Cyril Pedrosa’s Three Shadows: Comics as Testament

Pedrosa, Three Shadows pg.195, First Second Books, 2008

I Hear You, I See You

Cyril Pedrosa’s Three Shadows: Comics as Testament

Pedrosa, First Second Books pg.52, 2008As humans we seek to understand injustice, transcend what we are told are limitations, and create for ourselves the world in which we want to live: encouraged to share and speak about what is affecting us.

It is in this space where Art can do the talking for us. Comics offer a channel of expression through which we can author and share some of the most grueling of personal and traumatic of human experiences.

When I say “author,” I use it inclusively for both writers and artists, acknowledging the dual role sole creators take upon themselves when creating personal work. Words propel the narrative, but a story’s character is largely dependent on the visual treatment and the expressive depth of the illustrations. The plot, in itself, isn’t designed to express. These two essential elements work with and for one another, giving one another foundations to build themselves upon, amounting to something greater than the sum of their parts.

Although the range of content and backgrounds of authors I read are unique and diverse, the singular thread I always tend to resonate with in graphic novels is a narrative about the author unpacking their own brand of complicated grief. Comics’ ability to synthesize emotions through visuals and text can create a system of healing through verbalization and visual catharsis. Being able to show and tell through metaphors or literal representation gives the creator a sense of control over the events which plague them. It is self-power and temporal stability we seek to reclaim and define in rebuilding a fractured reality.

As a comic Author myself, I am always looking for work that wrestles with interior conflict or situational strife. It helps me feel less alone in the elusive quest to find and retain a sense of peace and integration with my experiences. One of the most moving examples I have read is the graphic novel Three Shadows, by French artist Cyril Pedrosa. The work was made in response to his witnessing the death of his close friends’ young child. This is no spoiler for the book for this work is not plot based. It’s not a meditation, question, or navel-gaze into the void either, but rather a visualization of the Stages of Grief and their complexity in how they ebb and flow in the nebula of human experience. The act of creating—or re-creating—a personal story, burden, or fracture within the comic medium asks much more than just an audience or readership: it is looking for a witness.

Bearing Witness

Bearing witness, simply stated, is sharing another’s experience. Auto-biographical stories are a prime example of this in comics, as they confront or extrapolate on complicated issues where the work is not so much a vague statement but the author’s own dealing with a personal or circumstantial crisis. Making the work in and of itself is an act toward being heard, and this validation is crucial for the author in learning how to move forward.

Validation, in this context, is not necessarily measured in awards, book sales, or fandom. It means that your work—and by extension, you— are seen and received by others, confirming your relationship with your experience as truth, your truth: a key element in one’s need to transform their pain and begin healing.

The frames of a comic can actually bring a sense of control to the creator, with unlimited choice in how to literally “frame” a situation, strength returns to the disempowered by their active re-telling of events. This power to confine the story to personal parameters, and mould it to a narrative that speaks to higher concepts, helps the creator connect senseless trauma to a purposeful narrative.

Pedrosa, Three Shadows pg.195, First Second Books, 2008

Judith Herman, a noted psychiatrist and researcher on traumatic memory, writes of the compulsion to re-enact the traumatic moment or event with the fantasy of changing the outcome. She speaks of the involuntary nature of re-creating traumatic events having a driven and unyielding quality, not unlike the creative force many artists experience when making personal work. “You make a character of yourself and in that sense it’s no longer you,” Phoebe Gloeckner, author of A Diary of a Teenaged Girl, explains, “It’s like a doll you’re moving around and putting in little diorama…in doing that you’re totally transforming it into something else.”

In this way, we can see auto-bio comics not as navel-gazing or self absorbed, but as way for creators re-create their traumas in hopes of a reconciliation within themselves. To share a painful story is to ask someone to hold and consider you, and is an act of profound vulnerability in a high risk state.

Validation of Trauma  

When you listen, read, and absorb comics, there is little to decipher—the experience is visually documented, verbally expressed, and although deeper meaning can be plumbed, the authors’ intentions for how you should experience a page remain clear and forthright.

Pedrosa,Three Shadows pg.3, First Second Books, 2008

Three Shadows opens on an happy family in an idyllic, secluded land of bounty. Soon something out of the ordinary occurs and a waft of unease blows across the page. Its here that most readers can sense what is coming, and we can all connect to those moments—ones where we can remember the day, week, or month before something or someone was lifted from or into our lives, imploding our sense of reality. It was a pure time, shadowless, and in this small 13 page act not only do we accept what is to come, but we bring to the narrative our own recollections of the times before X ever happened. A sense of being and temporality is lost in trauma, and our sense of permanence—in relationships, familial accord, business interactions, as humans—unravels.

Pedrosa, Three Shadows pg.11, First Second Books, 2008

It is in this emotionally open, yet private, space between book and reader that the shift from audience to witness occurs: when you decide to carry on no matter what happens, and agree to watch helplessly as the story sweeps by and reveals itself. The act of reading the work is validation. In Pedrosa’s processing and re-enactment of this event, he gives agency and immortality to the lost child, and by “documenting” the parents’ pains honors their bravery and tenacious love and efforts to save their son. This is done with tremendous dignity to the event, and by creating this new world on the page Pedrosa wasn’t performing erasure, but creating a new world where the story can rest and speak to others. The readers validate Pedrosa, acknowledging what it took to create this testament in both technical terms and emotional strain, creating in our minds an incomprehensible yet viscerally relatable vision of what it must have meant to watch a most pure life slip away.

Remembrance and Mourning

Even though the narrative behind the story is not his own, Pedrosa most likely was subject to a type of secondary trauma through witnessing of his close friends’ agony. Secondary trauma, also called Compassion Fatigue, is a kind of trauma osmosis whereby the emotional distress of a situation is absorbed by the surrounding parties due to its weight and profundity. In this work, he is not seeking ownership of the material, but works through his own processing of it the only way he knows how: visual storytelling. Artists by necessity are empathetic creatures, able to connect to the hundreds of emotional frequencies of human nature, embodied within the instincts to make something out of it. There is the need to wrangle peace, closure, or understanding of that which remains, ultimately, a mystery. Pedrosa’s probing thought and delicate consideration of the material, informed greatly by his secondary trauma, brought forth a work that embodies the very essence of witness and compassion which is so desperately needed in times of profound grief. Pedrosa does not speak for his friend, but to him. Comics have the power to work not as a casual, tidy remembrance but a slow burning consideration of trauma and serve as an emblem to the devastating nature of loss.

Pedrosa, Three Shadows pg.190, First Second Books, 2008


Concentration is an inherent requirement in drawing, making it of great benefit to the modality of grounding in traumatic healing and the grieving process. Grounding, found within the pedagogy of art therapy, is a way to cope in order to maintain your reality in the present moment.

Pedrosa, Three Shadows pg.202 and 248, First Second Books, 2008

In this context, grounding is the pen to paper, providing the chance for the author to connect to a tactile reality alongside the story they are choosing to explore and express. Drawing the story becomes an anchor between the lived reality and our perceptions of it, creating an alternate reality in which the terrible isn’t sugar coated, but instead transformed into fables, ideals, and beauty—places we can’t quite reach on our own plane of existence when wrestling with traumatic aftermath. The tactility and sensory awareness that take place when drawing comics is the channeling of your narrative onto the page in a way where you can see and arrange it at a distance, outside of yourself. We live alongside our memories of things we can’t change and continually seek meaning and a safe place.

Pedrosa, in his own search for grounding, gives us a visual map of our desire for those that we love and gives credence to our deepest dreams, which enable us to trade our loved ones’ sorrow, pain, even life force, for our own.

Creating comics in response to grief is the author’s chance to let their rudderless sail become anchored through acknowledgement. Trauma shreds our sense of stability, and by re-creating your story, frame by frame our universal experiences in grief are witnessed and held. Three Shadows honors the pain and complexity of the human spirit and is quietly waiting on the shelf for the exact moment you need to find it. Even when we feel there is nothing left, comics can give us something to believe in.

Pedrosa, Three Shadows pg.67, First Second Books, 2008

Zed Alexandra

Zed Alexandra

Zed Alexandra is a sequential artist living in Vancouver, BC where she puts her passion for storytelling to work across comics and short film. Her stories examine love, identity and transformation.