This week I’ll be reviewing the four issue what-if series Pax Romana, which is written and illustrated by Jonathan Hickman. I’ve always loved reading about history. Getting to see the ways in which people lived and thought about their own lives and those they interacted with, and how that compares with the way that I think, is something that has always interested me. So when I heard about the ways in which Pax Romana plays around with historical timelines, I was really excited to read it.
Pax Romana’s basic premise is that in the year 2053, the Catholic Church is in serious trouble. On the one hand it faces the dominance of Islam over much of the world and on the other, an increasingly declining number of Christian believers in both the East and the West. When a method for traveling back in time is discovered, the Church leaders make the decision to send a small group back in time so that their current precarious situation might never come to pass. This group, part mercenaries and part faithful soldiers, is led by two men: one a man of God and the other an experienced military commander. They are sent back to the time of Constantine to ensure that the Church will be built strong from its very beginnings as the religion of Rome. As you might expect, things don’t exactly go according to plan.
Pax Romana, at its heart, is a discussion of some very interesting ideas. It’s essentially an exploration of morality, religion and sociology. The ways in which the group’s trip to the past and their interaction with the Romans changes them and their perspective of their mission was interesting. I particularly liked that it seems to have a real discussion of the pitfalls of morality and believing that your religion is the only possible way forward.
Where Pax Romana fails, and it fails spectacularly for me, is as a story. This is essentially a treatise forced into graphic novel form. That’s not to say it’s bad, but it never quite makes you feel like it’s a story with characters you should care about. Despite its short length, you’d think Hickman could move at least a few of the characters beyond bland sketches of roles. It feels like he picked some archetypes to carry his message and then never bothered to flesh them out. This creates a rather serious problem in that the message completely overwhelms the story. Even the gorgeous artwork isn’t enough to make up for this deficiency. To make matters worse, Pax Romana is intensely wordy. There are whole pages where the amount of text almost obscures the artwork in every panel. It’s definitely a case of way too much telling and not enough showing.
Pax Romana is a series with spectacular potential. The core concept of a group of soldiers and missionaries traveling back to ancient Rome in order to create a better, more perfect society has serious promise. Unfortunately, Hickman allows his interesting storyline to overwhelm his completely flat characters and the result is the feeling that you’ve just read a philosopher’s daydream. My complaints aside, it’s a well-loved series and if you enjoy what-if stories and intense philosophical speculation, it may be more your cup of tea. Sadly I came away disappointed with this one.