Years ago, in a graduate class on the detective novel, we studied philosopher and historian Tzvetan Todorov’s structuralist approach to literary genres, and discussed how an author might play with reader’s expectations. If the story takes place in the “real” world, strange events and coincidences are classified as “uncanny”; if something happens that belongs only in the realm of the supernatural, then the narrative tips into the category of the “marvelous”. However, if one can’t tell the difference between these two possibilities in that ticklish, liminal zone of uncertainty—then you are in the world of the fantastic.
Czech author Vojtěch Mašek exploits that elusive quality in his dazzling graphic novel, The Sisters Dietl, which is one of the most inventive, original, and unusual comics I have read in over a decade of studying the medium. Mašek’s combination of collage, printmaking, painting, and drawing is more akin to artist books than comics history as such. Vermilion, ochre, violet, phthalo blue—the colors of a bruise—soak through the pages, lending scenes an otherworldly, underwater light that is both enchanting and frightening. An ouroboros-like plot, echoed through fillagree drawings of monsters devouring each other, shifts among multiple points of view as it careens towards the unforeseeable denouement. Winner of the 2018 Muriel prize for best Czech comic, The Sisters Dietl is a tour de force.
The story begins innocently enough with a conversation between two matronly women, Vera and Josefa, arguing in a café as they consume delectable pastries. Vera is cajoling Josefa to leave her husband. Vera explains that she can’t stay at her house because she lives with her shy and eccentric twin sister Veronika, who is too traumatized to accept a guest. Instead, Vera suggests Josefa visit with another friend of hers as a sort of vacation at a “spa”, as they euphemistically joke with the waiter, until her alcoholic husband sorts himself out.
Courtesy of Centrala
Reassured, Josefa thanks her friend, insisting she will walk there alone: “You’re so kind, Vera. I’m not worried. I’m not scared anymore.” And yet, as she wanders off on the next page, gradually shrinking into the distance in a series of three panels on a deep crimson background, we develop grave misgivings.
Character interactions are paced out into moments, gestures, and closeups in a distinctly cinematic way. This is not surprising when one considers the author’s background: Mašek teaches film at the prestigious film academy in Prague, FAMU, and knows how to orchestrate suspense in a series of shots, here rendered as panels on a page. Vera wears a red dress adorned with spots of pink around the neckline – which, uncomfortably, visually rhyme with the red berries and jam atop her pink pastry.
Zoomed in, the confection is grotesque archeology, exposing layers of sweetness and goo. The waiter, who resembles actor Daniel Defoe, has a smile that is a little too wide to be entirely friendly. This accumulated, lush detail feels like too much and conveys the profound feeling that we are in the realm of dreams and nightmares.
Underneath The Sisters Dietl‘s detective plot is yet another layer. Peer through the washes of vibrant color to glimpse pages of newsprint in the original Czech. Frequently about knitting or cooking, these banal domestic instructions and recipes create an ironic and jarring undertone to the noir detective narration above. Occasionally, sinister topics – such as commentary about uranium, Cold War politics, photos of JFK, and the CIA – flash into view.
Mašek describes how old kitschy Czech television serials under normalization are part of his pop culture unconscious; one of these writers, Jaroslav Dietl, was an inspiration for The Sisters Dietl‘s title. Doppelgängers and secrets coalesce around one of the crucial characters, the Dietl sisters’ father, who is described as a double agent of sorts—although this is left ambiguous.
Reading The Sisters Dietl is like consuming a many-layered pastry laced with something hallucinogenic. In the midst of the twilight café scene, a singer in a seductive blue dress recalls David Lynch’s Blue Velvet, except that the woman’s face has a pig’s nose. You never know exactly what you are looking at or whom to trust. The Sisters Dietl is diabolical and superb all the same.
Courtesy of Centrala
Aye, Jon. “The Sisters Dietl – Vojtěch Mašek’s Centrala Graphic Novel Delivers a Dark, Brooding, and Atmospheric Story“. Broken Frontier14 February 2023.
Richter, Vaclav. “Les Sœurs Dietl ou les Secrets inavouables des personnages d’une bande dessinée” Radio Prague International. 23 March 2019
“Vojtěch Mašek”. Czech Lit, Czech Literary Centre