Sunday, August 23, 2009

Pax Romana, by Johnathan Hickman


So, I think ALL the comics I've reviewed here were given to me by the same person. He's a really nice guy, very smart fellow, who works with me, and the two of us have wildly varying tastes. It's not that I disdain what he likes, it's just that I don't know it well enough (for instance, he likes hip-hop music, I only know enough to hear the worst of the popular stuff, and therefore have never developed any fondness for it). Graphic Novels are one of the things he likes that I've not managed to ken well enough to start loving it yet (sorry Nymeth!). He gave me a few to try - League of Extraordinary Gentleman, Watchmen, etc. And I've given them an honest try. And neither of them really made my day.
Pax Romana, on the other hand, which he loaned me last week, is a truly fascinating bit of comic book.
One of the densest illustrated materials I've ever seen in my life, Pax Romana is not like any other comic I've seen. Mr. Hickman, I'm told, is a graphic designer by trade, and it shows in the art, which feels like the work of a man who loves photoshop as much as a good paintbrush, and the text? Well, the text is not your average bubble-talk comic book script. There are entire pages, for instnace, with a small picture in the top and the rest of the page filled with dialogue. And I don't mean regular dialogue. I'm talking, four guys you've just met having deep philosophical disucssions about things like the nature of god and free-will versus predestination. And I don't mean metaphorically.
Would this comic work if it was what every comic was like? No. Batman and the Joker having pithy conversations about the nature of evil would make for a pretty rotten Batman I imagine. But in this book? It was fascinating!
The basic premise of the book is that in the future, Christianity has withered away to almost nothing, and is likely to go extinct. The pope, however, has been funding a group of scientists, and his cardinal in charge of science comes to him and informs him that said scientists have developed a technology that is capable of transporting people through time - like a large warehouse full of people. After a a deal of philosophical wrangling, the pope is finally convinced to send about 5000 people back in time, the era of Constantine, armed with everything from attack helicopters to even a few nuclear weapons, in order to consolidate the power of the catholic church, rather than allowing the schisms and strife that overpowered the church from this time on outward.
After travelling back in time, the general (who is actually, ironically, one of the more moral memebers of the team in some ways, though everyone is VERY grey in this book) shoots the cardinal who is supposed to lead the expedition, and takes over, in order to enforce a society that will allow men to grow into freedom and enlightenment more quickly than humanity did the first time around (the cardinal had intended to simply stand back and enforce the church and otherwise tkae a no-touch approach to history). From there, the story follows him and his inner circle of officers, as they move this plan into action.
This is not a gory or action-filled comic - there are a few deaths, but the actual destruction of a 10000 man army being decimated by machine gun fire, or of a nuclear weapon being detonated later in france, happens off screen. You are left with the intellectual experience of the officers, and this cold, calculating way of viewing the world imbues you with a sense of how ludicrous and arrogant philosophy is capable of being, far more effectively than showing a field full of corpses.
This wasn't one of my favorite books I've ever read, but it was a truly thought-provoking read, and one that, I can honestly say, was executed as a comic because that was the best medium for it - the story could not have been told as well in a novel (I didn't feel that way about, say, League, which would have been both more virtuosic (since that kind of felt like the whole point of the book) and more meaningful in book form, but then, I'm a comic ignoramus, so maybe that's just my bias talking). If you like alternate history, as I know some of the readers here do, I highly recommend this one - but make sure you have some time to think, it doesn't take it easy on the reader.

8 comments:

Amanda said...

You did get Deogratias from me (or, technically, from Karen, who recommended it to me), so it's not all just been from that one guy at work. Seriously, though, you shouldn't judge graphic novels based on your coworker's tastes. I mean, he doesn't share the same tastes as you on anything else, why should this be any different?

Jason Gignac said...

Oh, you're right, and actually, I realize now, Watchmen I got from Dave Mills, not Efren, so only TWO comics have come from him. You'll notice I tried to make sure I didn't say I don't think much of graphic novels. I really do. I think it's a genre that can be abused (like any genre), but the idea of a graphic novel is interesting to me. I'm just not edumicated enough to know which ones to get. One of these days I'm going to buckle down and read the Complete Sandman, because I did like the one of those that I read, once upon a time. Otherwise, I just don't know enough to know what to read.

Amanda said...

For some reason, I thought you'd gotten these all from Dave. I didn't know any came from Efren. I have no idea what Efren's tastes are like. I just remember Dave...

Lula O said...

That pic is going to give me nightmares! Where do you find these beauties?

Jason Gignac said...

Isn't it sweet? When I was a kid, I saw those old greek sculpture that would have eyes that were just smooth, uniform pupils, and I thought "C'mon, these were great sculptors, why couldn't they take five more seconds and carve in a pupil and an iris?" Now, I know why...

hamilcar barca said...

this looks good. i'll have to see if i can find the graphic novel section of the used-bookstore. if i may ask - how many pages is it?

Jason Gignac said...

Not very many. 120 according to Amazon. But that's a denser 120 pages than, say, Watchmen. Lotsa text.

Nymeth said...

lol, no need to apologize :P This does sound very interesting. And you know what, I haven't read a single comic that was what I'd call "the average comic" :P I'm starting to believe that the average comic might have a thing or two in common with the unicorn ;)

It's the whole it's-a-medium-not-a-genre thing: there's so much out there, non-fiction and historical fiction and fantasy and sci-fi and coming of age stories and so on, that I believe that there has to be a comic for everyone's taste :P

Is there a friendly indie comics story anywhere near you? If so, telling them what you normally like and asking for recommendations might be worth a shot. In my experience, the staff at comic book stores is friendly and enthusiastic and loves pointing people in the right direction. Of course, there must be a few like the guy from The Simpsons, but I've yet to run into one :P