I might be one of those readers Craig envisions with a keener appetite for fantasy and fable. I admit, I love high fantasy and all the business of world-building, including inventive landscape, archetypal characters, thresholds between worlds, play with magic and language, all that. And I love fairy tales, with their taboos, conditions, bad bargains, and transformations. I like Fables and I love Castle Waiting. I liked Sandman too, fitful and flickering as it was. I dig Bone. Hayao Miyazaki and Guillermo del Toro are the two filmmakers I tend to track. I'm reading fantasies by Gene Wolfe, Susanna Clarke, and Roger Zelazny right now. I've taught courses in high fantasy and the Arabian Nights, and hope to do so again.
Yet I'd say Craig's reaction to Three Shadows and mine are similar. I can't stop looking at it, but I can't quite be persuaded by it either.
Actually, the way I feel about Three Shadows is close to the way I felt at first about Frank Santoro's Storeyville. Both are sumptuous artifacts, breathtakingly well-drawn and designed (a round of applause, please, for First Second's ace designer, Danica Novgorodoff). Yet both left me with a nagging sense of something undone, or unjelled.
The difference is that Storeyville deliberately allows its ending to hang, in a kind of bemusing suspension, whereas Three Shadows tries, determinedly, to wrap things up. For all the vivid mysteriousness of its images, then, Three Shadows is more conventional in its aims. In the end, its mysteries devolve into something that feels "right" (foreordained) in terms of emotive payoff but "wrong" in the sense of exhausting the book's power to charm and leaving us with nothing to think about or to look out for in future readings. In short, it feels a bit too pat.
But, oh my, is it beautifully rendered. I'll add my gushing praise to Craig's on that score. Consistently well-drawn, Three Shadows is also, often, delightful to look at. Coming to the book cold, with no knowledge of Pedrosa, I flipped through it quickly and, within seconds, said to myself, This guy's from animation. Yes, as Craig has told us, that's right. Pedrosa's experience working on Disney films (Hunchback of Notre Dame, Hercules) is keenly felt in his character designs and in the sheer, swooping gracefulness of his line. Take for example little Joachim: this button-cute character wouldn't be out of place in, say, a Fabrice Parme comic:
Or check out the huge, exaggerated physical contrast between Joachim's father and mother (click the thumbnail for a better view):
Such exploitations of shape and scale, as well as the fact that all the characters are easy to tell apart at a glance, bespeak an animator's design sense. Yet Three Shadows aims for an organic lushness of line and a fluidity of form that belie the clean-line, modernistic streamlining of animation (this is what sets Pedrosa apart from Parma). The rendering is as much Sumi-e as Disney-style, evoking inky brush masters like Blutch or Edmond Baudoin, and in particular Lorenzo Mattotti's B&W work in Stigmata and Chimera. The sequence in which Louis becomes a huge, heartless giant -- a great shadowy monster comprised of so many densely-packed lines -- is especially redolent of Mattotti (click the thumbnail):
Contrast this with the more conventional full-color style of Pedrosa's earlier BD, in this case a page from Shaolin Moussaka, Vol. 2, written by David Chauvel (Delcourt, 2005):
Here (click for a bigger view) the style is closer to that of cel animation, and of course consistent with the clear-line tradition in BD: closed forms that neatly trap color, etc. Three Shadows, by contrast, moves Pedrosa in a direction that seems more personal and is certainly more interesting to my eye. The book seems like an eruption of long pent-up graphic energies, but within a conventional narrative form. I note the book originally appeared last year in Shampooing, the imprint Lewis Trondheim edits for Delcourt, and that it shares the imprint's ambiguous "all-ages" tilt and its compromise position between commercial and auteurist approaches. (See what Bart Beaty has to say about Shampooing here.) In short, aesthetically Three Shadows is a mashup of L'Association and Disney (I know, the mind reels).
The book's back-flap hype refers to Pedrosa's style as a "unique visual handwriting," and indeed his drawings invoke that calligraphic sense of the graceful, sweeping line that we associate with masters of gestural brush inking. At the same time, though, his Disneyesque character designs and his taste for images of irrepressible playfulness tip the work in the direction of "children's comics." Three Shadows does have the charms, frankly scarce these days, of a lavish hand-drawn film -- which is to say that the book is transparently manipulative and, like a top-of-the-drawer animated feature, revels in its graphic splendor, lunging from one startling visual set piece to the next. As Craig says, every few pages there's something to floor you.
Did I mention that it's beautifully rendered? Craig mentions Pedrosa's delicate, delicious technique, which in most cases I took for drybrushing rather than penciling. Pedrosa's drawing mounts higher and higher, from one startling display of technique to the next, as the book goes on. Three Shadows includes gobs of imagery like Craig's beautiful example of a splash page. It also includes sequences in which figures nearly dissolve into Baudoin-like artful smearings of ink:
And yet Pedrosa's story doesn't play out satisfyingly. For a parent like me, its very premise is poignant almost to the point of being unbearable, since it involves knowing that you have to give your child up, not only to life but to the possibility of death. That's the vibrating emotional core of Three Shadows, and, to the extent that Pedrosa honors that core, the book has a shocking emotional potency. It's a story about the fear of loss and the stunting effects of possessiveness and grief. Yet in the stretch -- that is, in the book's latter half -- Pedrosa seems to improvise to diminished effect, substituting spiraling plot complications (as Craig puts it, proliferating subplots) for a deepening of his characters and baldly-asserted symbolism for emotional logic. The story wills itself to a conclusion, and I dare say that that conclusion feels conclusive enough, but the getting-there is puzzling, a mix of touching insight and sudden lurches (digressions, as Craig says) toward the generic-fantastical, the spuriously motivated, and sudden deus ex machina contrivances. Both the characters and the logic of the parable are blurred a bit by these machinations, even though the results are visually stunning.
It's tempting to take Louis' transformation into a heartless giant (a symbol of how life is distorted by our determination to hold on to our loved ones at any cost) as an inadvertent metaphor for the book as a whole; in other words, to say that Three Shadows has a hole where its heart should be. That hole would be Joachim, the boy, who exhibits little in the way of human agency and decision-making power, being forever defended and provided for by grownups. Since the "three shadows" are out to get Joachim, the goal of protecting him becomes the engine of the story, and, in fact, as we get deeper into the book we see less and less of Joachim, more of his father, at the cost of hollowing-out the boy. So, despite his momentary doubts and fears, and of course his irrepressible energy, Joachim doesn't get to take shape as a complete character.
The story is actually more nearly about Joachim's father, Louis. When first reading the book, I assumed that the nostalgic first-person narration at the book's start is Joachim's, but it's not, it's the father's:
Back then...Life was simple and sweet. [...] That was how we lived, in a vale among the hills...sheltered from storms...Ignorant of the world, as though on an island...Peaceful and untroubled. And then...Then everything changed.
The book's perspective is that of eager, anxious, protective parenthood; like Finding Nemo, it's not so much a story about a child as it is an exorcism of parental dread. Joachim is more object than subject. This is why Joachim's sudden need for freedom, his realization that his father can no longer protect him, seems arbitrary rather than intrinsically motivated by his character:
The parable is about Louis, the parent, rather than the boy. The story tilts toward the father's point of view, so that Joachim's actions seem preordained by the nature of the story rather than arrived at through experience. The kid ends up being ingenuous or wise simply as the plot demands. Like so many putative "children's" entertainments, then, it's really for grownups who have to take care of children. I think that's the source of whatever lasting emotional resonance the story has.
That said, the book's resonance is considerable. The conclusion, though positive, includes a passing acknowledgment of grief that is delicate, almost feather-light, and yet, I think, emotionally forceful (click the thumbnail):
I cannot quibble too much with a book that tries to make me think and feel about such matters. And I'm sure that Three Shadows has hit some vital spot, despite its wavering, sometimes misplaced steps. Even though the book's second half is overextended, its lunges toward symbolism exhausting, and its conclusion a bit too neat, reading it felt like a journey I was happy to make. Pedrosa will sit nicely on the shelves alongside Craig Thompson's Good-bye, Chunky Rice and will, I bet, touch some readers to the quick in a similar way. Please read it and tell me whether I'm wrong.
[A complimentary review copy of this book was provided by First Second.]