Three Shadows
by Cyril Pedrosa (First Second, 2008)

I was a tweener when I first read Mary Renault's wonderful novel, The King Must Die, about the life of the hero Theseus. Of all the books I have read in my life, the finales of her stories still stand out clearly in my mind. I was thinking of the ending of The King Must Die as I read Cyril Pedrosa's Three Shadows: "Man born of man cannot outrun his fate." Is it possible to outrun fate? Could you do it for the one you love?

The reason Pedrosa wrote Three Shadows is now officially part of the story itself. After watching his close friends lose their young son, Pedrosa put pen to paper. Told in highly allegorical terms, unstinting in its use of metaphor, TS displays an abundance of craft, from the smart, sober writing to the lovely black-and-white artwork. Surprisingly, TS is as engrossing as it is moving. There's adventure, some insightful comedy and even a bit of justice.

One day, the peaceful existence of a farmer and his wife is shattered when three distinct but unknown shadows appear on the horizon. Fearing their constant but just-out-of-reach presence constitutes a threat to Joachim, their beloved young son, the farmer's wife, Lise, seeks out the advice of a mystic, a sage named Madame Suzette, who tells her the sad truth: the shadows are the Fates themselves who have come for Joachim. The farmer, Louis, refuses to surrender his son without a fight. Being a man of action, he believes that if he takes his son away he will somehow manage to escape the Fates. They set out on a journey whose ending can be guessed but which is full of adventure nonetheless. What could have been a joyless elegy is in reality is quite far removed from anything very bleak. Yes, the plot is a buildup to a heartrending conclusion but the genuine love and good feeling that comes pouring forth from the story elevates it to a level of sweetness that makes the message bearable without compromising the emotional core.

Kudos to Pedrosa for managing to portray the Fates in a way I have never seen before, as fair-minded beings who are not immune to the suffering of humanity. There is a scene involving a poker game and an evil man who cheated death that, while being an obvious metaphor for death's inevitability, is nothing short of hysterically funny. It is also a reminder that the Fates deal with reality, and reality can't be ordered about as if it were a servant.

Pedrosa's easy, free-flowing pen captures the dynamics of the shifts in mood between adventure, suspense, and bittersweet longing. His fine-lined, scratchy style moves expertly between high detail and dark shading. The fluidity is strong enough that Pedrosa comes as close as anyone has to making a flat image on paper actually seem as if it is in motion, so animated is his art. Lush, calligraphic lines reduce themselves to sheer abstract outline at times of existential despair or fill the page with sumptuous detail during one of the many peaks in action. Pedrosa previously worked as an animator on such Disney films as The Hunchback of Notre Dame and Hercules, which explains his ability to render images in such graceful, moving ways. The splash pages are beautifully rendered. This work is very close to the type of thing produced by L' Association.

My only complaint is that the character of Joachim is never truly, fully developed. This little boy is the heart of the story, yet it is the father's character that eventually dominates the emotional landscape. He's sure as heck one cute-as-a-button little fella, but the story ends up being more about Louis. Swallowed up in that as well is Joachim's mother, Lise, an interesting character we don't get to see quite enough of. The story ends up feeling unbalanced, losing some of its nuance in waves of sheer emotionality that reduce Joachim and Lise to plot points as opposed to characters who deserve a more three-dimensional role in their own story.

It may be painful at times, and it certainly needed more fleshing out in the character department, but TS is one darned good story. For sheer visual imagery alone, I'd say Pedrosa is an artist worth watching. Here's hoping he will do more.

review by
Mary Harvey

5 September 2009

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