April 28, 2021

Graphic Novel Review: The Shabows, by Vincent Zabus and Hippolyte

Title: The Shadows

Author: Vincent Zabus

Illustrator: Hippolyte

Publisher: Europe Comics

Date of Publication: November 20th 2020

Number of Pages: 190

See it on Goodreads: The Shadows


At the end of an arduous journey, refugee 214 finally gets his chance to enter the Other World. But to see his wish granted, the boy must first tell the story of how he and his sister were forced to flee their homeland. Frightened and helpless, they crossed forests, deserts, and seas, encountering creatures each more mysterious and frightening than the last: the capitalist ogre, the smuggler-snake, and the ever-present shadows from the great beyond… The boy’s story must be told in every detail—but will the truth save him, or condemn him? This is the odyssey of a brother and sister who are forced to fight for their freedom and survival at every turn, all the while trying not to forget about where they’ve come from, and what they’ve left behind. A subtle and captivating tale about exile and refugees today.

Review - A Tree With No Roots

Writing about this graphic novel is not easy. I have been thinking about how I should start writing this review for a while now, and I only end up looking at the blank screen. So, I'm just going to start placing one word after another, and we'll see where this goes.

Before getting into the actual graphic novel, I'd like to mention that this is the adaptation of the 2008 theatrical play of Vincent Zabus. The writer adapted the script for the graphic novel, and Hippolyte illustrated it. This isn't the first time that the writer and the artist have collaborated, having also created Incredible!. 

As the summary of this book suggests, this is the story of Refugee 214. The graphic novel begins with our young protagonist in an interrogation room. He is surrounded by the shadows of the people that he has lost along the way. They all represent his story, his memories, his regrets, and his shame. He knows that what he tells in this interview will be his ticket to get accepted to this Other Country, the place where he will start afresh. But, is his conscience ready to accept what he has been through? Is he brave enough to admit what he was forced to do just to survive, even though he might be framed as a criminal?

Refugee 214 began his journey from the Low Country with his sister. Low Country is a place with rich soil and for this reason, there is always someone trying to claim it. When the situation gets worse, the protagonist has to flee with his sister, without even saying goodbye to their mother. And then, their struggles begin. They get lost in the woods and ultimately captured by the Capitalist Ogre, who thrives through the hard labour of people and children just like them. They manage to escape and gain two more companions along the way. They reach the High Country and feel lost in the big city until they can find the means to pay the smuggler who will take them to the Other Country.

All through this way, our protagonist sees the shadow of his father. He had fled the country before them to find a better place for them. However, he died on his way there, and so, he tries to help his son and daughter through his experiences. We learn about the exile sickness, a condition that turns people into living corpses. A condition that ultimately consumes the individual and lets his memories float above the sea. 

To be honest, this story feels like a punch in the gut. If you live in Europe, then you are familiar with what the refugees have to go through. You have probably heard of how many people were lost in the Mediterranean Sea and how the smugglers' false promises took everything from these people. And the graphic novel doesn't shy away from all the horrendous things that might happen along the way. One of the companions gets sexually assaulted and murdered, and our protagonist has to kill to defend himself.

However, what is even more heart-wrenching in this story is the part after Refugee 214 reaches the Other Country. We witness the interview and how the interrogator claims to be impartial. Yet, when our protagonist tells the truth, he is willingly calling him a criminal. We never learn if he gets accepted in the Other Country and whether he starts a new life. And this, makes me wonder just how many people are in my own country in the same situation. Greece is the temporary home for thousands of refugees that tried to reach some EU country. 

The story stretched out all these feelings and thoughts by not including any name. I understand that for some this might be a drawback as it eliminates an element that will make the reader feel closer to these characters. Nevertheless, I thought that this was an excellent choice. Again, being from Greece, I have read on the daily news about refugees lost at sea, saved from a shipwreck, put in camps, etc. The news is always about the refugees, not individual stories. This graphic novel seems to understand this, and it puts actual stories to the nameless word "refugee".  

The Shadows - Vincent Zabus, Hippolyte

As I've already mentioned, the story is a powerful one. However, I can't end this review without talking about the art style. Hippolyte has made a good job at illustrating the story. First, I have to admit how much I love watercolour, and I'm usually drawn to graphic novels with this art style. Indeed, The Shadows was no exception to this rule as there were some pages that I didn't want to stop looking at. 

However, the illustration is not just dreamy watercolour. The illustrations follow the emotional journey of these characters and evolve accordingly. There are panels with dark, bold lines that give off an ominous feeling. When the story reaches a hopeful stage, then the outlines and colours get softer and warmer. 

The character design is peculiar. All of our protagonists have faces that remind a mask without many characteristics. I believe that this is another element that ties with the fact that we don't have any names for the characters. The shadows actually remind me of some creatures that I could have seen in a Miyazaki film. They are huge black masses with a white face and no other distinct features. 

All in all, The Shadows is a graphic novel worth checking out. It is definitely not an easy read, even though it is concealed under a fantasy element. It will break your heart but show you the stories of so many people fighting for survival. 

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