Sunday Slugfest: Beyond the Wall #1

A comic review article by: Thom Young, Christopher Power, Jason Sacks, Robert Murray
It's the third century CE and the tentacles of the Roman Empire have entwined the British Isles. Marcus Malleoulus, veteran of countless military campaigns, has been betrayed by the whim of a tyrant. Now, banished beyond Hadrian's Wall, Malleoulus faces untold dangers as he fights his way back--determined to survive until revenge is his.

Christopher Power:
Jason Sacks:
Robert Murray:

Christopher Power:

Over the last three years, I have had the opportunity to live in York, which served as the centre of the Roman Empire in Britain. Seat of Constantine who ruled as British Emperor of Rome during the time of this book (approximately), I have had the chance to visit and study many of the things discussed and depicted. I also have a wife who is a bit of a Roman history buff, so as a result I like to think of myself as having more than a passing familiarity with the era.

The general concept of the book is that a series of events in the Roman centre of Eboracum cause a lifelong soldier to go over Hadrian’s wall. That story in itself could be interesting, and the writer chose add a mythic fantasy element to the dangers north of the wall. With the end result, there are a lot of very good things to like in this book. Unfortunately, there are flaws that cause the book and its story, to suffer.

On the art side, the pencils are quite well done. The northern empire is presented fairly accurately in terms of its fashions, its architecture and its weaponry. The artist Gordon Purcell clearly put some time into study in York (or on the internet) regarding the details. For instance, consider this panel with a soldier in York and his shield. It is an almost perfect replica of the actual York legionnaire shields:

I particularly like pencils depicting the Roman Baths, a major site in Eboracum (York) that served as a centre of relaxation, commerce and politics for the military and the aristocracy. The Roman Baths were unearthed in York in the 1930s during the renovations that were being done to the pub located directly over them. The mosaic tiles in the baths date to the first century AD, and they are shown in the background of some of the panels.

Unfortunately, the baths are depicted as being completely empty, which would be very strange in the Roman outpost. No servants, no masseuses not even a man with a jug of wine. This makes the scene in the bath fall somewhat flat. Admittedly it could be argued that the baths were cleared for the event in the baths to be undertaken without witnesses; however, even for a son of an emperor, this seems like an unlikely thing to happen.

This provides me with point for segue into some of the challenges that this book presents in terms of its story. I am not a reader that thinks writers should stick to the exact facts in historical tales. Especially for ancient tales, there has been so much lost to time that writers can play with history, on the small points, and create something new. One key to success in this is to get all of the big details correct, and I just do not feel that Matt Venn has properly captured the history of ancient Rome in Britain to make his story work.

In the Roman Bath scene, we introduced to Caracalla, a nickname or agnomen that was used for one of the sons of the Roman military dictator Septimus Severus (presumably the emperor we meet in later scenes). If this is the inheritor of Severus’ empire, which fits the timeline of the book, then Venn radically rewrote history.

In the book, Caracalla murders his brother Geta in the Roman Bath and blames it on the barbarians from north of Hadrian’s Wall who have ‘slipped past the wall’. In reality, Caracalla and Geta jointly succeeded Severus and only then was Geta murdered in a political move. I’m a little baffled as to why the writer would contrive a plot when a good, historically grounded, story existed regarding these individuals. It seems to be related to needing to provide a reason for the main protagonist to go over Hadrian’s Wall, but perhaps something more will come of it. I actually hope that my suspicions are wrong and that this is not going to be a rehash of the Commodus storyline from the movie Gladiator, with the son killing the father (which was equally inaccurate).

Worse that this, there seems to be a major plot hole in the story. Severus is one of the well respected, although brutal, emperors in Roman history; however, in this book it feels like he is depicted as a moron. There is no investigation undertaken into the claims about his son’s death, nor does he even ask Caracalla what evidence he has that it was barbarians. Severus was a soldier, who manipulated the legions into serving him through victory and money. The history that we know about this man does not lead me to believe that he would react as he is depicted in this book.

It is really a shame that these items detracted from the story. I can feel that there is something good in this book. The writer gets a lot of the presentations of the Romans and their soldiers correct. I also think there is an interesting story to tell, showing British Roman society blended with the fantastical. Unfortunately, the first issue leaves a bit to be desired.

Jason Sacks:

Wow, look, it’s a comic about Roman Centurions. Who says there's nothing new in comics these days? I've been reading comics for many years and can't remember ever reading one about a Roman Centurion. It's awfully cool of IDW to take a chance with a comic that's so far off the beaten path. Even if this comic veers in later issues into being a fairly standard barbarian comic, it's still exciting to see a publisher take a chance with a comic that doesn't feature capes – at least in the way that we're used to seeing capes featured.

I also really enjoyed the work that artist Gordon Purcell puts into creating the setting for this comic. Much of it takes place on and around Hadrian's Wall, a great Roman fortification used to prevent the Roman Empire from being overridden by hordes of barbarians.

The scene on page five that establishes Hadrian's Wall is very nice – we get a sense of where the wall sits on its landscape, and tells readers at a glance why it was considered such an important part of the defenses of the Romans. Above and beyond that, Purcell should be praised for delivering such a traditional piece of comics storytelling as an establishing shot.

Purcell also does nice work with his storytelling. Throughout the issue, he delivers quietly interesting storytelling moments – tricks with overlapping panels on pages 9 and 18 for instance, and the use of small, silent storytelling moments on page 15. He does an effective job of elevating the story he's presenting by using clever and thoughtful storytelling tricks rather than using a standard panel grid. While his figure drawing is unobtrusive and solid, Purcell's storytelling and scene-setting are nicely interesting.

Unfortunately I thought that Matt Venne's story didn't reach the levels of quality that Purcell delivered. For one thing, we never find out the name of the main character in this story. That's a simple request – we want a name to give to the many whose story we'll be following. But unless I completely missed it as I read and reread this story, we never learn this man's name.

Which is a shame because Venne works pretty hard to make readers relate to the character. The main character is a bit like the copy you often see in buddy movies, the man close to retirement who ends up facing a threat to his completing his retirement. I found myself pretty interested in the man's story, and found it intriging how the Centurion takes young soldier Gaius Catulus under his wing.

When Catulus forces our protagonist into a moral dilemma, everything changes in a flash. The soldier's morality comes to the fore and forces him into making a difficult decision.

That difficult decision is the biggest frustration I had with this issue, as it essentially places a level of modern morality upon a character who was supposed to live some two millennia ago. I had real trouble believing the man would make the decision that he did, as it felt really out of sync with the way that the character was portrayed earlier in the story. It's hard to believe a career soldier would endanger his precious retirement and take the action that our protagonist takes.

More than that, I have to wonder if the man would even have a sense that the events in question would have any layer of morality upon it. He would have been so habituated to the rituals and traditions of his job that it seemed wrong for the Centurion to even have much of a reaction to the decision. This feels to me like a case of a modern writer applying modern morality to a traditional character. We want the soldier to make the decision he does because we'd like to believe that we would make the right decision as well. However, that's forcing our view of the world upon a man whose whole life has been all about making moral decisions in his own context.

It’s nice to read a modern comic that places morality at its center, and especially nice to read a comic with such interesting storytelling. But I had too much trouble with the writing of this comic to be able to give it a high rating.

Robert Murray:

Beyond the Wall is a good, competent comic book that sticks to the facts and doesn’t try to pull any sleight of hand. Matt Venne and Gordon Purcell create a historical setting that is realistic yet fantastic at the same time, with barbarians and demonic creatures sharing the landscape in Roman-era Britain.

The Roman legions are painted in a favorable light by the creative team. Well, I should say a segment of the legions are portrayed positively, with our main character displaying loyalty and compassion as his two main attributes. These two attributes drive this first issue, as a Roman commander, a young boy, and a loyal centurion are forced to flee beyond Hadrian’s Wall due to an unreasonable request by the British Emperor’s son.

As the reader can discern from various hints throughout the issue, the band will encounter dangerous obstacles ‘Beyond the Wall’, which is basically what will drive this series. It’s a pretty simple formula that readers have seen done hundreds (if not thousands) of times, but it’s a tried and true series starter.

Beyond the Wall #1 is a good, safe comic book that could turn into a pretty good series given the correct direction by Venne and Purcell. Unfortunately, for the four dollar cover price, this is a vanilla issue that doesn’t carry enough storytelling gusto to warrant choosing over other less expensive issues on the shelves.

I’m not familiar with Venne, but it seems as if he has the necessary chops to script a sequential story. Everything progresses nice and smooth, though I will say that the introduction of the treacherous son of the Emperor was a little out of stride. Dialogue is neat and to the point, and the actions of the characters fit with the personalities. That being said, this is a story with a lot of influences, but nothing to differentiate it from the myriad other similar tales in pop culture literature.

Similar to Danny Glover in Lethal Weapon, our main character only has two weeks left in his tour of duty. So, as he prepares for retirement, a situation presents itself that will guarantee that he never has the peace he’s looking forward to. Also, the scared boy who joins the legion as a bugler is the prototypical helpless youngster, seeking the strength of the experienced man of war as they head into the wilderness. Jeez, that almost sounds like a John Ford western!

Oh, and then there’s the loyal centurian who will surely die as a red shirt down the road, the emperor who must defend his son’s decision a la Road to Perdition, and that same son who is the spoiled brat seeking power in the most direct way possible. It’s a little too heavy on the stereotypes and a little too light on the originality, which makes this first issue simply okay.

I also figured a veteran like Purcell would be able to lift this issue above the ordinary with some artistic bravado. Unfortunately, his pencils are just as stale as the story surrounding it, with lots of similar looking faces and body actions that are too posed for comfort. Granted, the expressions he illustrates for the characters are very apropos, but they lack the necessary vigor to allow the reader to connect--which seems to be the common theme about this first issue of Beyond the Wall: good execution, but little excitement or intrigue to keep readers coming back for more.

I hope Venne and Purcell are able to craft some compelling stories down the road, as this series definitely has potential. Unfortunately, like Kwame Brown, we’re only seeing the average to mediocre right now.

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