The work of Katie Skelly – a very welcome guest artist at a Broken Frontier/Gosh! Comics Drink and Draw back in 2017– is usually characterised by pop energy and playful but resonant gendered takes on exploitation genres. In Maids, she progresses from her webcomic Tonya to dip her toes a little deeper into true crime, examining the run-up to the notorious 1933 murder of a middle-class mother and daughter, Léonie and Genevieve Lancelin, by their maids, Christine and Léa Papin.
The event became lodged in the French consciousness for its sensational nature, the light it threw on the conditions to which domestic servants were subjected and the broader issue of class inequality. Among other retellings, it partially inspired Jean Genet’s play The Maids, which was revived most recently in London in 2016, featuring the stellar pairing of Uzo Aduba and Zawe Ashton.
The horror of the crime itself is alluded to in the flash-forward imagery of the opening panels, but Skelly’s main focus is the folie à deux between the two young women. The author jumps nimbly across time to show formative incidents from their young lives, including hardship at the hands of both their neglectful mother and the authoritarian nuns of the convent in which they both briefly dwell. One flashback, in which they abscond from the convent to celebrate Léa’s sixteenth birthday, suggests the normality they could have enjoyed in other circumstances. But then the gates clang shut again as Christine is whisked away into service and her younger sister is left behind.
When Léa also takes up a position with the Lancelins (having been thrown out by the nuns), her older sister guides her through the punishing daily workload that faces them. She also becomes familiar with the household dynamics – particularly the strained relationship between the supercilious mistress of the house and her spoiled daughter.
Reunited, the sisters’ relationship builds in intensity and insularity. The dominant Christine nurtures the more vulnerable Léa, who suffers disturbing visions, hinting at a degree of psychosis. “In the times you don’t feel strong,” Christine urges her sister, “just be me.” As tensions build in the house, the Papins draw closer together and the Lancelins become increasingly abusive towards their servants. It doesn’t take long for things to reach breaking point.
This book represents a bold step forward for Skelly, but it also raises the question of how suited her style is for this kind of historical inquiry. It’s very recognisably her world – epitomised by her makeover of the sisters themselves – but the lack of period detail leaves it feeling a bit sketchy (in comparison, say, with the atmospheric accretion of Julia Gfrorer’s recent Vision). This book goes to the very darkest places of human experience, but as it appears on the page, it still feels like there’s a yé-yé soundtrack playing in the background. And that impression of sketchyness isn’t helped by some unpolished lettering, which robs the pages of some of their emphasis.
Reading all of this with our impeccable present-day progressive consciousness, we can maybe tell ourselves that the bourgeoise monsters got what they deserved (although Skelly does sketch over the protracted and sadistic nature of the murders). However, the class system that fuelled the tragedy has evolved. It doesn’t seem too much of a stretch to connect the Lancelins’ sense of entitlement with our own expectation of convenience and instant fulfillment, and the working environment that creates. Don’t imagine for a second that there aren’t workers at Amazon, Ocado and ASOS fantasising RIGHT NOW about gouging out your eyes and caving in your skull with an iron. And let’s not even think about the poor sods who made the device on which you’re currently reading this…
As a whole, Maids doesn’t quite ring with a clear tone. Its strong structure and narrative get as close as possible to the bond of blood between the sisters, but the bubblegum realisation on the page creates an uneasy dissonance, like a requiem played on a ukulele and maracas.
Katie Skelly (W/A) • Fantagraphics Books, $19.99
Review by Tom Murphy
(The International Domestic Workers’ Federation campaigns on behalf of domestic and household workers, most of whom are female, many of whom are migrants and all of whom are vulnerable to abuse and exploitation. Find out more about their work and how you can support it at idwfed.org.)