Hickman, Jonathan. Pax Romana.

Berkeley, CA: Image Comics, 2013.

This is an alternate history story in graphic novel form, and it’s quite inventive. Suppose a couple of physicists fifty years from now discover a method of time travel — actual physical transport back to the past. But these physicists work for the Vatican Observatory, so they keep their work quiet and take it directly to the pope.

The pontiff immediately sees the possibilities: They can prevent the rise of Islam, and of Protestantism. They can correct key strategic mistakes in the Church’s history, like the crusades. But the pope is not going to allow anyone to go messing around with the life of Christ. And any changes will have to be made before the birth of Muhammad. And that means Rome — and that means Constantine the Great.

So the most scientifically educated person among the pope’s advising cardinals is put in charge of the project, and he recruits American General Nicholas Chase to command the military contingent — because force will certainly be necessary. But when the time travelers — all 5,000 of them, mostly soldiers — arrive shortly before the Battle of the Milvian Bridge in A.D. 312, and Chase finally hears the details of the plan, he gets other ideas. He’s not going to allow the Church to put its hard heel on all the important parts of civilization, then and forever after.

So that’s where it all starts, though the story itself begins a few centuries after Chase and his men begin stirring things up. Now Rome, as a civil authority, pretty much runs all of Europe (with the Catholic Church firmly subordinated to it) while a unified kingdom has been established in Africa, with a “refuge” in Britain, run by a splinter group. And the people who were once in charge in Rome are still running things, more or less, via DNA manipulation. And by the mid-15th century, there’s already a city of a million on the Moon and Mars is likewise being colonized. (That’s what the absence of runaway Christianity can do.)

Hickman’s approach is far more intellectual than the superhero sort of graphic fiction, with lengthy discussions by various groups of characters on the nature of civilization, and freedom, and what “rights” must be abridged now so they can be fully protected later on. This would be a great argument-starting book to give to a college freshman class in political theory. The art is also rather less representational than the kind of thing you would find in DC Comics, with odd lighting of scenes and abstractions in the background. Fascinating stuff.

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