French import Miss Don’t Touch Me (NBM Publishing) is really nothing more than a murder mystery and period piece, but it sure is a good one—so good, in fact, that you may find yourself needing to be reminded how un-ambitious and unpretentious it actually is.
It’s the product of writer/colorist Hubert and artists Kerascoet (the team name shared by the husband and wife team of Marie Pommepuy and Sébastien Cosset, who are also drawing Dungeon Twilight for Lewis Trondheim and Joann Sfar’s fantasy franchise), and was originally published as La Vierge du Bordel and Du Sang sur les Mains. Though the story they tell is one full of potboiler elements and melodramatic motives, it has an almost epic feel to it, thanks in large part to the exotic tableau.
It’s Paris in the 1930s, and sisters Agatha and Blanche share a tiny room in the attic of the house where they work as maids. The former goes out dancing every night, while the latter sits home and worries that Agatha will be the next victim of “The Butcher of the Dances,” a Jack the Ripper sort targeting young, single women.
The pair come much closer to the Butcher than even Blanche would have worried, when she hears two men discussing how to dispose of a mutilated body through the crack in her bedroom window. When Agatha is murdered by the fiends, and posed to look as if she committed suicide, Blanche takes to the streets of Paris, hell-bent on revenge.
The previous victim of the Butcher was an employee of The Pompadour, an upscale brothel serving the highest-class clientele. Despite her refusal to become a whore or sacrifice her virtue, Blanche manages to find work there as Miss Don’t Touch Me, the strict “English governess” who dominates and beats clients who get off on that sort of thing. As the name implies, she is not to be touched.
Once on the inside, Blanche sifts through the colorful cast of employees and clients, trying to unravel the mystery of the Butcher and endure the various indignities heaped on her by her co-workers. Her only allies are her fellow “special” girls, round-faced Annette, who dresses like a baby doll and is involved in acts so depraved she won’t even discuss them with her fellow whores, and Miss Josephine, who looks an awful lot like another famous black gal who lived in Paris at the time, save for a…thing or three.
The Pompadour proves to be a wonderful setting for a murder mystery: It’s riddled with secret passages and peepholes, plenty of curtains to hide behind, there’s a dungeon in the basement, a chapel nearby, and a garden in an atrium near the roof.
While the plot is perfectly constructed, gradually laying out a labyrinth and turning Blanche loose in it, the readers following along as she finds her way through it, it’s the Kerascoet team’s art that elevates the book towards must-read status.
The character designs are quite remarkable, with the various Pompadour girls each given their own distinct and wildly divergent designs: Blanche is slim and straight with lots of pointy angles, Annette is all curvy and round, with a sideways-oval shaped head and tiny eyes, Madame Judith is built like a barbell, with a severe face like the bust of a Roman emperor, etc. (You can see the above characters and a few other principals in this preview).
The deceptively simplified looking art also masks some of the more potentially exploitive elements. The women’s breasts are simply tear drop-shapes with dots in the middle, a penis is a cylinder with some scribbles at the base, and dismembered bodies often resemble nothing more than broken dolls.
Miss Don’t Touch Me probably won’t change your life or reveal any great truths about human nature to you, nor will it make you reassess the boundaries of comics, but it will certainly provide a great story full of great art, and should certainly prove entertaining. And more often than not, that’s more than enough.