Mummies from the past and virtue incarnate

July 2, 2010 § Leave a comment

I’ve always had a crush on Egyptian mummies. Underneath the shrouds of cloth lay… such mystery! Such glamour! Such EXOTICNESS! And I’m apparently not the only one. In The Professor’s Daughter, Lillian Bowell, daughter of famed Egyptologist Professor Bowell, is having an “illicit” romance with one of her father’s most priceless objects – the mummy of Imhotep IV. However, one day she makes the mistake of taking Imhotep for a walk, and while out, they drink some tea. Imhotep, formerly dead, is a little rattled, shall we say, by the tea. He becomes deliriously drunk. Chaos ensues, but rest assured that after minor tragedies and fiascos, there is a happy ending. There is also a situation involving Queen Victoria, plump, smug, and lovingly impervious, being carted off hither and thither with her bum up in the air. While The Professor’s Daughter lacks the gravity and depth of Joann Sfar’s masterpiece, The Rabbi’s Cat, it is no less the worse for it. This comic is clearly meant to be a whimsical, dreamy romp through a quirky imagination of both Sfar and his collaborator, Emmanuel Guibert. Imhotep’s dead children reappear in a deliciously-fanciful dream sequence that made me salivate over the masterful combination of artwork and writing. The art is, to a non-artist novice like me, simply delightful – it appears to be a combination of pencil and ink illustrations with watercolours. The use of colours within a limited palette sets the mood as both romantic and potentially dark, but never truly disturbing. Sure, there is a danger of getting carried away and becoming all wrapped up in the whimsy, the whimsy, the whimsy! However, it is balanced quite nicely by a story arc that doesn’t take its readers to be idiots. There is wit and endearing dialogue throughout, as when Imhotep sees his children in the dream sequence and tells them, “I’m an antiquity. I belong to the country of one who found me,” the children reply, “We find that most humiliating.” Or when Imhotep, on the run, takes refuge in an antique shop – only to be met by the most kindly antiquarian who tells him, “It’s the first time so expensive an object has entered my shop,” and Imhotep, debonair and well-mannered as ever, tells him, “The pleasure is all mine.” Or when Imhotep tells Lillian, “Mind you, in my country we didn’t treat foreigners too well either.” Oh, bother. Just read it – one of the nicest ways to spend an hour.

Brothels! Prostitutes! Murder! Pleasure! Wait… what? But yes, indeed, in the case of Miss Don’t Touch Me, a comic I’d never heardabout until I borrowed it from my good friend Devious Devi. (That isn’t her name, but she is rather devious… I had planned on borrowing more books had she not spotted them tucked away in my bag and questioned me about them.)  Despite some seriously wonky production in terms of jacket copy – which gets a few facts wrong – the comic itself is wonderful, glorious, marvellous. It’s not perfect, but it’s certainly wonderful, glorious, marvellous. Set in the turn-of-the-20th-century Paris, Blanche and Agatha are two sisters who work as maids. Blanche is a virgin, and seems to possess all the stereotypical attributes of a typical virgin; she is stern, moralistic, prudish, awkward, judgmental… except that she’s all those things, combined with a solid intelligence, an utterly wayward perspective, and loads of gumption and pluck. Agatha is the fun-loving sister with the free spirit and the liberal values; the one who goes for all the dances and gets all the guys.  Their relationship is a sweet and affectionate; tragically cut short by Agatha’s murder done at the hands of the ‘Butcher of the Dances’ – so named because the Jack the Ripper-style murderer would target young girls who liked to go out and attend dances. The hunt to avenge her sister’s murder leads Blanche to the Pompadour, a luxury brothel where she manages to nab a position that makes her one of the girls while allowing her to keep her virginity intact – as a “Special Girl”, a dominatrix. Blanche turns out to have a particular aptitude for this – she’s a “virgin of steel”, as one satisfied customer says. Perhaps it’s a cliché to say that only the French can do this, but allow me to say – only the French can do this; mix pleasure and delight and beauty with death, ugliness, and perversity. Once I started Miss Don’t Touch Me before bed, I couldn’t sleep until I had finished it, and when it was over I wished I was reading it for the first time all over again. There’s an underlying menace suggested throughout the story through words and occurrences, but the art focuses on the sumptuous decadence of the interior of the Pompadour; and the naked and clothed bodies of the women, as well as their expressions, are just breathtaking to look at. All throughout one can’t help rooting for Blanche, even at her most unpleasant… or dominating… because she’s alone in the world and she takes care of herself the best way she knows how. Prickly, reserved, and inherently distrustful, Blanche rescues the typical purse-mouthed virgin stereotype from the shackles of hypocritical morality while kicking some ass (quite literally) – a “perfect Miss don’t touch me,” as the Pompadour Madam says when she first sizes Blanche up. Highly recommended to everyone who loves a good story well-told and gorgeously-illustrated.

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