Carol Isaacs, aka The Surreal McCoy, is a cartoonist whose work has appeared in the New Yorker, the Spectator and the Sunday Times. Her debut graphic novel The Wolf of Baghdad, from Myriad Editions, combines history, graphic memoir and a form of magic realism in a haunting tale of “an author homesick for a home she has never visited.”
Once, around a third of the population of Baghdad was Jewish. But as the 1940s moved into the 1950s almost all of Iraq’s Jews had disappeared, having either been expelled, killed or having fled. This largely “silent” narrative, interspersed with the words of Isaacs’ family, bears witness to the testimony of the survivors of that period, bringing a lesser known story of religious persecution to a contemporary audience as Isaacs revisits her familial Baghdad roots and events which would shape her life.
In her London flat a reflective Isaacs sifts through family photos and memorabilia. As she does so she finds herself mystically conveyed to the old Jewish quarter of Baghdad by a musical accompaniment. There she travels its streets; passages filled with the ghosts of the past as another Baghdad overlays its current incarnation. A night of revelation sees Isaacs experiencing the cultural and social history of that period as a city of integrated communities gradually gives way to one of hatred and intolerance when 1940s pro-Nazi sympathies grow.
The Wolf of Baghdad connects with the reader on a dual narrative level. The comics content of the main body of The Wolf of Baghdad is wordless but reflects brief accounts from Isaacs’ family detailing a growing climate of oppression and fear which are inserted throughout. It’s a technique that allows us to become part of events in vastly different yet complementary experiential ways; the power of first-hand testimony and pure visual storytelling both resonating with the reader.
Isaacs’ subdued yet atmospheric use of colour builds up a sense of both environment and era. It’s one that gradually slips into something far more bleak as tensions escalate and a black backdrop comes to symbolise the growing horrors that the Jewish inhabitants endure. Always a lurking presence is the wolf of the title, a vulpine protector in local folklore.
The great strength of The Wolf of Baghdad in communicating the story it does lies in Isaacs’ ability to immerse us, with only the most succinct textual cues beforehand, into the lives of the ghosts whose wisp-like presence represent the city’s past. Their transference into its environs is somehow both integral and ephemeral, eternal and yet fleeting. Back-up material gives extra context to history, research and the origins of the project.
Haunting and quietly powerful, The Wolf of Baghdad is subtle in structure but uncompromising in delivery. A notably confident debut book that shines a light on a period of history that should not be forgotten.
Carol Isaacs/The Surreal McCoy • Myriad Editions, £16.99
Review by Andy Oliver