Before co-creating Saga, writer Brian K. Vaughan followed in Maus’ footsteps by depicting the aftermath of war in the graphic novel Pride of Baghdad.
The recent controversy surrounding its banning by a Tennessee school board helps illustrate how Maus East. Cartoonist Art Spiegelman’s Pulitzer Prize-winning graphic novel became a mainstay of the graphic canon thanks to a combination of craftsmanship it shared with other seminal works like watchmen and how he explores sadly timeless subjects.
Spiegleman makes the horrors of war accessible using a classic comic book trope; anthropomorphic animals as substitutes for humans. It’s the best example of telling a sophisticated story with a storytelling technique associated with the “funny animal comic” subgenre, but it’s not the only one. A more recent example comes from a surprising co-creator, the man behind successful creator-owned genre comics like Y: The last man, and the recently returned SagaBrian K. Vaughan.
Pride of Baghdad is a 2006 graphic novel written by Vaghaun, drawn by Nico Henrichon, written by Todd Klein, and published by DC Comics’ adult reader publisher Vertigo. Vaughan draws on a real-life story from the Iraq War, throwing a pride of lions that escaped from the Baghdad zoo during the US coalition’s 2003 invasion of Iraq to comment on the war itself .
Each pride lion represents a different perspective on war. The central philosophical conflict is between the lionesses Safa and Noor. Safa is an elderly lioness who has grown accustomed to captivity and understands all too well the dangers of the outside world. Noor is a young lioness with a cub, Ali, who longs for freedom. Unfortunately, his imprisoned animal companions do not share his goals. Constantly, she is frustrated by her inability to rally them to overthrow their human oppressors.
The invasion takes Safa and Noor’s argument out of theory. Lost bombs release captive animals immediately after their keepers abandon them. While Safa initially claims she will stay in the zoo, she eventually joins the rest of the pride of the outside world. For her part, Noor isn’t as bold about her newfound freedom as she was when she tried to induce him. Safa and Noor serve as stand-ins for parties in the Iraq War debate during its rise.
Safa represents the perspective that however awful Iraqi dictator Sadam Hussein may have been, his continued rule was preferable to the chaos of the United States and its allies imposing regime change. Noor sees war as a form of liberation for oppressed animals, evoking an argument used by supporters of the Iraq War to make their case, alongside claims that Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction.
The lions do not encounter any living person until the end of their journey. They encounter other animals, from a turtle that has lived through several wars in Iraq to an abused captive lion named Rashid, believed to be one of Hussien’s son Uday’s pets. The book’s big action piece involves a battle with a bear that starved Rashid to death by stealing his food. They all offer a perspective that previously captive lions lack.
Thanks to his alpha male, Zill, the troupe fights and defeats the bear. Their victory is short-lived. After finally experiencing the sunset that Zill has poeticized about for so long, American forces take down the lions. The story ends with a caption, acknowledging that the lions that inspired the tale suffered the same fate. It ends with the words “there were other casualties as well” in the middle of an aerial view of Baghdad.
This ending sequence beautifully illustrates how Pride of Baghdad gets its point across. This narrative conceit of anthropomorphized lions allowed Vaughan, Henrichon, and Klein to tell a story about the reality of war in a fantastical way without diminishing its impact. It is a movement directly from Maus‘book of games. The death of the lions at the end packs a punch, making it easier to understand what the invasion did to civilians in Iraq unfortunate enough to be caught up in it.
The creators behind Pride could have used human beings. Still, they wouldn’t have reached the kind of audience that might feel indifferent to biographical graphic novels like The Forbidden Book. Persepolis that tell war stories from a realistic and personal perspective. Without being poetically subtle, Pride conveys its message without being didactic. It had a good chance of illustrating the aftermath of the war to an audience that might avoid “overly political” stories but can invest in a story whose premise could be an animated Disney movie with some sanitization.
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