A couple weeks ago, I was at a local library with my sister, perusing for a new batch of books to read. We were mostly populating our collective reading list with whatever looked good. While we were generally seeking out non-white authors in order to find perspectives we otherwise wouldn’t, I made an exception for Pride of Baghdad. I’m an avid fan of Saga, so I thought it might be interesting to read some of Brian K. Vaughan’s earlier work, and the back cover made the comic look pretty enticing. Unfortunately, what I actually read was not only disappointing on aesthetic grounds, it was also deeply frustrating for political reasons. Suffice it to say, spoilers follow.
Pride of Baghdad is inspired by the true story of a foursome of lions who escaped the Baghdad Zoo under American bombardment in April 2003. They reportedly roamed the city for about a day before American soldiers encountered and killed them. Brian K. Vaughan and artist Niko Henrichon use this real-life basis to, “[open] a unique window into the nature of life during wartime, illuminating this struggle as only the graphic novel can.” So says the back of the book, anyway.
It is not entirely clear whether “this struggle” is the Iraq War in particular, or the platitudinous false dichotomy that Vaughan heavily relies on for the meat of his story, insofar as the story has meat. Where motifs and themes would normally go, Vaughan substitutes a nonsensical mutual exclusion between freedom and material comfort/safety. The lions start the story in the Baghdad Zoo, living their lives in safety with a reliable supply of food and water. They bicker about whether it’s better to live in their comfortable, well-regulated environment without the freedom to move around as they please, or whether it is preferable to move freely through a dangerous world. They fail to reach an answer before American fighter jets destroy the walls of their enclosure, releasing them into the “wild” of besieged Baghdad.
Let’s start with the fact that the anthropomorphism necessary to tell this story is extremely awkward. Vaughan, as we expect, takes dramatic license to tell the story, but he does so in ways that strain suspension of disbelief and make the characters seem preposterous. Right out of the gate, literally, the lions find themselves in a situation where the youngest of the four, a cub named Ali, is hungry, and they luck onto a cornered antelope separated from its herd. This is an enormous stroke of luck, and yet the cub’s mother, Noor, deliberately allows the antelope to go free, to prove that the antelopes should have trusted her sooner so that they could have escaped the zoo they were all trapped in. If it sounds preposterous that a hungry mother with a hungry child would let a free meal go just to prove a spiteful point to people she will never see again, think about how much more preposterous it sounds when that mother is a hungry pack predator.
This kind of awkward preposterousness repeats itself in another scene, where the titular pride has found its way into the heart of bombed-out Baghdad. As they continue to search for food (after letting yet another easy meal walk away), the pride stumbles onto a dead human body, crushed and partially buried under the rubble of a multi-story building. The elder female of the pride, Safa, and the adult male, Zill, argue over whether to eat the dead body. Safa argues that they should respect the sanctity of the dead body because the humans protected them at the zoo. Zill argues that they should eat the dead body, because they are starving and need food. Strangely, Safa is convincing enough that when Zill goes to take a bite from the body, he gives a pained look, hesitates, and reacts eagerly to a distraction that arises before he bites down. Why the now-starving lions should care about such an abstract concept as the “sanctity” of a dead body, or loyalty to humans, whom they constantly refer to as “the keepers”, strains credulity. It is unclear to me whether this is because this particular story resists anthropomorphism, or because Vaughan handles the conceit badly.
However, in the end, the awkwardness of the anthropomorphism points to a much greater problem. The mundane details about the protagonists, namely their species and circumstances, grate painfully against the humanizing characteristics that Vaughan forces onto them. Yet the writer does his damnedest at every turn to portray the lions as having human reactions to their situation, even where such reactions make little sense. If he wanted to tell an evocative story about human-like characters in the middle of the Iraq War, why didn’t Vaughan write about a human Iraqi family rather than wrestle ineffectually with anthropomorphism?
It was at about the same moment that I asked this question that I reminded myself of Cecil the Lion. I remembered the fury with which all the Internet seemed to denounce and descend upon a single individual over an event which now has its own Wikipedia entry. I remembered the deafening silence when it came to the death of Sandra Bland at around the same time. And I started to get really angry at this book.
The conclusion does not remedy the problem at all, instead opting to drown the ending in kitschy pathos. As the titular pride finds itself, improbably, on a rooftop, they see their first sunset outside of the zoo. Within seconds, they are mowed down by semi-automatic rifle fire. In a handful of panels, we see that an American army unit is responsible, a member of which spooked upon seeing the lions and fired on impulse. The squad leader consoles the responsible soldier, “You didn’t have a choice.” When asked, “Where’d [the lions] come from, sir? Those things aren’t wild out here, are they?” The squad leader, knelt over the lifeless, perforated bodies of the lions, responds, “No, not wild. They’re free” [emphasis in the original).
The intended implications of this closing scene are unclear. Is the reader supposed to glean that freedom is necessarily harsh and dangerous, but still preferable to enclosure in a comfortable prison? Or are we supposed to equate the destroyed infrastructure and buildings of Baghdad with the rubble of the zoo’s walls? Most pressingly, is the reader supposed to infer that the soldiers brought freedom (or at least didn’t eradicate it) to the lions when they mowed them down? If the answer to any or all of those questions is “yes,” then the closing scene transforms an otherwise disappointing and underwhelming accumulation of pathos into a heartfelt apologia for the invasion of Iraq.
Regardless of whether this was intentional or not, the last two pages are dedicated to this concluding dialogue between American troops. None of their faces are shown, but by comparison, two Iraqis appear in the whole book. One is an Iraqi tank operator drawn in the far background, who shouts fewer than half a dozen words in a language other than English. The other is the dead body that Zill was about to eat, rendered once in an obfuscated middle ground, and once from behind. Not to mention the fact that the entire story takes place over the course of a single day in the middle of Baghdad immediately after the bombing starts, and no other humans are seen except for American troops. But most egregious is the comic’s epigraph, set against an image of American fighter jets dropping bombs on the remaining standing infrastructure of Baghdad:
“In April of 2003, four lions escaped the Baghdad Zoo during the bombing of Iraq. The starving animals were eventually shot and killed by U.S. soldiers. There were other casualties as well.” [emphasis mine]
That final sentence was almost certainly intended as impactful understatement, but it nonetheless encompasses the essential problem with Pride of Baghdad—it sets out to open, “a unique window into the nature of life during” the Iraq War while willfully ignoring and erasing the Iraqis who actually lived through it. Where Vaughan could have told a beautifully emotional story of the same length and tone with an actual Iraqi family at the center (the family of the dead boy the lions were going to eat, perhaps), it opts instead to tell a version of that story that is confused, awkward, and functions perfectly well as a defense of the second most egregious war crime in American history.
Which brings me back to my thoughts on Cecil the Lion, Sandra Bland, and why I thought to read Pride of Baghdad in the first place. I thought that the force and basic empathy with which Vaughan depicts war and its victims in Saga had its roots in his earlier work, and that may very well still be the case. Pride of Baghdad, much like Saga, does not depict war as a glorious, fun adventure that spurs a protagonist’s growth to heroism. But Saga gets to focus on that basic argument because it invents an endless conflict where blame lies everywhere all at once, avoiding any radical political implications. Pride is cornered by its own based-on-a-true-story premise, with Cecil’s specter looming large in the background.
Vaughan avoids the radical political implications of depicting sympathetic, humanized Iraqis victimized by an American invasion by erasing the local population entirely, replacing them with zoo animals. The American squad leader absolves his subordinate of culpability for the death of the lions, just as Vaughan absolves his readers of the burden of considering the US’s role in this hellish conflict, and those Internet mobs absolve themselves of the responsibility to examine the systemic racism embedded in their society by indulging in righteous indignation over the death of a lion. In each case, this absolution is facilitated by the production of a perfect tragic victim, an animal whose demise does not, and cannot, indict the audience for their role in systems of violence. The victim soaks up pathos without exercising agency. A lion, unlike a human, fictional or real, cannot resist infantilization and domination, nor do anything to complicate the audience’s moral narrative. You can look on as the lion dies, and weep over its corpse, without ever being challenged to examine your own role in the violence that killed it.