March 3, 2010

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The Professor's Daughter

Written by Joan Sfar
Illustrated by Emmanuel Guibert
First Second

It's always fun to go back and see where a favorite artist got their start, whether it's for an obscure comic at a major publisher or something far more ambitious.

That's the case here, as personal favorite Joann Sfar teams up with frequent collaborator Emmanuel Guibert on a short comic that's as touching as it is absurd.

A professor's daughter decides she needs an escort for the day and invites Imhotep IV(in full mummy bandages) on a stroll of the town. He's not used to being out and about, and soon makes unintentional trouble. When the police come calling, mistake is compounded on mistake. Soon, the pair are about ready to face their fate--unless both (yes, both) their fathers can intercede. In the end, family issues return to haunt them all as the book finishes on a rather ambiguous note, as certain threads are never totally unraveled.

If you're thinking that the story is preposterous, you are completely correct, and that's part of the charm. While we laugh at the idea of mummies being brought into Scotland Yard for criminal investigation or a King of Egypt demanding to see Queen Victoria because they are equals, the characters in the story find this all perfectly normal--or at least not strange enough to break the usual stoicism of the average fictional Britain.

As the story progresses, Sfar and Guibert look as though they are trying to top themselves with the turn of every page. As things progress from a mummified man who can't handle new senses to poison to wanted posters with a mummy's face to Queen Victoria forced into a very disgraceful set of circumstances, I can't help but think the two sat down together and said, "What's even more ridiculous that we haven't tried yet?

The premise would be enough to sell me on this one, but Sfar's caustic wit is in fine form, even this early in his career. There are obvious jokes--telling a mummy to "go rot"--and more subtle things, like Lillian's attempt to pretend she doesn't know about the dead bodies or two Bobbies discussing the likely royal in undignified circumstances with the Queen. He also knows just when to be dramatic, such as the confrontations between parent and child or Lillian's struggles with Imhotep's love for her.

Despite the short length, each character gets their own voice. Imhotep's father's imperial tones are different from his son's earnest desire to feel things again. Lillian is a woman thrust into circumstances she never expected, and must start living her own life instead of being virtually shelved by her absent father. Even the side characters get their own perspectives, however limited they may be. It's a trait we'll see in other Sfar works over time, particularly Rabbi's Cat.

Guibert provides painted illustration, and that works well for the task at hand. Because of the blending of paints, nothing appears too sharp or distinct. There's an air of dreaminess, despite the dark nature of the story, and I think that helps things along. I was pretty impressed with how Guibert was able to give us strong facial features despite working with a less detailed artistic tool. I definitely want to seek out more of his work in the future.

The brush strokes do cause the action to look stilted, however, so there are limitations. When Imhotep's father is in action, he is a bit less menacing than pencil and ink would have rendered him, I think. On the other hand, the frozen looks do allow for more menace when it's needed, so it's a pretty fair trade off.

If you are a fan of either creator or just like absurd stories, see if you can find a copy of this. Those who love old Universal Horror movies should also get a kick out of The Professor's Daughter. It's a short work, but packs a lot of punch within 64 pages. I enjoyed it a lot, and I think you will, too.