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No Re-Simba-lance 

Pride of Baghdad
Brian K. Vaughan and Niko Henrichon
$19.99, 136 pages
Dollars to tabbouleh-coated donuts Pride of Baghdad author Brian K. Vaughan would like nothing better than the chance to dick-kick the next punk-ass reviewer who brings up The Lion King — and understandably so. But really, what’s the accepted statute of limitations for creating the second high-profile narrative work featuring anthropomorphized lions as protagonists (discounting, of course, the Simba-centric Broadway musical and straight-to-video LK sequels) since 1994? With Pride, Vaughan (Y: The Last Man, Ex Machina) and illustrator Niko Henrichon (Barnum!) set the cutoff at around 12 years, four pages (not counting the two-panel splash on pages two and three); the pair have barely unspooled a dozen panels before the book begins to peel confidently away from the specter of the aforementioned Disneyfied Hamlet and sets off, without looking back, in its own intriguing direction. (A particularly unfriendly, black-maned fellow about 11 pages in begs to be voiced by Jeremy Irons, but that’s about it.)

Pride draws its initial inspiration from a news item concerning four lions that escaped the Baghdad Zoo during the U.S.’s 2003 bombing of Iraq. But then, that’s moderately akin to saying that … well, that Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead is based upon a certain Danish play (or, if you prefer, that the R and G-esque The Lion King 1 1/2 is based upon its own predecessor). We’re talking hefty, heady expansion here, not straight adaptation. The story opens, turns, and ends with the same events, sure, but the intervals therein have been filled out to the point of three-dimensional (so to speak) characterization by the potent concert of Vaughan and Henrichon’s imaginations, and a careful read — heck, even a half-hearted skim of the dust jacket — suggests that there’s a bit more at play in Pride than a tale of big cats with a fortuitous mastery of American English. Lines like “No matter how they might treat us, those who would hold us captive are always tyrants,” for instance, should be sufficient to attune the ear to the likelihood that Pride is more Maus than Howard the Duck.

As we open, the four lions have been residents of the zoo for years. Each has a distinct, defining opinion of this arrangement: The lioness Noor is virulently opposed to what she sees as unfiltered oppression by the human “keepers” (hers is the “tyrants” quote above); Safa, who is older and remembers vividly the disorder and violence of life before the zoo, is grateful for a safer, if less-“free” existence; Zill, a male lion, doesn’t much care either way — he’s happy so long as everyone’s fed regulary; Noor’s cub Ali knows nothing but the zoo, but is insatiably curious. When a wayward explosion frees them, these fears and desires are forced into direct conflict.

The script and art in Pride, engaging and remarkably solid overall, flirt occasionally with virtuosity — Henrichon conjures affectingly emotive animals, Vaughan pens complex relationships and frailties — but also falter at times. Dialogue becomes heavy-handed, drawings appear rushed. Its greatest strengths are the story it tells and its capacity to inspire thought and discussion. The piece is allegorical through and through, but refrains from championing or vilifying a particular view — perhaps to be expected from an author who thanks both the Iraqi citizenry and the United States Armed Forces at book’s end. There are no clear answers in this dark, grown-up talking-animals story, but there’re enough recognizable elements to make you wish it was just a fable.

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