Graphic novel review: The Plague – History of a Pandemic

Put Covid-19 into perspective with a look back at pandemics past, with Annie and Nico of the Magical History Tour. The Plague is the latest in the Papercutz graphic novel series by Fabrice Erre and Sylvain Savoia, translated from French by Nanette McGuinness…

Book review by Ruth Ahmedzai Kemp

During the Covid-19 pandemic, we’ve often heard comparisons with the Spanish Flu epidemic a hundred years ago, and UK schools often focus on the Great Plague of London in 1665, but epidemics of contagious diseases have been around for all of human history. Did you know that the first recorded incident of what is thought to have been Bubonic plague appeared in Egypt in the mid 6th century?

In this fifth instalment of The Magical History Tour, we follow the main characters Annie and Nico on a whistle-stop tour of centuries of human history, exploring the origin, spread and devastating impact of the Bubonic plague, and the various ways humans have devised to control it, if not eradicate it all together.

Structured chronologically, the story takes an investigative approach, discussing the various explanations people came up with to try to understand the plague, from mysterious ‘miasmas‘ in the air to witchcraft. The story leads us to the discovery of plague bacteria in the 17th century, when microscopes were finally strong enough to see them.  

There is an impressive geographical and historical scope here, taking in the 14th century Siege of Caffa on the Black Sea by Mongol soldiers who brought the plague with them and, in the same century, the first successful quarantine measures carried out at the port of Venice. We learn of the 19th century discovery of the role of fleas in the transmission of the plague, and more recent history is documented in the horrific cases of the use of plague bacteria as a bacteriological weapon.

Young readers will appreciate the ‘zombie slime’ coloring suggesting the spread of the plague throughout populations and eras

The book opens with Annie’s squeamishness about diseases that can be carried by tiny creatures and closes with Nico thoroughly convinced of the need to warn the planet about the ongoing danger of Bubonic plague and other diseases, but the tone is light throughout and the risks to public health of various diseases are contextualized. Anxious readers should be reassured that modern medicine has successfully reined in certain infectious diseases such as small pox through vaccination, but the book explains compellingly why we need protective measures and vigilance to guard against the rampant spread of other diseases including coronaviruses.

A profile of four historical figures includes Gökhem2, a female victim of the plague from over 5000 years ago (2900BCE Sweden), the oldest known victim of the plague to date, showing just how long this bacterial infection has been part of human life. We meet Guy de Chauliac, the 13th century physician who was one of the first to dissect bodies and study the disease scientifically, Alexandre Yersin, the Swiss scientist who first identified the plague bacterium in the 19th century, and Albert Camus, Algerian-French author of novel, The Plague.

The book is particularly good on the cultural and political impact of the Bubonic plague, as populations looked for explanations and scapegoats. Jewish people were blamed, leading to pogroms and massacres, and women were accused of witchcraft and executed. We learn how some people developed immunity, and certain communities weren’t affected such as goatherds and stable boys – they were too smelly and that repelled the fleas! The well-known beak costume of the Middle Ages didn’t work as people believed at the time (the beak contained aromatic herbs thought to “purify” the air that had been “fouled” by the plague), but it did to a certain extent protect the wearer from flea bites like a medieval form of PPE.

The Plague: History of a Pandemic is an enquiring book that doesn’t dumb down; it introduces extensive vocabulary and concepts, but clearly contextualized and occasionally with footnotes where needed to provide more definitions. The appendix includes helpful fact files and a timeline summarizing the events and periods of history mentioned in the story, but a glossary would also have been useful to define certain terms such as bacterium, bacillus and microbe. Entirely presented as a time-travelling conversation between Nico, full of questions, and Annie, always ready with the answers, the translation by Nanette McGuinness is chatty and colloquial, and – most importantly – really fun to read.

The book ends with a moving dedication to Papercutz collaborator and comics writer/publisher David Anthony Kraft who died from Covid 19, a timely reminder that the lessons learned from the struggle against the plague continue to affect us.

More about the series

The Magical History Tour series is a fun graphic novel series published by Papercutz. Readers can follow Annie and Nico on their magical historical tour exploring the Great Pyramid (Volume 1), the Great Wall of China (Volume 2), Hidden Oil (Volume 3), The Crusades and the Holy Wars (Volume 4), the Plague (Volume 5), Albert Einstein (Volume 6), Ghandi (Volume 7), and the Titanic (Volume 8). Volumes 1-4 and 6 are translated from French by Joseph Laredo, and volumes 5, 7 and 8 are translated by Nanette McGuinness.