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The Big Picture, a regular Bulletin feature both on-line and off, is an in-depth look at selected new titles and trends. See the archive for selections from previous months.

The Professor’s Daughter

by Joann Sfar; tr. by Alexis Siegel; illustrated by Emmanuel Guibert

A mysterious widower from afar seeks a second chance at love; properly reared Lillian Bowell chafes at the repressive mores of Victorian gentility; two overbearing fathers attempt to thwart the lovers. Pretty trite stuff, were it not for the fact that the widower in this graphic novel is the revived mummy of Prince Imhotep IV, and the aggrieved fathers are an arrogant pharaoh back from the dead and an archaeologist supplying pilfered curiosities to the British Museum. Can true love triumph when the buttoned-up world of nineteenth-century England collides with the bandaged up world of ancient Egypt?

Well, of course it can, even though the path to the sweethearts’ inevitable happy ending is strewn with obstacles of the screwball-comedy variety. Imhotep IV’s first outing with Lillian is marred by inebriation (three millennia without stimulants, and even a cup of tea will get to you). This leads directly to an unfortunate poisoning (how was Lillian to know the harmless sedative she administered to a policeman and a complainant was arsenic?). And this, in turn, sets the lovers on the lam from the law, dockside thugs, Imhotep III (who has some unresolved issues to settle with his son), and even a few palace guards. Several kidnappings, incarcerations, and switches of gentlemen’s clothing later, Lillian and her suitor have outsmarted, outrun, or simply outlasted all their nemeses. The closing quintet of panels, set “a few years later,” wryly assures us that Imhotep IV is now the perfect English gentleman from his well-shined shoes to his bowler hat, Lillian is a satisfied matron, and their three children, who regard a glass-encased mummy on display at the museum with wide-eyed trepidation shared by many of their twentieth-century counterparts, will never have a clue concerning their forebears if Mama and Daddy have anything to say about it.

Underpinning the chases, lovers’ tête-à-têtes, and legal drama is goodnatured satire of stiff-upper-lipism, in which Londoners are incapable of expressing anything but calm regard for the linen-wrapped gentry among them. Queen Victoria comes in for her share of ribbing as well—unflappable when a crazed Imhotep III crashes her palace; intractable at his demands for marriage (“See to it that this boor leaves at once”); paragon of noblesse oblige in knighting her rescuer as he drags her out of the Thames; and ever solicitous of the royal corgis. The sharpest critique, though, is leveled at the European system of archaeological plunder—no need to mention Lords Elgin or Carnarvon by name—by which the noble heritage of one nation is reduced to quaint collectibles by another. Teasing starts out fairly tame when the arrest of Imhotep IV results in the roundup of hundreds of mummies that have obviously been stashed in antique shops and private drawing rooms. It takes a deliciously nasty turn, though, at the visual punchline in the dénouement: the Egyptian prince has become the impeccable British gentleman, and his pillaging father-in-law is shrouded, mislabeled, and on permanent display for the edification of museum-going Londoners and his own grandchildren.

Readers familiar with the Sardine in Outer Space books or Vampire Loves will scarcely recognize the work of Sfar and Guibert as they switch author and illustrator roles for this early collaboration, now seeing new life as a French import. No spiky inking or bold matte colors here, but rather moody, detailed watercolors equally adept at capturing foggy embankments and damp jail cells, prim parlors and imposing courtrooms. The action tidily unfolds in six framed panels per page, a layout that should prove agreeable to even the most constrained Victorian sensibilities. Only twice does Guibert break into full-page art—under the unbearable stress of the professors’ discovery of dead bodies disrupting domestic order, and again in a courtroom scene that honors (or sends up?) the majesty of British law. Scene changes are signaled by shifts from the dominant sepia and gray tones to rich blues for the dream sequences that supply Imhotep IV’s backstory, bilious greens of Lillian’s (second!) abduction, and brown and crimson for the stately paneling and silken robes of the trial.

Who could resist a masterful storyteller who can pull off lines like “Is it my fault if she refuses to marry a dead man?” or “I was thinking of our walk in the park that morning when I took you out of your sarcophagus” with a straight face. Even YAs who wouldn’t normally be caught dead with a love story (like, for instance, guys) will be wrapped up in this stylish mayhem.

Elizabeth Bush, Reviewer

 

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Cover image by Emmanuel Guibert from The Professor’s Daughter ©2007. Used by permission of First Second/Roaring Brook Press.


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This page was last updated on July 1, 2007.

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