Sporadic Sequential
Tuesday, April 10, 2007
The Sequential Screwball

The Professor's Daughter
By: Joann Sfar & Emmanuel Guibert
Length: 80 pages
Price: $16.95 (SC) / $29.95 (HC)
Publisher: First Second

The best way I can think to describe the feel of this book is to classify it as a screwball comedy. Like many of the best screwball comedies from the 30s and 40s, events happen quickly and the pace hardly ever lets up. I had to check to make sure I hadn't missed some pages at the start of the story, because we're introduced to the main characters in mid-conversation and expected to pick up things as we go (which is actually an effective way to engage readers, but I'm not used to it in comics; I think I've been conditioned to expect narrative captions to establish the setting).

Like many of the most memorable screwball comedies, the central plot revolves around a mismatched couple falling in love during the most trying of circumstances: Imhotep is a former pharaoh who's now destined for the Egyptian wing of the British Museum, while Lillian is the daughter of the distinguished archaeologist who dug him up in the first place. Together, they find comfort in each other's company, realizing that they both have reasons to feel restricted and confined by polite society. Of course, it wouldn't be a romantic comedy without some obstacles in the couple's way, and this book has them in spades: Meddling parents, murders, misunderstandings, and more miscellaneous mayhem.

The book is also like screwball comedies in that it's best not to think too deeply about matters. What at first glance comes across as charming and madcap can seem implausible or even annoying under closer scrutiny. (I'd mention one element that bothered me a bit, but it would involve spoiling a surprising twist.) Why do the characters fall for each other? It's broadly suggested but never fully fleshed out, so the relationship never really rang true for me, especially from Lillian's perspective.

The great screwball comedies stand up to repeated viewings, and The Professor's Daughter certainly fits the bill in that regard. Only in this case it's not to listen to rapid-fire repartee, but to admire the amazing artwork by Emmanuel Guibert. If there are times when the story seems in danger of losing its way, Guibert's art keeps everything grounded with his eye for detail, design, and color. In many respects, Guibert's artwork holds the story together, providing details that would otherwise go missing. Much of the book's characterization comes from Guibert's skilled use of body language and facial expressions; every time I open the book I uncover new nuances in characters' expressions and mannerisms. Given what a prolific artist Sfar is himself, I can only imagine that Sfar trusted in Guibert's abilities and let him tell much of the story visually without crowding the artwork with unnecessary exposition. It's a good example of true collaboration in a medium where writers and artists are often seen in outright opposition.

More page samples here.

One worry I have about recommending this book is that it feels a bit slim for $16.95. The story itself takes up just under sixty pages (the book's remaining pages feature some of Guibert's sketches) and reads very quickly. Of course, given the exquisite detail of Guibert's artwork, it's quite likely you'll return to the book again and again to marvel over his paintings, so I'll leave it up to individual readers to determine whether or not the book is worth its price.

One Final Note: After I read the book the first time, I left it lying around in our sunroom. When I later returned downstairs, my wife had — to my surprise — picked it up read the entire book cover-to-cover. Now, you have to understand: My wife has never read a comic or graphic novel on her own, and I've never really pushed her to do so, so for her to read one all the way through is really quite impressive. Her main complaint with comics in the past has been that they were hard for her to process: She couldn't assimilate the text and images simultaneously (which seems fair; I know many people dislike watching undubbed foreign films because they can't follow the film and the subtitles at the same time), and she was often confused by busy page layouts, getting lost when she'd try to figure out which panel should come next. So I thought it was quite a compliment to Sfar and Guibert's clear storytelling that she was able to follow the book without any problems. (As for her opinion on the story, she would only say that it was "weird," but I gathered that she was more bothered by some of the plot oddities than I was.)

Purchasing Info: According to ComicList, the hardcover Collector's Edition arrives in comic stores tomorrow, but both the hardcover and softcover versions are already available online.

This review is based on a complimentary copy provided by the publisher.