Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Three Shadows: Ooh, this is a good one

Lotsa links lately:  Hey, you can read Kyle Baker's I Die at Midnight for free on his blog!  That one's pretty good.

Hey, Act-I-Vate's Tim Hamilton ("The Trouble with Girls") is doing a comics adaptation of Fahrenheit 451; you can see some samples here.  Looks quite nice.

This is a pretty cool examination of an early Katsuhiro Otomo short story, which is presented almost in its entirety.  It would be great if somebody decided to translate it.

And now:

Three Shadows
By Cyril Pedrosa

Cyril Pedrosa might not be a well-known comics creator in the United States, but if this book is any indication, he has a long career of good comics ahead of him.  Coming from an animator's background, he brings an incredible, unique artistic sensibility to an emotional, fantastical, dark story.  It's an amazing debut; where has he been all these years?

In this fairy tale-like fantasy, parents Louis and Lise live in an idyllic countryside with their adorable young son Joachim.  But as happy as they seem, there is a forboding mood in the air:

That page gives a great example of Pedrosa's skill at building mood; as the panels "zoom" in to a closeup on Joachim, the tufts of grass morph into dark splotches of ink, showing that some darkness is going to enter their lives and that it will center on the child. Everything has been bright and cheery up to this point, but that's going to change.

Sure enough, the family starts noticing three shadowy figures on the horizon, looking like riders on horses that are watching the family.  They seem to get closer and closer over time, and it becomes obvious that they have their eye on Joachim for some reason.  Lise decides to consult an old, wise woman in the city, but Louis is against it. She learns that the shadows are going to take Joachim, and there is nothing they can do to stop it, but Louis refuses to accept it, choosing to take their son and flee, trying to escape the figures' fate.

This seems to be symbolic of something, most likely the frustration and helplessness that parents feel when harm comes to their children, whether via sickness, injury, or even emotional pain.  And that's what this book is all about: the way parents deal with harm coming to their children, and the prevention thereof.  Can you accept that it's going to happen and try to deal with it?  Or do you do everything you can to shelter the child, maybe even destroying yourself in the process?  It's hard-hitting material that any parent can relate to.

But it's not all metaphor; it works perfectly well as a story, and an engaging one at that.  We want the best for Joachim and Louis, and so we cheer for them as they go on their adventures, getting caught up in intrigue on a ferry boat involving a slave trader, a drunken captain, and some thugs.  Pedrosa does a great job of filling in the details in the corners of his world, making it feel lived-in and real, even as we're trying to suss out the symbolism.

The luscious artwork is the big factor there, giving a cartoony expressiveness to the characters and gorgeously splashing one eye-popping setting after another across the page, from cityscapes that seem to stretch on forever:

To shadowy forests:

And smoke-filled rooms:

It's an impressive range of skills, the way he can give bold outlines to shapes, but fill them in with scratchy shading, or drop those outlines altogether to give the shapes a less solid quality.

The figure work is pretty amazing as well; Pedrosa gives characters a cartoony look that perfectly suits them, dramatically varying sizes and juxtaposing them, as with the way Joachim seems so tiny in his father's arms.  And the way he captures motion is so fluid, it's easy to believe the images are actually moving:

He also uses some incredible techniques to convey emotion, including the elimination of all detail to reduce scenes to stark, calligraphic brushstrokes:

Or showing dark, foul moods by having heavy spots of ink close in around the characters:

At the climax of the book, in moments where the action turns into the most pure symbolism of the story, Pedrosa pulls out all the stops, reducing characters to simplistic shapes or rendering them as swirls of wavy lines, depicting detailed scenes in a style that is more jittery than his usual tight work, or showing horrific scenes in a sort of photo negative, with tangles of thin, white lines on  black backgrounds coming together to form dense imagery.  It's heady stuff that works in perfect tandem with the writing to strike the reader straight through to the core.

This climax is another bit of fascinating writing, as Louis sacrifices part of himself, turning into a soulless, thoughtless monster to protect Joachim.  This could represent any number of things, but the one that jumps to mind for me is the way people can become violent and idealistic, refusing to listen to any reason and justifying any action with the reasoning that they are protecting their loved ones (witness the current situation in Gaza for the most immediate example).  But it doesn't have to be something like that; it could be the tendency of parents to protect their children from any outside harm to the point that they become sheltered and unable to grow.  Pedrosa's symbolism is so potent as to be universal; twenty people could each come up with a different interpretation, with nobody being wrong.

It's just an amazing piece of work, and one that I can't praise highly enough.  Whether it is seen as a fable that causes people to examine their emotions and motivations, or just a fantasy story filled with rich imagery, it's definitely one of the best comics of 2008.  Pedrosa is a talent that deserves to get wide acclaim and recognition, and hopefully this is only the first in a long line of works that will continue to astonish and delight.