The Lion Sleeps Tonight
THE DEFENDANT: Pride of Baghdad, Brian K. Vaughan and Niko Henrichon, Vertigo
THE VERDICT: According to the American Library Association, the Huffington Post, and the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund, Pride of Baghdad is one of the most frequently challenged graphic novels. Considering the long history of censorship, moral panic, and mistrust/misconception surrounding the medium, that’s quite a feat.
THE CHARGES: As stated in the CBLDF’s Case Study, “Despite making both ALA’s Great Graphic Novel’s for Teens Top Ten in 2007 and Booklist Editors’ Choice: Adult Books for Young Adults as well as featuring non-human main characters, Pride of Baghdad is frequently challenged for alleged sexually explicit content.” You can read more about frequently challenged graphic novels/comic book trades, including Pride of Baghdad, and why they’ve been challenged or banned here.
THE REVIEW: I’ve been meaning to read Pride of Baghdad for a while for two reasons, 1) It is frequently lumped together with Persepolis and Maus, as graphic novels that prove the medium is capable of tackling serious issues in sophisticated ways. 2) I’ve seen many people extremely upset by its inclusion among such classics. I’ve also seen many Brian K. Vaughan fans express distaste for the book and disappointment that it does not live up to the quality of his other much-beloved works such as Y: The Last Man, Runaways, and Saga (which has also been challenged).
So when I saw the book on a list of frequently challenged graphic novels, I had to find out what could inspire such positive and negative reactions. I knew the graphic novel had something to do with the Iraq War, but that was about it.
However, despite the title and the cover, I was shocked to discover it actually was about lions. I mean, clearly the lions are a metaphor for the civilians of Baghdad, but still, the characters are actual fuzzy, four-legged lions. It took about half of the book for my confusion to wear off.
But moving on.
Pride of Baghdad is a stand-alone graphic novel that tells the story of four lions living in a zoo in Baghdad. When American missiles hit the zoo, the four lions escape and wander the streets in search of food. The lions encounter dead bodies, tanks, and a performing bear in Saddam’s palace. After finally seeing a horizon again (something the young cub, Ali, has never seen before), the lions are killed by American troops.
The story is inspired by real life events but uses them to contemplate the complex issues surrounding the Middle East, the war, and the nature of freedom and liberation. This is where the graphic novel shines. It neither forces any ideology down the readers throat nor comes to any sort of definitive conclusions.
The lions’ differing attitudes towards the zoo and their keepers are realistically complex, both as a straight animal story and a commentary on the occupation/liberation of a place that has seen turmoil and regime changes far too often to make any sense of it. Safa, the older lioness, remembers how it was in the wild and so appreciates the security and predictability of the zoo, even if it means a loss of freedom. Meanwhile, Noor, the younger lioness, has a rebellious heart and longs for freedom. Zill, the lion, seems torn and Ali, the cub, isn’t quite certain what to think, influenced as he is by his elders’ conflicted feelings.
For the most part, being freed doesn’t improve their fortunes much. However, the final moment of freedom, in which they look out over the horizon as the sun sets on Baghdad is both gorgeous and moving, grounding the animal story back in its all too real setting. This is Ali’s first taste of the real world’s beauty and it reminds Zill and Safa of what they’ve been missing.
But then, in a sudden twist of either George R. R. Martin or Greek Tragedy, the lions are killed, cut down by the very Americans who freed them. The Americans’ final words, that the lions were free, is a blow to the reader, leaving them with both a sense of loss and discomfort. This is where the full impact of the inexact metaphor is felt. It is unclear exactly who was right or how the reader should feel, which is precisely the point.
While no Persepolis (or Saga, for that matter), this graphic novel does have something to say and plenty for the reader to think about. Fans of fiction dealing with history, global affairs, or traumatic events will likely find something to ponder, if not something to love. Many a class could also use this graphic novel as a way to start a discussion on war and trauma (whether specific to Iraq or in general).
In addition, the animal cast lets the reader approach the war on terror from a different perspective that may allow certain students to identify with a side or experience they may not normally be open to. The seemingly whimsical setting of the book, a zoo, reminds us that even in war-torn lands there are still zoos, there are still normal people doing normal things and living their lives as best they can amidst the chaos. No matter how little we see it on the news or choose to think about it, there is innocence and humanity.
THE DEFENSE: None of the articles specified, but I’m assuming the sexual content at issue here is either of the two sexual scenes in the graphic novel. In a flashback in the beginning, Safa fights off a male lion and is subsequently gang-raped. Later, after the lions escape the zoo, Noor takes Zill aside to see if he can feel the love tonight.
There are a lot of feelings surrounding these scenes, if many an angry review on Goodreads are anything to go by. For starters, sexual content in a book about animals may come as a shock to some. However, if it’s the old, animation/comic books and animal stories are for kids issue so frequently brought up on this blog, I have no sympathy. This is a story set in Baghdad during the Iraq War. Anyone who was not expecting adult content is an idiot or a complete hermit.
If anyone was outraged because they were expecting war and bloodshed and got sex instead, then I have even less sympathy. The consensual sex scene should not be more unacceptable than a giraffe’s head exploding as missiles and tanks roll in.
As for the rape scene, I have more understanding as that can be a very serious trigger for many. However, war and turmoil go hand in hand with rape and gang-rape, so, despite the lions, it is not wholly unexpected, especially for Brian K. Vaughan. It is also a facet of the non-combatant experience that is worth addressing yet often overlooked.
If the issue is sexual content in general, Pride of Baghdad has far less sex than most comics. There is nothing visually graphic. And to be fair, even The Lion King had an implied lion sex scene.
Some have taken issue with the lions not adhering to zoologically correct behaviour, especially when it comes to rape. For starters, lion sex is not as dissimilar from rape as we may like to think and animals have been known to have sex with an unwilling partner (as hard as it may be to determine consent amongst animals). I was more skeptical of the consensual sex as most animals mate only during mating season and not because they’re turned on by their mate being a badass. However, these are anthropomorphized animals, so I was willing to go with it. This isn’t really about lions anyway.
Some have argued that the book is sexist in its treatment of gender roles, taking issue with Noor being turned on by Zill’s ruggedness in the wild. I personally did not read this as sexist. Noor wants to be a wild, ferocious beast herself so her appreciating that in Zill seems consistent with her values. She is appreciating their freedom and their ability to live up to their potential, not just hankering for a big, strong man.
But, in either case, Noor’s sexuality is her own. Brian K. Vaughan has long given us diverse, well-written casts of female characters. Even Safa and Noor have distinct personalities and motivations and are perfectly competent hunters and fighters, so I’m willing to give him the benefit of the doubt on this.
Others claiming the book is sexist have expressed anger that even a lioness falls prey to the Rape As Backstory trope. Again, I find I must disagree. As stated above, Pride of Baghdad is about the non-combatant experience during war, thus rape is a statistically and personally relevent component of story. Safa represents the older generation who know all too well the cost of war. This is a very real part of that cost.
Nothing I have read about the challenges surrounding Pride of Baghdad have mentioned any political issues, but I’d be surprised if it wasn’t a factor, especially given the intense resistance to including the graphic novel in the same group as Maus and Persepolis. In fact, given the political environment at the time, it’s somewhat surprising the book got made at all.
As Vaughan said, “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.”