Pax Romana: Where Have You Been All My Life?

paxor “A Love Letter to Jonathan Hickman”

I like graphic novels. I like that they are a complete story and don’t suck me in to an endless commitment to purchase more and more and more and more comic books. Believe me: I already have enough “serials” on my monthly pull-list at the comic shop, and for some strange reason, the list keeps getting longer every time I go in there. Graphic novels are either self-contained or don’t span much more than a few sequels, so the canon is easily consumed, like traditional novels or movies. Graphics also tend to be more on the “serious” side in terms of tone, which I relish. So when I’m browsing the shop aimlessly, I will inevitably end up at the shelves of graphics, and it is thus how, a month or two back, I accidentally discovered Pax Romana by Jonathan Hickman.

The tragedy here is that it was an accident. It was literally the sexy cover and the catchy title that got me to stop (even more catchy for a history student like me).  Otherwise, I’d never heard of this book before in my life. And it wasn’t “new,” as these things go: my copy is a third printing with a 2013 copyright. By the time I finished reading it, however—scratch that. By the time I was 4 pages in, I was flabbergasted as to why there wasn’t already a movie adaptation and how come Mr. Hickman hadn’t been given the Hugo Award or the Pulitzer Prize. So here is my official review on the title, SPOILER FREE, which I hope will encourage you to send some money to Mr. Hickman and pick up a copy of Pax Romana.

What’s Distracting for Me…

  • Absent language barrier.  I’ve mentioned this pet-peeve of mine before, particularly in my article on the new Voltron. In this case, we have characters who travel backwards through the centuries in order to alter history, beginning with the reign of Roman Emperor Constantine I. Evidently, our time-travelers have no difficulty understanding the ancient and dead Latin the Romans would be speaking. I suppose we could reasonably assume they were trained in the language in preparation for their mission, but this is not made explicit, and that’s what bugs. As I stated in the Voltron article, it’s such an easy fix for the writer; the reader shouldn’t have to fill in the gaps.
  • Plain text passages.  In each chapter there is an expository scene depicting a long conversation/debate between several characters. The dialog is much too dense and lengthy to comfortably fit in the traditional panel-sequence, so in each case, Hickman decided to go with a full two-page splash of almost pure text, with lines attributed to speakers, akin to a script. Mind you: my gripe here is not “too much reading.” A similar pax textapproach was taken to build the massive back-story in Watchmen, and with magnificent effect. But what Watchmen did that Pax Romana didn’t was present these long passages (text though they might be) as illustrations. These are graphic novels, after all. Watchmen‘s long text passages are drawn contextually: as newspaper clippings or diary entries or whatever artifacts they were meant to be. By contrast, Pax Romana‘s long text passages are simply that: long text passages of simple black letters on plain white paper. Perhaps it was a “minimalist” choice that Hickman was making, but I find it unattractive and misaligned with the rich artwork throughout the rest of the book. It can also be confusing, as the reader might not be able to track which name on the plain script corresponds to which illustrated character (who by contrast have highly distinct visual features). Even replacing the attributed name with a small “profile pic” of the corresponding character could have done much to avoid confusion and enliven the visual appeal on these pages.
  • Ended right when it was getting started.  It’s not uncommon to be disappointed when an enjoyable fantasy ends—I think I cried when Voldemort died, in fact, and cried once again when The Cursed Child hit the stands. (I so want to see the play; book review coming next week, hopefully.) In the case of Pax Romana, however, the ending was not so much bittersweet as it was sudden and jarring. I literally said out loud, “Wait, that’s the end?” As much as I had admired everything I had read up to that point, I felt like we had only traveled about half-way up the mountain of rising action. There was still so much left in this story that was handled through a kind of “concluding montage.” It was as if Hickman had been so deep into telling his story that he didn’t realize how short he had become on time and paper, and had to wrap it up to meet a deadline or something. It was Quantum Leap and Dollhouse all over again. There’s such a rich and untapped vein of alternate history remaining here that Pax Romana would do well to be expanded into sequels or even into a regular monthly serial. (And yes, I’d add THAT serial to my pull-list as well, dammit. My wallet curse thee.)

pax panels

What’s Engrossing for Me…

  • Beautiful artwork.  Hopefully you can tell from my few featured illustrations that Hickman’s artwork is fantastic and innovative—and not just the illustrations but the layout choices as well. Hickman brings a unique style to the form of graphic storytelling. Each page is a Renaissance painting. Replete with symbolism and with decidedly few—but highly active—panels, Hickman’s art leads your eyes on an interactive tour of his story. The dynamism of the pieces makes me think of the way “still pictures” in the Harry Potter movies were actually more like GIFs.
  • Gripping premise.  I was telling my dad about this book, beginning with “a team of operatives travel back in time to the Roman Empire, and they bring their modern technology with them so they can alter history and try to shape it the way they want it.” Being relatively easy on this sort of thing, my dad’s response was “you had me at time travel.” Of course, there’s so much more to it than that. As for myself, being a student of history as well as a fan of speculative fiction, the premise was very promising when my local comic book guy suggested it. He was not wrong. The blurb I’ve offered above doesn’t do it justice. The setting, conflict, and consequences are all rich in detail and realism and provoke deep contemplation in the reader. This is certainly one of literature’s great “what-if” stories. And consistent with this, I praise…
  • Perfect characterization.  My favorite thing about Pax Romana is its perfect realization of total human imperfection. Our protagonists travel through time and space in hopes of executing some impossible and idealistic re-writing of history. Only the most devoted and faithful visionaries are recruited to the team, as this is going to be a highly meticulous and carefully plotted agenda. And no sooner do the missionaries arrive in the past than the whole plan gets completely screwed up—immediately and catastrophically. All thanks to individual ambition trumping Utopian ideology once again. I laughed. It was so correct. And it was all downhill from there.

pax warFinal Remarks

As I mentioned at the outset, this isn’t exactly a “new” project, but it was entirely new to me. I suspect I’m not alone in this and am excited to present and share this piece for other interested readers. It also bespeaks a possible deficiency in that graphic novels are not getting the marketing and media attention they deserve. They seem to exist in a kind of limbo where they are just as literary and artistic as their “classical,” pictureless counterparts, but are still regarded by the mainstream as little more than glorified “comic books” (itself a term that is much derided) and can only be found in niche shops. It would be wonderful if projects as mature as this one could get the same shelf and window space as any other Barnes & Noble new release. This project, for one, certainly earns it. In Pax Romana, Jonathan Hickman takes a fascinating premise, adds perfect human foibles, and brings it all to perfection with beautiful artwork. Here you will find shades of Dune, and you will lament (as we all did with Dune) that it ends too soon.

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