Three Shadows begins, "life was simple and sweet." Cyril Pedrosa's luminous novel of love and loss begins with the joyful melodies of a child and his parents living and laughing together.
"And then…Then everything changed."
So many of us have survived a traumatic rupture in our lives, something that throws us into confusion, that marks our lives forever with "before" and "after," the time in between a crucible of agony in which everything changes. Before I was diagnosed with cancer, and after. Before a drunk driving accident killed my friends, and after. Before my son or daughter was deployed to Iraq, and after he or she came home, with less joy, fewer limbs. We have survived, but what can we say of our experiences, that liminal time of suffering in between "before" and "after"?
And what of the most incomprehensible trauma of all: before my little child got sick, and after he died.
Cyril Pedrosa's sublime
Three Shadows, winner of the 2008
Prix Essentiel at the Angoulême comics festival was, according to the dust jacket, "born out of the agony of watching his close friends' child die very young." It is the heartrending story of Louis and Lise, who struggle to save their young son Joachim from three mysterious shadows, phantoms on horseback who wait, patiently, for the end that must come.
The story follows many of the now-familiar conventions of what is called "magic realism." The term was originally coined to discuss painting, and Pedrosa's use of these conventions in the creation of a graphic novel is most welcome. Working in perfect union with the art, the novel's plot draws on the imaginary, the extraordinary, and the fantastic. The quest to protect Joachim and leave the shadows behind is disorienting and unfamiliar, because of its dream-like qualities, like skilful time-shifts and figures horrific and inexplicable.
Pedrosa's art seems almost divinely inspired, so magically does it affect the reader. The cover is a perfect act of composition, showing Louis and Joachim walking together in the very narrow space that is in the light, while above and below, past and future, grow increasingly shadowy, dense, and unknowable.
The motion of the art, no doubt a result of Pedrosa's experience as a Disney animator, is like nothing I've seen before in sequential art. It is entirely fluid, rarely abrupt, yet utterly unpredictable, as though its perspective is embedded in a camera mounted on a web of bungee cords and guided by Caprice herself.
Done entirely in black and white,
Three Shadows generates emotion, dramatic tension, poetry, and epiphany in equal measure. Pedrosa might be the finest artist of the parental embrace since Michelangelo, creating powerful feelings of love, longing, and reassurance in every line, and every expression. The darkest moments of fear are sharpened by impossibly thick lines left resting on blank backgrounds. The greatest moments of furious grief seem scratched out of black paper by a needle unable to control its tears. The quietest moments of wisdom are offered through the gentle, unpracticed squiggles of spring's new blossoms. A routine breeze and three simple lines deliver insight into the essential meaning of life, as defined by loss. When the rage passes, the inexorable rhythms of life remain. A kitty cat is Pedrosa's witness.
First Second has lived up to its highest standards in bringing this exquisite work of art and poetry to North American audiences.
Three Shadows is about that time in between "before" and "after," that time of denial, resistance, struggle, and acceptance. That time in between seems to resist words, deny language its right to mediate, and even deny memory.
Three Shadows is timeless and ethereal precisely because it captures that time in between, and documents the experience. It absorbs your heart like a shape-shifting shaman, the undulating motion of Pedrosa's pen stripping you of consciousness, subjecting you to whirlwinds and blizzards, tidal waves and wormholes, visions and revelations, until delivering you, exhausted, to tears, and After.