Written by: Brian K. Vaughan
Art by: Niko Henrichon
Publisher: DC/Vertigo

Pride of Baghdad deserves to go onto the list of graphic novels that transcends the medium. Much like Maus, it is based on a true story, one whose characters—despite them being talking animals—are so painfully vivid, they move the narrative to whole new levels. Written by Brian K. Vaughan (Y: The Last Man, Ex Machina, Runaways) with art from Niko Henrichon , Pride of Baghdad tells the tale from the earliest days of the war in Iraq. During a bombing run, the Baghdad zoo was destroyed. Four lions escape, an unlikely pride end up in the capital city as the U.S. invades. Even though you know how it’s going to end , it’s the lions first taste of freedom.

This pride is built on complex inter-relationships. Zill, the male head, is a lion in winter, having grown comfortable and fat in his cage, though he “remembers” the old days, spins tales of his hunts, and dreams of one day seeing the horizon again. Noor is Zill’s current mate, the fierce warrior hunter not content to be trapped in her cage, however gilded it may be, and constantly schemes of escape. Ali is the cub of Zill and Noor, a child who has only known the cage, but believes in the dream of her father. And Safa, the old lioness and former mate of Zill, who has learned to live in the cage and the safety it offers.

“Freedom can’t be given, only earned.” –Noor

Many of us are like Safa, believing freedom comes with too high a price to personal safety, and thus content ourselves in limiting boxes. We have this fear of ourselves, of others, of community and church, and of the unknown. We become content to “guard ourselves”. We like to define and categorize; it’s our effort to understand. We love to ascribe order to chaos because the world can be a scary and complex place.

“God, you ignorant young ‘radicals’ disgust me. My dung has a deeper understanding of this world than you.” –Fajer

Freedom is a gift, but it’s a gift that comes with certain responsibilities. It requires us to be accountable for ourselves. Too many people want to be told what to do; that’s why there is such a comfort to rules, that’s the draw of becoming legalistic or fundamentalist. They want the black and white picture of reality and hate (or at least distrust) anything that smacks of gray. And they don’t mind the encroachment of their freedoms in order to secure their vision of safety.

“We’re all born wanted this, ” Zill says of freedom, but Noor asks “And how is it unlearned?” We don’t trust freedom and we certainly aren’t comfortable with this whole idea of liberation. Freedom means challenging yourself and exploring new ideas, not sealing yourself away from “the world” and its evil influences. We chafe against expectations and boundaries even as we content ourselves with cages, playing in mud pies and making small boxes that are safe. Order comes at a price and we become trapped in zoos of our own making. Yet “It is for freedom that Christ has set us free. Stand firm, then, and do not let yourselves be burdened again by a yoke of slavery.” (Galatians 5:1)

“These who would hold us captive are always tyrants.” –Noor

At first I wasn’t a fan of the art; it came across as poorly inked sketches. Then I noticed how convincing the emotions of the animals rang through the pages. How the stark beauty of nature could be conveyed in one moment and the horror and brutality of war rip it apart in the next. Not afraid of political and social commentary, Pride of Baghdad evokes George Orwell’s Animal Farm in its examination of life, relationships, and war from a different perspective.

Pride of Baghad is a tragic and beautiful graphic novel, truly one of the best things I’ve read in a long, long time. It is a powerful and emotional book that deserves to take its place among the best graphic novels ever written.

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