[This review was originally posted on Patreon.]
CARTOONIST: Katie Skelly
DESIGN: Jacob Covey
EDITOR: Eric Reynolds
ISBN: 978-1-68396-368-4; hardcover – 7.3” x 8.8” (October 2020)
112pp, Color, $19.99 U.S.
Maids is a full-color original graphic novel from cartoonist and comics creator, Katie Skelly. Maids is a fictional retelling of the scandalous true crime story of sisters, Christine and Lea Papin, who were convicted of killing their employer's wife and daughter in the northwestern French city of Le Mans in 1933. The case has been the source of and inspiration of numerous works of fiction in the almost 90 years since it occurred.
Maids opens in the city of Le Mans, France, 1931. Lea arrives at the home of the wealthy Madame Lancelin and her daughter, Genevieve. Christine, an overworked live-in maid already employed by the madame, is reunited with her younger sister, Lea. The sisters make the estate's beds; scrub the floors; wash and iron the clothes; work the garden; and prepare and serve the food, among many chores. The sisters work from seven in the morning to seven at night.
Christine and Lea also spy on the domestic strife that routinely occurs within the walls of the Lancelin home. The sisters have also experienced their own domestic strife, which they remember in flashbacks to their tumultuous time in a convent. However, Madame Lancelin’s increasingly unhinged abuse of her employees and social class exploitation combine with the sisters' toxic upbringing and explodes into a shocking series of events.
THE LOWDOWN: I had not heard of Katie Skelly until I got an email from Fantagraphics Books in the summer that was promoting their fall releases. I was immediately taken by Maids' cover art and with the story.
Alternative cartoonists have a way of using the comics medium to get the most out of each panel and each page of their comic. Plot, narrative, setting, characters, atmosphere, allegory, metaphor, symbolism, and social, political, or cultural examination are all layers. The graphics (illustration, color, lettering) in any one panel or grouping of panels may contain all or some of these layers. So one page of an alternative comics story communicates the layers of the story, much more than what the “surface” images or art communicate.
Maids is like that. It is spare and intimate. The illustrations are minimalist, and the colors are flat, although that palette is rich. Underneath the surface, a variety of ideas and plots and back story roils. The storytelling is catty and humorous, but there is an undercurrent that is full of mystery (in regards to the Papin sisters' upbringing) and high intrigue (in regards to the increasingly poor treatment the sisters suffer at the hands of their employer). That is why Maids feel like an epic story of class conflict and exploitation, while at the same time being a fast moving, brutal true crime tale.
Author Katie Skelly presents Christine and Lea as individually complicated, and depicts their relationship as complex, largely due to its origins, almost all of it occurring before Maids begins. Skelly presents the sisters' pasts in flashbacks, and forces the readers to think about what they are reading beyond the pictures. I think that Skelly is aware that her readers' interpretations will be different from what she intends, and I think that she is okay with that.
If I, as a reader, consider the end results of the relationship between Christine and Lea and Madame Lancelin and Genevieve justified, then, I am making that decision because I want to and not because the author is telling me how I should think and feel about her work. Even the way Christine and Lea are presented on the book cover to the audience demands that the reader actually engage this story and its characters.
There are so many layers to the graphical storytelling that is Maids, so much to ponder about the sisters. I can see why many critics, reviewers, and readers are smitten with Maids. There is epic storytelling power in this slim, hardcover volume.
I READS YOU RECOMMENDS: Readers looking for exceptional graphic novels will want to read Maids.
9 out of 10
Reviewed by Leroy Douresseaux a.k.a. "I Reads You"
The text is copyright © 2020 Leroy Douresseaux. All Rights Reserved. Contact this blog or site for reprint or syndication rights and fees.
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