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.