Given the recent tragic events in Paris, Vincent Mahé’s absolutely stunning 750 Years In Paris is a sprawling reminder that this is not the first time darkness has been cast over that city, and it’s likely not the last. Paris has been home to bloodshed and destruction, as well as a site of rebuilding and hope, and Mahe documents the reality of history.
Focusing on one building, replicated through the pages in various states during different eras of time, many pages feature ordinary, sometimes placid life, which are on occasion shattered, such as with the image from 1348, depicting the Black Death, where the city becomes a bleak landscape and the dead are piled on. A recovery from that devastation is depicted, only to be undone by the 100 Years War in 1420, with a military presence and later abandonment amidst uncertainty. By 1515, things are looking joyous, with the coronation of Francis I.
The house itself changes as the history marches around it. In 1265, it’s a sweet, ornate farmhouse with a castle looming in back. Its trajectory is ever forward, though, and that means growing high and wide with additions, only to be partially destroyed by a fire in 1600, which results in the oldest section being built in the brick style of the more recent additions two years later. It manages to stay more or less in the same state until 1853, when, as a shell of a building, it becomes one of the subjects of George-Eugene Hausmann’s renovations of Paris.
The darkest point is possibly its 1943 occupation by Nazis.
More a story book than a comic, 750 Years In Paris is a wonderful primer to French history that gives respect to the smaller parts of life that are affected by the larger swathes that cut through the ordinary. And given the recent attacks, the book ends on a poignant note, with the building playing host to a massive demonstration in support of free speech with “Je Suis Charlie” signs and picketers on the sidewalk. It’s a symbol of the spirit of the city, of its continual will to survive its challenges, and of the plain fact that tragedy has always been an unwelcome guest there.
John Seven is a journalist and children’s book author living in Western Massachusetts who has written about comics for a number of publications over the years. Follow him on Twitter @damnjohnseven. John will be contributing regular comics reviews to The Beat on Tuesdays at 5PM. To welcome him to the fold, this week we’ll be posting his reviews on Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday.