CRITICAL ANALYSIS: PRIDE OF BAGHDAD

Conflict Begets Conflict

By

Michael C. Riedlinger

 

 

            In April of 2003, the United States of America began an invasion of Iraq.  Due, in part, to the bombing raids, four starving lions escaped the Baghdad zoo that day, only to later be shot and killed by American soldiers.  Brian K. Vaughn and Niko Henrichon use this event to explore their reactions to the former in the graphic novel, Pride of Baghdad.  In telling perhaps one of the most poignant anthropomorphic stories since Animal Farm, the author and artist explore their own conflicted consciences concerning the themes of freedom and why we choose to fight certain battles.  Vaughn and Henrichon assign different viewpoints to each lion and other animals come to represent more than the typical archetypes associated with them.  Rather, the conflicted feelings of the creative team are explored in the form of conflicting images and a they use the dichotomy they create to ask questions that often have no easy answers.

 


 

            The story opens during mealtime at the zoo and we are quickly introduced to each character and given a brief idea of their representative viewpoint.  Safa, the matriarch of this pride, recalls freedom as a dangerous idea.  Outwardly cynical about the idea of living in the wild, she harbors horrific memories of what life was like on the savannah.  The scar where her right eye should be is explained in a flashback.  She was warding off a lone male who wanted to move in on her territory when he struck her down, and raped her.  He then turns her over to his three brothers who also brutally rape her.  This horrific brutality is what Safa associates with freedom, and it partially reflects Iraq prior to the war.  Savage infighting wreaked havoc over much of the Mesopotamian valley before the BathBaghdad.  No one would argue that they were saints, but the order they instilled, no matter how brutal or unjust, was better than the horrors civil war had brought.  Safa's view of freedom is a fair one from that perspective, but it doesn't mesh well with that of her female pride mate, Noor. Where Safa sees advantages to captivity, Noor sees only oppression.  Like many who likely lived in Iraq prior to the invasion, Safa brushes off the ideas of freedom that Noor presents as flights of fancy fueled by idealism and ignorance. party and Saddam Hussein took over in

 

 

            Noor is the idealist of the group.  In the beginning, she is attempting to broker a deal with all of the other animals in the zoo in order to secure escape.  She even promises the leader of the antelope that the lions will not eat any of the horned creatures if they help in Noor's cause.  The antelope doesn't trust her, of course, but that soon ceases to matter.  As the Antelope retreats back to her side of the zoo, Noor's cub, Ali, asks whom she's roaring at.  She responds with, "Myself, baby. As always".  Here, Noor represents frustrated liberationists everywhere.  While openly fantasizing about hunting down prey and running free in fields of tall grasses, the bombing begins.  True to form, Noor sees this as their chance to escape, but she's in for a rude awakening as the price of liberation, the violence that sometimes comes with freedom as we struggle to survive, soon makes itself abundantly clear to her.

 

 

            If Safa is the pragmatist, and Noor the idealist, then Noor's cub, Ali, represents immature optimism.  While sometimes played for laughs, the fact that a child represents optimism is no mistake.  His ignorance seems playful, but there is an undercurrent of danger to it.  For example, after the lions are free, a bomb blast catapults Ali onto a small island of monkeys.   He complains about the smell and expects that the primates will simply let him go, but they have other plans.  Here representing those that take advantage of other's misfortune, the monkeys expect to use Ali to fend off their enemies and have no plans to return him.  As an optimist, Ali expects that a simple apology will be all the monkeys require in exchange for his freedom.  Instead, the adults must save him.  Vaughn and Henrichon explore their own feelings about the nature of captivity here.  The monkeys may also represent the rabble-rousers on our own side of the conflict who wish to take advantage of those who think freedom to be a simple matter.  To the monkeys, a young lion is all the support they need to be able to conquer their enemies; to greedy politicos, the average American is all they need backing from to go to war.  The situations are compounded when the biggest and strongest show only apathy.

 

 

            Zill, the sole male lion in the pride, is that cynical, apathetic soul.   A symptom of apathy is pessimism and Zill exhibits that perfectly when it comes to saving Ali.  He argues that they would be likely to fall into the water surrounding the island of monkeys while trying to save Ali and could drown, so why try?  He is met with derision from Noor before Safa, again the pragmatist, takes action and save the cub.  This pessimistic apathy, the author and artist argue, is also a poor way to go.  Inaction is often the worst choice one can make when conflict arises, they posit, but choosing the proper action isn't always simple. 

 

 

            Freedom and liberty are often subjective ideas.  The people fighting for these ideas are often those that define them and there are other questions that are often left unanswered.  What about security and safety, one might ask, what is the price of those?   Are they just ideas, forever unattainable and illusory, or are these tangible products, available for our consumption?  It seems to always depend on the situation, and we must prioritize and debate and think before answering because there are no easy answers.  At a moment when the pride's problems are mounting, Zill notices birds flying above and asks, "You think only those things know how to be free"?  These same birds opened the story, declaring, "The sky is falling" and presaging the coming events.  Flight is often associated with freedom, but here Zill's pessimism seems to ring true. If flying birds could represent freedom, what then are we to make of the flying bombers Zill also notices?  Vaughn and Henrichon don't try to answer for the audience, instead leaving us with a question more potent than any answer we, or they, could come up with.

 


 

            While forging a path through a forest outside the city, Ali and Safa come across a turtle.  Here the artist and author task a turtle with the role of a sage.  The turtle explains to the two what the humans are fighting about.  This wise, old creature tells them, "It's about losing your wife, your kids, every worthless friend you've ever made…". Here, we finally see a firm statement from Vaughn and Henrichon.  This is, undoubtedly, the price of all war.  Hammering this point home, Henrichon paints a wasteland of a landscape wherein turtles and birds alike lay dead in a steam choked with oil.  If we know the cost, the artist asks, is it really worth it?  We barely have time to contemplate a response to this flashback when the two lions hear a noise in the distance.  This leads us into another dichotomy of imagery similar to flight containing connotations of both liberty and destruction.

 

 

            While speaking with the turtle, the lions encounter a rumbling in the distance and seek to investigate.  The turtle informs them that the sound is coming form something the humans call "The Lions of Babylon".  The pride finds that it is actually a tank battalion on its way to meet coalition forces and must get out of the path of these new "lions" or be killed. Ali compares the sound to a large, hungry stomach, and Henrichon's images cement this idea, showing the tanks chewing up the lush countryside.  The turtle also mentions that the name "Lions of Babylon" is symbolic of a statue found in the city of Babylon.   Before making his own exit, the turtle explains that "…as long as that statue's still standing, this land'll never fall to outsiders".  The author lays this out for us to easily digest.  The lion statue in question represents the will and tenacity of the Iraqi people.  The war will not be won easily, if at all, because no occupying force can ever truly subdue the will of the people.  Before we have the chance to fully digest this new dichotomy of protectors who destroy, the pride's hunger leads them into the city itself; towards utter desolation.

 


 

            The first potential meal they find is a dead human. Symbolic of the past paradigm, the lions argue over whether or not to eat the body.  While Safa, usually the pragmatist, argues that they should not if only for loyalty, Zill, ever the cynic, argues that they need only be loyal to their pride.  This role reversal points us in the direction of another internal conflict, one raging in the hearts of the Iraqi people.  Should they remain loyal to those that have fostered them and given them some sort of protection over the years, or should they devour it in the hope of staying alive and finding peace?  Vaughn doesn't answer for them, instead choosing to lead his characters around a corner where they find a herd of pure white horses.  This new symbol, one representing a potential future, is hard to ignore.  Much like the dream of a perfect future, it is difficult, if not impossible, to attain.  While chasing this dream, these horses, the pride nearly falls into ruin.

 

 

            The chase leads Safa and Noor into a palace where they find evidence of ruined opulence everywhere.  Behind a throne sits a massive painting of a lion with wings that utterly silences Noor.  Without a word, she begins the search for the lost horses and finds ultimate evil waiting for her.  Here, in the lair of the bear Fajer, the creative team lay down perhaps the only clear feeling they have on this conflict: The quest for what we desire, what we think we deserve, often leads us into danger.  Fajer offers Noor and Safa conditional mercy. If one will submit and become his next meal, he promises to allow the other her life.  The two, of course, choose to fight instead and Fajer reminds Safa, and us that, "The order you enjoyed may have come at a price, but I'm sure you remember the cost of chaos".  After blinding Safa, Fajer turns on Noor, labeling our idealist as a radical with little understanding of how the real world operates.  Interestingly, this comes only two pages after Noor comments, "…those who would hold us captive are always tyrants".

 

 

When all seems lost, Zill appears and knocks Fajer out a window to the street below.  There, the immature optimist chases freedom to crush tyranny and fear.  Ali frightens the stallions into a stampede that crushes the bear, ending the violence they have been subjected to, if only temporarily.  Put together in sequence, the creators' message is clear.  No matter what side of the conflict we think we are on, there is no simple answer.  We can't break these ideas down into simplistic slogans or trite sayings and we must at least attempt to digest all the potential angles if we really want to find any kind of understanding of freedom.

 

 

            The lions finally make their way to a Baghdad rooftop where they see sunrise, in Ali's case, for the first time.  This symbolizes the end of their sojourn and brings the story to its sad conclusion.  As the lions seem to reach their objective of happiness, even the blinded Safa and ever cynical Zill are smiling, they are gunned down by American soldiers.  Henrichon paints a gruesome image of violence and death that we may not be prepared to cope with, but that we need to see in order to understand that none of us can comprehend or contemplate the nature of freedom without considering the cost.

 

 

        The end of the book is free of dialogue, featuring only paintings by Henrichon and a brief reminder from Vaughn of the true story this book was based on.  This direct address from the author reminds us that there are very real events occurring thousands of miles away as we read this.  That whatever conflicts we have jointly explored within ourselves, there is a very tangible and bloody conflict raging across the sea.  The paintings remind us of the main themes residing in Pride of Baghdad. A bird in flight, seemingly side by side with American bomber jets, travels through the ruined cityscape of Baghdad to a remote village before, finally, landing on the "Lion of Babylon" that the turtle described to the main characters.  Freedom and destruction land atop timeless solidarity and it is unmoved. Perhaps, over time, these ideas are less tangible than we tend to believe and more intertwined than we wish were convenient.