Webcomics To Watch: McGinley on "Hannibal Goes to Rome"

In CBR's latest installment of WEBCOMICS TO WATCH, we talk to a creator who has been through Zuda's contest cycle, moved to Image's Shadowline site, and spun his own creations on the side as an independent publisher.

Brendan McGinley's comical, history-entrenched tale in "Hannibal Goes to Rome," illustrated by Mauro Vargas, grabs at the absurdity of the same kind of mythic super-machismo that Frank Miller thrives on. A natural talker, the same kind of wink-wink-nudge-nudge narration that McGinley pulls off on each page of "Hannibal" shows up his conversational skills.

The New York-based writer spoke with CBR News about what he's learned since Zuda, what he'd do all over again, and what "Hannibal Goes to Rome" has in store for 2009.

CBR: You, Frank Miller, Leonidas and Hannibal are all sitting at a bar. Who do we want on their side if a couple of biker thugs start shoving us around by the billiard tables?

Brendan McGinley: I'd say you want Frank handy. Hannibal's lost without cavalry, Leonidas works best backed in a corner, and I only fight when a lady's heart is at stake. Anyway, I've been in a bar with Miller, and the bikers wouldn't be able to push through the crowd gathered to hear his tales. Even if they did, they'd forget their fury amid a stunning critique of Raymond Chandler.

Why did you want to do a story about Hannibal in the first place? Where Frank Miller made a hyper-masculine action tale out of an ancient war story, you decided to go the comical route.

I think they're both appropriate for what they are. "300" was ancient civ-noir, a very Frank Miller story: fascism you can believe in. Eric Shanower's "Age of Bronze" is another serious take, but he's dealing with so many contradictory myths about a war that's never even been corroborated, so he has a lot more homework than we do, but also a lot more freedom to linger in a scene and make it personal.

With Hannibal, you're only dealing with a couple of sources, and they're pretty consistent. I wanted to tell the whole tale. And again, comics can do what movies can't, and take the scenic route. The sticky wicket with Hannibal is the war on Rome was literally half this man's life, from cradle to middle age. And there's almost no climax to the arc. It builds to the height of his power, then kicks around southern Italy forever, biding its time, until the war turns.

Where did the humor enter into it?

It's a way to speculate and editorialize without departing from history. Facts are in boxes, but I assume the reader won't take the talking elephant's opinion too seriously. And it helps individualize the comic. I can't write poetry, other people can't do humor, but presumably if you're writing Hannibal in the first place, you can do a dramatic telling. The testosterone route just seemed too obvious, and, upon closer inspection, erroneous. Hannibal was dignity amid cunning, both of which interest me more, and can be sustained longer than, a battle roar.

And I loved "Cartoon History of the Universe." Mauro had done some excellent "Dose" stuff for me, and he's one of those artists a writer can't keep up with; how do you not use the perfect fit like that? He does action, he does caricature, he does expressive faces, which is always my first beloved quality in a comic artist.

Did you know any Latin before you started this comic?

I don't know any Latin now. I was the only one who signed up to take it in high school, so they canceled the class. However, if you'd like to have a conversation in Punic, me and my abbreviated dictionary are your source. Amazingly, for all I murder the Roman language, "Hannibal" still has a pretty good following among historians and professors, who are apparently very forgiving, or else they're hypnotized by the art Mauro and Andres cook up.

What sort of feedback have you heard from those kinds of well-read readers?

Most people like it. Or at least you can't argue with their criticisms. I've been very lucky not to get any of that "U SUCK SCREW U 4 TRYING!!1!!" internet reactivism. The harshest review I've read was quite reasonable; you couldn't disagree with any of it, and I took its points to hand when revising the series for color: keep the word count down, evict the purple font, skim the cheese from the jokes.

It's gotten a little friendly attention from academia. I've got professors and authors contacting me now. I think Hannibal's a secret hero to a lot of people who study ancient history and notice the Romans have a good game plan, but can really conduct themselves ignobly when there's gain in it. As the stakes rise, so do the bodies draped from them.

You've had "Hannibal" at Zuda, DC's webcomics imprint. It's now at Shadowline in connection with Image Comics, and you've had experience yourself going the self-publishing route for your other work. How would you evaluate all three of those options for folks starting out with a new comic?

I thought Zuda was the way to go because I'd read Todd Allen's cost-benefit study on web-distribution versus print. "Hannibal" was perfect for the long format. I was also a little unclear on what happened to the comic's rights if we lost, and I figured, "Hey, you can only license a certain interpretive copyright of a real, historical figure." So I was hedging the bet, I suppose. And lose we did, which was actually kind of nice, because we got a ton of attention, a little bit of cash, and all our rights back. Mauro suggested Andres Carranza to color the strip beautifully, and with our new pages in hand, we were all set to publish "Hannibal" on www.indeliblecomics.com.

Suddenly! An old pal from Wizard, Mike Dolce, connected us with Shadowline, who liked what they saw and gave us a nice roosting spot on their website. And that's the story of "Hannibal Goes to Rome." Tomorrow I'll tell you all about the secret origins of Neil Kleid and Paul Salvi's "Action, Ohio." It involves the world's eighth-richest man and a kiddie pool filled with fresh, creamery butter.

Would you have gone the same route with Hannibal starting at Zuda again if you had it to do over?

Sure! I recommend losing a Zuda competition to anyone! Though if you win, apparently they're all getting animated deals now, so hoo boy! Did we miss out.

People like brands, and Zuda is a well-branded division of the original name in comics: DC. (Well, okay: Rodolphe Töpffer is the original name, but what's he done lately?) When they pick your strip for the competition, it's a stamp of approval -- not necessarily a seal of quality, though there's plenty of that, too. But you have DC staff tacitly saying to you, the reader, "Yes, here are some webcomics you should check out." You might not like them, but you're far more receptive to give it a read and then decide.

That's the weird thing. Free webcomics. You really lose nothing but as much time as they hold your interest. But it's so much easier to get people to read Zuda than to say "Hey, I've got 56 pages of humor anthology online free." Maybe it's because Zuda's nature combines word of mouth with authority. I mean -- that's what works for "American Idol," doesn't it?

At Shadowline, nobody's pitted against each other for a contract, and there are no rankings. Even more now, the strips are associated with an established, known quality like Jim Valentino & Kristen Simon, who know their stuff. That was a real thrill for me, because [Simon] wrote that excellent list of comic writer's guidelines and he was the publisher that got me to notice Image. [Valentino] let fly a lot of cool books outside of the superhero genre.

So it was a nice progression -- we might have lost the class election at Zuda (to some mighty talents), but we got a passing grade from the teachers at Image. I think it bought me enough credit with webcomic readers that they're willing to give "Heist" or "Invisible, Inc." a shot.

How often are you updating "Hannibal?"

"Hannibal" updates one new page every Sunday at Shadowline. "Heist" and "Invisible, Inc." are updated on my page every Monday and Tuesday, one row at a time. The remainder of those pages publish throughout the week because of how the ComicPress template works, so pretty much every day at the Bankshot Comics blog, you're getting something spiffy. There's also archive pages with crisp JavaScript if you prefer to read an entire issue at once.

What point in the story are you looking forward to getting to the most -- and perhaps seeing Mauro draw, if that answer is different?

At the moment, I'm envisioning Mauro drawing this neat ruse Hannibal and some terrified cattle pull, but I also want to see his vision of this nighttime infiltration of a Roman town. It's completely a special forces op that runs on sheer audacity and ends with an amazing solution to the fact that the Romans are still blocking naval access.

Also, I'm looking forward to getting paid.

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