Monday, February 16, 2009

Baser Instincts: Miss Don't Touch Me

Rob reviews the recent English translation of MISS DON'T TOUCH ME, written by French author Hubert and drawn by the team of Kerascoet (NBM).

Kim Thompson of Fantagraphics once noted, a number of years ago, that what the American comics market lacked was "good crap". That is, there were plenty of adolescent super-hero comics around and a decent number of literary/art comics, but not much in the way of a true mainstream for adults. He also noted that the French were especially good at producing "good crap"; comics that one wouldn't elevate to the highest levels of art, but were still compelling in a number of ways and told a great story.

MISS DON'T TOUCH ME, recently published and translated by NBM, is a perfect example of "good crap". It's a murder-mystery story set in a turn of the 20th century French brothel. Such a story could be remarkably exploitative in the manner of a Cinemax erotic thriller, and there indeed some of those elements present. What makes this story rise above the inherent limitations of its setting and genre is the way Hubert depicts the most lurid acts in a somewhat blase' fashion. In a sense, this is as much a workplace story as it is a thriller, as the girls in the brothel have schedules and the madame fills out ledgers. Hubert also gets in some sly social commentary regarding class, especially with regard to whom ultimately takes the fall for the murders.

Above all else, it's the playful, almost bigfoot art from the husband-and-wife art team Kerascoet that gives the book a number of odd tensions. They are the artists behind the Early Years stories of DUNGEON, and their sensibilities unsurprisingly lay somewhere between Lewis Trondheim and Joann Sfar. Their character design has a playfulness to it that retains the practiced sexiness of the brothel's women but adds little tics here and there. There's also more than a little touch of the grotesque and the exaggerated in their character design, like the plump madame, the gangly cocaine dealer and the brutish & stumpy member of royalty who is a regular at the brothel.

The story operates on another level: fish-out-of-water situation comedy. The story follows Blance, a naive and virginal maid, who demands entrance into the brothel after her sister is murdered in cold blood and turns up as a victim of the serial killer called "The Butcher of the Dances". She manages to finagle herself a job as "Miss Don't Touch Me", a dominatrix who furiously whips those who "misbehave" and is never touched. The other women of the brothel take an instant dislike to her--especially since she replaced someone murdered by the "Butcher of the Dances". The artists take an interesting risk in making their protagonist shrill and neurotic, managing to both play this for laughs and heighten tension when she's in danger. Visually, Blanche is all angles--sharp nose, switchblade body, pointy chin. Only her eyes, when bugged out, add any roundness to her features. That heightens the contrast between her and the other women in the brothel, who are of course all curves.

After we are introduced to the premise, the story is a series of seeming allies being untrustworthy and characters with mysterious motives becoming life-savers. The story's shifting sands keep the reader guessing as to who's really responsible for the crimes, even if Blanche quickly becomes gripped with certainty as to the identity of the killers. The climax of the story, when we learn just how wrapped up certain members of the brothel are with the serial killer story, is nasty and visceral in a way that's unexpected. After a number of light storytelling touches (especially with the introduction of Josephine, a transexual African-American prostitute whose shtick is to resemble Josephine Baker), the end was particularly grim. Kerascoet depicted Blanche's eyes bugging out of her head when she was committing acts of violence or generally alarmed, but in that final scene, there was a certain steely resolve in her eyes.

While Blanche does take her revenge, the story doesn't exactly have a happy ending. Blanche is still a bit adrift and realizes she has nowhere else to go but the brothel (a bittersweet realization), the real killers go unpunished because of their prominence in society, and one of the story's few seeming innocents goes to a swift and brutal execution. Those odd minor notes modulate the story's lurid nature. That luridness is almost always present in stories playing up the intersection between sex and death, and the artists do little to downplay those scenes, but the story's characterization and underlying commentary prevent it from wallowing completely in filth. Indeed, Hubert, through the story's prostitutes, notes that it's the rest of the world that's wallowing in filth and hypocrisy; only the prostitutes are getting paid for providing an outlet for it. That's a realization that dawns on Blanche at the story's end, and may be why we see her crack a little smile when she realizes that this is her home. MISS DON'T TOUCH ME is both exploitative and in turn commenting on the nature of exploitation, and that natural tension of ideas is wrapped in a tightly-wound murder-mystery plot and turned on its head by the art.

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