Hickman Saves the Future, Destroys the Past in "Pax Romana"

Readers of Image Comics' "The Nightly News" are already familiar with creator Jonathan Hickman's penchant for iconoclasm, both in terms of his startlingly original comic book artwork as well as his exquisite eviscerations of conventional wisdom, authority and more or less anything we tend to consider "truth." Having spilled quite a lot of blood on the newsroom floor in his debut work, Hickman's next subject is one even more complex than The Media itself.

Written and lavishly illustrated by Hickman, November's "Pax Romana" continues the author's exploration of cultural and philosophical constructs in an ambitious tale of religious strife, epic wars, time travel across millennia and --simply enough-- how to build a "perfect" society. CBR News reconnected with Hickman to learn all he had to teach us about "Pax Romana."

"'Pax Romana' takes place in a future when Islam has overrun Western Europe and monotheism is on the wane in the East and the West," Jonathan Hickman told CBR News. "There's a breakthrough. They discover time travel in a scientific lab that's secretly funded by the Vatican. The pope sends a private army back in time to conquer the world and maintain the dominance of Catholicism.

"Obviously, it's a very small, personal story about finding yourself."

Into the time of the first Christian emperor, Constantine, go five thousand of the future's most heavily armed and genetically enhanced crusaders, with enough religious zeal to match their enormous guns. Led by cardinals of the Pope's own choosing, the time-traveling Vatican army fights to save the future by destroying the past.

"And all of their plans go wrong," Hickman said.

Their explicit goal nothing less than to keep the Roman Empire from crumbling to dust, the players of "Pax Romana" are faced with challenges so tremendous and decisions so terrible, to examine them too closely is all but stupefying. But in the best tradition of science fiction, "Pax Romana" seeks to expose in the most meaningful terms why this massive endeavor would or would not work.

"What kind of mentality would it take to build a 'perfect society?'" said Hickman of the "Pax Romana" cast, which is a varied group of cardinals, generals, popes, a child emperor and of course Constantine himself. "There aren't any good guys, I didn't write any good guys. [laughs] There are people that believe in things, but it doesn't mean they're believing in the right things.

"What starts off as a religious crusade turns into a social experiment, except these guys are deadly serious and they're going to be committed to it for the rest of their lives. Their kids are going to be committed to it.

"If you're going to build a 'perfect society' you have to compromise along the way because you can't be concerned with the Individual; with the humans around you. You have to be worried about the larger human group. In other words, would you allow slavery to continue for a period of time because you need to build an infrastructure and a sewage system so you don't get the black plague and stuff like that? 'Pax Romana' is tough questions like that."

Hickman was inspired in the creation of "Pax Romana" by the celebrated author Frank Herbet, most specifically his novel "God Emperor of Dune." "That's one of the inspirations for it," Hickman said. "The other one is I just really wanted to do a time travel story!"

"The Nightly News" was heavily informed by an intense crash course in journalism, politics and statistics. Hickman has similarly prepared himself for "Pax Romana" with a prodigious study of history, geography, geology and philosophy. "I've been reading a lot of Hegel," Hickman said. "A lot of 'The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire' by Edward Gibbon, and all the armory books I can get a hold of so I can learn what they used to wear back then and what the social practices were. I've been doing a lot of research about the geographic changes of the state of Rome over the 300-year period of the fall of the Roman Empire and trying to figure out how I would consolidate borders and stuff like that."

Given Hickman's highly distinctive art style, comparisons between "Pax Romana" and "The Nightly News" will be inevitable, but Hickman believes his new book surpasses the visual richness of his superlative debut. "'Pax Romana' is going to be, obviously, graphic design-heavy," explained Hickman. "But the 'graphic designy' stuff will be more 'graphic designy' and the art will be more analogue, if that makes sense. So instead of it being just trendy pop graphic design, it's going to be a lot more 'cutting edge' than just black and white line art. It's going to be painted in some places, a multimedia kind of thing, kind of a collage in some spots."

In terms of story comparison, Hickman says, "The scope [of 'Pax Romana'] is about the same [as 'The Nightly News']. Even though it may be a grander scale, I think I'm still trying to tell a story on multiple levels. I think that is true. I think I'm trying to tell a story that has multiple themes as well as an overarching narrative."

"The Nightly News" represented for Jonathan Hickman a total commitment to professional comicbookery, and the auspicious newcomer has loads more to say. "Pax Romana" debuts barely two months after "The Nightly News" graphic novel collection hit stores; Hickman contributed to Image's hotly anticipated "Popgun" anthology; and as previously reported on CBR News, "A Red Mass for Mars" follows in December, and is Hickman's first work to be illustrated by another artist, the emerging talent Ryan Bodenheim (Hickman will provide color art). And in March of 2008, Hickman plans to release "Transhuman," a comic book mockumentary about the rise of genetic engineering.

"'Transhuman' is kind of a comedy," Hickman said. "It's a lot of tongue-in-cheek. It's really sarcastic. Not a lot of 'ha ha!' jokes but there's a lot of stuff that'll make you chuckle. A guy named JM Ringuet is drawing it. He's colored some things for BOOM! Studios. He's got a kind of Mike Oeming/Tim Sale thing going."

Perhaps paradoxically, most professionals in all facets of the comics industry read fewer and fewer comic books after finding themselves in the business of making and selling them. Just one graphic novel deep, Jonathan Hickman is no exception -- but still better than many at keeping up with some of the medium's best books.

"I've become really oversensitive to ripping people off," Hickman remarked. "Not intentionally -- you don't mean to do that. But whatever you read, it kind of filters into what you're doing. I stopped reading a lot of stuff but two of my better buys were 'Batman: Year 100' by Paul Pope and 'Pulphope.' I liked it - a lot. I've been reading 'Fables.' I love 'Fables,' that's very, very good. I also read 'Y: The Last Man.' I've been reading '100 Bullets' lately. That's pretty amazing. I'm a pretty big fan. I didn't even know who Eduardo Risso was but I've become a huge fan overnight."

Hickman has plans to continue the mythology of "Pax Romana" after the conclusion of this maiden miniseries. "The whole thing is kind of structured like 'Hellboy' in that it's something that I can revisit once a year or something like that, do a miniseries, and it keeps building on the world," Hickman explained. "I've got a whole lot of that stuff already plotted out and this is just the first little bit. It takes place over 150 years over the first four issues. And it's really about society building. It's what the story's all about."

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