Pax Romana #1
“Part One: Destroy the Past. Create the Future.”
Writer/Artist/Cover artist: Jonathan Hickman
Publisher: Image Comics
Price: $3.50 US
Jonathan Hickman impressed with his debut effort, The Nightly News, another limited series from Image. His art, his layouts, his sense of design and his writing are all unlike the vast majority of output in the medium today. While I suspect many have yet to discover his work, his is a voice that will help to transform comics storytelling for the new century. While the biggest American comics publishers are embracing nostalgia in their storytelling, Hickman’s work challenges the reader to change his or her expectations. His comics look different, sound different and have a different impact on the audience. His compelling plots are immersed in relevance. His approach to sequential art leads the reader’s eye through the story in an unconventional but surprisingly natural manner. All of this was true of The Nightly News, and that remains the case with Pax Romana. Whereas before he took on the cultures of greed and the media, with Pax, he examines the cultures of religion and war. Oddly enough, while The Nightly News is set in a world clearly close to reality in America, it’s Pax Romana — with its future and past settings, men of the cloth and mercenaries — that’s more accessible while still challenging with its immense ideas.
In a future incredibly unlike the world we live in today, the world is ruled by a child emperor, whose decisions are guided by a genetically engineered, never-changing Catholic pope. While science has advanced, society seems to be in throwback mode, and the boy leader of the entire world learns the real secret behind his family’s ascent to power. In the burgeoning years of the 21st century, scientists in the employ of the Vatican unlock the secrets of time travel, and the upper echelons of leadership in the Church hatch a plan to use this technology for the betterment of man, the betterment of God and, of course, the benefit of Catholicism. Men of faith are paired with men of war as a mission to the past is prepared, but not everything goes according to plan…
I’m struck by how effective Hickman’s digital lettering is. Many of the narrative captions are written as excerpts from a future, all-encompassing reference source, and the simple, tight font he uses reinforces the notion that this is some kind of interactive, digital display window called up by the reader. The slick, clean font and smooth, straight lines of the word balloons, both used for the dialogue, are pleasing to the eye and make for easy reading. However, the crisp, perfectly even qualities of the visual presentation of the dialogue works against the flawed humanity and harsh developments that arise over the course of the script. His Brian Wood-like sense of design continues to shine, though. He uses a great juxtaposition of a warrior of the past and a conventional military man, and the white bar at the bottom helps the image as a whole pop out. I also love his choice to switch out the feathered adornment of the helmet for a sizzling kind of energy, reflecting the science-fiction elements that are vital to the plot.
The interior artwork is even more impressive. Hickman’s open-panel approach keeps the story flowing along nicely. His figures in the initial scenes are strong, comparable to the work of Tony (Ex Machina) Harris. Later on, as the story grows more tense and harsh, one could easily put Hickman and his art in the same company as of such artists as Jock (Green Arrow: Year One) and Daniel (Loveless) Zezelj. The creator uses color to great effect. Most of the issue is bathed in oranges, symbolizing the instability of what’s happening in the story. The color scheme shifts briefly to shades of red for the time-travel sequence. A mix of blues and pinks creep in for the planning stages of the story. The final scene is set against a backdrop of green. It’s a serene color, perhaps meant to represent the simpler times of the past. But the coolness of that color also lulls the reader into a false sense of security, making the twist ending all the more sudden and shocking.
Hickman sets a perfect pace in this opening issue, introducing each character clearly while still setting the stage and advancing the plot. When politics, science, religion and war converge, the result is no simple scenario. However, Hickman spells out the complexity of the situation clearly, but accessibility doesn’t lead to oversimplification or a patronizing tone. The writer conveys the science-fiction elements in a convincing manner; the notion of time travel as presented here comes off as plausible rather than fantastic. He’s also granted the characters distinct, believable voices. Perhaps the most interesting sequence in the story is one that’s almost entirely text-based. The debate among the cardinals and the pope about what to do with their new technology is compelling. They don’t seem like madmen or even intense zealots. Instead, there’s thoughtfulness in their discussions, but there’s passion and trepidation as well. 10/10