Book review: The Spectators - a graphic novel about life in Paris

Victor Hussenot's beautiful, ethereal book is about city walking, city haunting, all the ways the metropolis can get beneath our skin. There's no story per se - just a series of riffs

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 25 July, 2015, 11:24pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 25 July, 2015, 11:24pm


We think of cities as anonymous, as sprawling - and they are. But they are also private, intimate, landscapes suspended between loneliness and community. This is what urban walking offers, a way to navigate the boundary between ourselves as individuals and part of the collective: city as identity.

Such an interplay sits at the centre of Victor Hussenot's beautiful, ethereal The Spectators, a graphic novel - or is it? - about city walking, city haunting, all the ways the metropolis can get beneath our skin. The city here is Paris; Hussenot is a French artist who has published three books in his native country.

There is no story per se, just a series of riffs, imaginative leaps. "Each of us," he observes, "sees the city in our own way … From the rift between sleep and waking bursts of lights … The mind's eye is set free … The invisible is revealed."

In part, Hussenot is referring to the voyeuristic aspects of city life, how we are on the outside looking in. But even more, he is pointing out its layers, multiple lives and multiple eras overlapping in real time.

One of the best sequences describes the Metro and its role as "the Parisians' ephemeral and shifting home". What Hussenot is getting at is history, both its presence and, in some sense, its collapse.

"Above their heads," he writes of the train, "it travels through the ages." Beneath that sentence, three vertical panels illustrate the point. The first is a black-and-white image evoking the early years of the 20th century, the second a shot of punk rockers and the third a contemporary scene. That all take place on the same stretch of sidewalk is the point precisely: that we inhabit our cities only briefly, that they have a life that extends beyond our own.

The Spectators offers both mystery and grace. It evokes the city as we know it: full of unimaginable complexity. What draws us to such landscapes? That we can be alone and together all at once.

The Spectators  by Victor Hussenot  (Nobrow Press)

Los Angeles Times