Even to this day, many regard the Roman Empire as one of the greatest and most relatively far reaching in all of human history - its greatness accomplished mostly through the military and political leadership of Julius Caesar. And with the help of his legion of vampire slaves. Of course, "human history" in this case refers to the one detailed in the upcoming action-horror miniseries "Ides of Blood" by writer Stuart C. Paul and artist Christian Duce.
Coming to stores this August from Wildstorm Comics, the six-issue "Ides of Blood" follows an alternate history where Caesar conquered Transylvania and subjugated its inhabitants - who also just so happen to be bloodsucking undead - as a slave class in the ever-expanding Roman Republic. As the political landscape begins to change at a rapid pace, things alter just as quickly on a personal level for vampire-slave-turned-Roman-soldier Valens, who suddenly finds himself tasked with hunting down a vampiric serial killer draining the life out of Rome's rich upper class. A newcomer to the comic book world, writer Stuart C. Paul spoke with CBR News about vampire violence in ancient Rome, his take on the supernatural creatures of the night and immediately falling in love with the graphic medium.
"It's clearly historically accurate," Paul jokingly told CBR about the title. "It's a bloody spectacle. There's going to be lots of adventure, action, blood, sex, all those good things you expect from Rome and vampires put together. It's a version of Rome you've never seen, obviously. I'm really trying to create a unique world here and do some twists on the classic Caesar mythology, while bringing in some elements from Bram Stoker and the 'Dracula' story."
While the visual spectacle provides the figurative body of the title, the lifeblood of the series centers on exploring both the relationship between master and slave as told through the lens of Caesar and Valens and the concept of forging your own metaphorical chains in life. "It really is a story about identity," explained Paul. "On one hand, you have the identity of Caesar and Rome, who has conquered Transylvania, so there's this whole culture that has been enslaved and appropriated by Rome. Then it's also about a man trying to rediscover who he is and who is torn between those two worlds."
When it came to writing Caesar as a character as opposed to strictly a historical figure, Paul said it felt rather easy as Caesar himself long ago transcended from legend to mythological behemoth. "His story has gotten its own tropes and legends - the soothsayer, the Ides of March, the omens - and obviously it's been interpreted many ways," said Paul. "But basically, I just wanted to celebrate the larger than life aspect of Caesar and the idea of this man who became synonymous with the greatest ancient empire the world had ever seen. I figured Caesar, when I thought about his character, is a man of ambition. I don't know how you could view him any other way. Caesar has achieved infamy through myth and I thought if we looked at the vampire mythology, it brought another aspect of how a man might seek immortality into it."
Valens, on the other hand, represents the more common man. Born in Dacia - an area which included modern day Transylvania - Valens lived as a winemaker and carried on a happy, family life, at least until the Romans invaded, when things took a tragic and life-changing turn for the character. "There is a bit of a twist on that because his family was killed not by Rome, but by other vampires. His own people refuse to give him justice, so when Rome came, he basically fought through the lines, went to Caesar and begged him for justice. Caesar brought his family's murders to justice and gave Valens the justice his own people denied him," said Paul. "That was the beginning of Valens becoming a Roman. When we meet him in the story, he has already given up his prior Dacian identity and he has become Julius Caesar's bodyguard. He dreams of being a full-fledged Roman, but because he's a vampire, they'll never fully accept him. So, it begins with his search for acceptance into Roman society when the assassination of Julius Caesar throws things into askew. He has to rediscover who he is when he becomes another vampire slave on the run."
The miniseries begins in the year 44 BC, at the height of Caesar's power and the exact year of the would-be emperor's assassination. Although the addition of vampires obviously skews history a tad, the series still mostly follows the path of Caesar's inevitable downfall, only this time it's also compounded by the socio-political affect brought about by the conquering of Transylvania and its night walking citizens. "There is still the conflict between patrician and plebeian and Senate and him, but it's all through the lens of how he has changed Roman society by introducing this new element," said the writer. "Once vampirism arrives, it was obviously a very powerful thing. If they're a slave class, you have to make sure that your slaves don't rise up and destroy you. And if they're immortal, it's certainly going to be more difficult. That's why you bring in the legends of the sun and silver keeping them powerless. Of course, once you have a promise of immortality, it also became a question of regulating it. We're seeing the beginning of vampirism spreading into the upper classes and the good people of Rome. Originally, all vampires were from another land. Now that vampirism is becoming a more commonly accepted factor in Roman society, it's turning everything upside down. It's leading to this ideological and political conflict expressed through a vampire serial killer, who begins killing the mortal Senators."
The addition of the serial killer mystery to the story also adds a noir feel to title. "It's a big orgy of genre," laughed Paul. "There's aspects of the fugitive in it. There's aspects of Dashiell Hammett. It's one of those things where you start out investigating and by the end of the scene you're fighting a cage match with vampire gladiators."
As to how he decided approached the vampire myth, the writer said he mostly stuck to the usual classic tropes associated with the wildly popular supernatural creatures. However, one area he did decide to add his own unique twist to stems from Bram Stoker's "Dracula," which featured the vampire's often-overlooked ability to shapeshift into animals. "They do something called shadow-shifting, where they transform their bodies from flesh into shadow," Paul explained of the "Ides" vampires. "This is all dependent on bloodline. Certain bloodlines turn into canis, which is the wolf shadow. Others turn into avian, bat, shadow, and others are adder, so they are serpents. There is one more, but that's a little special surprise for the last issue. So, since you have these three bloodlines, there is also conflict between the different bloodlines. That's sort of how I dealt with that.
"Also, there's always been this weird, incestuous relationship between vampires and werewolves. There aren't any werewolves in this, but there are shadow wolves, and when I was looking into the mythology of Dacia, the wolf is one of the big animals related to their religious system. So, I wanted to bring that in somehow," continued the writer. "Other than that, it's just looking at vampires not as demons, not as little sparkle-magic, woe-is-me vampires that we've seen lately, and they're not your broody, I'm so depressed about being alive vampires. They're just another culture. That's really what it comes down to. They're not monsters. They're just people and they've been enslaved. It's a story of people who have been put in chains and want to get free."
Ironically, the entire series stemmed from Paul previously not liking vampires or the various aforementioned takes on the Universal monsters. "I thought, 'What would I have to do to make vampires interesting to me?' I don't know where it came from, but Julius Caesar popped into my head," he recalled. "I really like the past. Really, I love screwing with the past and showing it in a different light. One of my favorite things is taking the past and reinventing it and adding a sci fi or fantasy twist or taking these characters who have gotten a life of their own and become legends and playing with that. I like other worlds, and the past is another world. It's as much to me a sci fi or fantasy canvas as another planet. From King Arthur to the Old West, they've got this spirit that makes them larger than what they actually were and I really like that."
The writer did admit that he has since found some vampire tales he does enjoy, citing the HBO television series "True Blood" and the 2008 Swedish film "Let the Right One In," the latter of which the writer referred to as his favorite movie that year. And along with slowly finding some love with the vampire myth, Paul also admitted to finding love for the comic book format. Although the writer attended USC for screenwriting and ended up trying his hand at some movie and television work, he ended up finding the comic book medium the one he really enjoyed sinking his writing teeth into.
"As a screenwriter, you have to be purposefully vague for reasons of economy, for reasons of executives and in order to let the director have free rein," explained Paul. "With this, from the get go, it's more collaborative. You're writing for an artist and the path to making the complete vision come to life is shorter and more attainable. And as far as allowing me more command of the material, it's great. You can be as detailed as you need to be and the artist takes that and makes it real. It's more fulfilling."
As for what the future holds for the comic book newcomer, Paul admitted he already has more than a few ideas up his sleeve, including a few other history and supernatural crossovers, maybe even possibly a story with Abe Lincoln and werewolves? "Definitely," laughed the writer. "I had some thoughts on tons on things I've written or want to do with Houdini, the O.K. Corral, King Arthur. I'm working on something now about samurais that will hopefully soon be a reality. Vikings. There's always more."
Sink your own fangs into the first issue of "Ides of Blood" this summer on August 18.