By Ben Boruff
I appreciate Guillermo del Toro. 2004’s Hellboy revitalized Mike Mignola’s fallen hero, and Pan's Labyrinth is a masterpiece. But Crimson Peak fell short. The 2015 fantasy-drama suffered from an awkward lack of subtlety. The film’s protagonist, a novelist played by Mia Wasikowska, tells us repeatedly that her novel—and, by extension, Crimson Peak—is “not a ghost story: it’s a story with ghosts in it.” The movie is a beautiful jumble of forced dialogue, prolonged glances, and orchestral flourishes, all seemingly designed to smack the audience in the face with cinderblock-sized themes and motifs. Like Crimson Peak, writer Daniel Zeigler’s The Spirit of the Shadows lacks narrative finesse. The Spirit of the Shadows is too gaudy, too melodramatic, and too cliché—but it still entertains. The story focuses on the life and death of Erik, a musician and coal miner who falls in love with the daughter of the owner of the coal mines. The two star-crossed lovers, Erik and Katrina, enjoy a brief romance before bigotry and egotism abruptly end the relationship. Then a possibly schizophrenic doctor named Hyde Perkins meets Katrina’s ambitious father, and all hell breaks loose—figuratively and literally.
Nick Cagnetti’s artwork feels like a dream, and it keeps the narrative’s tension intact. Cagnetti spills misty shadows onto the pages, weaving them through the lives of the characters. The Spirit of the Shadows, the comic’s undead protagonist, seems to glide through the panels like a fog—steady and overpowering. Given the shaky black-and-white nature of the artwork, many of the comic’s pages seem messy, but the untidy haziness of the panels offers readers a glimpse into the troubled mind of the Spirit of the Shadows, a confused being filled with longing and regret.
The comic is sigh-worthy at times—the dialogue is peppered with garish words like “zounderkite,” “taradiddle,” and “tommyrot”—but, as one of the characters notes, the story is reminiscent of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, the classic horror novel that championed the themes of Romanticism. Some of those themes—individualism, majesty of nature, and appreciation of beauty—exist in The Spirit of the Shadows, and Daniel Zeigler offers an intriguing (though not entirely original) portrayal of each.
The graphic novel is split into three parts: 1) “What makes a man?” 2) “What makes a murderer?” and 3) “What makes a monster?” Though many of the comic’s pages throw their morals at the reader like steroid-enhanced MLB pitchers, The Spirit of the Shadows is kind enough to leave readers alone with these questions. They are open-ended, and they operate like street signs, helping readers navigate the emotional trials of the protagonist. Though some of the story is over-the-top, Zeigler handles the last question—“What makes a monster?”—with true sensitivity. Only longing and mist fill the last panel, which occupies an entire page. The last question is complicated, and maybe the comic does not provide an answer because, in the end, we do not want one.
The Spirit of the Shadows
Writer: Daniel Ziegler
Artist: Nick Cagnetti
Publisher: Radical Realm Comics