Celebrating the Unpopular Arts

Review time! with ‘The Shadows’

“But hey we can just build a great wall around the country club to keep the riff-raff out until the slump is through”

Dark Horse occasionally has these kinds of graphic novels available, a depressing French comic that feels like it should be a Fantagraphics or Top Shelf book, but here it is from Richardson’s publishing concern. It’s by Zabus and Hippolyte (Vincent Zabus, that is, and Frank Meynet), who in the grand tradition of French comics are simply listed together doing “story and art,” and it’s translated by Matt Madden with letters by Cromatik Ltd. Let’s have a look!

The book is told in flashbacks, so we begin with our unnamed protagonist – he’s given a number, 214, when he reaches his destination, so let’s call him that – telling a very large, very grumpy, and very wizened man his story about how he got to this moment. The man is determining whether 214 is worthy to enter the paradise in which he lives, and 214 is trying to explain how he got there. Meanwhile, 214 is being haunted by shadows that only he can see and hear, who we learn very quickly are the dead people he journeyed with, so no surprises there. At the end, we get to the ironic twist, which isn’t really that big a twist, but it’s still something that kind of puts the capper on this tragic tale.

So yes, it’s depressing, but it’s still a good comic. 214 and his sister (213, as it turns out), are driven from their home by malignant horsemen, who ride through their town looking to steal the land’s natural resources. Their grandfather sends them away without telling them the fate of their mother (their father, we learn later, is out of the picture), but as they go, 214 keeps telling his sister that their mother is waiting for them in the “other country,” the paradise where peace reigns. So they head out, and they have many adventures, although that implies a sense of fun, and nothing they find is fun. They’re captured by a child-eating ogre who uses them to make toys for kids (he says it makes them taste better), but they manage to escape with a dude wearing a stylish hat who’s kind of creeping on 213 and a girl who doesn’t like to talk. These three – the sister and 214’s traveling companions – are the ghosts at the beginning of the story, telling him that he needs to tell the man deciding his fate the truth or they’ll be erased from history. So 214, despite knowing it won’t make him look all that great and that it might keep him out of the “promised land,” tells the truth.

It’s all wildly allegorical, from the ogre who looks like a cross between a 19th-century political cartoon of a plutocrat and a pastiche of a Texas oilman and who works his children to death to the actual snake that smuggles the refugees across a border and abandons them because they didn’t pay enough money (the connotations of “snake” mean that the authors hit the metaphorical nail on the head with this one). 214 and his sister have abstract faces, as they either never take off masks they’re wearing (as it’s clear that plenty of people in this book are human) or those are their actual faces (because plenty of sentient creatures in this book don’t look human), but what it does it turn them into EveryRefugees, so that their plight becomes universal. The authors do this quite well – they make 214’s journey into a universal journey, showing the difficulties of being chased from your home and losing everything and trying to get to a safe haven, which may or may not be an actual safe haven. The dangers the group faces on the way – and how it slowly gets whittled down – are sadly real, and the bureaucracy they face, both on the road and at the end of their journey, is a bitter indictment of our system. The absurdity of the ending is brutally Kafka-esque, but the authors do a nice job showing that even in the face of all this, there’s a nobility in the refugees – despite the one leering at every girl he sees, despite choices 214 has to make that might not be terribly ethical, and despite the people in the group dying on the way. It’s not the destination, it’s the journey, indeed.

The art on the book is excellent, as the authors use a traditional “European” thin line but when they want to make things a bit rougher, they simply hatch more tightly rather than weighing the lines differently. This makes even the creepier parts of the book terrifically precise, like the chest hair on the ogre, which is thick and fine and makes him look far ickier than he would without it. The man who interviews 214 is lined with dozens and dozens of wrinkles, each drawn in with precision, making him even more decrepit than if the authors had been a bit lazier. They are perfectly fine being abstract, as 214 and 213’s faces show, as their unchanging visages show the stoicism that refugees need to have when they present themselves to those who are trying to help/exploit them, but their more detailed stuff is fantastic – the snake is horrifying as it grows to swallow those it’s transporting, and the horsemen are always shown in a detailed, almost Picasso-esque mass of terror. The town the refugees reach where they have to wait for the snake to transport them is a proto-Renaissance jumble of domed churches and stucco buildings jammed together any which way, with brilliant Looney-Tunesy characters lurking in the margins. When 214 finally makes it to his destination, the authors do a marvelous job pulling back on the details, turning the sanctuary into a bland, depressing maze of darkness, shoving people any which way and crushing them under the impersonality of it all. The art really matches the tone of the book well, and it lends a good weight to the authors’ themes.

As depressing as this book is, it’s still a good read, as Zabus and Hippolyte do a fine job showing us the plight of refugees and the struggles they have moving around and settling down. There’s a good hint of absurdity in the book that keeps it from being too, too depressing, and the art does a nice job helping the allegorical parts work. Give it a look!

Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆

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