Here is a little corner of history you may not know. Back in the 1940s a third of Baghdad’s population was Jewish. There had been decades of peaceful coexistence with their Muslim and Christian neighbours.

That all began to change when the Iraqi government started to support the Nazi regime in Germany. Assets had to be hidden, Muslim ways of speaking were adopted. None of it stopped the intimidation and the violence. In 1941 a pogrom saw attacks on Jewish businesses and Jewish people. Within a decade most of the Jewish population had left Baghdad.

The family of musician and cartoonist Carol Isaacs (aka The Surreal McCoy) were among those who fled Baghdad. Now, in her new book, The Wolf of Baghdad, Isaacs makes an attempt at rediscovering this forgotten history. Told in mostly wordless imagery it’s a cartoonist’s recreation of a lost world. It’s a story full of ghosts and regrets.

Here, Isaacs talks of the origin of her retelling of her origin story, how music and comics complement each other and why she likes pictures without words.

The Herald:

What is the origin story of The Wolf of Baghdad?

Three years ago, I wrote Deep Home, a three-page comic that was published in the Strumpet Comics Anthology, a compilation of short comics by women from the USA and UK. The theme for that particular issue was Origin Stories and I wrote about growing up as the child of emigres. This was the first time I had drawn anything longer than a three-panel cartoon and I had never done anything personal before. It gave me the idea to do a longer-form story about my family, which turned into The Wolf of Baghdad. (An extended version of Deep Home appears in the afterword of book.)

The decline in number of the Jewish population in Iraq is staggeringly stark. Was this something you knew about growing up? Were the family stories ones you knew or ones you had to go looking for?

A bit of both. My parents didn’t talk much about Iraq and when they did it was only about their good memories. I gleaned the rest of the story, as children do, from what they left unsaid. It also helped that I understood Judeo-Arabic (our dialect) as both my grandmothers didn’t speak English.

When did you make the decision to do the story mostly without words and why?

It seemed the most natural way for this story. Images without text can be quite powerful, bypassing the thinking brain and having an immediate effect. The short family anecdotes act as little anchors and give some context. I drew the book with the intention of making it a motion comic (animated slideshow) as well, to be accompanied by a music soundtrack.

One of the pleasures of the book is the way you recreate a lost world. Was that very much the intention?

I hoped to create the atmosphere of the Baghdad my family were familiar with, both at home and in their wider surroundings.

How did you research the look of Baghdad in the period of the book?

Whilst keeping a blog about the making of the project (as part of the grant given to me by Arts Council England for research and development), I was contacted by a teenage Iraqi student who helpfully took some photos of the old Jewish Quarter for me.

Another Iraqi Facebook friend took pictures of Jewish houses on his visits to Baghdad. I also tracked down the last copy of an obscure book on the architecture of Baghdadi Jewish houses which were built to specific designs.

In the afterword you mention the Finnish word “kaukokaipuu” – a feeling of homesickness for a place you’ve never been. Is that how you feel about Baghdad? What would you most like to visit given the chance?

Almost everything my family knew has gone now. There’s no trace left of them. Even the cemeteries have been razed over and destroyed. A handful of Jews remain (five at the last count out of a population of 150,000) and they keep a very low profile. It would be more of a symbolic visit and the start of a new dialogue. However, security remains an obstacle.

You’re a musician too. What, if anything, is the relationship between your music and comics?

The placement and shape of the panels provide a certain reading rhythm to the page. You might say the story arc is the melody and the panels are accompanying chords.

What is your history with comics and graphic novels? What did you read as a kid and what do you like now?

I used to get the Beano as a kid. I came to graphic novels late, but I am making up for lost time. Recently read The Three Escapes of Hannah Arendt by Ken Krimstein, Heimat by Nora Krug, Square Eyes by Mill and Jones. All so different and such an amazing variety of styles.

What would you like readers to take away from The Wolf of Baghdad?

An unknown story told. Perhaps a little bit of history.

You have an alter ego, The Surreal McCoy. When/Why/How did you come up with it?

I always say that I am an accidental cartoonist. As a musician I travel a lot and, on one particularly long bus journey, whiled away the hours by doodling. Sent in my scribbles and got them published. The pen name came out of a bad pun. (Apologies!)

The Herald:

The Wolf of Baghdad by Carol Isaacs (The Surreal McCoy) is published by Myriad Editions, priced £16.99