August 03, 2006


Jackie and the Shadow Snatcher. By Larry Di Fiori. Knopf. $15.95.

     “Who knows what evil lurks in the hearts of men?  The SHADOW knows!”  So went the opening of the once-famous radio mystery show, based on a character whose stories were created for pulp magazines by Walter B. Gibson.  Gibson’s character is also known for having learned “the power to cloud men’s minds” somewhere in “the mysterious Orient.”

     That was in the 1930s – then onward all the way to a 1994 movie, and even beyond.  Larry Di Fiori does not overtly pay tribute to Gibson’s Shadow in Jackie and the Shadow Snatcher, but the evil character of the title certainly bears more than a passing resemblance to Gibson’s original.  And Di Fiori tells this story in the modern equivalent of a radio serial or comic book: as a graphic novel.

     It’s in many ways a clever tale, featuring a young boy (Jackie) who always loses things – including, one day, his shadow.  But maybe he didn’t lose the shadow, he thinks – maybe it was stolen.  So he consults his handy-dandy genius neighbor, Mr. Socrates, who determines that the Shadow Snatcher is at large again (Mr. Socrates has tangled with him before).  Mr. Socrates shows Jackie where the Shadow Snatcher’s hideout is, then sends him there alone – because it is, after all, Jackie’s shadow.

     This part of the plot doesn’t quite work – even a fantasy-themed graphic novel for children needs some internal logic, and this element fails the test.  But Jackie gamely takes his bulldog, Baxter, in search of the Shadow Snatcher.  Boy and dog confront the criminal in his lair, where he is stitching together lots of stolen shadows to make a shadow cloak under which to conceal himself while doing dastardly deeds.

     Jackie, being the hero, undoes the cloak, frees the shadows (including his own), and escapes when the bad guys have to flee because Mr. Socrates has belatedly brought the police.  So all ends happily – but the story doesn’t quite work.  Mr. Socrates’ refusal to help, followed later by helping, just doesn’t ring true.  Jackie’s tendency to lose things is irrelevant to the plot, since the shadow never was lost (it might have been different if Di Fiori had had Jackie search everywhere for his “lost” shadow before realizing it had been stolen, but that doesn’t happen).  And the ending, with the bad guys being chased by the cops, has a slapstick feeling that is missing elsewhere in the book.

     Di Fiori is a prolific producer of works for children, having illustrated more than 75 books and written nearly a dozen.  Jackie and the Shadow Snatcher, though, is his first work in graphic-novel form.  He seems to have focused more on the black-and-white drawings, which are excellent, than on the writing, which is only so-so.  But if the book is not an unqualified success, it is certainly a qualified one.  Who knows what lurks in Di Fiori’s mind as he plans another book – perhaps even a sequel to this one?  Not even The Shadow knows.

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