Axel-In-Charge: Extending "Secret Wars," Excitement for a "Totally Awesome Hulk"
Pax Romana by Jonathan Hickman (writer/artist).
Published by Image, 4 issues (#1-4), cover dated December 2007 – November 2008.
Will there be SPOILERS? Well, yes. It’s just how it has to be!
Jonathan Hickman followed up his first mini-series, The Nightly News, with this one, and in both, he tried to stretch the comics form to incorporate new ways of telling a story. None of the innovations in the two series was original, but Hickman at least tried to integrate them into the simple panel-and-grid storytelling of comics. In The Nightly News, it was the use of informational graphics, while in Pax Romana, it’s the use of pages with almost nothing but text on them. In both series, he tried to create a more holistic page without panel borders, simply shifting our eyes to different parts of the page. Pax Romana is slightly more “traditional” in that regard – Hickman uses more panels in this than he did in The Nightly News – but it’s still an visually interesting comic, which is always appreciated.
Pax Romana, like The Nightly News, wants to be more than what it actually is – in the case of The Nightly News, it’s a political thriller disguised as a polemic against a flaccid and decrepit media, while in the case of Pax Romana, it’s a science fiction action/adventure disguised as a counterfactual historical tract. I love ambition in comics, so while Hickman doesn’t quite pull either of them off, for the most part, they’re exhilarating comics. Just because Hickman flies too close to the sun doesn’t mean we should admire him for strapping on wings in the first place. Pax Romana is perhaps held in slightly lower regard than The Nightly News because the shock of Hickman’s style has worn off and Pax Romana is a bit more challenging than The Nightly News, but that doesn’t mean it’s not a Comic You Should Own.
Pax Romana is, as I mentioned above, a simple science fiction adventure with a simple premise that has been used many times in sci-fi: What if technology from the future could be used in the past? In this case, a character called the Gene Pope visits the Holy Roman Emperor, a young boy, and begins telling him the tale of how the empire has lasted for so many centuries. It seems the pope is privy to the story of an alternate timeline, one in which scientists at the CERN laboratories in Geneva discovered a way to travel back in time. Hickman sets this in the near future – AD 2053 – which allows him to create a world with petty warring states, a weakened Catholic Church, and genetic modifications that allow people to live for two centuries or so. The pope decides to send a cadre of soldiers back in time to “set things right” – make sure the Catholic Church always retains its supremacy. They choose Nicholas Chase, an American general, to accompany Cardinal Beppi Pelle, back in time. Chase assembles a team of long-lived soldiers, the pope and his adviser decide that the time period must be early in the reign of Constantine the Great, and off they go.
So, here’s a historical aside. Constantine I (ruled AD 306-337) was the first Christian emperor of Rome. He’s notable for a few things: He established Constantinople, which became his capital and ruled over the East Roman Empire (which we call the Byzantine Empire) until 1453, when it became the capital of the Ottoman Empire after the Turks captured it; he recognized the growing power of Christianity and in 313 issued the Edict of Milan, which basically said that all religions would be tolerated in the empire (which was a pretty big deal, given that Diocletian, who ruled the empire from 284-305, really had a hard-on for killing Christians); he convened the Council of Nicaea in 325, at which bishops wrestled with several theological and administrative problems, perhaps the most important of which was how to deal with the Arian “heresy” (don’t ask). The Council gave us the Nicene Creed, which, if you’re Catholic, you’ll probably recognize. Constantine was a Christian, but there’s some debate over when he actually professed his faith – in 312, when he saw a sign of the cross in a vision on the night before a battle with his rival for Rome and won the victory after painting that sign on his soldiers’ shields; or on his deathbed, when he no longer had to worry about the strong non-Christian segment in Roman society. It doesn’t really matter, because publicly, Constantine saw the writing on the wall and promoted Christianity throughout the realm, and the religion never looked back.
The pope and Cardinal Pelle choose to send the team to Constantine’s time because it’s a fulcrum around which the history of the Christian faith revolves. They need to go to a time before Islam begins, so they can nip it in the bud. They need to go to a time before the Christian West is no longer ruled by one power, so any time after Constantine, who was pretty much the last effective ruler of Rome, is no good. They need to go to a time when Christianity had the backing of a strong military power, so before Constantine will also not work. It’s a smart choice, and once they arrive (after Chase decides on a slightly altered agenda for the team), they get to work making sure that Constantine and his heirs are unassailable and staunchly Christian. They easily defeat Constantine’s rivals for the throne (Rome was too big at that time to be ruled by one person unless that person was one of the Great Men of History – which Constantine was – so there were co-rulers whom Constantine didn’t defeat utterly until 324; Chase simply moves that event up by a decade), and at the Council of Nicaea, he proclaims two separate Christian doctrines. Just when they think everything is going smoothly, there’s a fly in the ointment. Things don’t quite fall apart, but we do get some twists and turns on the way, but the plan worked, and it leads to the Gene Pope telling the story to the boy-emperor (Constans IV, if you must know).
So, yeah. A nice little action/adventure story about time traveling, with Roman soldiers using guns and shit to take over the world. Not exactly memorable, right? But Hickman decides that just doing that isn’t good enough – much like The Nightly News, he has to do more. As I pointed out above, he doesn’t quite reach the plateau he set for himself, but he tries, and that makes this a far more interesting comic than you might think. Hickman doesn’t just send a bunch of mercenaries back in time to blow shit up. He sends them back in time to save the world, establish a true universal religion, and create a new culture. Much like Hickman themselves, they don’t succeed exactly as they planned, but they do create something fascinating. Hickman wants this to be more than an action/adventure, too, so the text pages (among other things) tend to veer toward the philosophical. This is where the book becomes more interesting. In the first issue, the pope and cardinals discuss the nuts and bolts of the mission, and it’s in the second issue where things become interesting. At the end of issue #1, Chase shoots Cardinal Pelle and takes over the mission. He tells his cohorts before he does so that the cardinal changed the mission – he was only going “to strengthen and prop up the existing church.” According to Chase, the pope wanted “to change human history,” while “the Cardinal plans for us to watch the world crawl when it could run.” He’s planning this, according to Chase, because he has put himself above the mission – he wants to guide the Church, not remake the world. This leads into a two-page discussion (using mostly text) about manufacturing religion, free will, slavery, social engineering, and the right of their group to do any of this. They agree to do it, of course, but Hickman shows us that they’re not completely united. Chase ends the discussion by saying:
Let those that would make slaves of our people, raze our cities and burn our libraries learn an eternal lesson: This time the progress of society will not be abated. There will be no dark ages — no long night before the dawn of modernity.
He tells them they must commit or die, and if he wavers in the future, he expects them to kill him. And so they’re off!
In issue #3, Hickman gets into these ideas even more. He, Constantine, and Constantine’s son Crispus (who was executed in 326 but in Pax Romana lives to succeed his father) discuss their goals of governance in the aftermath of Nicaea. Chase explains that they are eliminating religion as a means of controlling people, something Crispus finds laughable. Chase tells him their idea of governing will use “revolution as a generational catalyst.” He means that they will constantly push the government through stages to achieve the ultimate goal – a Republic. Chase explains this means moving through Fascism to Communism and thence to Democracy. Hickman makes a classic blunder here by confusing economic systems – communism – with governmental systems – democracy – but we understand what he means. Once the Republic is achieved, of course, the problem is in sustaining it. Crispus asks if there no flaws in Chase’s system, and of course there are: “the tyranny of the majority,” meaning the mob. Chase, naturally, believes they can control the mob. So too have most despots!
By issue #4, rifts have appeared in the group, as Chase’s subordinates think he’s hitched his wagon to the wrong horse – they don’t trust Crispus to follow through on the original plan. Crispus himself proves them right, but not before they’re prepared for it. Hickman, as he did in The Nightly News, betrays a cynicism toward people who try to change the world, even as Chase and his group do so. Hickman doesn’t pull punches when it comes to exposing the pettiness of humanity – Chase’s plans are fractured by jealousy, sexual attraction, and familial devotion, which are among the most primal of emotions but also the most likely to lead people astray – but he does so in a way that feels fresh. Unlike other superhero comics (and this is most certainly a superhero book), Hickman makes the reader believe in a higher purpose and nobility before showing how false that promise is. Pax Romana isn’t quite as cynical as The Nightly News – ultimately, Chase and his group succeed – but it also shows the limitations of the human urge for perfection.
As I mentioned, Pax Romana is a thinly-veiled superhero comic. Think about it: Hickman gives us people with exotic and otherworldly powers who dazzle the regular population. That the people are from the future and their technology gives them the powers and that the population is living in the fourth century doesn’t change the allegory all that much. Pax Romana is similar to comics like Moore’s Marvelman, Gruenwald’s Squadron Supreme, and Millar’s The Authority (among others). What many of these stories have in common is that the gods themselves are far from perfect and are subject to the same foibles as the so-called “lesser” people and that humanity itself is perhaps not worthy of the gifts the gods bestow on them. These themes are as old as literature themselves, but it’s interesting that Hickman manages to keep them in the subtext for almost the entire book. And, of course, despite the problems Chase and his soldiers face, they do manage to succeed in their mission … well, to a degree.
Hickman wrote in the back of issue #1 that he wanted this world to be a kind of Hellboy-verse, where he could return and tell many stories. Obviously he hasn’t been back, and probably won’t now that he’s working so much for Marvel. But Pax Romana is still an impressive comic. Hickman’s story is a bit better than The Nightly News, even as he’s not quite as ambitious as that book. This is a fascinating look at how people attempt social engineering when they “know” they’re “right,” not because of faith but because they’ve seen it work. How far should that social engineering go? Hickman shows that no matter how men try, they will always encounter unexpected problems. While this might not be all that original, Hickman manages to do a lot of interesting things with the premise.
Pax Romana is collected in trade, which is nice. Hickman moved on, of course, to a few other projects at Image which he wrote but didn’t draw, and now to Marvel, where’s he a bigwig. He remains an interesting creator, but if you want to see him bolder than he is at Marvel, this is a fine comic to check out.
It’s not difficult to check out the archives, you know! As it’s the holiday season, and I’m trying to finish up with this year’s graphic novels that I want to review, and I have a feeling I know what the next installment is going to be and it’s going to take me a while, I doubt if I’ll get another one of these up before the new year. But the series will be back in January! Won’t that be fun?
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