If such a thing is possible, I would probably consider myself a fairly typical American comic book reader. For the roughly 25 years that I've been reading comics, probably 90% or more of the comics I've read have been mainstream superhero comic books, and most of those have been Marvel comics. I've been trying to elevate myself and read more indie books lately, which is why I'm writing this new Philistine Reviews column, but the data doesn't lie, and my data is heavily weighted toward books that feature the same 50 year old superheroes punching the same 50 year old villains in the face, and I won't lie; I like that stuff. I'm telling you this to set the stage for what a shock to the system reading Muse, a comic book from French publisher Humanoids, by writer Denis-Pierre Filippi, artist Terry Dodson, and colorist Rebecca Rendon, is.
A lot of comic book readers aren't even aware that they make comic books outside of the US, unless you count manga, which I don't. But there are some of us who have seen some work here and there by someone like Milo Manara, and so we do have one expectation of European comics: we expect it to be porn. Now, that may be true, it may be false, or it may be a little bit of both. Muse falls into the "little bit of both" category. It may be my prudish American sensibilities, but when I read this book, and maybe a European reader can clarify for me, I'm honestly not sure whether or not I'm expected to masturbate to it.
I'm not saying that's the intented use of this comic. I'm just saying it wouldn't be out of the question. This isn't the kind of comic I'd want anyone to look over my shoulder while I'm reading, partially because I would be a little bit embarassed by the explicit content, and partially because I wouldn't want to be poked in the back.
Muse has a lot of female nudity, is what I'm saying. I mean a lot. It's classy nudity. Think Playboy rather than Hustler. This is largely, I imagine, due to Terry Dodson's art, which is as classy as drawings of giant-breasted nude women can possibly be.
Dodson's art is gorgeous. The protaganist, a sort-of-nanny named Coraline, is a classical beauty and Dodson has the talent to make that mean something. But Dodson doesn't stop there. Even characters like the lecherous butler Ekborn have a sort of grace, and Dodson's environments are simply stunning. The story calls for a range of settings, from the steampunk Victorian main story, to the various classical literary genres that compose the dream sequences that occur each night, and Dodson, with no small assistance from Rendon, traverse all of them effortlessly.
It's just really pretty art. This is Philistine Reviews, not a thousand word treatise on the comic book genre. If you want that, go read a review by Royal Nonesuch.
What's that? Why yes, this book does have a story! The beautiful and ample-busomed Coraline accepts a kind of nanny position at the estate of a child prodigy name Vernere. Though a child, Vernere has invented and built wondrous scientific machines throughout his house and the grounds, and those machines are all he really cares about. Which is to say, he doesn't care about anything a normal boy should, which Coraline finds alarming. Her attempts to convince him to do "normal" thinks like go for a boat ride or build a treehouse frequently results in accidents that require her to change her wardrobe on panel.
But something sinister is afoot as well. Each night, Coraline is enticed to drink a special brew Vernere has crafted, and this leads to vivid dreams where she enters a magical wardrobe, is outfitted in even sexier clothing, and is transported to a genre-specifc adventure, such as a pirate battle or a Tarzan-esque jungle romp. Each adventure ends with unwanted sexual advances from a central male character, a slap in the face from Coraline, and a sudden awakening. That's the basic formula that the book repeats over and over, slowly building the mystery of what the hell is going on here.
At first it's mildly confusing and almost a little silly, no doubt a result of the translated dialog, which always feels a tiny bit awkward and surreal, even in the best of cases. Don't believe me? Watch any dubbed anime. But the intricate artwork, the fast-paced action, the dark mystery, and, yes, the boobs keep the reader turning pages until the end. And by the time that end is reached, all questions are answered and all mysteries are satisfactorily explained, a stark contrast from those mainstream superhero books I love so much. That's right. This book is a fully satisfying read, even despite Coraline's frequent cockblocking of her dream suitors.
It's an odd feeling to not want to jump on the internet and complain about all the plot holes in the latest super-mega-crossover event. I kind of like it. I think you will too. You could do worse with an introduction to European comic books. Muse is a fun read, offering a little bit of what you probably expect, and a little bit of pleasant surprise as well. Next time you're at the comic book shop, put down the latest unecessary tie-in to a meaningless Big Two blockbuster event comic and try out Muse instead.
Just be sure to ask the clerk to put it in a brown paper bag and don't let your wife see it.