Thousand Faced: Pride of Baghdad

Pride of Baghdad
Writer: Brian K. Vaughn
Artist: Niko Henrichon
Publisher: Vertigo/DC Comics

Freedom! Terrible, terrible freedom! Pride of Baghdad is no Lion King. What it is will surely break your heart in ways no Disney film will ever be able to. That being said I’ll bet some sea bottom scuttler in an Armani suit is at this very moment trying to option this wonderful story so it will be commercially palatable for the vapor brains schnoggling their way through the mall. Seeping out of some executive producer’s office at this very moment like the farts of Rush Limbaugh after dining on Snookie’s spoor are these words, “And the kids will love it as the lions are saved by a band of pouty vampires with lasers mounted on their heads as the Lady Gaga soundtrack swells triumphantly and we product placement all over the buildings of downtown Baghdad.” Laugh but this is how these sorts of things are decided. But before we come to that ugly plasticine road there is this book. I’ve been gone awhile but I’m back because I need to tell you about this book.

During the invasion of Baghdad in 2003 in what was called “Operation Iraqi Freedom” four lions escaped from the remains of the Baghdad Zoo. In the book they are “liberated” by a bomb blast from an American fighter bomber when their cages are blasted open. In real life, the lions were abandoned along with the rest of the zoo and starvation after ten days caused them to dig their way out and the harsh master of hunger guided them to seek freedom. Pretty much where all revolutions against the old ways are born; in empty bellies. Vaughn needed to get this story up and running but I wanted to show off my modicum of research and make my snarky comment because freedom isn’t how all the brochures make it out to be despite my love for it. Just saying folks if you want to love something, a broad wash of concept will always be disappointing unless you want to embrace it, warts and all. Ask the Egyptians right about now or some guy scrabbling in the dirt in Misrata as Momar’s goons rake him and his family with anti-aircraft guns. Or right around the corner as deceitful thugs enshroud themselves in the American flag and play upon sheep-like fears in order to get freedom abrogated. Had a TSA rectal exam lately?

But there is this book and it is brilliant. From the moment a raven repeats to Zill, the male of this pride, “The sky is falling.” In this case it actually does as the bombing of Baghdad begins for the second time in a little over a decade. Noor, the alpha female of the pride by virtue of being Zill’s mate and the mother of Ali, the cute cub who is the voice of innocence in this tale is negotiating an escape plan with an antelope. She hates her cage and wants out and is a revolutionary ready to  talk an herbivore into killing the keepers and grab the keys and enlist the help of all things, monkeys to have them set the lions free. Safa, the last member of the pride in social standing is an old lioness who bitterly remembers the real veldt and how awful it could be. Yes this is a tale with lion rape and mutilation in it. That scene alone made it possible to hear Disney-esque panties bunching from half way across the country. Safa loses her eye and carries enough bitterness for a life time within her. There is familial bickering aplenty in this tale. Lions roar and growl and swear they hate each other and say it in love as well. Vaughn is one of the most emotionally nuanced writers in the comic business and if you have not read his work on Y: The Last Man or Ex Machina or his other works I strongly urge you to do so. Henrichon’s artwork is vibrant and colorful and brings this story to life. And life is far from being pretty but each panel compels you to the next.

There is a scene with an oil smeared sea turtle who has witnessed this madness before and accurately names the culprit of all this misery; oil and man’s rapacious hunger for it. If you believe that our real goal of the war in Iraq was the love of the Iraqi people and the benevolence of the likes of Cheney and Rumsfeld there is a unicorn ranch I can let you have cheap. Take a collection at your next Tea Party and I’ll throw in a coupon for a ringside seats at an actual Democracy as well. There’s a whole Congress of ass-clowns that come out of a little Hummer that belches toxic fumes to “America The Beautiful” played on calliope. However for all of the destructive bumbling done by our high tech arsenal we get a glimpse of the real evil we eventually did exterminate. As the lions are forced by tanks to flee into the city they get inside a presidential palace and see a horribly scarred and submissive lion, Rashid. This is one of the animals tortured for amusement by Mr. Rape Room himself, Uday Hussein. The poor creature is so broken he still cries out for a master who has made him this way. Poor Rashid is the basest form of whip hand licker and has even been victimized by a bear, Faje who has eaten the lion’s food as well. Faje has become the new ruler of the palace with all the requisite cruelty and arrogance of those believing they are entitled to the suffering of others by virtue of the power they have. Rife with metaphor? Oh yeah.

In a rare moment of transcendent beauty and peace as Zill basks in viewing the horizon he’s been regaling the pride with for years a stray shot hits him and his mates see an American patrol and charge at them. Automatic weapons fire takes, the rest of the pride down and thus terrible freedom is exacted from creatures out of place and only wanting to live. The first time I read this I cried out and blubbered a bit because that’s what the power of a good story can do. The second time I bought the book and read it, I did it again. Vaughn said he wrote this to try to work his way through his own conflicted feelings about that war. Despite all the fun of massive destruction it still bothers me to know the real cost of freedom.

by Bill Hilburn

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