By Cyril Pedrosa
Like their cinematic counterpart, horror comics have a long history of marginalization by mainstream audiences. It’s not difficult to understand why—for every story that utilizes the genre’s conventions as a jumping off point in search of some greater truth, countless seem to exist for the sole purpose of out-goring their predecessors. Where the visceral merits of the latter can certainly be gleamed when presented in a crowded theater with an extra-large bowl of popcorn in tow, translating shocks to sequential art is a herculian task, finding many books whose primary goal is shocking-mining ultimately coming up short even on that front.
It seems something of a disservice to suggest that Three Shadows might somehow be grouped in with such a subgenre—surely the creation of some manner of Fangoria fodder was not Cyril Pedrosa’s intent upon crafting the book, yet what the artist has managed to produce in the set up to his latest book are moments of ominous suspense rarely seen within the confines of the medium. Pedrosa’s book, however, never relies on the genre’s gory crutches. Instead the author is content to mount his suspense on more time-tested means of storytelling, utilizing old standbys like mood, tension, and atmosphere. With these tools at his disposal, the French artist proves himself a master of suspense in the book’s first-third, as the near-utopian happiness of the family of three at the center of the story is shattered by the arrival of the triad of titular figures.
Suspense, however, is not Pedrosa’s ultimate goal, but rather an entry point to his true intentions. Three Shadows soon reveals itself to be an odyssey of magical realism, its themes owing more to the dark fantasy of traditional fairy tales—or more recently, films like Pan’s Labyrinth—than any defining works of the horror genre. And while, at the heart of the story is a tale of a seemingly invulnerable father trying to shield his son from ominous, if inevitable fates, Pedrosa quickly reveals a world far more complex than the lives of any two or three characters.
Their journey to escape fate brings father and son to a pirate ship across the sea, through haunted snowstorms, expansive battlefields, and smoky Georgian-era backrooms. Pedrosa does, however get a touch to caught up in his own universe for his own good, from time to time, losing himself and the focus of his story for a sizable chunk of the book’s middle-third, perhaps the only obvious misstep of the book. While attempting to portray the outside forces at work in the story, the author takes us a bit too far off our primary path. Ultimately, however, Pedrosa pulls back on course, in time for his finale.
In the end, Three Shadows proves a sprawling jaunt that evokes swashbuckling adventure, whilst serving as a sobering reminder that no father’s protection—no matter how strong—is greater than the world outside, a lesson fully realized in the final third of the book, which ultimately reveals Three Shadows’ true nature, as a story about letting go, a message echoed in the copy on the books rear flap, which reads reveals that the book “was born out of the agony of watching [Pedrosa’s] close friends’ child die very young.”
Without ultimately realizing this sense of loss at the conclusion, the author’s powerful message can’t be achieved. The message is seemingly more effective when delivered through Pedrosa’s penchant for the fantastic, and while he borrows heavily from scenarios no doubt burrowed deep into his psyche after years spent employed as an animator for Disney, the author refuses to overly Disnify his world, and while the traditional fairy tales on which the author was weaned don’t rule out the possibility of a happy ending, they do ensure that the journey taken toward that end, while fantastic, will ultimately possess its share of heartbreak.
Pedrosa’s Disney influences are also undeniably present in the author’s artwork. Like his settings, however, while the author seemingly borrows heavily from the studio, he refuses to ultimately be boxed-in by its strictly enforced rules. The studio’s fluid sensibility is undeniably present in the artist’s lines, but the relative roughness of his pencil work isn’t glossed over by layers of strictly applied Disney magic. As such, we’re left with a style that is unfailingly familiar, while remaining true to Pedrosa’s stubborn refusal to brighten the shadows that define his story, and a work that won’t let itself be easily categorized.