Bandaged Love

The Professor’s Daughter

This is a new book from First Second, part of its staggered third wave of graphic novel releases. It’s a $16.95 softcover (or a $29.95 special edition hardcover), 80 full-color pages (including bonus sketches and prep art), and should be available in comics stories today. Unless your store’s already gotten it in. Hard to keep track of that.

I trust that nearly everyone reading this site has heard of Joann Sfar at this point - he’s the hugely prolific French comics talent who’s had several notable books and series translated to English, such as Dungeon (which he co-created with Lewis Trondheim) and The Rabbi’s Cat, and has appeared in anthologies like Japan as Viewed by 17 Creators. He’s also been involved in at least two books per wave of First Second releases thus far, having served as writer/artist for The Vampire Loves (wave one) and Klezmer (wave two), and artist for three volumes of Sardine in Outer Space (one per wave) with writer Emmanuelle Guibert. His collaboration with Guibert ‘continues’ with this book, although The Professor’s Daughter was actually the first of their pairings, having been originally published in France in 1997. Additionally, the roles English-speaking readers may be familiar with have been reversed - here, Sfar writes and Guibert draws.

And while writer and artist had garnered some experience in comics by that point -- three years for the writer and five years for the artist -- The Professor’s Daughter still reads like a hungry, anxious work, a comic that’s bristling with activity, and very nearly humming with a desire get its many notions out and into the reader’s head. It’s a brief work, only 60 pages in actual story length, yet somehow manages the trick of being both disarmingly dense yet lightning-paced, without ever feeling scrawny. It’s very light work, yes but not wholly insubstantial, and possessed of a compelling perversity that offsets its handsome construction. Each page is composed of strict six-panel grids, and each panel is filled with delicate visuals, gently shifting from fuzzy half-distinction to slick cartooned clarity to color-washed green or blue or amber to match whatever mood is prevalent. Yet, the story itself is playful, often rough-edged craziness, bounding from situation to situation as if powered by an eccentric logic that only makes complete sense upon reflection.

The plot, you see, concerns young Miss Bowell, the titular daughter of a famed Victorian Egyptologist, and Imhotep IV, a mummy. Unlike many mummies, Imhotep can walk and talk quite perfectly, so the girl dresses him up one day in her father’s clothes and takes him out for some fun. Both parties feel confined by the Professor, for various reasons. Unfortunately, Imhotep hasn’t had anything good to eat or drink in a very long while, so it only takes a sip of tea to drive him into an ecstatic frenzy, handing out a joy beating to a nearby fellow in the tearoom. One thing leads to another, and suddenly Miss Bowell as accidentally killed two people, including a police officer, Imhotep is in danger of being locked away behind glass forever, and the mummy has possibly fallen in love with the girl since she may or may not be the reincarnation of his unpreserved slave wife from way back. And then the girl is kidnapped and whisked off to sea.

That’s only about 30% of the story, by the way. There’s still plenty of time for courtroom drama, the making of new friends, multiple chases, Queen Victoria being whisked out of her palace by a would-be seducer and dumped in the Thames, and a running theme of insensitive parents affecting the lives of their children. I couldn’t call The Professor’s Daughter a particularly deep work, but it’s attractively dense, emotionally thought-through work, enough so that its habit of leaving certain character strands to hang at the end seems more adventurous than sloppy. For all its ample charm, there’s actually a strong undercurrent of uncertainty to the romance and adventure on display - aside from additional physical character death, the motivation behind Imhotep’s attraction to Miss Bowell is left with a slightly creepy edge, one that rousing speeches and declarations of affection can’t smooth over. Typical love story lines like "You are my only love" take on multiple meanings, not all of them terribly romantic. The book’s final page packs in a surprising amount of ambiguity through Guibert’s carefully realized character expressions.

Indeed, Guibert’s visuals embody all of the plot’s attributes, soaking in graphic sophistication while cheerily melding comedy and mayhem. A generous preview is available at First Second's site, highlighting Guibert’s deft hand with movement, his jumps from character stylization to relative realism (check the definition of the girl's face), his grasp of dark humor (I love how that guy's beard continues to point up in the air), and his command of pacing (note how the reader's POV seems to drift a step or three ahead of Miss Bowell as she races up the stairs and into the bedroom). It's impressive work, so essential to the delicate tone of the book that a different artist would leave it as something very different, and almost certainly less pleasingly complicated.

And that would kill the identity of this story, drifting through the air like a sheet of paper, but capable of cutting if approached a certain way.