Tuesday, January 8, 2008

Review: Pax Romana #1

Pax Romana #1 by Jonathan Hickman (Image)

I never read Jonathan Hickman's Image debut, The Nightly News, for a couple of reasons. First, I generally dislike screechy middlebrow comics like The Nightly News appeared to be. If you were to chart my interest in comics on a Cartesian plain, it would look like an inverted parabola with "stupid genre comics" on one end, "snooty art comics" on the other, and "Phonogram" in the middle. Second, Graeme McMillan's review made it sound simultaneously unenlightening and unentertaining--the very epitome of a screechy middlebrow comic. So I assumed I'd never read anything by Hickman.

And yet I picked up a copy of Pax Romana #1. With the new year, I've decided to try reading more Image comics, cause I think there's an emerging trend towards a new type of art-first mentality there. Plus I really dug the preview images I'd seen for Pax Romana on CBR. Hickman's art looked less severe and more painterly, almost psychedelic. I liked the way that the washes of color played against the sharp outlines of his figures. And so I resolved to broaden my mind and pick up a copy.

If I had bothered to read the dialogue in those preview pages, I don't know that I would have done so. Seldom have I seen such uninviting opening words: "The megacity Constantinople--Post-aurora, before the synthetic rains." Huh? Did I really sign up for this? Admittedly, alternate history SF isn't my thing, mostly because it's too contrived, has nothing to do with the chaos that is actual history. Still, I was hoping that Hickman's art would be enough to overcome my distaste for the genre. I really needed something or another to sell me on the idea of this particular alternate history--shocking, grandiose images and ideas which I couldn't wait to see explained. Instead, Hickman starts out with some rather ineffective exposition, characterized by a lot of goofy jargon about Series-7 Gene Popes and synthetic uteri. I found it confusing and pretty off-putting; it presumes that the reader is as interested in Hickman's world-building as he is. In reality, I need to be convinced that reading this stuff is worth my time. And frankly, I've had enough pseudo-genetic plot devices to last several lifetimes.

Exacerbating all this is Hickman's absolutely godawful lettering. It's computer-generated, but not in such a way to resemble human handwriting. Hickman places the words in large, rectangular speech balloons. It's similar to the lettering Chris Onstad uses on Achewood, except the font is even more austere and the lettering is much, much smaller relative to the balloon. It's really those balloons that look the worst--the large margins and sharp edges give it a cold, lifeless look. Combined with Hickman's heaping piles of exposition, I felt like I was reading a stereo manual. It was enough to make me consider abandoning the book.

But then I remembered my interest in the "new" Image, and decided that I probably ought to give Hickman a little more rope. After five or six pages, Hickman rewarded my patience by finally supplying a hook for his story: the Catholic Church has been funding a bunch of SciFi-friendly research, and a couple of the scientists on their payroll have invented a device that allows time travel. That's certainly an interesting starting point--what would the Vatican do with access to time travel? Unfortunately, Hickman arrests all momentum by devoting two pages to an interview transcript, featuring a bunch of characters who had not appeared before (and who would not appear again). Hickman divides the transcript under headings like "Military Necessity" and "Who Leads." At this point, the experience is less like reading an exceptionally well-illustrated instruction manual for a new piece of electronic equipment and more like reading a brochure for aluminum panel siding.

I imagine Hickman made this choice for two reasons: (1) as a quick way to dump a lot of information on the reader, and (2) as a calculated stylistic decision. Unfortunately, I don't think it works on either level. It's not compelling as an info dump because the information is vague enough that Hickman could have conveyed it in a few panels. The transcript doesn't work as a stylistic choice either, mostly because it's so visually boring. Instead of integrating the text into the art (as he does throughout the rest of the issue), Hickman keeps them totally separated. It's a jarring break from the visual continuity of the book, and I don't think it really accomplishes anything aesthetically or narratively.

Hickman returns to a conventional comics style to detail the recruitment of an assault team which will head into the past to do...something or another. The leader of the team is a hardened, eyepatch-wearing soldier nicknamed "Black Bear" who says things like "the men I recruit will be men of honor" and "I'm not sure how you got a hold of the nukes, but I'm happy to have them" and (sarcastically) "Nice speech." The "men of honor" are a racially diverse group who all have very clear specialties. The (apparent) villains of the piece are a shirtless dreadlocked Jamaican named Shaka Love ("you cross dat line...It be angels eider way") and a slave trader who establishes his evilness by killing a mother and child in his first scene. It's around this point that I can't help but compare Pax Romana to a video game.

Now I know that saying "it's like a video game" is an exceptionally lazy piece of criticism; it would also be somewhat hypocritical on my part, since I actually like video games. And man, Pax Romana would make a good game. A team of genetically-modified super soldiers sent back to the past, led by a cyclopean anti-hero with a zoological nickname! The promise of killing hundreds of medieval warriors with futuristic weaponry! A small group of comrades (including a love interest, maybe?) to talk to between missions, slowly revealing their mysterious backstories! Hey, that sounds okay to me. I wouldn't even care about the corny dialogue or moldy old character archetypes or Byzantine (PUN INTENDED) plot if I got to run around with a laser cannon shooting hordes of dudes on horses. I'd even go for something lower-key, like a stealth-type game where the futuristic weaponry would be for emergency use only. If nothing else, the massive processing power of current gen systems would ensure a lush, immersive environment. Right?

That's the biggest problem I see for Pax Romana going forward; I don't see any gorgeous reproductions of the late Roman Empire in the works. That's just not the kind of work that Hickman does. The visuals in the first issue of Pax Romana are mostly limited to mid-distance shots of human figures. The burden of establishing location is shouldered by exterior shots of buildings--there are almost no interior details here. Characters tend to float in washes of color; in the infrequent occasions in which they interact with their environment, the details are minimal. I have no idea how Hickman intends to sell readers on the setting of the story, and I don't see how this is going to succeed as a narrative unless he does so. Such detail is not absolutely necessary in a period piece, but I do think readers are conditioned to expect it. Pax Romana will have to rely on interesting characters, clever plotting, or the reader's agreement with whatever message Hickman is sending.

I get the idea that Hickman is counting on the latter, what with all his talk about sociology and the nature of his previous project. Since this first issue is all exposition/no philosophy, there's not really a whole lot of interest. Hickman's style, the very thing which attracted me to the comic, begins to wear thin about halfway through the book. The art is distinctive, but repetitive; it's hard to tell when a scene has ended because there are so few visual cues. I also found his drawing to be inconsistent--the four-year-old emperor looks like a 40-year-old little person at some points. The writing isn't much better. In addition to employing stock character types, Hickman's dialogue is heavy on exposition-intensive monologues.

Despite all this, I'm planning on reading the second issue just to see how Hickman handles the challenges of his historical setting. If he focuses on long speeches about the meaning of freedom, I probably won't be sticking around. Hickman does sort of apologize for the content of this issue, noting that he started out with all the Gene Pope business because he hopes to turn this series into a Hellboy-like franchise. I'm pretty skeptical about that, based on this first issue. But it's an interesting enough prospect that I'm willing to give him another issue, despite my many reservations.


Matthew J. Brady said...

Well, crud, you're probably right. I still liked it, but I think I can tolerate Hickman's style a bit more. And by "tolerate", I mean I think it's pretty cool, but you make some good points that are probably going to be popping up in my mind as I read future issues. I actually liked some of the formal stuff, like the intermingling of text and image (I especially liked that double-page spread of the team traveling back in time, with different events showing up on alternate timelines). He's no Chris Ware, but he's still fairly new to comics, so I'm hoping he'll grow into a pretty formidable creator.

Dan Coyle said...

That was an excellent review, Dick.

Now review Hulk #1.

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