THE COMMENTARY TRACK: "Pax Romana" #1 w/ Jonathan Hickman

Fri, January 4th, 2008 at 12:00am PST

Comic Books
Augie De Blieck Jr., Columnist

"Pax Romana" #1 on sale now
Welcome back for the fifth installment of THE COMMENTARY TRACK, in which we invite creators to stop by CBR and talk about their most recent releases, often in spoiler-filled detail. Go behind the scenes and into the minds of your favorite creators and flip through their comics with them. It'll be just like a DVD commentary, but without all the awkward pauses.

This week, we turn to Comic Book Idol alum Jonathan Hickman, who burst onto the scene with his Image Comics graphic novel "The Nightly News," which earned enormously high praise in CBR's Year-End Round-Up of the best comics of 2007.

Hickman follows up "The Nightly News" with "Pax Romana," a time-traveling, alternate history sociological study in four parts. You'll get the Vatican, you'll have your scientists, and you'll have your military leaders -- all in one book. It's the kind of project that invites questions, and we tossed a few Hickman's way.

Know there are SPOILERS below, no matter what timeline you're in. There is also one naughty word. As always, you've been warned.

Story continues below

PAGE 1

Okay, so... beginnings are tough.

As I say in the notes at the end of issue #1, there's a pretty good argument to be made for the first scene of the book being a confrontation between the modern army and several roman legions (In fact, that's how the first two drafts of 'PR'#1 began). The problem with this is it didn't actually set up "the story" I wanted to tell. it was just a cool opening scene. Added to that, there's always a concern (I say this as if I've been around the block many, many times) about beginning to slowly -- i.e. I was worried about losing the reader.

In my mind, this became a style-over-substance question and I had faith that the people buying the book (and the order numbers say it was "The Nightly News" crowd) would hang in there until things really got rolling (That's on page #25, right?).

So, in other words, "Pax Romana" page #1 is me saying, "Welcome to this exciting new world and please (cue Axl Rose, the alcoholics and the drummer from the Cult) have a little patience." Which begs the question – what's more important, music or literature?

Trick question, the answer is always sex.

PAGES 2-3

I'm a big fan of the double-page title spread thingee. I'm dying to do a longer format work where I can do 40 of these and people not feel like they're getting ripped-off because it's part of a single purchase, 200-page graphic novel.

Also, I think there's a rhythm to graphically dispersing information that's a bit untapped in comics. And I'm not talking about building towards a two-page spread or music-based panel-sequences (God knows there should be more of that as well), but more along the lines of a holistic approach to comic design.

Okay, I just reread that and it sounds like art school, group-critique bullshit -- but it isn't.

I'm losing you already, aren't I?

"No, Jonathan, we're used to slow openings, remember?"

Hilarious.

PAGES 4-5

I heard your question to Brian Bendis on the latest Word Balloon podcast, and I noticed you don't really use bold-faced words at all. They show up in one page -- but are otherwise absent. All dialogue and text pieces are flat, normal type. Is this a specific choice? Is this an attempt to avoid over-ornamentation of the page? Is it part of the overall graphic design? Or do you just not feel it's worth adding the bold face text into the balloons for the sake of the story?

Oh, and what font is that? I've gotten good at telling various Comicraft and Blambot fonts apart, but I fail miserably when it comes to "normal" type. It's sans-serif, not Helvetica, is it?

Uhh, I messed up and imported the wrong (non-formatted) text, and by the time I noticed, the book had to be long-gone to press. So that'll get fixed in the trade. Sorry.

As for what font it is, it was supposed to be Helvetica, but that was (for some reason) corrupted on my Mac when I went to letter "The Nightly News" issue #1 (as that was one of the [self-imposed] design constraints for 'TNN,' a standardized, highly-recognizable font), so I had to sub in Arial (I know, I know… boo hiss). I stuck with it for "Pax" because I didn't want to change everything.

But hey, let's give it up for Word Balloon's John Siuntres, the Charlie Rose of comic book podcasts -- and he never screws up.

PAGES 6-7

Color is used in a most interesting way. When you look carefully, you realize that it's not really coloring in the characters and the places in the traditional sense of adding depth or volume to the art. It's more a function of mood. The color itself and the textures used in it create a "feel" to the page. It isn't used to color in the characters, specifically, who often remain black and white set aside or on top of the colors. In a comics world more and more dedicated to using colors so literally as to make the art look more photorealistic, why did you choose to go the exact opposite direction?

It's fair to say I could care less about doing things how they are normally done. Different is good, right?

To me, one thing is certain: There needs to be much more risk-taking in the coloring of American comics. Here, at the point in comic history when the inker has been passed by the colorist in order of importance, it would behoove the coloring community to get a little radical and not worry so much about "rendering."

The talent certainly exist in the current market, there just needs to be a willingness to experiment and a loosening of editorial restraint.

But hey, back to your point – look at these two pages. I made up a new area of science, explained away paradox, married religion with science and created a huge rodent problem. All that, and the best part is that bit of pink at the top of the right hand page.

If I were ranking the color schemes used in "Pax," it would go:

1. The Blue/pink set [ex. pages 12-13... very happy with this]

2. The Brown/orange set [ex. pages 4-5... big fan of earth tones]

3. The Red/orange set [ex. pages 15-16]

4. The Purple/pink set [ex. pages 24-25... needed more purple tough]

5. The Green/red set [ex. pages 26-27... meh, needs work]

PAGES 8-9 and PAGES 16-17

I went out of my way to try and make the Pope a sympathetic character. I'm sure many people thought "Pax" would be either an all-out assault on religion or a propping up of Catholicism. As with most things (especially in the polarized now), the interesting stuff happens in the middle where both sides are equally right or wrong.

PAGES 10-11 and PAGES 22-23

There's an old maxim in storytelling about how important it is to show and not tell. If Chuck Dixon is on one end of that spectrum, then you're on the far other end. There's a lot of telling going on, with one or two pivotal exceptions. I'm thinking specifically of the final scene, wherein the character takes four slugs (Pages 26-27). That's definitely a show moment, and has greater impact for it. Will the rest of the book follow in the same style, or was this first issue necessary to establish things so that you could do more showing later down the line.

Ah, the old "show, don't tell."

The day after "Pax" #1 came out, I had a guy email me saying that the first issue dragged and it should have been told in seven pages. The next day, I got an email saying that I'm cheating by just showing static images instead of actually doing comics (panel-to-panel storytelling). Both of these are valid and fair critiques. But in my opinion, the first would have resulted in an overly simplistic, assumptive story and the later (which I would love to do) would have been 48 pages.

These two sets of pages are the most egregious examples of the problem. Pages 10-11 would have taken a third of the first issue to tell. There were two reasons for doing it the way I did: One, I felt it was necessary to explain the internal logic of how "who, why, where and when" were arrived at. And two, design-wise, I always want to try different things out and see how they work.

Pages 22-23 was simply me trying to find a cool, "informational" way to dramatically and effectively show the band going back in time and everything changing.

Are there more "comic-booky" ways to show these things? Sure. Am I the guy you should expect that from? Not on any creator-owned stuff -- no.

I'm not sure this answers the question, but I'm not sure there actually is one.

But while we are on the subject, as far as comics are concerned, is a pie chart, a map, or a schematic drawing showing or telling?

I would guess it's a question of execution.

PAGES 12-13

Why a comic book? Something like this almost begs to be a prose novel. There's a lot of text on the pages, more so than in most comics. You really have to read this comic, both in word balloons and in paragraphs -- whether as transcripts of discussions or excerpts of mythical books. Is it tough to cram all that in?

What's tough is editing yourself when you have no self-restraint. And I would never feel confident enough about my writing to have a go at a novel. I don't really consider myself a writer.

I'd feel much better about trying to become an 'artist' -- and that's just as much of a pipe dream.

Now, I feel fairly confident about being able to tell a story and write decent dialogue, so if I were going in a different direction it would be screenwriting, but I love comics. It's what I've always wanted to do -- I just don't have an interest in always doing them like everyone else.

PAGES 14-15

I like how each two-page spread forms a cohesive unit, often a single scene separated from the previous and next. Since readers often glance at the next page while reading the current one in an open spread, it's smart to keep scenes separated by page turns. There's a certain amount of physical flow in there, as well as a mental break when the reader then flips the page and finds a new scene.

I also like the way that it's immediately obvious as to which order the "panels" should be read. Too many comic artists these days create layouts that make it unclear as to whether to read across the two pages, left to right, drop down to the next "tier" of panels and read those left to right -- or whether you should, as the reader, look at the left page first and then the right page. You go with the latter, for the most part. And it's always clear. How do you handle that? What are the "tricks" to guiding the eye in the right direction?

When you can control the art, the color and the lettering, there's no reason why you shouldn't be able to make the reader's eye do exactly what you want.

What's interesting is how different one of my stories reads as a PDF opposed to as a printed comic. The PDF's are almost indecipherable because they don't have the natural, centered fold, so your eye wanders completely across the page.

If you squint when you look at these two pages, it looks completely chaotic. But when you begin to read it, there's no problem. And that's the big deal - you read a comic, so the lettering will almost always be primary in guiding your eye.

PAGES 24-25

What are your influences for this story? From my admittedly small catalog of knowledge of the topics portrayed in the book -- from Roman Catholic history to sociology to time travel -- the first two things that jump to mind are Michael Crichton's "Time Line" and Isaac Asimov's "Foundation." What inspired you in creating this book?

Now that I'm out of the planning/plotting stage and actually writing, it's Frank Herbert more than anything else. I'm actually worried that I'll never shake the influence – That for a story to be complete, I'll always need a narrative, a dialogue and an internal monologue. It's a bit much sometimes.

PAGE 28

You've created a very deep world in this book, over the course of a loooong time span, from 50 years hence to 1,700 years past. How much of that timeline do you have covered in your head or in notes? Obviously, you've shown us events in this book at three separate time points. You know the end game. How much do you have set in stone on how we all get there?

All of it. Hang on tight.

"To Rome and the remaking of the world."

Thanks again to Jonathan Hickman for stepping in this week to give us a peek behind the curtains of a comic book that has a unique style on your local comic book store's shelves. Keep an eye out for the other Image Comics title he's debuting (with art from comics newcomer Ryan Bodenheim), "Red Mass For Mars," due out later this month. And of course, "The Nightly News" is on sale now.

You can follow Hickman's work through his website, pronea.com.

If you have any titles or creators you'd like to see a commentary track from, drop us a line. If you're a creator with a book due out soon that you'd like to stop by to talk about in detail, let us know. (We're especially looking for artists/colorists/letterers who are looking to talk about their craft, as we've had a shortage of those so far.) We're busy behind the scenes lining up books for the weeks ahead, but there's always room for more!

Now discuss this story in CBR's Image Comics forum.

Archives

CBR News

Send This Article to a Friend

Separate multiple email address with commas.

You must state your name.

You must enter your email address.