"It never lasts long enough."

Three Shadows

This is a book about how you might have to watch your child die.

It will probably be out on Wednesday, if your store doesn't have it already. It's a First Second release, 272 b&w pages for $15.95. Initially published in French in 2007, it was one of five books presented with an Essentials Award at Angoulême 2008 (Rutu Modan's Exit Wounds was another), maybe providing some climax to Disney animator Cyril Pedrosa's first decade in comics. This English-language release could well prompt some digging into prior years, if not by the publisher then at least those readers that will become fascinated.

And they will.

Three Shadows is as visually impressive a work as you're likely to find anywhere near the new comics of this month or the next. Virtually every page displays some fresh evidence of Pedrosa's confidence with the form, his vividly stylized characters -- sometimes like UPA characters gone marvelously loose, elsewhere like feature concept art not yet distilled for replication -- blending with brashly doodled curls of flora and weather, wobbly-precise homes and human constructions, and charcoal-fuzzy shadows, always shadows.

Nothing is quite static either. Character forms will readily smudge into blackness when heavy feelings need to be evoked. A chase sequence might erupt into curved slices of heavy pencil, only to snap back into clarity for a specific panel of impact. There's an extended, fantastic transformation/dream/battle sequence late in the book that evokes the varied styles of Lorenzo Mattotti, at once, like opposing ends of Chimera literally waging war on one another.

Time itself is unstuck; early pages make fine use of temporally detatched word balloons to emphasize the fragility of father-son romps across a simple six-panel grid. Pedrosa's got everything in here, plus the kitchen sink; it's like he couldn't bear to leave a single idea out. This proves both troublesome and rewarding, and fitting and distracting.

As I mentioned up top, this is a book about death in the family, albeit a heavily metaphorical one; if there's ever been a topic that might support wild swings in tone and focus, it'd be that. The story concerns the three-person clan of strapping he-man Louis, pretty wife Lise and plucky child Joachim, who live in idealized agrarian isolation from a fantasy 18th-or-so century place. But their isolation is more correctly from pain, until little Joachim declares his fear of shadows, three of which seem to be watching the family home from up on a hill.

All attempts to happily ignore the shadows are futile. They apparently cannot be fought or scared. When Lise visits an old mystic in town, she's told the condition is terminal, and there's nothing to do but wait with the child until the shadows claim him. But Louis is not the type to let anything happen, so he runs away with the child to outdistance the shadows; the pair encounter cruelty, kindness, bigotry, compassion, exploitation, drink, murder and total spiritual desiccation as they visit a teeming city on the coast, board a slave ship and encounter strange magic.

I can't say it's the cleanest allegory ever to grace the form, although cleanliness needn’t be so virtuous; this book simply flows from one mood to another, like a week's worth of cascading grief has been condensed into its pages. Early, ominous pages of family life under pestilence give way to broader displays of immorality, with dashing rogues and comic relief thrown in. Then the whole thing veers into symbolic fantasy, before reconfiguring itself as a supernatural heist comedy(!), then folding back upon itself. Heaven knows you won't have any idea what's coming next, although the undisciplined nature of Pedrosa's storytelling can grate, particularly when he undercuts well-built menace for puzzling, extended digressions.

But there is a through line here, maybe casting Pedrosa's story as more ambitious than scattered. At all times, Louis (and it's fundamentally his story) characterizes the shadows as Others, seeing them as dangerous intruders to be repelled with his protect-the-home bravado. When that fails, his flight with Joachim leads him to associate the shadows with scary-seeming folk like a gypsyish woman aboard the slave ship; he becomes complicit in acts of exploitation, even as he and Joachim are exploited themselves, a parallel Pedrosa draws both narratively and visually. Even magical transformations are revealed as just another means for the powerful to maintain control on this Earthly plane.

As such, Pedrosa seeks to tell not only the story of childhood mortality, but how the fear of mortality leads otherwise thoughtful people into supporting hurtful structures in this world, naturally making the most monied all the richer while everyone else sinks. It's left implicit that this system could change; all the book can offer through its bumping plot mechanics is the old religious affirmation that the wicked too will die. No Lake of Fire, though - nobody seems in for a just reward after death, and we cannot see any souls, even left only to lament the loss of life.

From this we might possibly take a suggestion that the living must use their lives to better the world, although Pedrosa's characters are content to sink into familial isolation. But they know you can't stop the ticking clock, and we know that personal tragedy must affect the world it exists in.

This is a really fine book, frustrating and lopsided in only interesting ways, and always visually striking. There are more effective passages than I can hope to address here, even as their totality remains elusive like fleeing shades. I would strongly recommend you see it for yourself.