Story and art by Cyril Pedrosa 

Original publisher: First Second (2008)

Length: 1 Volume (268 pages)

‘Three Shadows’ has been described as empathetic artistry; an attempt for a cartoonist to understand his friend’s suffering after his son’s cancer diagnosis. As you’d expect, the resulting piece is a highly personal experience, one filled with the polarising feelings of adoration and despair. Its abstract art and frantic pacing frame a story of inevitability, one leaving the reader rooting for a loving family, knowing well that the ending is predetermined. Unfortunately, it was hard to be fully immersed when chunks of the story derail from the overarching plot, creating a plot that blunts the trauma of such a horrifying experience. 

Louis and Lise, two doting parents, live with their son Joachim in a small slice of paradise. Ignorant of suffering, the family spends their time enjoying each other’s company while immersing themselves in nature. One day, Joachim notices three dark figures on a nearby hill. Slowly, their presence becomes more frequent, and after consulting an oracle, the family realise these shadows possess a significance they are unwilling to accept. While Lise finds closure in the oracle’s finality, Louis attempts to fight fate by embarking on a journey in an attempt to save his son. 

When it comes to the inspiration of this piece, there is no nuance, and many of the themes intended for discussion are immediately available to the reader. It becomes apparent very early on that the shadows, when first introduced, embody death. The anxiety projected onto them by Joachim’s parents signify their struggle to enjoy life when such sinister threats to their happiness loom. The reader is ushered into the mindset of Louis, learning to despise their presence, so much so that his actions are considered selfless, instead of selfish. Simultaneously, as we watch our characters unnecessarily suffer, devoid of the figures’ presence, they begin to represent something natural. The linearity of the story is questioned through the surreal art and cryptic narration. What is being fled is not something that can be escaped. But also it shouldn’t be. In fact, the suffering inflicted onto our characters does not come from the shadows, but instead the response their presence brings.

While it’s quite clear what the shadows represent, when generalised, their presence in one’s life can be an embodiment of the inevitable. We cannot be unwilling to accept change, for it is that unwillingness that makes change so difficult. It’s almost paradoxical. Another element of heartbreak produced by the author was the dichotomy between the parental outlook on the situation. Lise, while understandably devastated at what the shadows represented, ultimately accepts the fate of her son. It is through this acceptance that she finds an inner peace, while still harbouring the pain of losing him. Louis, in contrast, cannot accept Joachim’s fate, and is willing to sacrifice their last moments as a family in a fruitless attempt to fight death. The most confronting scene in the entire piece is when Lise says that she has come to terms with their situation, but as Louis hasn’t, is willing to allow him to spend the last of Joachim’s life with him. Not because she thinks he will win this battle, but out of hope that he’ll gain some form of closure from their journey. 

Unfortunately, after Louis flees with Joachim, the story becomes a bit disjointed, particularly when their agitated fleeing ceases. Their travels past this point were never uninteresting, but for some reason the author introduces multiple characters and stories that are only present for brief periods, never to be seen again. A story with only three characters (and three shadows) would definitely have been drab, but ascribing such significance to captains and slave traders, when they are insignificant provided no plot enrichment. This hindered the piece’s purpose, exploring the relationship between a grieving parent and child. And no characters provided an adhesive element to Louis and Joachim’s relationship. In saying that, some of these character’s had use for Louis’ characterisation, heightening his paranoia about his situation and his pursuers. As previously mentioned, towards the second half they spent extended periods of time in one place, and the sense of urgency about their pursuers all but extinguished. All-in-all, it would have been better to focus more on their relationship with each-other, as opposed to outside forces who, in the grand schemes of things, could never possess more of a threat than the shadows. 

The strongest aspect of this piece is its art, which perfectly unifies the story and writing, providing profound but minimalistic dialogue. Pedrosa, a professional animator (known for his roles in Disney’s “The Hunchback of Notre Dame” and “Hercules”) brings a refinement only possible through experience to his craft. While his unique abstraction diverts from the classic “animator art”, its exceptionality indicates vision. Pedrosa uses long, curvy lines that rarely connect to produce sketch-like depictions, yet, it’s through this technique that a depth is ascribed to its surroundings. Reminiscent of Craig Thompson’s work, it almost feels like there is a running dialogue between the art and environment it manifests, as the two alter based on feeling. Incomplete lines let characters seep into the background, connecting and effectively blurring them into the settings. The art was simple and surreal, transforming a linear story into a subjective introspective experience.

The ending of this piece wasn’t as emotionally pungent as the initial scenes from it, attempting to finish on a more philosophical note. It didn’t work for me, and the last few pages were a source of confusion, holding no significance to me today. Three Shadows is a piece seeping with heartache. It melds surrealist depictions of humanity in an attempt to manifest the emotions of losing a loved on. I cannot say for sure how accurate it was at doing so, but it did lead to some compelling narration that left me with feelings of frustration and helplessness. Towards the end, the story seems to have gotten away from the creators, lessening the blow they pulled in its initial stages. It’s worth a read just for its visuals, and you’ll get some insightful commentary if extracted at the right points in time. 

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