The Comic Book Legal Defense Fund (CBLDF) is fighting the good fight against comic book censorship, a problem that has plagued the industry for decades. In order to better educate myself, and by extension Therefore I Geek’s readership, I am starting a periodic series in which I will read all of the books in the CBLDF’s list of banned book case studies and discuss them. These blog articles will take the opportunity to evaluate the material on its own merits, as well as in the larger context of censorship and why these books were banned. To kick off this new series, I’ll be discussing Brian K. Vaughan’ Pride of Baghdad.
In March of 2003, a US led coalition began airstrikes in preparation for the invasion of Iraq. As a result of the airstrikes, four lions from the Baghdad zoo escaped from their enclosure and began wandering the streets. Pride of Baghdad tells the story of these lions, using their journey as an allegory for discussing the invasion itself and exploring the some of the philosophy that surrounded it. At the time the book was published in 2006, the war’s outcome was far from clear, as a civil war was just beginning and the book makes no attempt to predict the future beyond the obvious idea that no matter what the outcome, things will never been the same in Iraq.
Three of the four lions represent a different segment of the pre-invasion Iraqi population. Safa, the oldest lioness, is the people who are old enough to remember a time before Saddam and have chosen to live under the system in order to stay alive. She fears freedom and the uncertainty it brings. Older Iraqi memories of the old days are not as rosy as those of their younger counterparts, represented by Noor, who longs for revolution and freedom. Her generation has some memory of the old days, but it is probably not as accurate as they believe it to be, due to their younger age. When she gets the freedom she so desires, Noor is now uncertain of what to do with it, especially given that it was achieved at no cost. Noor’s cub Ali is the stand in for all those persons who grew up knowing nothing but the rule of Saddam. They have heard stories from both older generations, but to them it is more fiction and fantasy than any kind of reality, nor do they have any particularly strong opinions either way.
Beyond what the lions themselves represent, Vaughan looks to address some larger ideas. The zoo itself represents Iraq and all of the existing government establishments. While the people of Iraq didn’t all leave the country after the invasion (through there were, of course, refugees), the lions leaving the destroyed zoo illustrates the people moving forward and leaving behind the apparatus of government that had been shattered by the invasion. The destruction and chaos that the pride wanders through directly mirrors what happens when all civil authority, corrupt or not, collapses. A little further beneath the surface is the question of whether or not freedom can be just handed to people, or if can only be earned. While liberty is at times glorious and beautiful, there is a very real cost that must be paid in order to obtain it. If liberty is merely given, are the people ever actually free or is it just a bigger illusion? Does waving the proverbial “magic wand” actually grant freedom?
These are fascinating and important questions which need to be asked, and Pride of Baghdad provides an excellent jumping off point for thought and discussion, especially for students of high school age. I can still remember watching these events unfold on TV during the spring break of my senior year of high school. I have friends who joined the military and served in the conflict (I have been blessed that they have all returned home). As someone who lived through these times I had these same discussions as events were unfolding in front of me.
Students today don’t remember any of this. Seniors graduating in 2015 were around six years old when all of this happened. They need to be aware of what happened, the debate over it, and they need a chance to think about it, not just on a surface level, but to dig deeper and ask the truly meaningful questions.
Pride of Baghdad has been called into question because of sexual content. While this may seem a little bizarre given the subject and characters, there is some merit to this argument. There are a few scenes that directly address sex, both consensual and rape. Early on Safa has a flashback to her time living in the wild where she is raped. This serves as Safa’s reminder that the past was just as terrible as the present, but for different reasons. The rape is both an illusion to actual rape and to the abuses of the old system, which the younger generations don’t remember. In addition, there is expressly stated sex between Noor and Zill, though it is never shown, and only supported by pre and post event dialogue. I can understand why this content would make the book undesirable for younger students, but for the same reason I think it is perfect for older ones. Students need to be exposed to the world as it is, and this book does exactly that. Rape is a horrible thing and this book portrays it in exactly that manner. It makes no attempt to justify or excuse the action. Even when viewed without the subtext, this scene still has a place in the book because, whether the reader likes it or not, rape is a real part of the how animals behave in the wild.
The realities of war are horrific and the cost cannot be measured in body count alone. Whether you remember the Iraq War, lived it, or have only heard about it, there are important questions that need to be asked and answered by each individual about causes and about consequences. Books such as Pride of Baghdad help inspire meaningful consideration and conversation through the use of an easily accessible medium, making it a highly useful tool. Limiting access to this book does students a disservice and ties the hands of teachers looking for creative ways to engage their students.