by Kate Kowalski. There’s something compelling about female killers. Lizzie Borden with her axe, an unsuspecting Aileen Wuornos accepting rides from men—the public is fascinated by women who murder. Perhaps it’s the show of brutal rage from those society deems most nurturing. For better or for worse, female killers are unexpected, which makes them seem stranger, maybe even creepier, than a run-of-the-mill murderer. Even stranger? Sisters who kill. Together.
The gruesome double homicide of the upper class Lancelin women just north of the Loire Valley was a shocking event in early 1930s France. But even more captivating to the world were the perpetrators, the two young maids Christine and Léa Papin. The tale of two uncomfortably close and unhinged sisters sparked a lasting discourse and inspired several films, books, and plays.
We already know how the story ends—right from the first panel of a loose eyeball rolled carelessly onto the floor. Maids is about the build-up, the taut potential energy just before the snap. Katie Skelly opens with the sisters’ reunion after surviving a troubled childhood and an unsuccessful stint in a convent. The elder sister, Christine, has secured a second maid position for Léa despite not-so-ideal conditions in the Lancelin household. The two do their best to work through the endless roster of tasks while serving as verbal and physical punching bags for the lady of the house.
Skelly’s iconic illustration creates a storybook out of this macabre tale. The effect is haunting. Bright and flat color-blocked backgrounds create an amorphous feeling, the grand manor melting and shifting towards and away from the women residing within. This claustrophobic world operates under the physics of a strange dream—a chair appearing when one needs to sit, shelves populating with dishes when it’s time to serve dinner, and the whole house completely dropping away during peak emotional moments between the sisters. More eerie are the doll faces of the women, a signature of Skelly’s style. Their eyes, despite seeming painted on, are windows into sorrow and a growing, quiet rage.
The sisters are closer than close, capturing one of the more unnerving aspects of the true crime case. Their two identities seem fluid, merging into the other. It’s unclear where one sister begins and the other ends. The young women are shaped by their shared horrible childhood, existing in perpetual servitude first to their abusive mother then to the church and finally to Madame Lancelin. Despite the horrific end, there’s a sense of the yoke being thrust off, if only for a night.
As we dip deeper and deeper into late-stage capitalism, these kinds of stories seem to be finding more purchase. Even before the whole world stopped this year, Parasite won the Academy Award for Best Picture. If you haven’t seen it, the film is a harsh critique of class inequality and (spoiler!) the ending isn’t so different from the outcome at the Lancelin manor. In 2020, the wage gap disparity continues to grow, more question exactly who it is they’re serving, and the American mythos that “you, too, can be a millionaire” crumbles in on itself faster than before.
So maybe it’s telling that the gory murder of the two careless and cruel Lancelin women feels less like a tragedy and more like an inevitability. (I think) I’m not the only one who might get a sense of satisfaction from this retelling of the famous case. After all, Skelly’s focus isn’t on the crime and punishment of these young women, but rather the bondage and suffering that cultivated their shared psychosis and sparked the flame that ended up burning the whole house down.
Fantagraphics Press / $19.99
Words and art by Katie Skelly.
8.5 out of 10