Miss Don’t Touch Me
by Hubert & Kerascoet
NBM, 96 pages, $14.95.
Miss Don’t Touch Me is a fairly conventional sex/murder mystery thriller from France, which is interesting (at least from my perspective) since it’s rendered in an art style that owes quite a bit to Joann Sfar, Dupuy & Bebarian and what I’ll tentatively call the “new wave” of cartoonists that eschewed traditional genres (sci-fi, noir, etc.) in favor of more “personal” and experimental work.
But while the comic may use a modern style to tell a familiar story, that doesn’t make it any way rote or dull. In fact, it’s a pretty engaging, entertaining thriller that while it may not necessarily surprise, delights nevertheless.
The main character here is Florence, a frigid and skittish young woman who lives with her more sexually aggressive older sister, Agatha, in early 20th century Paris. Both work as maids, an important distinction, since class and social status is a running theme throughout the book.
There is a serial killer on the loose, known the Butcher of the Dances, and when her sister unwittingly falls victim to his clutches, Florence dedicates herself to bringing him to justice. The trail unexpectedly leads her to a nearby high-class bordello where, hot on revenge, she gets a job as a “Miss Don’t Touch Me,” or dominatrix to you and me. And wouldn’t you know it, it turns out it’s a job she’s really good at.
The husband and wife team ( I think) of Hubert & Kerascoet wisely keep Florence’s sexual awakening in the background however, instead placing the mystery of the killer’s identity front and center while issues of sex, gender and class percolate in the background. While in the bordello, for example, Florence meets a number of archetypes such as the demure young thing who you just know will not come to a good end, or the world wise ingenue who in a clever twist is a drag queen version of Josephine Baker.
Florence reacts with horror as the curtains continually get parted and she learns more and more of “how the world really works.” As a result, she becomes nastier and more aggressive the longer she inhabits this sexual underworld and at one point (in a tense and really terrific sequence) goes completely beyond the pale, though her actions are nothing compared to what some of her co-workers are up to. Readers hoping for Florence to have some sort of positive sexual awakening or for her to come across a man who is not a predator will be sadly left hanging.
Miss Don’t Touch Me is dark and perhaps a bit too cynical at times — it relies on expected tropes — men are savage, sex-hungry pigs; women must use their sexual wiles to survive in the world, but as a result become savage themselves or end up dead. But it moves at a breakneck pace — the book is full of slim little panels, lush colors and rough, slashing lines — and it’s hard not to be caught up in its devices or thrill to its conclusion. If, like me, you have a yen for this sort of would-be-detective-enters-world=fraught-with-peril-to-catch-killer mystery, then Miss Don’t Touch Me will be right up your dark, dank alleyway.