Katie Skelly was born in 1985 in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. She became hooked on comics at an early age thanks to her father, who brought comic books home for her when she was 5 or 6 years old from the local newsstand he co-owned with her grandparents, and which she worked at herself when she became a teenager. She began drawing her own comics in high school. She started self-publishing her own comics in 2011. Her mini comic, Nurse Nurse was picked up by the indie publisher Sparkplug Comics and released in 2012. Her subsequent graphic novels are Operation Margarine (2014), from Adhouse Books, and The Agency (2018), My Pretty Vampire (2018), and the most recent Maids (2020), all from Fantagraphics Books. She has co-hosted (with Sarah Horrocks) a pop culture podcast called Trash Twins from 2014 to 2017. She has written reviews and conducted interviews for TCJ. Her work has been exhibited internationally.
The occasion for this interview was the publication of Maids, an historical graphic memoir based on the famous murders committed in 1933 by the Papin sisters, an event that has had an outsized presence in French cultural life, and has attracted the creative and political curiosity of many artists, including Jean Genet, Claude Chabrol, and Jean-Paul Sartre, among others.
This interview was conducted on October 11, 2020. [Full disclosure: Fantagraphics published Maids.]
Katie Skelly: Uh-huh.
Is that what prompted your interest in this subject? Or did your interest precede that?
I would say it was around the time that I’d seen that because maybe 4 or 5 years ago, The Maids, the Genet play, was on Broadway. I’d heard of the Papin sisters’ case, so I was interested in that. Then I was interested in seeing the play because it had Isabelle Huppert in it, but I couldn’t get tickets. It was really expensive. And then I also heard that it wasn’t that great anyways, so that’s kind of good. But, yeah, I watched La Cérémonie around that time and I was really interested in the story. I knew it was based on a novel that was loosely inspired by the Papin sisters’ case. It was just something that was — this story was in my orbit for a few years, you know?
Every now and then, a story comes along — either fiction or otherwise — and you just feel when it’s the right one, you know?
Did you watch La Cérémonie because of the subject matter or the director or what? What was your —
Subject matter for sure. I’m a big Isabelle Huppert fan. I also love Claude Chabrol as well. That’s one of my favorite movies now. One of my top 5 movies, I’d say.
You share my high regard for Isabelle Huppert.
I think she’s possibly our greatest living actress.
I think so. For sure. I can’t think of another one. I mean, she just has such presence and she’s so scary, even though she’s really tiny. I’ve seen her in person a couple times now because I’ve seen her in different plays and every now and then she’ll come to New York and introduce a film or do a talk after a film. She’s like the littlest person, but she’s so scary.
She’s utterly fearless as an actress.
For sure. She’s awesome.
Absolutely. Did you ever see the Genet play?
I saw the film version of it and I’ve read the play. It’s really not this story at all.
He claims it was not based on that story.
So that’s why I was like — I really couldn’t come up with a better title for it than just Maids. Cut the “The” off. [Groth laughs.] It’s definitely different. It doesn’t have “The” in the title.
So, you were drawn to the subject matter. What was it about this French scandal circa 1931 that interested you?
I think it was the fact that labor was so intimately involved in this story. The sisters had spent, I think, 7 years just working quietly and diligently as maids. All of sudden, one day, they just snapped. I’ve been working, let’s see, I’ve been working in New York now going on 13 years. I don’t think I would ever snap in quite the same way, but I have felt a lot of pressure and a lot of stress. There was something about the brutality of that case that I was really attracted to. I would never act out — I’m kind of a shy person, believe it or not. I don’t really act out and I sometimes have a hard time advocating for myself. The way that the girls took out all these years of frustration on this family, there was something really appealing about that story to me. It was all of this repressed rage that I have as a worker, I would say.
So you felt something in common?
Yeah, for sure. For sure. It was such a — I mean, to attack the people that you work for and to pull their eyeballs out. That’s really making a strong statement, you know? [Groth laughs.] There’s just something about that that’s so dark and so poetic that I was drawn to.
It could be considered more than a strong statement, but yeah.
Well, yeah. [Laughs.]
You don’t have a sister with whom you are closely bonded, do you?
I have an older sister. We are Irish twins, in that we are less than a year apart from each other. But we’re not close in that way. When we were little I was really shy and my sister would do all my talking for me. I did feel like we had this dark bond for a few years, you know? Before I was comfortable with talking and being my own person in the world. I was tapping into that a little bit for this story too.
In your graphic novel Maids, the interpretation of why they did what they did is somewhat ambiguous. I wanted your take on that. Historically, of course, it’s been argued any number of ways. One of the most prominent of which is that it was the result of class friction, which you do hint at in your interpretation, but you also go into their traumatic familial background. Do you think it was a combination of both, or do you yourself have any different theories as to why you think that it happened?
I think it was the combination of both. My personal take on it, and the one that I present in the story, is that it was a repressed familial trauma that was coming out. The sisters had such a turbulent upbringing. There was a lot of separation, there was a lot of sorrow, there was a lot of sadness. I think that they found their strength in each other and made their own sort of super-family with each other. When they were brought into another familial space as domestic workers, they projected all of these things onto the family that they were working for, in particular, the mother — the madam of the house. I think they understood any sort of disruption in their working relationship as another disruption with their mother, who was an alcoholic and was violent. I think they had such a difficult time dealing with those psychic wounds that they were brought up with that any threat to be cast out or to have to go back to their mother, any irrepressible damage to their working situation or their living situation was too much for them. I ultimately think that is why they snapped. The idea of being cast out and having to do this all over again, possibly without each other, was too much.
You establish pretty early on that they have an adversity to authority. In the first chapter, for example, it’s established that they are both happy to steal from those who have more than they do.
I thought that one of the pivotal moments occurred in chapter 3 when Léa cuts off the canary’s head. She’s young at the time — I don’t know how old she would be, but a teenager, I think.
It’s a demonstration that she’s capable of violence at a young age.
Something that I became really interested in were these kinds of petty acts of aggression that would take place anonymously and escalate. These little crimes that you would never really be able to put her name to — she was able to act out in these ways. Her presence was felt, but she wasn’t feeling any of the repercussions or consequences. I think that came from maybe 10 years ago, I was in this recovery support group. It was for people with eating disorders. I remember there was this woman there who was older than everybody and she was talking about how when she would take the subway and it was really crowded, she would see people who looked happier than her. She would see a younger woman who looked skinnier or they had a boyfriend or whatever. She would be sitting on the bench in the subway and, as that person was leaving, she would kind of kick their ankles or kick their shoes. It’s so fucked up, but she would try to trip them. Nobody would have known it was her because the subway was really crowded, right? It’s these little anonymous acts of aggression. I’ve never really acted out in that way, but the more that I thought about it when I was writing this story, the more I was like, “I feel like that is something that these girls would do.” They would act out in these anonymous ways until their presence would be felt and it would come with disastrous consequences. I think when you act out in that way, you are never satisfied. You are going to keep hurting people. You are going to keep lashing out. That’s never going to go away and it's going to escalate and get worse. I think the bird was kind of like this threat that she was unleashing in the convent, just to be like, “My presence is felt here,” even if she was afraid to do it. In that scene, it’s kind of a dream, kind of a nightmare, and she’s still acting out in this way. You find out later that she actually did it. It’s also a serial killer kind of thing to hurt animals, torture animals, and do stuff like that. That’s why that scene is there.
It almost looked like her resentment, or their resentment, was based both upon their oppression by their mother and by society. It was both a class problem and a very personal familial one. You have a marvelous two-page sequence where you show their daily routine, which I thought was very effective.
Oh, thank you. Yeah.
From which I could understand why they harbored quite a bit of resentment. They worked from 6 o’clock in the morning to, I think, 7 o’clock at night.
Yeah, they were basically on call at all times. They didn’t have a lot of time to themselves. They were also put in this position of almost having to be these grateful stowaways. It is true that Christine did call for Léa, her younger sister, to come work at the house and had to talk the family into taking her in. Now you have two girls that you have to feed and you have to home and take care of like they are a lesser unit of your family, in addition to taking care of everything else in the house and your own family. I do think that there was a resentment between the sisters and the mother there.
How did you mean to portray Madam Lancelin and her daughter Genevieve? They seem to ricochet between being fairly benevolent and incredibly callous and vicious. Did you mean to portray them as being capricious, that they could simply bounce from one to the other without any self awareness?
Yeah, yeah. I think if you look at the natural progression of any working relationship, where someone is subjugated, that is bound to happen. Even if you go to a restaurant and you’re being very polite and nice to the server — you spend an hour there, spend a lot of money there, have a few drinks there — eventually you’re not seeing them as an equal or a human being any more. You’re making more demands or expecting more of them. There’s a natural erosion that happens there, when money is involved in a relationship, when a relationship is transactional. To me, it was important to have the madam start out as very caring — “You’re welcome in my home” to “You’re not doing what I want you to do. You’re not performing the way that I want you to,” or you’re invisible. I feel like that’s a natural thing that happens.
How much blame do you put on the Lancelin family? Do you think that they’re simply part of a transactional system that inevitably leads to treating people like that? How much responsibility to you place on them vs. the system they inherited and took advantage of?
I don’t think that they are to blame. I wouldn’t put the responsibility of what happened to them on their shoulders. But I do think that there were situations that exasperated the mental state of the girls. But then again, there wasn’t really anything in place for them to have known any better. I didn’t want to write them as being completely unsympathetic, you know? I didn’t want it to be a parable — treat the people who work for you well or else. That seems simplistic. I wanted people to be able to see themselves in either position. To be able to see yourself as someone hiring someone or see yourself as somebody who has been subjugated. And the truth is, I don’t really think that they were even as kind as I made them out to be at the beginning. I don’t think they saw the maids as human beings at all. I think they just saw them as cogs in the machine of making the household work.
One of the things I liked about the book is that it did not appear to me to be ideologically motivated, that there was ambiguity on both sides of the divide. You didn’t know exactly what motivated the two sisters to do what they did and the family, even though they behaved horrendously on occasion, also behaved with some degree of kindness and graciousness on other occasions.
I think so. Thank you. I mean, I think that they just act in accordance with what they understood to be proper, you know? I do think that an understanding of class was not at the forefront of anyone’s mind at that time. I think it took situations like this and it took labor strikes to make people understand that the person who works for you is not a slave or a servant or a dog. They are a human being and they deserve to have x amount of hours to themselves a day and they deserve leisure time and they shouldn’t be on call at all times. I just don’t think that there was a precedence for that at that point.
It would have been easy and one must feel compelled to take sides, but it makes for more complex art to honor both sides.
I feel the same way. What you were talking about with the ideology of the book, I do feel annoyed when I read things now that feel like they’re supposed to be parables instead of stories. Do you know what I mean? Everything is supposed to be instructive and hitting you over the head. “This behavior is good and this behavior is bad. This is a victim and this is not.”
I hate that and I always have. I always considered dogmatism to be the mark of bad art. It might make a good polemical essay, but it makes bad art.
There was one scene, and you might not even have intended it to be read this way, but the madam says something like, “There are two of you and you aren’t doing any more work than one of you.” I thought, “Well, if that’s true, she has a point.” [Laughter.]
Right. Yeah. Exactly.
Exactly. She did. She did. How would anybody have ever seen anything like that coming? You know, you’re just trying to run an efficient household. You don’t know that you’re caught up in somebody’s psychosexual drama.
It doesn’t justify her behavior and contempt for them otherwise, but it does muddy the waters nicely.
I like my art with muddied water.
That’s awesome. Spoken like a true Isabelle [Huppert] fan.
One of the ways in which the sisters bond is that they created a prayer that they say out loud. I thought that was one of the most potent passages in the book. One of them says to the other, “Do you remember our prayer?” and then they recite it. It’s a variation of Our Father.
Every Catholic had to memorize that prayer, but… is that something that you made up or is that something based on historical fact?
It’s something I made up for the story. Yeah. It’s that prayer, but it’s altered a little bit for their purposes. I have this bond with my own sister and I have this funny story between the two of us where we cheated on a CCD test where we had to recite, or write down, a prayer. Neither of us memorized it. We had to go into this nun’s office and individually write the prayer out. As she was leaving the office, she slipped me the prayer written down so I could copy it. That was one of the only times that we ever coordinated to do anything bad together. That was my little nod to that moment. That moment was so cool, you know? I wish my sister and I could still work together in that way. That was really the bond that I wanted the girls to share, something that was deviant and selfish, but also enjoyable between the two of them.
Léa had been in a convent; I assume that was a Catholic convent?
Yes. I did alter that a little bit. Technically they were both in a Catholic orphanage, but it wouldn’t be necessarily out of character for girls that were left there to begin vocational training, religious training. If you run out of options, at least there’s one thing you can do.
I’m curious as to what your own religious experience is and if that played any part in your interpretation here.
I grew up Catholic and I went to Catholic school. It’s funny because I don’t feel like I have any memories that stand out to me, like, “That was really crazy” — everybody that I knew — my sister, and all my cousins, and my neighbors — all went to Catholic school too. Nothing really felt out of the ordinary, you know? Even as an adult, I look back and I’m like, “I still feel like that was normal.” I don’t feel repressed or bad or anything like that. Maybe I should, but I don’t. [Laughter.]
How long did you go to parochial school?
I went to elementary school, high school, and after I graduated high school, I was like, “OK. That was interesting,” and just never really looked back.
Wow, that’s impressive. [Laughter.]
I mean, I actually liked a lot of the art of it. I liked hearing all the rituals. I liked going to mass. I liked having a uniform. I liked having a sense of belonging to things. That was the thing that I belonged to up until I was a young adult.
When you went, was the mass in Latin?
No, but we did learn prayers in Latin.
I see, OK.
After Léa is kicked out of the convent for basically being a troublemaker, and for being useless, and after she cuts the head off the canary, she returns home. Her mother says, “You’re just too dumb for your own good. One of these days, you’ll have to stand up for yourself or you’ll get in real trouble.” Now, what did she mean by that? I’m not sure there was evidence that she hadn’t stood up for herself. Maybe I missed something. You gave that admonishment a whole page, along with the imagery of the canary, so I think it was significant.
I think it goes back to this idea of acting out anonymously. Léa is standing up for herself, but she’s doing it in this way that is not forthright and it’s destructive. It’s destructive to herself and to the people around her and the things around her. She does have this kind of backhanded way of standing up for herself, but it ends up putting her in worse and worse situations. It’s like she can’t stand up for herself in the convent, she can’t stand up for herself in the house. She can’t really stand up for herself with her sister. She can’t delineate what’s right and what’s wrong and she can’t say no to the things she knows are bad. She can’t say no to the voices in her head either. She really can’t stand up for herself at all, in any sort of concrete way. I wanted to show that. That would actually get her in a lot of trouble, you know? I do think that there was something to the people that were victimizing her, I think that they wanted some resistance. She wasn’t really a fun target because she took everything in.
Little did her mother know that standing up for herself would get her into even more trouble.
The relationship between the two sisters is interesting. I think, superficially, it looks vaguely like they might have an incestuous relationship, but I don’t think that’s in fact what you intended. I don’t think it’s sexual, right? Am I right there?
I don’t think so, but there was a lot that I read about the case that said that it was. I wanted to leave a little bit of an open door for that interpretation, but, personally, I don’t really believe that that was the case. I think that they had spent a really long time being un-socialized, being feral children, you know? Not really even using language, not being with other children, definitely not being with members of the opposite sex. I wanted to show that there was something there that was intimate and probably a little bit inappropriate. That if they had those sort of inclinations, they wouldn’t know if they were wrong, but they also most likely wouldn’t have acted out on them. So, yeah, I think that they are almost living in this now world, where they just don’t know what is right or wrong behind things that are completely extreme. I think it was just inappropriate, whatever was going on.
But as an author, you wanted to leave it open to the reader to make that interpretation.
Yeah. The last thing I wanted to do was put a sister incest thing in the middle of the book. It just didn’t feel like that was the right move and that was not the angle that I was interested in with their story. I don't really buy that there was romance between the two of them, but what I do believe is that there were boundaries that were crossed constantly, just because they didn’t know any better. The only thing that I was really trying to show there was that they just didn’t know how to be with each other, they didn’t know how to be without each other. It was something that was all-encompassing.
One of the things that Christine says to Léa — I think she might say it twice, but once you emphasize it quite a bit. She essentially tells Léa that when she’s in a difficult situation and doesn’t know what to do, she should “just be me.” What do you think is meant by that?
I think this is something that goes back to that time in my life where I felt so shy and felt like I couldn’t speak. My sister was talking for me. I would watch her do it and then I would mimic her later. It was almost like I was speaking — she was speaking through me, rather than me having to make my own decisions and speak for myself. I wanted to show that there was something similar between Christine and Léa. Léa could imagine herself being Christine. Rather than having her own autonomy and facing the world, she could act as if.
Also, there’s this theory that — it’s a psychological term, but I don’t even know if it’s an official area of study or if it’s a thing that can be quantified, but entrenchment folie à deux, where two people are in a state of psychosis and act as one person rather than acting as two separate individuals. Mainly, a stronger-minded person can take over a weaker-minded person’s mind and have them act together as one unit. That was my verbal nod to a situation like that that was happening between the sisters too.
Do you speak French?
A little bit. I studied French a little in college and in grad school. I was working on a MA in art history and was hoping to learn French and write about Barbarella comics. I dropped out. I decided I would rather draw comics. [Groth laughs.] I know a little tiny bit.
You’d rather draw comics than learn French.
I made the same decision: I’d rather publish comics than learn French, apparently.
See? I think we made the right choices. [Laughter.]
Well, I’m not so sure I did. Did you do research in French, because I assumed there would be more of it?
No, actually, I didn’t. I found a lot of good translations of the court documents, the police records. Newspapers about the trial and stuff like that. It wasn’t super in-depth research. I just got in far enough where I felt like, “I’m comfortable enough to tell this whole story beginning to end if somebody asks me exactly what happened.” I just went from there.
You know, one thing that struck me is when the family is having dinner toward the end of the book, the two sisters are overhearing their conversation. What surprised me a little bit was that the mother refers to the two — to Léa and Christine — as rats. That struck me as a real escalation in her demeaning attitude, toward them. Did you mean for it to be an escalatory moment in how she thought about them?
Yeah, for sure. The interesting thing about that moment is that the girls are out of earshot when it’s happening. It’s really a moment you, as the audience, are having with the madam, right? I also wanted to show that the family is under pressure as well at that time. France is feeling its own ripple from the Great Depression. They’re starting to have their own economic difficulties. Genevieve, the daughter, is supposed to be getting married, but there are issues with the dowry because the family is facing similar financial troubles as the rest of the country. I wanted to show that she was trying to have this nice moment where she’s relating to her daughter’s fiancé’s family and they are having a casual conversation, but she’s feeling a little bit in above her head. She’s drinking a little too much and talking off the cuff. At one point, her husband has to tenderly put his hand on her arm and try to get her to settle down a little bit. I wanted there to be this moment where you felt like things were really not what they appear to be in the household. I also wanted people to feel like there were currents of frustration and resentment going through the house that maybe we haven’t felt up until that point.
I thought Léa and Christine did overhear that. Is that not true?
I believe that they are walking away at that point. But they might not be. I don’t think I’m wrong, but it’s been a while.
No, they’re listening. They’re right around the corner from the dinner and they’re clearly listening to it. Then, the next two pages are the family talking and that’s where the mother talks about them being like rats. Then, on the following page, they’re still right around the corner and they’re just starting to walk off. My impression was that they heard every word that they said, especially the part likening them to rats. I thought that could have been a pivotal factor that turned them as violent as it did. But that was not necessarily your intention?
Yeah, I would say that something that would have been a deep crescendo for them during the tail end — no pun intended — was that remark as they were walking away. But you also don’t really see them reacting to it either. It’s like we know that it’s been bad, but we can’t really tell what they’re feeling about it.
Right, OK. Next, why was Léa’s reaction to Genevieve’s menstrual fluid as violent as it was?
That was something that was outside the case. There are a lot of moments where I had to include a dramatization. We don’t have a clear picture of what would be escalating factors during the night of the murders. To me, Léa was somebody who was so feral and so uncomfortable with her body and uncomfortable with other people’s bodies and even occupying a physical space at all. So, to see something like that and be in this stuffy room with this hungover brat who’s complaining and whining and expecting you to change her bloody sheets — it felt so suffocating to write that and I try to imagine myself in that situation. To me, it’s totally disgusting. I wanted to show that this was something that was an abject moment for Léa, where something that was supposed to be hidden was outside. The site of blood and smell of blood was just too much.
I read a few pieces about not just this work, but previous books of yours, and people are fond of talking about how you're influenced by European cartoonists. I think that’s probably true. Can you talk a little more about what your influences are? Guy Peelleart ? Crepax?
I would say Crepax the most, just in terms of subject matter. Not even necessarily style, but I love how much of a range his career covered. I love his versatility and I love that there are no other comics that look like his. There still really aren’t. He was such a singular voice. To have gotten into his work and seen the breadth of it and what it covers, it makes me feel like, “Oh, I could do comics that talk about whatever I want.” They don’t necessarily have to be one thing or the other. They can oscillate between horror and sexy and adventure and surrealism. He’s one of my favorites, for sure.
He was a liberating influence.
Yeah, absolutely. I mean, at first — the first few times I saw Crepax’s work like Venus in Furs and some of the sexier Valentina stories — they were intimidating because it’s a lot of bondage. It’s a lot of S&M themes. At first, it’s like, “Whoa. I don’t know if I’m supposed to be reading these. I don’t know if I’m supposed to be offended by them. I don’t feel that way. Is that bad?” I guess that’s where the Catholic part of me snaps back into action.
At what age did you discover Crepax?
Probably 18 or 19. Nothing too crazy, you know? At that point, I also liked Dave Cooper. I had read Ripple and really loved that. But as far as European comics go, I would say that that was my late teens to now. Peelleart I still love, a lot.
What about American cartoonists? You mentioned Dave Cooper and Ripple. Of course, that’s full of fairly fascinatingly perverse sexual stuff.
For sure. I don’t think I’ve ever read anything else like it.
But American cartoonists: I liked reading Sam Keith a lot. I loved reading The Maxx. I think I was reading that a year or so after it was finished. So I had access to the whole collection of it and I really loved it. I remember watching the MTV show too, which was pretty crazy. A lot of American comics are kind of a blank spot for me, in terms of mainstream stuff. Visually, I just don’t even know what I’m supposed to be looking at. [Groth laughs.]
Why do you think that is?
I don’t know. It could be because I came up with the European stuff or with manga, but sometimes it’s hard for me to know what I’m seeing and how I’m supposed to be reading it.
I’m just not interested too, which doesn’t help. But I was reading Dan Clowes, I was reading Tomine, I was reading Jaime [Hernandez], I was reading who else? Art Spiegelman. I knew the art side of comics when I was growing up, but I didn’t really know the mainstream side.
I’m sure that's to your credit.
It’s so confusing and there’s so many things to know. It feels like you have to get a master’s degree to know what’s going on. It’s so specified. I can’t do it. I don’t know when things are important, you know? “This is a really important issue or this storyline was really important.” I’m like, “Why?” I don’t get it.
But you don’t have that problem with whatever you want to call them —independent comics.
No. I don’t. They are all individual universes onto themselves. They are legible.