“Based on a true story.” That can be a chilling statement, one often associated with sh*tty horror movies that need any extra clout to mask their (for lack of a better term) badness. However, Katie Skelly (indie comics darling behind the likes of My Pretty Vampire) had no fear bringing a gruesome, historical true crime story to graphic life.
In 1933, two live-in maids, Christine and Lea Papin, savagely murdered their employers. Why did Skelly pick this event to cover in comics? Well, the Papins have become a key cited example of the desperation that wealth disparity and abuse from institutions fosters — in this case, a rather extreme example.
There are several key aesthetic elements across Skelly’s work that echo here and point to why she wanted to illustrate this story: pale, bloodthirsty, young females pushed to the edge and in turn becoming unwitting feminist icons we empathize with despite their actions, like Sofia Coppola protagonists.
Visually, Skelly is in her element. Nobody will say her interiors are obsessively detailed or traditionally dynamic, but you can get all the detailed dynamism in any mediocre Big Two book. Skelly’s unique, willowy style, sense of pacing, and design is where her power springs from.
Chapter breaks signaled by full-page panels, non-linear storytelling and pacing, large panels we’re forced to dwell on — all of this leads to a creepily transfixing experience the audience sinks into before they realize it. By the time they do, it’s too late to back out, not that they’d want to.
Yet, despite the deceptively minimalist art and Skelly’s clever writing and pacing…it’s hard to see what we, the audience, are supposed to take away from this story.
Let me clarify: Maids is still effective at subverting our expectations by getting us to identify with killers. However, this story has a lot of thematic power hanging over it, as previously mentioned, involving class, morality, institutions, mental illness, and more.
While audiences will always take larger themes and extrapolate on them, it’s difficult to see how Skelly is playing on themes besides showing abuse. Eat the rich…but what else? Everybody’s doing that now. Parasite won Best Picture. It’s trendy…but what else? If this was an original story, I might be satisfied with the writing as is (although the abuse would come across as exceedingly over-the-top). But since it’s based on true crime and calls attention to that, it’s a tad disappointing there’s not a decisive play on the themes besides accounting the basic beats.
Granted, Skelly seems more interested in the bonds of sisterhood, which she lovingly renders in illustration and text. Their hushed, eerily close countenance is deliciously drawn out with every brush stroke.
By the same token, this type of story is a little too familiar these days. Just a few years ago, Lizzie, a lesbian/erotic historical true crime yarn about housemaids murdering a family, came out. Similar stories aren’t a crime, but I felt the same underwhelming, broad brush strokes of thematic execution.
Overall, Maids is another striking visual piece from Katie Skelly. However, it’s a shame she doesn’t build enough on her concept to make it truly stand apart and play on our minds, although it is an eerie portrait of sisterhood.
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