January 9, 2011

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Miss Don't Touch Me Volume 1

Written by Hubert
Illustrated by Kerascoet
NBM

Paris in the early 1930s can be both decadent and dangerous. A prim young woman loses her sister to a terrible criminal known only as the "Butcher of the Dances" and vows to avenge the crime--especially when the police find it easier to ignore the deed. But her only way into the world of the killer is by taking part in that which she hates--the world of the bordello. Can Blanche me it out alive or will she be the next victim?

I love the fact that this book takes gleeful pride in the fact that it's French, and as a result, the usual delicate tiptoeing over the subject of sex and politics is completely absent. That's a good thing, because the idea that a house of prostitution has political links and implications is a big part of the plot in this story. Had the authors tried to skirt the frank nature that people like to say one thing and indulge in another (as we see over and over again in the real world, especially in relation to affairs or other issues), this story would not have worked nearly so well.

I also appreciate that our focal character, Blanche, is offended by the things going on around her, and yet that very attitude is what makes her completely desirable by a portion of the clientele. She is the outcast, the one who didn't go dancing and doesn't like to be familiar, and now the world she despises is the only world she can turn to in order to make her life complete again. That's a brilliant bit of storytelling, made all the better because we aren't necessarily supposed to agree with Blanche. She is the focal character and we want her to avenge her sister's death, but her attitude towards those who are enjoying life is not one we have to share. We only need to buy into her plan for revenge, and that's quite easy to do.

This does not mean that the book thinks things are great for ladies of the night. The authors don't hesitate to show the terrible conditions of the workers in the brothel, from petty jealousies to what happens when you're removed to the violence that may occur in such an occupation. It's certainly not a glamorous life or one that women chose freely. What I appreciated is that for a change, the setting was just presented as is, without making it better or worse. The reader can make their own conclusions, depending on their own opinions. Instead of spending time moralizing or fantasizing, the creators instead concentrate on the story at hand and moving the plot, which is thrilling, fast-paced, and well-constructed.

There's a lot of evil in the house of ill repute, but that evil is shown as exploiting the way we overlook those who are in jobs we don't talk about in polite company. It is the people who make the evil, not necessarily the fact that illicit acts are occurring. That's what makes this one work for me.

The plot itself is a thriller from beginning to end, and actually wouldn't make a bad movie, though it would definitely be a hard "R" film. Characters are introduced and given just enough personality to keep the story going, without getting bogged down too far in origins. Each party in the drama is unique, both in personality and artistic construction, which shows a lot of thought went into the book. Anyone we meet ties into the plot somehow, which I think is a major plus. It would have been easy to pad this story with scenes of lurid France, but while the book doesn't shy away from adult content, there's a reason behind it at every turn. I generally dislike scenes of violence against women, but in this case, nothing is gratuitous. (That may not be the best standard to use, but it's the one I use. Dark stories are okay, as long as they aren't dark for dark's sake.) The wrap-up is a little weaker than I'd like, but I think that's because they're setting things up for more stories in this world, so I'll forgive it.

If you've read any of NBM's excellent Dungeon series, then you'll recognize this style as being similar, with Kerascoet being an alumni of the Sfar-Trondheim universe. There's the same not-quite-finished nature of the art, with a lot of wavy lines and small, tight panels. I love the way Kerascoet uses facial features in this comic, as the characters often tell as much as the dialog. There's quite a bit of sexual content, but it's not lurid because of the presentation. I really do need to try and read more French comics, as the ones I've read so far have all had excellent artistic styling.

Miss Don't Touch Me is certainly a book for mature readers, but that doesn't mean the same thing as when I offer the same warning for, say, most Vertigo books. This is a quality story that uses adult themes to tell a strong, thrilling story with characters you'll be interested in from the first pages right up to the last. This is definitely one of the better books I've read so far in 2011, and I definitely recommend it to my adult readers.