Since their origin, comics have proven extremely adaptable and with that in mind, it’s no wonder that their history has long been tied up with sex. From the hidden but long established connection to pornography that the Big Two have to Tijuana Bibles to R. Crumb, comics have never been dissociated from sex, yet we rarely talk about sex in comics. That’s where Fluid Exchange comes in, as an opportunity for LC’s staff to pontificate on the more erotic artistry that’s out there in the medium, whether it’s the gorgeous and painstakingly detailed work of the Manaras and Moebiuses of the world to the quirkier sexperiments of Los Bros Hernandez and the boom of erotic webcomics, we’re here to discuss it.
Today we examine Miss Don’t Touch Me by Hubert and Kerascoet, a work that was recently collected into one volume by NBM and then released on comixOlogy. It’s the story of Blanche, a young woman in Paris in the 1920’s, who witnesses the murder of her sister Agatha and in the process of tracking down her killer starts working as a Dominatrix at an elite brothel, despite being a virgin.
I’ve never read or seen 50 Shades of Grey and while I don’t have plans to dig into it, I’m still glad it has become a success for one simple reason: it just might open the doors for more blockbuster erotic thrillers. That isn’t meant as a snarky remark, I genuinely believe that 50 Shades fever, even with all its problematic representation issues in tow, is good for making the American cinema a little less prudish. And so I’d like to offer up a suggestion to any Hollywood producers in the audience who have wandered over here to Fluid Exchange looking for that next big sadomasochistic thing: buy the rights to Hubert and Kerascoet’s Miss Don’t Touch Me.
Hubert and Kerascoet’s flapper-era erotic masterpiece shares a BDSM 101 angle with 50 Shades except in this case the instigating incident is far more tragic in nature. Miraculously, that tragic undertone isn’t as problematic as Mr. Grey’s background as an abuse victim, instead the road to BDSM that heroine Blanche is diverted towards traveling is more voluntary albeit initially less than ideal. Blanche is first introduced as the more prudish of two sisters who are getting by in 1920’s Paris as maids to a grumpy noblewoman. Agatha is the social butterfly of the pair until a mysterious murder strikes her down. The motive has nothing to do with Agatha’s open mindedness towards sex and inebriation and everything to do with her being at the wrong place at the wrong time—a peek through a hole in the sisters’ wall at the scandalous activities their neighbor is partaking in gets her shot.
Agatha’s death forces Blanche out of her maid job and into a fulltime gig as an amateur sleuth with a hell of a cover. In the process of tracking down leads on Agatha’s killer, Blanche finds herself recruited into Paris’ most elite brothel, taking over for the house’s beloved Dominatrix, who also happened to be the neighbor that was getting murdered when Agatha peeked through that hole in the wall and became victim number two. When Blanche begins her gig at the bordello, she is a virgin, and that “pure” contradiction to her Dominatrix status makes Blanche a superstar, particularly since she finds herself to be quite skilled at delivering punishment.
That paradox is mirrored by Kerascoet’s art with its cheerful colors and a Quentin Blake-like approach to figures. Kerascoet’s character designs get across the Roaring ‘20s style without seeming cliché, they’re vintage and fashionable but never forced. The characters are simple but highly expressive and Kerascoet fills out the backgrounds with tremendous life, turning Paris herself into a main character with infinite complexity and personality. The early sections, before Agatha is killed, are particularly playful, beautifully rendering the hopes and dreams of these sisters and therefore making the eventual tragedy all the more devastating.
Once Blanche makes her way to the brothel, the tone becomes more bittersweet, the personalities harsher yet perhaps even more colorful. The reader views the brother through Blanche’s eyes, taking in the oversized personalities, fashion and fetishes with a mix of overwhelming curiosity and uncertainty. As a virgin in a social as well as sexual sense, Blanche is surprised by who the clientele are as much as what they are into—there are wealthy businessmen and politicians and royals dallying with men and women in any number of permutations and even her staunch refusal to have sex is able to fit into this erotic world.
It’s not all wonder, though. Where 50 Shades of Grey received ample complaints about its lack of a definitive plot or intriguing narrative, Miss Don’t Touch Me has no such issue. Structured like a reverse From Hell, Miss Don’t Touch Me takes its murder subplot very seriously and Hubert weaves it out into a dizzying number of threads. There’s a bit of L.A. Confidential in the layering of politics and backstabbing in Miss Don’t Touch Me, the danger that Blanche faces doesn’t always come from expected directions, nor does the help she receives. Kerascoet’s cartoony style helps make the moments of actual horror all the more impactful—severed limbs and decapitated heads are shown in graphic detail, throwing off the groove of this sadomasochistic fairy tale with gleeful abandon. And Kerascoet also packs plenty of thrill into the Dominatrix scenes, making Blanche’s enjoyment of the activities pretty clear as well as her confusion over this enjoyment. Blanche feels guilty for her sister’s death, she was the one who encouraged Agatha to peek into that hole, but she also feels guilty for getting any enjoyment whatsoever out of her new job.
A story like this could easily have become grossly exploitative so that internal conflict of Blanche’s helps Miss Don’t Touch Me become something more substantial and truthful. The scene depicting Blanche’s debut as a Dominatrix excels at this, illustrating each step of Blanche’s blossoming interest in dominance. Tested by a submissive police chief, Blanche starts out shy, uncertain of what is expected of her. As she gets more comfortable with the setting and pushes her submissive partner, the reader witnesses her embrace of dominance as a way to gain control of the instability in her life and flip her standard role as a meek, vulnerable young woman who is expected to be quiet and invisible. Blanche is unaware that the man she is dominating is a police chief and therefore is a true authority figure, all she knows is that until this point, everyone, including her sister, has had some level of dominance over her. Only in this unique, unexpected setting can she open up and be her true self, a force of nature that commands rather than submits.
There is still somewhat of a “shock” angle to the story in that Blanche is a virgin sex worker, and this gets called out numerous times within the text. The first volume’s eventual descent into a more gruesome depiction of sex work is far from perfect too (and honestly, you’re better off viewing the second half of this complete collection as a kind of B-side) but even with these flaws in mind, Miss Don’t Touch Me is an exceptional work that manages to sustain a thrilling narrative along with its erotic artistry. That’s an extremely difficult line to walk, and the fact that Miss Don’t Touch Me tries to do so at all is notable but that it manages to walk it with gusto and style makes it a perfect candidate to follow in the footsteps of 50 Shades of Grey.
Nick Hanover got his degree from Disneyland, but he’s the last of the secret agents and he’s your man. Which is to say you can find his particular style of espionage here at Loser City as well as Ovrld, where he contributes music reviews and writes a column on undiscovered Austin bands. You can also flip through his archives at Comics Bulletin, which he is formerly the Co-Managing Editor of, and Spectrum Culture, where he contributed literally hundreds of pieces for a few years. Or if you feel particularly adventurous, you can always witness his odd .gif battles with friends and enemies on twitter: @Nick_Hanover