Think of talking animal stories and you’ll probably make the mental leap to Disney, who, with films like The Lion King, has been captivating family audiences for generations. Comics have their fair share of talking animals too, some of which have been highly sophisticated, like Grant Morrison’s We3, Craig Thompson’s Good-bye, Chunky Rice and Art Spiegelman’s Maus.
Pride of Baghdad has a lot in common with The Lion King, not least of all because it’s about a pride of talking lions. Their characters follow something of an archetype: there’s a world-weary matriarch; a young male, not quite alpha enough to take charge; a fiercely protective mother; and her precocious young son. Instead of the wilds of Africa however, this pride of lions are features of Baghdad’s zoo. Based on true events, the story follows what happens to the lions when the zoo gets hit by American bombs and the lions, along with a large number of other animals, escape their enclosures.
Vaughan has a mixed approach to the liberties he takes with his characters, adding more of the realistic survival-of-the-fittest violence that you’re inevitably going to find where wild animals mix; but he also gives the lions the ability to ignore their basic requirement for food to maintain their principles, which is more like the kind of characterisation you’d find in a children’s story.
Henrichon’s artwork is nothing short of stunning, maintaining a realism to the animals and the bomb-torn backgrounds that is simply breathtaking. At the same time, however, he manages to give his animals an air of thoughtfulness that makes them look like they could be thinking and communicating with one another in the kind of terms that Vaughan’s script is suggesting.
Pride of Baghdad is a one-sitting sort of book – there are no chapters or natural breaks in the action and it isn’t a long read. However, Vaughan has created a fascinating world – even if the characters are a little two dimensional – with a story that might seem all too Disney if it wasn’t for the story-bombs Vaughan keeps detonating, mixing things up and pulling us back from cosy talking animals to remind us of the horrors of war and nature. All in all it’s a different and ultimately satisfying tale of talking animals, squarely aimed at grown ups.