The lion is generally regarded as the king of the jungle, but what happens to the king when he is caged and placed in a zoo? And how will the caged king react if one day his cage is destroyed and he finds himself free in a world more turbulent and chaotic than any jungle he can remember? This is the premise of “Pride of Baghdad,” a 136 page original graphic novel from Vertigo by writer Brian K. Vaughan and artist Niko Henrichon. CBR News spoke to Vaughan about the book, which hits stores this Wednesday.
Vaughan’s idea for “Pride of Baghdad” sprang from actual events. “Inspired by an unbelievable true story of four lions who escaped a Baghdad Zoo during Operation Iraqi Freedom, ‘Pride of Baghdad’ is half anthropomorphic adventure, half ‘Animal Farm’-like parable about the ongoing conflict, and 100% lavishly illustrated by my brilliant co-creator, artist Niko Henrichon,” Vaughan told CBR News. “Comics have always had a pretty rich tradition of telling meaningful stories with anthropomorphized animals. I thought experimenting with that genre in a standalone graphic novel would be a good way to push myself, get away from my usual dumb pop-culture references and shocking cliffhangers. At the same time, I was also hungry to write something that addressed my conflicted feelings about the Iraq War. When I read reports about this pride of escaped lions, everything just kind of fell into place.”
When Vaughan began crafting “Pride of Baghdad,” he realized the story of the escaped lions would be best told as an original graphic novel rather than a limited series of serialized comics. “I wanted readers to experience the suddenness with which these animals’ lives were changed and that worked much better in a story that can be read in one sitting, as opposed to over several months,” Vaughan explained. “Plus, I really wanted to challenge myself rather than rest on my laurels as ‘cliffhanger guy.’ The learning curve for writing a 136-page self-contained novel was steep, but I’m thrilled with how it turned out.”
While humans and their war machines make appearances in the 136 page graphic novel, the central characters of “Pride of Baghdad” are the pride of lions who talk to each other and the other anthropomorphized animals they meet throughout the story. “You can read this as just a kickass adventure that happens to star animals, like ‘Watership Down’ or ‘Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH’. And while I love those books, I was definitely more inspired by something like ‘Animal Farm,’ which was a cool story when I first read it in fifth grade, but one that became much more than that as I reread it over the years.”
The animal characters of “Pride of Baghdad” are different than the usual protagonists in Vaughan’s other work, but he brought them to life the same way he handles other characters. “I guess I really didn’t approach writing ‘talking animals’ any differently than I approached writing ‘talking machines’ in ‘Ex Machina’ or teenage witches in ‘Runaways’ or grumpy bioengineers in ‘Y: The Last Man,'” Vaughan explained. “You just imagine what the world looks like through their eyes, and then you sit in front of your keyboard and make up lies until they start to sound true.”
“Pride of Baghdad” begins with a family of lions released from their cages at the Baghdad zoo, where a number of animals escaped through a variety of ways. “In reality, many of the zoo’s animals were looted, others were released by the keepers, and some even escaped when their cages were destroyed by mortars, which is what happens to our pride,” Vaughan said
The protagonists of “Pride” are a family of lions who have mixed emotions about their new found freedom. “Zill is the oldest male lion, a ‘benevolent opportunist’ who’s willing to live under any kind of keeper, so long as his family is fed,” Vaughan stated. “Noor is a reform-minded young lioness who wants to earn freedom from her cage, rather than be released by some outside force of nature. Safa is an older female lion who vividly remembers the dangers of the wild, and would happily trade a little freedom for security. And Ali is a young cub, one who’s never known a life other than the zoo.”
The plot of “Pride of Baghdad” revolves around how the pride copes with and responds to the new and dangerous world they have been thrust into. “There’s no McGuffin,” Vaughan stated. “They’re not trying to find a magical amulet or whatever. Like everything I’ve ever written, it’s just a story about a group of characters who want to do the right thing, but have no idea what that is.”
The pride will encounter a number of obstacles in their struggle to do the right thing. “American planes, Iraqi tanks, vicious bears that once belonged to the Husseins- and that’s just a small fraction of what the pride faces,” Vaughan said.
The other animal characters that the lions encounter in “Pride of Baghdad” will each have their own perspective on the events going on in the world around them. “Other animals in the story are inspired by Saddam loyalists or looters or insurgents or religious extremists, but because ‘Pride of Baghdad’ is based on a true story, our graphic novel isn’t a paint-by-numbers allegory where each character is a clear-cut stand-in for some facet of modern Iraq,” Vaughan explained. “There’s a fair amount of ambiguity to the proceedings, like life.
“‘Pride of Baghdad’ is a parable, but it’s not a preachy polemic where I try to shove my half-baked beliefs down readers’ throats,” Vaughan continued. “I wrote this story not because I have all the answers, but because I wanted to ask myself hard questions about the Iraq War, the nature of occupation, and the price of freedom.”
When Vaughan initially pitched “Pride of Baghdad” he didn’t have an artist lined up to bring his tale to life. “It was my ever-diligent ‘Y’ editor Will Dennis who recommended Niko Henrichon for the book,” Vaughan stated. “I was really impressed by his work on the graphic novel ‘Barnum,’ but it was Niko’s lavishly illustrated sample drawings of realistic-yet-expressive animals that convinced us he was the only artist for the job.
“Sometimes, painted covers can feel like a bait and switch when you eventually open up the book, but all 136 pages of our graphic novel are literally just as breathtaking as Niko’s cover,” Vaughan continued. “He’s a monster of art, along with being a fantastic guy.”
Writing “Pride of Baghdad” proved to be a very rewarding experience for Vaughan. “I pitched the book way back in 2003, at the height of Dixie Chicks paranoia, when even asking questions about the war was seen as treasonous, so I’m very grateful to Vertigo for being so supportive of an overtly political story about a conflict that’s still ongoing,” Vaughan said. “No matter what other projects I write down the line, ‘Pride of Baghdad’ will probably always be the work I’m most proud of.”
To view a ten-page preview of “Pride of Baghdad,” visit http://www.myspace.com/prideofbaghdad and friend the Pride of Baghdad profile. Once you’ve been “friended,” you’ll receive access to the preview.