Magical History Tour, The Plague Review

By | Tuesday, March 22, 2022 Leave a Comment
Early last year, Papercutz launched a series of educational comics for kids. Collectively, the line is called "Magical History Tour" and each book walks through a different subject through the eyes of two siblings, Annie and Nico. The topics include the Great Wall of China, the Crusades, Albert Einstein, Ghandi, and Vikings among others. All of them were written by Fabrice Erre and were drawn by Sylvain Savoia. Eighteen volumes were originally published in France between 2018 and 2020, and I presume Pepercutz's intention is to publish all of them here in English over the next year or two. (Although they're publishing them in a different order than there were originally done. While the books are largely self-contained, so it's kind of a non-issue, there does seem to be a little more baseline establishment of the characters in the original first volume on Einstein. For whatever reason, Papercutz to publish that story as Volume 6.)

The story I'm looking at today is on The Plague. It was actually last in the original series but, given the events of 2020, it makes sense they chose to bring this one much more forward in publication, officially coming out in September of last year. The story starts as Nico torments Annie with a fake spider and when he castigates her for being "scared of a little bug" Annie launches into how a small bacteria can end up killing a person and how they can be transmitted by fleas. And she then proceeds to elaborate on the entire history of The Plague from the 6th century BCE through World War II.

The history is pretty straight-forward, running chronologically, with a little more elaboration on some unique or stand-out instances. It's mostly Annie expositioning the entire story, with Nico asking questions from time to time. On a few occasions, when she mentions a historical figure who we've got written record of them commenting about the plague, they might step in to quote a line or two. As Annie explains things to Nico, they witness what she describes first-hand. It's not presented as actual time travel or anything like that; there's actually no explicit explanation at all, but it feels like it's just intended to be a joint imagined experience. One Annie finishes, Nico draws biohazard symbols on some Post-It notes and sticks them on everybody's foreheads to warn everyone else about the hidden dangers of being human.

The writing is clearly aimed at a younger audience, although since I'm reading a translation, I don't know how close that tone mimics Erre's original. Regardless, translator Nanette McGuinness does a fine job of presenting the kids as pretty typical kids, using an appropriate vocabulary and speech patterns. It's a super easy read as an adult, and I'm sure it's fine for any young reader.

Savoia's art is pretty cartoonish in nature, lending itself to the kid-friendly approach. He actually does an excellent job here, given the subject matter, presenting something so truly horrifying in a scary/gross but suitably kid-friendly manner. I suspect it's a fine tightrope to walk and his illustration style is perfectly matched with the content and audience here.

I am a little disappointed with the story from a comics perspective though. You could almost just lift the text from Annie's speech, paste it into a Word document, and it would be perfectly fine in conveying all the same information. Savoia's art is fun and illustrative, but it's not really needed per se. Honestly, it feels like a comic that was written by someone who's never written for comics before and has never heard the "show don't tell" maxim. The book feels almost more like illustrated prose, and I was quite surprised to learn Erre's been doing comics for many years before this series. That said, though, it's still a comic aimed at kids, so nuance probably isn't high on the priority list.

From what I can guestimate, this was enitrely written and drawn before COVID. France's first case of COVID was in December 2019, and the book was first published on February 10, 2020. So not only is there no reference to COVID in the story, that wouldn't have even been a thing Erre might have slipped into the subtext. But with it's English publication, it does take on an additional weight. In the afterword, Papercutz editor-in-chief Jim Salicrup brings this context up, noting his own struggle with COVID and the loss of his friend David Anthony Kraft to it. Of course, many people have compared COVID to the plague and the parallels are hard to miss, so despite having no direct context for it in the story itself, many of the elements Annie discusses are observable today.

Is Magical History Tour #5: The Plague, History of a Pandemic a great comic? I can't say that it is, but it's definitely not a bad one either. Certainly a good tool to give to kids to whom you might want to have additional conversations about COVID, relative to history, or if they hear someone make the comparison and ask specifically about The Black Death or something. It's a pretty quick read and, at only $6.99, probably worth it for your kiddos. I haven't read all the books in the line, but I suspect they all have a similar style and tone if you want to take a look at some of their other topics as well.
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