Since 2012 Katie Skelly has been drawing a world of pastel colored carnage. Not interested in anything that would typically be considered grounded, Skelly’s worlds are sensational, sensual, and sanguine. Nurse Nurse, released in 2012, played with elements of science fiction evocative of Jean-Claude Forest as a space faring nurse encountered strange new worlds and dismembered ex-boyfriends. Operation Margarine from 2014 exists in a Russ Meyer-esque world of stylized biker gang violence as two women go on the run in the desert. My Pretty Vampire from 2018 is a parade of wonton bloodlust and secret societies evoking the sleaze cinema of Jess Franco. Skelly’s erotic anthology The Agency, also published in 2018, is sort of a sampler platter of all of the above but with the ribald sexual excess of Guido Crepax or Milo Manara. In her latest comic, Maids, Skelly enters into a world of class struggle, teenage rebellion, and murder.
Maids, published in 2020 by Fantagraphics, is part stylized horror, part true crime story. In 1933 Lea and Christine Papin, two sisters who worked as maids in France, murdered Léonie Lancelin and her daughter, Genevieve, who employed the sisters. The murders were sensationalized by the French press and has been adapted into plays, novels, and films to this day. Maids (mostly) eschews supernatural and otherworldly aspects of Skelly’s earlier work in favor of a story about real people in the real world, albeit, portrayed with stylistic and artistic license. The book is touted by Fantagraphics as a “true crime saga” Maids is far from being a documentary in its art or narrative structure. Right from the first pages, Skelly hangs the inevitability of the deaths over the readers heads with a match cut of an eyeball and a doorbell. Much like Skelly’s earlier comics there’s silent panels and sound effects and speech bubbles that take playful forms, and the backgrounds using simple but effective color blocking indicative of her influences from manga and European comics. Maids also opts for a more muted color palette compared to the Dario Argento-eque vibrancy of My Pretty Vampire, creating an aesthetic that feels reminiscent of an indie film. Lea and Christine, in between manic episodes coming to grips with their bloodlust and torment, smoke cigarettes and run through the streets like Jean-Luc Godard characters. Skelly has stated in an interview that one of the major influences for Maids was the 1995 film La Cérémonie, directed by Claude Chabrol, loosely based around the Papin sisters, but in a modern day setting. You can certainly see some elements of La Cérémonie, but Maids also strongly echoes another film.
Aesthetically and thematically, Maids is like a horror version of Věra Chytilová’s surrealist 1966 Czechoslovak film Daisies. Daisies, about two girls on the outside of polite society reveling in going against accepted norms, albeit, with less murder. Skelly’s interpretation of Lea and Christine more resemble actors Ivana Karbanová and Jitka Cerhová than the actual Papin sisters. There’s a sense of isolation with protagonists throughout Skelly’s body of work, and the relationship between Lea and Christine echoes the “us against the world” attitude of Marie I and II in Daisies. I can’t say for certain that Daisies played any direct role in the tone and style of Maids, but it is known that Skelly is a fan of the movie. (Daisies and La Cérémonie are also both streaming on The Criterion Channel as of the writing of this article) Even as an object Maids stands out. A hardcover measuring 7.3" × 8.8", Maids takes the appearance of a petit journal, rather than a traditionally sized graphic novel. The initial hardcover release of My Pretty Vampire was 8.9" x 11.3", roughly the size of a large format European album comic. My Pretty Vampire’s format is befitting its big and bold tone and Euro-comic influences, while Maids is a more intimate story with a tight cast, so it comes in a compact package.
In 2017 I interviewed Skelly while she was in the midst of drawing My Pretty Vampire when she laid out her manifesto that binds her stories: that defiance and breaking away from ideology and good behavior should be presented in a beautiful and fun way “because that experience can be beautiful.” Maids feels like a spiritual sequel to My Pretty Vampire. In My Pretty Vampire, the heroin Clover is cursed with eternal life and a thirst for blood, but is kept under the watchful of her brother, until she escapes and goes on a feeding frenzy, much like how the Papin sisters yearn for a life with each other, and are willing to bloody their hands to get it. While murdering a family in cold blood may not be most people’s definition of “fun” or “beautiful”, Skelly still approaches the crime with a sense of cathartic release and aesthetic craft. Both Clover and the Papin Sisters are women trapped in repetitive, claustrophobic situations that they escape only through bloodshed. Since 2017 Skelly has also been working on a comic posted to her Patreon called Summer of Felines, which also deals with themes of captivity and escape which may be the third part of this thematic trilogy. Whatever the future holds for Katie Skelly’s comics, it will surely be a cartoonists’ Grand Guignol of beautiful torment.