Pop Culture Gadabout
Sunday, June 28, 2009
      ( 6/28/2009 08:22:00 AM ) Bill S.  


"BUT IF I DON'T SELL MY VIRTUE, WHAT MUST I DO?" The title heroine of Hubert and Kerascoet's adult French twist on Nancy Drew, Miss Don't Touch Me (NBM/ComicsLit), is a big-eyed gamine named Blanche. Working as a maid with her sister Agatha in thirties Paris, Blanche's life takes a sudden horrid turn after Agatha falls victim to a serial slayer known as the Butcher of the Dances. Canned by her scandal fearing employer, Blanche vows to find her sister's killer.

Her fumbling investigations lead her to a high-class bordello called the Pompadour. Convinced that the Butcher is somehow connected to this high-end whore house, she gets herself hired as virginal dominatrix ("a virgin of steel," her first client calls her) and becomes a favorite of its jaded upper crust clientele. Blanche's role as a "special girl" puts her in the company of black "madame monsieur" Miss Josephine (who has a passing resemblance to Josephine Baker) and the Boop-faced submissive Annette, while it also earns her the enmity of the other bordello workers. Her suspicions are primarily focused on the Pompadour's thuggish owner and a sinister Elisha Cook Jr. type named Red, but, of course, the answer to the mystery's not that simple.

Despite its provocative setting, the "mature readers" rated Miss Don't Touch Me proves more suggestive than explicit, though it's not without its flashes of topless femmes and groveling naked geezers. Kerascoet's (a pseudonym for two artists, Marie Pommepuy and S├ębastien Cosset) stylized penwork at times reminds me of a less angularly expressionist Richard Sala, though to a certain extent the book's serial killer plot also promotes that visual comparison. It's cleanly simple with its human figures, though the artists' background renderings of period Paris are exquisitely detailed. The only time the artists' blend of the cartoonish and more illustrative didn't work was in a panel where the head of the Butcher's latest victim is discovered by a lake: the pumpkin-sized head is just a trace too stylized to convey the scene's splattery horror.

Miss Don't Touch Me was first published in two parts in its native country, and you can definitely see a shift in focus between its halves. Scripter Hubert initially keeps the story centered on innocent young Blanche (note the name) as she enters her new world, but in the second half, other characters -- most notably, the worldly Miss Josephine -- step up to push the mystery to its big revelation. Though the guilty are all uncovered, not all of 'em are punished equally. Imbedded within this classically pulpish story (Fallen Women! Dope Fiends! Dungeons and Hidden Passages!) is an undercurrent of class-based criticism that's true to the story's period. Historical murder buffs may also find a parallel to some of the royal theories surrounding the Whitechapel murders, though this is a far cry from a heavily annotated historical mystery like From Hell.

But, ultimately, it's our title heroine who engages our concern: though we watch her toughen up through the course of the story, we also know that eventually she's gonna stumble onto the Butcher of the Dances. Does she come out alive and -- just an importantly -- does she keep her virtue intact? More than the killer's identity, these are the questions that drive this engaging grown-up graphic novel.

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Pop cultural criticism - plus the occasional egocentric socio/political commentary by Bill Sherman (popculturegadabout AT yahoo.com).



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