In 2007 Image Comics published Pax Romana by the upcoming writer/artist Jonathan Hickman. With this being one of his first forays into comic book publishing, with his first title The Nightly News just starting to make waves, has Hickman written a reader friendly, industry embracing, historical romp packed with action and adventure?
Not even slightly.
That, however, is the beauty of Jonathan Hickman.
The plot In summary: The Emperor has died and a new Emperor must rise but first he must learn of the secret history of Rome. A history that starts centuries in the future. In 2053, the discovery of time travel allows the Vatican the opportunity to influence history in a whole new way. Plans are drawn, an army raised, and the journey into the past begins.
Drawing on the political intrigues of the Roman Empire and a modern obsession with conspiracies, Hickman weaves a complex narrative with an interesting framing sequence. Starting in the middle, with the Gene Pope instructing the new child Emperor, the story takes the form of a dry history lesson based on the archived files within the Church. Elements of the modern world, including the CERN laboratories in Switzerland, become merged with the political world of ancient Rome.
The narrative is told through a mix of dossier style caption boxes, recorded conversations, prose, and occasionally panelled comics. It is this structure that makes Pax Romana so distinctive and surprising for a creator’s early work. Most readers will know Hickman from his current Marvel work, as overseer of the current X-Men line, but the groundwork for the style of those big comics is founded in his early works such as Pax Romana. Divergent timelines? Check. Resurrected characters? Check. Complex narratives that build up from the first page to the last? Double check.
Pax Romana has, on the surface, a very simple story-line. Hickman, however, has the skills to tear open his ideas and slowly dissect them so that the audience can see exactly how it all works and all fits together. At the start it is a mass of sinew and organs but by the end it is a complex machine where every artery serves a purpose.
When recommending a book it helps to compare it to something else. With Pax Romana you want to say it’s like Terminator meets Gladiator, conjuring up elaborate time travel and Roman battle scenes. Although, it is actually more like a Robert Harris novel set in an episode of Quantum Leap. The future characters are trying to alter the past for the better, their better at least, but political intrigue means that they ultimately become helpless to a constant shifting world alliances and personal agendas.
To help the reader navigate all of this Hickman creates a collage of literary techniques, jumping from one form of storytelling to another with ease. There is no doubt that as an artist he holds prose, scripts, and illustration in the same regard, using whichever fits the scene best to get his ideas across. The outcome is a unique comic that has as more in common with novels like Slow Chocolate Autopsy by Iain Sinclair and Dave McKean than it does comics published by the Big Two.
The style can be difficult to adapt to if all you are used to is standard Superhero-esq comics. The linear progression of panel to panel transitions barely features in these pages. Instead vistas of dialogue cross double page spreads or trail down the centre of a page, slicing through a single, heavily inked image.
The visuals are created by using a combination of heavy shadows and negative space, colored with blocks of emotive color. It’s as if Hickman is chipping the illustrations out of narrative granite, revealing a story that has been buried for centuries. The shadowy nature of art also reflects the conspiratorial nature of the narrative. Everything is shrouded in secrecy and mere tricks of the light. At times you are not sure if what you read was real or imagined. It has a fleeting quality to it while also being, by its very nature, permanent; as solid as rock.
It’s also impressive that Hickman created everything on the page. From story, to design, to color and lettering. The main body of this comic is a one man job; not a feat that many creators can pull off with such elegance as is evident here.
Hickman books can look overwhelming, especially when collected together, and because of this many readers will be but off. Pax Romana is only four issues, 148 pages in the collected edition, but the ideas and concepts contained within will keep you thinking for weeks and months afterwards. It is a comic that will stay with you. This is because the style is unique and a testament to Hickman’s creativity.
Visually, this comic is beautiful. It has a look that is heavily designed and orchestrated to produce a singular world from the cover to the very last page. Knowing that Hickman worked in advertising will not come as a surprise because this comic makes an immediate, lasting impression. Normally you shouldn’t judge a book by it’s cover but in the case of Pax Romana, the cover perfectly sets up the contents.
If you read comics to see muscled guys punching other guys in the face, panel after predictable panel, then you will find nothing in Pax Romana. For everyone else, to quote from Blair Butler’s foreword in the collected edition, “If you’re looking for the future of comics, welcome aboard”.
Pax Romana is currently available as part of the Humble Bundle Creative Spotlight here.