When you’re the power-mad dictator of a nation, you pretty much have free reign to indulge yourself. And your hobbies. The late North Korean leader Kim Jong-Il was a cinephile who did not like his countrymen’s movies. To improve the quality, he had a South Korean film director and his actress wife kidnapped to make better ones. Like his son, Kim Jong-Un, he also loved basketball, being an avid fan of Michael Jordan. While the elder Kim never could get his idol to visit his country, the younger Kim has famously gotten Dennis Rodman to visit numerous times. The late dictator of Iraq indulged his hobby as well. Hussein’s fandom included kitschy fantasy paintings and Darth Vader.

Saddam’s favorite artist

Two of Rowena's illustrations owned by Saddam Hussein

“Dragon King” and “Shadows Out of Hell” by Rowena.
Inset: an American soldier views “Shadows Out of Hell” at a regime safe house in Baghdad in 2003 (AP Photo)

During the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003, American troops came across one of Hussein’s many safe houses. This house, set aside for a former mistress and described as a “love nest”, contained a number of fantasy paintings that would be perfectly at home painted on the side of a 1970s van. At the time, the press made much of the “heaving bosoms” and “muscular men” depicted. Two of the illustrations were the work of fantasy artist Rowena Morrill. The pair were cover art for the 1980s novels Shadows Out of Hell and King Dragon.

Rowena had sold the two pieces of artwork some 15 years earlier. Her sister called to let her know that her art had appeared on the news. The BBC commented that she was “Saddam’s favorite artist.” In an interview, Rowena said she was “intrigued” by the dictator’s interest.

“I can’t say that I take anything coming from a quarter like that as a compliment. However I certainly think that – if in fact he was looking at my works and thinking anything – I’m very curious. I’ve always known that once I sell a piece it could end up anywhere. [But]Of course I never dreamt that it would end up in a place like that.”

– Rowena Morrill, artist, in a BBC interview May 14, 2003

Rowena later stated that she wanted to get her artwork back. King Dragon had originally been sold to a Japanese collector for $20,000. Later investigation showed that Hussein’s art was a high-end copy rather than the original. The new government of Iraq assumed ownership of the dictator’s property.

Art for art’s sake

4 fantasy paintings

Four pieces of art found in a Baghdad safehouse. [Source: AP]

Hussein’s art gallery didn’t stop with Rowena’s work. The collection also included at least five other pieces of fantasy/scifi art. Who created these is unknown, but they are clearly inspired by the works of Vallejo, Frazetta and others.

The house they were located in was adjacent to a disguised armory stocked with thousands of pistols and other small arms. Between the artwork and the 1960s decor, American troops often referenced the Austin Powers movies. During the operation to clear the area, soldiers imitated Mike Meyers’ character’s “Yeah, Baaabeee!” and “Shagadelic!”

You underestimate the power of the Dark Side!

Saddam Hussein's fandom resulted in Vader helmets for his troops

Who wore it better? The Fedayeen Saddam irregulars? Or the Dark Lord of the Sith?

Hussein created the Fedayeen Saddam corps in 1995. This was an irregular unit tasked to protect the Ba’athist regime and Hussein himself. This personal militia reported directly to his son, Uday, who was also a fan of Star Wars.

Prior to 2003, their role was primarily to stop smugglers, but they soon became smugglers themselves. The Hussein’s also tasked them with extortion schemes, torture and other unsavory duties. They numbered between 30,000 and 40,000 by the time of the invasion.

Irregular troops in Vader Helmets

Images of Fedayeen Saddam troops and abandoned equipment.

The uniform of the Fedayeen was all-black including a face cloth and the “Vader helmet.” Made of a Kevlar-like ballistic fiber, they were heavier than a metal WW2 helmet. As the Fedayeen did not receive any specialty training, their effectiveness as front line troops was considerably less than that of Stormtroopers. After the fall of Baghdad in April, 2003, they ceased to be an effective unit. Many survivors joined in the insurgency, abandoning their helmets.



Putting the “fan” in fanatic

The attraction to fannish interests clearly does not automatically lead to the Light Side. Nero, Hitler and Stalin all considered themselves artists in various fields. Idi Amin, the despotic leader of Uganda in the 70s, amassed a collection Tom & Jerry cartoons even as he pursued ethnic persecution. Drug money built a million-Pound pop-culture collection. And, an attendee planned to murder an actor at Phoenix Comicon.

Hussein’s fandom doesn’t make him a person one would want to meet up at a convention. Being “Saddam’s favorite artist” does not tarnish Rowena’s work. Fans and their fandom are intertwined, but they stand on their own merits. An evil person who has a fannish interest is nothing more than that. Even if one has a fannish attraction, it doesn’t mean that one has to have affinity for everyone who shares it.

Wyatt D. Odd

Wyatt D. Odd