of war, but none quite like The Pride of Baghdad. Based on the true event of four lions escaping into the city when a bomb hit the Baghdad Zoo during the 2003 aerial bombings, The Pride of Baghdad takes the reader through a war zone as seen through the eyes of animals.

Vaughn could have chosen to make this book silent, but wisely decided to take an Orwellian, Animal Farm approach; the animals speak to, and understand each other, but cannot speak to humans. This creates two levels on which the book functions—the pure narrative of what happens to the lions, and a metaphoric level, reflecting many facets of human interaction and life in Iraq.

Within the zoo, various animals co-exist in captivity, interacting in the same way they would in the wild, taking the human parallel of different races or cultures. The lions are the kings of the lot, instilling fear in those around them. Each lion has a different perspective on life in the zoo: Zill, the alpha male, remembers life in the wild and dreams of seeing the horizon again while Safa, the elder female, appreciates the safety that the zoo provides. Ali, the little cub, has grown up in captivity and can only base her ideas of the outside on those of others while Noor, her mother, plans and plots escape even as she remembers the brutality of life in the wild.

It is Noor's perspective that forms the core of the metaphor within the book; as she questions whether freedom can be given or only earned, or if a life of freedom filled with brutality is better than life of captivity, the book begs the same questions of human life. In her struggles to work with other species and fight for her life with those who would do her family harm, parallels with wartime Iraqi life become evident. And during Noor's exploration of her new-found freedom and attempt to stay alive, the destruction caused by humans is shown in stark comparison to the primal violence of which the lions are capable.

Niko Hendrichon's lush, intricate visuals perfectly illustrate the co-mingling of the beauty of nature and the desolation of a destroyed city. A palate of fresh greens and blues indicates the open lightness of nature and freedom, while suffocating oranges and yellows show the choking smoke and fire within the city. The animals are drawn with deft touch; they have human expressions but always look like animals.

Humans (or keepers, as they're called by the lions) make a very small appearance in the lions' adventure. They are present in bombers overhead and intimidating stampedes of tanks, and the lions come across dead bodies (which lead them to an interesting ethical dilemma), but they don't encounter people on foot until the ultimate, tragic finale.

What the reader brings to this book will largely influence whether The Pride of Baghdad is read as a story about animals, a parable about the casualties of war, or a statement for or against a specific war. However it is read, though, this is a beautifully written and illustrated book, full of insight and compassion.


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