Weighing the Hearts of the Dead

In this age of fast zombies and vampires sparkling in the sun, maybe it’s time to remember the overlooked, the eternally cursed, the bandaged, leathery and passionate undead: mummies. Mummies are all about undying love. Not only does the resurrected Imhotep try to bring his dead love back to life in the 1999 film, The Mummy he does the same in the original 1930s film after meeting Helen, who is the very image of his beloved Anck-es-en-Amon. In the graphic novel, The Professor’s Daughter (First Second, 2007), Imhotep falls in love with Lillian, a woman who resembles his dead love, lost two thousand years ago. Maybe that’s why Maat weighs hearts in The Book of the Dead.

 

Written by Joann Sfar and drawn by Emmanuel Guibert, The Professor’s Daughter was first published in France in 1997 and has been translated into English by Alexis Siegel. Guibert is now best known for The Photographer and Alan’s War: The Memories of G.I. Alan Cope, books about the experience of war. Sfar is probably best known for Dungeon, his Dungeons & Dragons parody collaboration with Lewis Trondheim.  Sfar and Guibert collaborate on another children’s series—one about space pirates–Sardine in Outer Space, with art by Sfar and a script by Guibert.

But The Professor’s Daughter is my favorite of all their collaborations. The London they have created is an idealized Victorian one:  whiskers and tweed, professors and antiquarians, Scotland Yard and Queen Victoria, poisoning and propriety. I wish Guibert would illustrate more of Sfar’s stories. It’s nice to see his ink in the service of fun.professors daughter on the town

Guibert’s art is lovely, the ephemeral graphite, deep inks and shading ground the book in three dimensions. The colors and lines give it a nice Late Victorian feel. The hand-rendered serif lettering on the cover is delicately antique. Sfar’s script is charming and filled with derring-do—murder, close escapes, dockside gangs, courtroom drama and kidnapping. The book’s also funny:

 

Imhotep [aiming a gun at Professor Bowell]: I love Lillian and we’re going to get married.

Bowell: You are the property of the British Museum. You are dead.  Stay out of this!

Lillian [in Imhotep’s arms]: Imhotep, where are you taking me?

Imhotep: To Cairo!

(20)

Sfar and Guibert’s Imhotep is not The Mummy‘s vengeful and desperately lonely high priest. This is Imhotep IV, Prince of Egypt, and, as indicated in the passage above, he has a problem. He’s a mummy in the Victorian era, and despite the fact that he dresses, walks, talks, drinks tea and smokes like a gentleman, he is legally not human. He is an antiquity and property of the British Museum. The man who discovered him, Professor Bowell, is content to have Imhotep displayed in a glass case forever.

 

the professor's daughter new exhibit

The professor’s daughter, Lillian, awakens Imhotep to accompany her on a walk in Kensington Gardens and Imhotep falls in love with her, but unlike other mummies, other Imhoteps, he does not try to channel his beloved’s soul into Lillian’s body. He wants to marry her. Lillian fears that Imhotep only loves her for her resemblance to an ancient dead woman and “want[s] no part of his neurosis” (35). But Imhotep IV is also wanted for murder by Scotland Yard, which seizes all the mummies in London for examination as suspects before finally arresting the vital, and very much unmummified, Lillian as a murderess. So it comes down to romantic angst with linen wrappings, grilled crickets and the examining of hearts.

 

And I don’t mean to spoil anything, but Imhotep’s father, Imhotep III, also falls in love too easily. Is it because he’s a mummy or because he’s named, “Imhotep?” Imhotep III’s approach to love—kidnapping—is just as supervillainous as his approach to fatherhood. Imhotep III wants to make right a marriage he prevented 2000 years ago while saving his son from the Her Majesty’s justice and he will do so by any means necessary, including forcing Queen Victoria to marry him. Prof. Bowell, on the other hand, is an aloof and preoccupied scientist, apparently a good man—and an adventurous hero in Sfar’s later stories—but not an attentive, affectionate father.

 

professor's daughter jail break

While vampires are all hunger and desire and no one wants to think about the love lives of zombies, love weighs heavily on the hearts of mummies—or at least mummies named, “Imhotep.” Incidentally, there was a historical Imhotep,
but he wasn’t a pharaoh. He was:

Chancellor of the King of Egypt, Doctor, First in line after the King of Upper Egypt, Administrator of the Great Palace, Hereditary nobleman, High Priest of Heliopolis, Builder, Chief Carpenter, Chief Sculptor and Maker of Vases in Chief.

He was an architect, physician and later a god. But as far as I know, the historical Imhotep never attempted to reincarnate his ancient love in another woman’s body or traveled across time to escort his sweetheart to the bandstand in Queen Victoria’s Kensington Gardens.

~~~

Carol Borden has heard the words Imhotep spake, whose discourses men repeat.

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