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Wild kingdom

Pride of Baghdad Brian K. Vaughan, art by Niko Henrichon Vertigo: 136 pp., $19.99

October 29, 2006|Laurel Maury | Laurel Maury writes reviews for a variety of publications.

IN 2003, during the bombing of Baghdad, several lions got loose from the city's zoo. The story had a strange resonance: Iraq might be foreign and far away, but everyone understands a zoo.

"Pride of Baghdad," a graphic novel written by Brian K. Vaughan, with artwork by Niko Henrichon, takes those lions as its starting place and gives them a story. In "Pride," Zill, the adult male; his younger mate, Noor; his older mate, Safa; and Ali, his son with Noor, wander the freshly bombed city. They're nearly run over by tanks, wander through a presidential palace, then end up on a rooftop looking out at the horizon as more bombs fall and the sun goes down. The story has political overtones, but what sticks in your gut is how human these four lions are.

Zill is a father who's never had a chance to be in charge. As the lions wander the landscape, Safa and Noor quarrel over the merits of freedom (Noor longs for it, while Safa, who was raped when young, would trade it for safety). Zill intervenes and suddenly is a patriarch.

But his cub, Ali, is the story's heart. Before their escape, the cub squeals over the planes, "Did you see 'em, guys?" He's got those bright eyes of a kid eager for life. When Zill recalls watching the sun descend over the horizon in the wild -- "slow, steady bites, spilling its blood across the azure sky" -- Ali simply asks, "What's a horizon?" He'd like to be free, but he's also fine eating the bunnies the keepers throw them. "They stick in your teeth, so you can still taste 'em in the morning."

Ali's attitude toward his new world isn't wonder but a sort of grounded practicality. "I hope there are other animals my age out there. I always wanted to eat a baby goat!" he cries. His innocence has kept him whole and unscarred.

The lions aren't bastions of goodness. Killing is part of their nature. Zill thinks it's all right to ignore Safa for Noor. But the three are good parents to Ali. The care and concern they give him allows him to scamper through life and be brave. Toward the end of the book, he spooks a herd of wild horses into trampling a bear that is trying to kill his father, saving Zill's life. One of the joys of "Pride" is watching Ali begin to grow up.

But while Ali moves toward adulthood, freedom reduces the adults to a second childhood. They don't know what to do and, unlike Ali, aren't comfortable with the unknown. The four come across a dead man; Zill and Safa ponder the morality of eating the body. The bewilderment on Zill's face is that of one who's stopped having to make decisions. "They're the ones who kept us alive!" argues Safa, who in anger dares Zill to take the first bite.

The adults' confusion grows as they enter the presidential palace, where Noor sees a colossal portrait of a winged lion backed by lightning, before which stands a throne. The contrast between the image's power and the lions' vulnerability is striking.

Later, Noor and Safa meet by a calm indoor pool in the same building. Safa thinks it's heaven, "Our own private watering hole? The safety of the zoo, but the freedom to come and go?" But Noor is deathly afraid. Confirming Noor's fear, the two hear a moan. In the next room, another lion lies starving, chained to a wall, with his claws and teeth removed. "Who did this?" Safa asks. "What kind of monster?"

Henrichon's art is influenced by Disney's "The Lion King," and by manga. But his lions are gritty and bewildered, and his pages shift deliberately from golden yellows to a deep, frightening red-gold as the story moves to its close, going from day to sunset on the lion's first and only day of freedom. As they wander the strange landscape, the lions become more and more pride-like: The four begin to walk as one. The farther they get from the zoo, the more they are a family.

The book has a few missteps. When Ali is abducted early on in the book, it is too easy a pull on the reader's emotions, and every now and then, the lions' speech moves into rhetoric. But overall, "Pride" is deeply moving and deeply sad. War is numbing; "Pride" brings back the feeling. *

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