They are one of history's most memorable perennial losers, and Brendan McGinley can't get enough of them. With "Hannibal Goes to Rome," the one-time Zuda competitor that now distributes through Shadowline/Image Comics, McGinley steered clear of the history written by the winning Romans and chose to examine the man who suffered defeat: Hannibal Barca. The general who attempted to best Rome by leading a troop of elephants through the Alps was a character ripe for exploration, but "Hannibal" is a work of comedic non-fiction. McGinley's new webcomic "Citizen X," with art by Leonardo Pietro and colors by Juan Manuel Tumburus, may focus on Hannibal's possible ancestors, but it's a different—and more ambitious—beast all together.
If you open your history books, you'll see that the Carthagian Empire of Northern Africa had a nasty habit of letting the Roman Empire wipe the floor with them. Three Punic Wars saw Carthage as the loser, not in one, not two, but in three bloody encounters with Rome. But what if they hadn't lost? What if Hannibal's doomed trek across the Alps had instead been a successful campaign against Rome, and Carthage had toppled one of history's greatest empires instead of getting their butts kicked again and again? That "what if?" is exactly what forms the impetus for "Citizen X," a tale which takes place in a world where Carthage became the capital of the world.
"The idea I originally kicked around in college was an outright corporate oligarchy run by huge businesses people were allied to, much like the Roman gens," McGinley explained about "Citizen X's" origins. "I tinkered with the idea of a Rome that had never really fallen, and then found out a billion people have done that idea. Plus, Rome's too fascist for that. I'm not quite sure how I decided on Carthage, except I have a fondness for things vanishing from the mainstream or eking by on the wayside. Carthage always intrigued me as a society that used to be more pervasive than Greek or Latin, and what do we know about it? Only a pinch."
But "Citizen X," which updates with new content every Friday, isn't just a fantasy story based on the remotest bits of fact and looking at a possible future where the people of Carthage discover space travel in the year 500 A.D. "Citizen X" forms an entire and very real examination of how history could have been completely rewritten if one man—Hannibal—had succeeded.
"You know what no one tells you about speculative fiction? You have to do more research than if it were wholly real or wholly made up," McGinley said. "If it were non-fiction, I could go right to the sources, and if it were wholly fiction I could just say 'Hey, they've got gunpowder and saddles,' but branching off from the third century B.C. I have to figure out where the actual history would have taken them to advance their society. Would their historical skills intersect with another culture's along a fictional expansion to yield the secrets of the internal combustion engine? You have to at least make it plausible."
The first issue of "Citizen X" is online now at McGinley's Web site IndelibleComics.com and begins with a storyline entitled "The Mission." The very first line of the story teases plenty of tales to be told for the book's main character. "Of the 77 adventure of Rakh al'Gadriel, this: A tale from the Empire's edge, when both he and she were young and severe," it reads. Rakh, a young policeman and son of a senator, has just been given his first military assignment on the empire's fringe and must say goodbye to to his love while questioning the political ramifications of such a move. This "promotion" may be a victory for his career, or maybe he's just pissed off the wrong person.
"'Citizen X' is Hannibal's successor, akin to the Roman princeps but more democratic," McGinley explained regarding the book's titular position. "The X's job is to represent the interests of all classes in their oligarchic society, to maintain the balance. In 'The Mission,' we look at all the different ranks: nobles, hired swords, military men, priests, women struggling against that old patriarchal story to varying degrees of success."
"I'll cop right now that another one of the 77 adventures in the life of Rakh al'Gadriel is to become Citizen X," McGinley continued. "The original story I wrote in college followed him in his thirties, being groomed to succeed the old Citizen X. So this is kind of Rakh's origin story. There are a lot of Citizen X tales, not all of them starring Rakh, but all about how people get ground down by, or wound up in, a big city. We go far from Carthage to make the introduction easy, but you'll see how far the seat of power casts its shadow."
The characters, however, are only a portion of the story when one looks at the amount of politics and intrigue many other fictionalizations of empires have contained and that McGinley has teased for "Citizen X." The culture and trappings of the society this story revolves around become as intricate to the telling of the tale as Rakh himself. And that's when the question of "Why Carthage?" comes in to play.
"Most enticing about Carthage is, it's a dead culture, so I can play with government, economy and racial issues, and it's completely free of any associations since the slate's been wiped on that city a few times since Punic culture went extinct," McGinley elaborated. "Even though they're a Semitic culture, they were the original wayfarers, and their culture's a pastiche of Greek and Egyptian [societies]. So they're really everyone and no one. Pure human nature. [And] I notice the nasty Roman stereotypes libeled on our Carthaginian friends are the same spewed by modern-day lunkheads about Jews. So I don't forget they're Semitic. I know a lot about their society, and I tend to assign them the by-laws or beliefs that Hebrew and Arab cultures share. But capitalism bends custom, and so do the needs of plot."
"So that's the question: what is Carthage going to do differently?" McGinley asked. "They've gotten a taste for empire from the Barcid expansion and their encounters with Rome. Hannibal returned home to reform politics, but someone else must have been jingling the coins in his pocket and thinking 'We've got this army; let's use it!'"
Of course, any story that plays so much on history and possibility doesn't allow its author to skirt the hours and days of research it takes to speculate on the aspects of a culture that was told to sit down and shut up by the powerful Roman Empire. It wasn't with this research that some of the basic questions about the Carthage that could have been were answered.
"The more I read initially, the more I found in Carthage what I was looking for," McGinley said. "They weren't huge colonists. They were much more capitalistic than Rome, and yet, they had a stalwart religion in their midst, which always breeds some interesting personalities. And of course, capitalism is the ultimate pragmatism while religion is almost wholly idealism. So there's an interesting schizophrenia in their society, I think, as the two systems refine themselves. One thing I wanted to do was figure out how much of the way an empire structures itself is a a matter of culture, and how much is simply implicit in human nature. 'Form follows function' and all that seems to have given us 'Big Man' societies around the world. I just read 'Guns, Germs & Steel' this summer, and I wish I'd discovered it back in college, because the author, Jared Diamond, has traveled the world and studied enough to answer questions I was kicking around, such as 'How big does a tribe get before it breaks apart or transforms?'"
But while "Citizen X" may have comic book fans who ogled their history books lovingly all through school ready to head over and read it right away, action and adventure will be along to keep the speculative history company— "We're two pages away from a mugging, a couple of pickpockets, two cops fist-fighting, a drunken Irish shaman, and a bar fight over an unpaid bill at the brothel." Still, stories, like pizzas, are better with more than just a single layer of toppings.
"If you love New York, London, Rome, there will be a 'Citizen X' tale for you. If you hate these places, there will be a tale for you," McGinley teased. "Citizen X and Carthage are inextricably bound and both are remote from Rakh in this tale, denied to him as possibilities. He made a principled, idealistic decision to seek a post abroad, give back to his nation and pay his dues. He feels right away that he's been betrayed—either by the Citizen X, someone close to him or just the city itself. Someone has made the decision to take all he offers and not even say thanks. So it's a story about being a kid who feels your parents limit your growth when you're ready to go now. Citizen X is the dad, Carthage is the mom, and Rakh is the dutiful son."
So, while Rakh's story is your pathway into the world of "Citizen X," it's the city itself that seems set to be the star of this webcomic.
"I want you to enjoy Carthage, and the first step is to get out of town and look at it from the outside," McGinley explained. "Though we start off in the city, we keep it tight to Rakh's interpersonal relationships and the basic historical twist: Rome is a shattered empire. A western is a great place to start. It's simple, it's familiar. We've got horses, guns, and the town only has one street. Let's go!"