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The Professors Daughter

Mordechai Shinefield

Sfar is an author of subtle, swirling surrealism -- touching anecdotes that form narratives like brush strokes form Marc Chagall's dream worlds. Like Chagall, Sfar is Jewish, and frequently the loose steps of Kaballah, or Chassidis, tip-toe into the works.


The Professor's Daughter

Publisher: First Second Books
ISBN: 978 1 59643 1
Contributors: Illustrator: Emmanuel Guibert
Price: $16.95
Writer: Joann Sfar
Length: 80
Formats: Paperback
US publication date: 2007-04
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Joann Sfar is a unique talent: a pioneer of the graphic novel medium. I know this description is dead-on and not hyperbole, because even while writing it, I wonder if I'm damning with faint praise. Even now, I consider his output -- light in the English department, more extensive in French -- and inevitably place him at the top of a ranking that includes Allison Bechdel (Fun Home) and Gene Luen Yang (American Born Chinese).

Sfar is an author of subtle, swirling surrealism -- touching anecdotes that form narratives like brush strokes form Marc Chagall's dream worlds. Like Chagall, Sfar is Jewish, and frequently the loose steps of Kaballah, or Chassidis, tip-toe into the works. Sfar's worlds, which briefly interconnect (the mummy-father of The Professor's Daughter appears in the Rousseau-esque Vampire Loves), are individually delicate flowers -- it feels like a stray word or image could unsettle the entire project. Ethereal and transient as they are, they make a most powerful argument for the graphic novel medium. Bechdel could easily have written a novel, and Yang -- poignant as he is -- is still more story than image. Only Sfar's stories would cease to exist without their illustrations. Only Sfar makes the argument for the essential nature of graphic novels.

The Professor's Daughter, a short (64-page) story that barely qualifies as a novella, is yet another entry in Sfar's remarkable and prolific career. The story stars a mummy and his love affair with a woman of high society. For those dulled by the theme of cross-class love, either the kind found in Titanic or the kind found in Mansfield Park, a wealthy girl falling in love with a mummy will be seen as clever satire, especially when revealed that the mummy was a king, himself. Still, the world refuses to accept such a relationship, and soon the two become fugitives from the law.

It is the nature of Sfar's world that people accept the existence of talking mummies, but still see them as out of the ordinary. In one surrealistic moment, a museum full of regular mummies is searched to find the talking one. The museum shot takes up two-thirds of a page, where every other page is consistently six square boxes. There must be a hundred mummies in the shot, and a man with a pipe says, stoically, "We must examine all of them." Did so many mummies exist in Victorian England?

The pipe-smoking villain illustrates Sfar's indelible style. The Professor's Daughter is a mix of Victorian novels and hero stories of the 1940s. The mummy hero ("hero," to distinguish him from the thousands of other mummies clearly on the streets) puffs on a cigarette like a contemplative Humphrey Bogart. The women are flighty, and in one fabulous moment, the mummy's father crashes through the Queen's Palace with a professor thrown over his shoulder. The confrontation with the Queen is perfectly done, as well. A mummy king threatening a plump monarch is ripe with humor.

In the end, The Professor's Daughter is too short to compare to Vampire Loves, Klezmer, or The Rabbi's Cat, Sfar's more broad-shouldered children. The Professor's Daughter tells a simple story well. It appearance in English is indicative of a greater pursuit than merely a Sfar tour de force. It's a sign that the demand for Sfar writing has breached the United States. The Professor's Daughter was written in 1997, and so its recent translation suggests that Americans are willing to scavenge through Sfar's catalog for new material. Considered as such, The Professor's Daughter is the most delicious trifle, a love story, an adventure tale, a Victorian romance, and a legal mystery. And, like Sfar's other work, it's gorgeously written and masterfully told. Like Sfar himself, it should be seen as a gift. Thus making the critiques of it -- its length, its lack of weighty meaning -- seem unappreciative. Don't look a gift mummy in the mouth, or bandages, as it may be.

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