Alfredo Castelli and Lucio Filippucci’s Elaborate Steampunk Parody: True Memoirs of Docteur Mystere


A few weeks ago, while perusing through the used comics section at Amoeba Records, I picked up Alfredo Castelli and Lucio Filippucci’s True Memoirs of Docteur Mystere, No. 1: The Mysteries of Milan on a complete whim. With its science fiction, steampunk style, on a quick flip through the pages, the True Memoirs of Docteur Mystere appeared like something outside of my normal taste, but something about it intrigued me, and despite my usual genre and style preferences, I decided to give it a closer look.

This sense of undefinable instinctive allure I felt while deciding on purchasing this comic book continued as I delved into the early pages of The Mysteries of Milan.

A dragon, mob of Chinese warriors, cathedral, damsel in distress, and silver train, all on the cover of The Mysteries of Milan

Docteur Mystere may be the most interesting and capable man in the world. He has a stupendous wealth of knowledge and skills gained from his extensive travels and interactions with every martial arts, monastic, criminal, and dark arts group in the world. Docteur Mystere almost possesses too many skills and knows almost too many people. He excessively fits his character as a Jules Verne-esque, savvy, and worldly hero.

Similarly, all of the other characters in The Mysteries of Milan fit their archetypes to excess. Lady B***, the truest damsel in distress and the woman who calls on Docteur Mystere to help find her husband who disappeared after completing his top secret pneumatic subway, cries out, “Virgin Mother,”and faints anytime she sees anything shocking. Chin, Docteur Mystere’s long-time friend and his accomplice and aid for the mission to find Lady B***’s husband, looks and speaks like he stepped out of a hybrid production between Flower Drum Song and a C grade knock-off of Enter the Dragon that you would see on cable in the wee hours of a Tuesday morning. Lastly, Cigale plays the all too ignorant and naive sidekick/assistant to Docteur Mystere, constantly making you ask, “Why in the world would such a great man as Mystere have such a nimrod for a sidekick?”

This question of Cigale’s existence exposes the intention of Castelli and Filippucci’s Docteur Mystere series, since the ridiculousness of his behavior and Mystere’s patronizing remarks to him hearken back to many comedic sidekicks we’ve seen before, especially Igor from Young Frankenstein and Cato from The Pink Panther. After Mystere’s third insult to Cigale, Lady B**’s fourth faint, and Chin’s fifth line in broken Chin-glish, you realize the True Memoirs of Docteur Mystere parodies the science fiction set in Victorian times fueling the steampunk movement. And when that elucidating moment of realization arrives, The Mysteries of Milan transforms into a rollicking, hilarious, and over-the-top adventure.

Beyond jests at the the science fiction of Jules Verne and H.G. Wells, The Mysteries of Milan also takes a stab at conspiracy theory fiction, particularly the works of Dan Brown. Released in 2004 at the height of the world’s obsession with Dan Brown’s novels about conspiracy in the Catholic Church, The Mysteries of Milan pokes fun at conspiracies churning in the catacombs of Italy and unveiled by what seems like an unrelated, isolated event. The entirety of this first issue of the True Memoirs of Docteur Mystere focuses on the search for Lady B***’s husband, but in the process, the search takes a step back from the foreground to give more importance to a mission to save the world from the sorcerer Fu Manchu. Lady B***’s husband may have accidentally gotten mixed up with Fu and his minions attempting world domination, so in order to find him, Mystere and Chin will need to figure out how to first defeat Fu, the ethnic caricature of Asians seen in literature in the early to mid 1900s.

Indicative of the sense of humor of Castelli and Filippucci, Chin and Fu have a history together, and Chin has been carrying around his own pinky fingers laced with magic powers for the day that he and Fu cross paths again. Fu cut off Chin’s pinky fingers, and Chin wants these severed digits to be his humiliating weapon of choice to destroy Fu. Consequently, the climax of The Mysteries of Milan contains outrageously funny illustrations of pinky fingers flying from an ornamented box toward Fu Manchu’s eyes. This battle scene, more than any other in the book, conveys the humor in the utter abandon of any sense of reality and the exaggeration of character and plot archetypes in True Memoirs of Docteur Mystere.  

Without revealing too much of the end, all of the hullaballoo to find Lady B***’s husband occurs in complete futility, completing the entire parody of science and conspiracy fiction that had transpired with a single punchline. The Mysteries of Milan ends without inspiring any sense of catharsis for the reader or any satisfaction of the answer to the primary mystery; it simply ends by provoking one giant, hearty laugh.

Clever and awakening in its humor, True Memoirs of Docteur Mystere: The Mysteries of Milan, points out the silliness of fiction set in complete fantasy where the characters are not represented as fellow humans. Admittedly, I loved Matt Fraction’s Five Fists of Science, the work I would consider to most resemble the type of story Castelli and Filippucci scorn with the True Memoirs of Docteur Mystere, but I do understand that there’s an absurdly ridiculous amount of suspension of disbelief required to read a steampunk type work like Five Fists of Science. In sum, Castelli and Filippucci mock the fiction that utilizes characters less as empathetic humans and more as devices to fuel an extravagant plot and to establish and perpetuate a mood and setting, which could apply to multiple genres, but unfortunately, science fiction of the steampunk variety is the major culprit of this style and, in turn, makes itself most susceptible to their parody.

Sadly, the wittiness of Castelli and Filippucci and their True Memoirs of Docteur Mystere only lasted for two issues. It must have turned off science fiction fans, and fans of more realistic fiction must have completely bypassed it. I still do not entirely know what lured me in based on just the cover and a few cursory page flips, but I’m so glad my instinct picked up on the gem hiding inside the overwhelmingly busy, action-packed, and insane cover.

1979’s “That Sinking Feeling”: The Very Charming and Overlooked First Film Of Director Bill Forsyth


By 1984, Scottish director Bill Forsyth was getting quite a bit of notice here in the States. His second film released here in 1981, was a painfully funny and sweet coming of age story called “Gregory’s Girl,” which achieved critical, if not commercial success. Local Hero, his second film, and an art house favorite from 1983 starring Burt Lancaster, remains one of the classic quirky, dry comedies of that decade.   So, in 1984, I, like so many other fans of his work were wondering…What was Bill Forsyth’s debut film like? Much to my delight, a limited release of “That Sinking Feeling” premiered in Philadelphia in 1984 at Sansom Street’s Roxy Theater, which meant I immediately had to go see it after school that Friday.

“That Sinking Feeling” begins with the tagline, “The action of this film takes place in a fictitious town called Glasgow. Any resemblance to any real city called Glasgow is purely coincidental.” Truly, Glasgow seems a dreary, sad place in the late 1970s or at least the “Glasgow” depicted by our Mr. Forsyth, as our hero Ronnie (played by Robert Buchanan who would later portray Gregory’s close friend in Gregory’s Girl) is quite down about his inhabitance of this particular “Glasgow.” So much so, that he tries to commit suicide by drowning himself (with a bowl of cornflakes of course) which after he fails in achieving that small task, propels him into the idea that there might be another way out.   He proposes to his friends Vic and Wal the idea of a burglary involving the theft of many stainless steel sinks to bring in much needed cash. They are so broke that even the paltry sum of 45 pence for a burger and coffee seem galaxies out of their grasp.

BFI Trailer for “That Sinking Feeling”

In the formation of their master plan is the gathering of their crew, most specifically their friend Bobby, who will make a drug that will allow them to obtain a vehicle for their crime and a little boy called the “Wee Man.” The plot saunters forward with the usual quirky pace of any Forsyth film, allowing you to pick up the odd character or two with the plot almost becoming secondary to the small moments that Forsyth does so brilliantly in later films. The red jogger who comes through scene after scene without any backstory or explanation is reminiscent of the phantom dirt bike racer in “Local Hero” who seems to appear just to remind the viewer that there is a reality of some sort existing outside of Forsyth’s lackadaisical but always entertaining plot.

As the film progresses, we do not see a Bressonian attention to criminal techniques, what we do see is a dozen or so maneuvers that will have you have you laughing sideways. From Bobby’s over doping of a bakery truck driver, to Vic, who gets into drag every night to sexually lure the night watchman into distraction. You won’t go more than a few minutes in “That Sinking Feeling” without a moment of pure Forsyth silly invention made real by his clever actors, who were selected directly from the Glasgow Youth Theater and who would be again be thrust into service in “Gregory’s Girl.”

That Sinking Feeling Poster

Though only given a small release back in 1984, one has to wonder if a young Wes Anderson had watched this film as he was writing “Bottle Rocket,” Wes’s debut film. “Bottle Rocket” is also the story of a group of hapless, lost young people who are using crime as a means of escape. Though “That Sinking Feeling’s” Ronnie, Vic, and Wal kind of need the money a bit more than just something to give them an identity, it still means a same outcome in terms of a good laugh at a group of likable boys who are trying to escape their youth by going for whatever they can steal.

Forsyth himself would revisit this theme of youthful clueless thievery in his hysterical, and also overlooked, 1989 film “Breaking In,” his next to last American film and one that contains an Oscar-worthy performance from Burt Reynolds and a punchy script co-written by Forsyth and John Sayles.  I so wish Forsyth had continued making crime films, because as perhaps, as his character Eddie suggests to his young cohort in “Breaking In”,…“You may have some larceny in your blood, kid.”