Can writer-artist, Katie Skelly, shine new light on the case of the Papin Sisters?
Unless you’re aware of the Papin Sisters going in, Katie Skelly’s Maids doesn’t wear it’s true crime origins on its sleeve, but it doesn’t let readers get blindsided, either. While it deals with the same class drama that many a costume drama has revolved around, including Downton Abbey and Upstairs, Downstairs, it also deals with abuse and mental illness and ends with a vicious crime scene.
While Madame Lancelin and her daughter, Genevieve, couldn’t have foreseen what would happen when they hired Christine and Léa Papin, to work for them, readers are spared the same shock by being confronted with some of the violence that’s to come right away. We never see the face of the person who picks up the eyeball from the floor on the first page, and because of the brutality of the scene some might think that Maids wasn’t based on a true story (no such luck), yet the uniform indicates their profession.
If anything, Skelly seems to be making the point that while most maids don’t go on to kill their employers, a few have probably thought about it and in that way the scene could be a fantasy, if it wasn’t a glimpse of the future.
It’s not an uncommon story structure – opening with a scene from the present, before going back to show what happened to make those events transpire. The answer to that question can’t really be found in Skelly’s pages, however. Skelly is able to identify some of the contributing factors and provide some context for why the Papin Sisters did what they did, but there’s a limit to how much can be known. It’s not like on Bates Motel, where you’re dealing with a fictional character whose psychology can be explored in great detail because it’s invented. If you could do that with Christine and Léa Papin, that would be one thing, but they were real, and their stories died with them.
What does come across in Maids is the bond Christine and Léa shared. Skelly will show them drying the dishes, for example, and suddenly the kitchen fades away. At one point it looks like Christine is sitting on air because the bed she’s sitting on is no longer there. Everything else disappears when they’re together. It’s Christine and Léa Papin against the world.
Similarly, while Christine and Léa don’t always show what they’re thinking, Skelly’s colors couldn’t be more plain. We’re talking red lighting (like Suspiria or, more recently, Ratched) and mirrors that are able to reflect the sisters’ inner, bloody thoughts. Occasionally Christine and Léa will stand too frozen and the cracks in their happy, domestic scene shine through. Madame Lancelin, for her part, is the picture of decadence when she answers the door holding her snow-white cat.
The lettering in Maids is on the small side and, in the case of the lettering for the epilogue, I initially read “starved” as “stabbed” because the “v” looked like a “b.” If you’re farsighted this could be a problem. Skelly’s art looks amazing, but Maids raises more questions than answers.
Maids is available now from Fantagraphics.