A Quiet Word With: Roman Webcomic Author @spqrblues

Roman Cartoon

This week we’re lucky enough to have an interview with Carol Burrell, AKA Klio, the very talented lady behind the SPQR Blues webcomic.

History Mine: Without spoiling your plotline too much, would you consider SPQR Blues to be counter-factual, or straight historical fiction?

Klio: There’s very little in it that couldn’t have happened. Occasionally people show up in places other than where they’re believed to have been at the time, but in the historical record there’s an awful lot of “his whereabouts for the next five months are unclear, but he must have been in Rome in December because he poisoned his cousin during the Saturnalia party.”

There’s a little timeline compression once our hero Felix gets to Herculaneum, so events happen over the course of a year that probably took three years in reality (if you squint, it still works out). One thing I think separates it from straight-up historical fiction is that, although most characters are based on real people, the main viewpoint is about Felix, who is entirely made up.

SPQR OldBut even he is based on an unnamed person found at Herculaneum. The really counter-factual part is the story he gives about his ancestry, and then how the historical figures react to it. Could it have happened? It gets a “plausible.” Pretenders showed up all the time, so there’s precedent. I hope that’s not too much of a spoiler!

HM: When you set your story in the shadow of Vesuvius, it’s a bit of a Chekov’s Gun. I’ve said similar things before about setting a film on the Titanic. Why did you choose this setting?

K: SUCH a big gun. Chekhov’s cannon. The fact that anything set near Vesuvius takes place in a running hourglass adds automatic urgency–when will it erupt? who will escape? will the kitten be rescued? In my early teens we studied an ancient lawsuit involving a girl named Petronia Iusta who lived in Herculaneum, and I became fascinated by how the city is a time capsule (and Pompeii too of course). We know so much about ordinary people as individuals with names and jobs and homes and comfy chairs.

It became much more interesting than the usual course of learning about emperors and assassinations and wars and epic poetry, which ignores the main substance of a culture’s life (and incidentally almost always cuts out the women’s experiences). I started tinkering with characters, and two things happened along the way: September 2001 and August 2005. I believe modern Americans and ancient Romans have a lot in common in their mindsets and motivations. It occurred to me to contrast the ancient response to a shattering disaster with the modern one. All those things rolled into one another and propelled an idea that had already been percolating.

spqr blues NewHM: I know there has been a lot of speculation about what the title refers to, and you have stated that it refers to the city watchmen, but I wondered whether it might also be a reference to NYPD Blues, The New York Police Department. Is that true?

K: Yes! I grew up surrounded by that culture through my father and his friends. Guys in blue who seemed very big and impressive (and loud-cussing, and hard-drinking, and sometimes a little crazy, and loyal). It was an easy theme to fall into. The title was an offhand joke, but ended up influencing the story a lot.

HM: Did you originally intend this to be a cop story?

K: Yes, again. A sort of a cop soap opera. Man with a secret arrives in a town with its own mystery. “Who wants to kill Petronia Iusta?” And “Will she be consigned to life as a slave?” And “Will the cop get the dame?” And then, “Whodunnit?” Noir and actiony and with lots of stabby escapades. Other elements got stirred into the plot pot (the conflict between Felix and his Jewish relatives, that new religious cult, crisscrossed love stories). Once the comic got started, it wanted to be something different than I originally thought it was going to be.

SPQR VesuviusHM: How do you research a series like this?

K: Everywhere I can! I studied Latin in high school and Greek and Classical Studies after, so I had that background in knowing where to find reliable resources. I keep up on what’s available in scholarly books through things like the Bryn Mawr Classical Review; and I go to original sources whenever possible–eyewitnesses, the poets and playwrights who wrote social commentary, early historians (taken with a grain of salt, but their spin is part of the fun).

Since Herculaneum and Pompeii are preserved, you can look at what was actually there. I’m sure I get things wrong, either from a gap in research or from eliding over details when I don’t feel like drawing all the pleats in a tunic, but when I’m revved up I’ll pull out a couple of books, look at frescoes, and study statues if I want to make sure everybody is wearing plausible sandals.

spqr blues new ladiesHM: Possibly related, where does the inspiration come from?

K: Along with the Petronia Iusta case, from my overall love of Romans, and from studying every scrap I could find about Marcus Antonius and his family. Two branches of my family are Italian, so I was already tilted in that direction. Plus, I was getting frustrated by the pop-culture “ancient Rome” being taken as how things really were by some political pundits (whose names and cable network I’ve forgotten), so I have to give them part of the credit for making me pick up a pen.

I love sword-&-sandals movies, shows like Xena, gladiator time-travel romance novels, but those are for fun. Richard Burton and Victor Mature swooning over Jean Simmons looks pretty and there’s exciting music during the chariot races–give me Cinemascope and Technicolor and I’ll be happy all day. But I wanted to create something that has more to it. Also, alas, no gladiators.

HM: Are there any Roman practices that you enjoy exposing for your readers?

K: Showing the nitty gritty of the daily grind. I have no qualms about drawing a toilet. Showing that people thousands of years ago got on with things in a kind of modern-feeling way–doing the laundry and scrubbing pans and sending birthday notes and filling out bureaucratic forms in triplicate. I wanted to show that ancient people had deep and meaningful spiritual and moral beliefs, that their religious conviction was more than fancy temples and marble statues and names in a mythology book. That women worked around the restrictions placed on them. That “Antony and Cleopatra” may not be what we think it is.

The political pundits I mentioned before were, for some weird reason, holding up Rome as an example of how western culture has never allowed gay marriage; part of the comic is about what it meant to be gay in a society that on the one hand worships “traditional” marriage, and yet on the other hand was perfectly fine with what we would consider a modern definition of homosexuality and de-facto same-sex marriage as long as people behaved otherwise “respectably.” The time period also reflects on the conflict in the Middle East–the hero’s frustration that all the awful things done there were supposed to end the problems. So…there’s a lot going on.

SPQR Trajan

HM: What’s with the bears?

K: Gotta love bears. They’re fierce, protective of their own, and deceptively cuddly-looking. Before I started SPQR Blues, I did a one-shot comic of a “police officer” in Herculaneum pondering how to get a cow down from on top of an arch. Vesuvius blows up, problem solved. I recreated the scene in SPQR Blues, and a bear seemed more likely to have made it up an arch. Readers liked the bear, asked when it would show up again, somewhere along the line it acquired a name (Sweetums), and there were many requests (stern demands) that Sweetums survive the eruption. Plus I’m so horrified by the idea of bear-baiting as entertainment that I agreed that the comic could use a bear hero who wins in the end.

Thanks very much Klio for taking the time to talk to us! Please go and check out SPQR Blues for yourselves. If you like it, please feel free to support it via Patreon.

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Swords in films, what’s the deal?

highlander swords

Can’t live with ’em, can’t hack your way through a mob of peasants without them. What? That’s not how the saying goes? Well, someone should tell Hollywood. The film industry fell in love with swords from the very beginning, and has never really gotten over it. And that’s a shame, because history says that swords really weren’t as important as we have been led to believe.

So, some background. I was inspired to write this post after that one article I wrote for History Behind Game of Thrones, wherein I pointed out just how much the Ancient Greeks loved spears. So much, in fact, that Hollywood went as far as to include spear-based combat scenes in their major Greek films. This is a rarity because the film industry has swords as its default weapon.

Ross Wittenham 300

Swords are, by their very nature, weapons of the wealthy. Contrast with other military tools, such as the bows, spears, or axes, swords are really only meant for warfare. Where an axe can be used for carpentry, and a spear can be used for hunting. Furthermore, a sword uses comparatively more metal, is therefore more expensive, and requires more skill and training to use correctly. With what other weapon do you have to worry about edge-alignment when you’re trying to kill a guy? For Hollywood’s purposes, it is the ideal tool for a noble hero. Ever noticed that bad guys use swords less often than heroes?

Sauron swinging his mace photo LOTRSauron2.gif

However, the counterpoint to this argument is that swords don’t win battles. One of my favourite stories about the superiority of one weapon over another is the Battle of Flodden, where Scots pikemen were defeated by English Billmen. That’s right, they were weilding billhooks. What’s a billhook, you say? It’s a long pole with an axe shaped like a hook at the top. People won battles with bizarre crap like that, not swords. A sword takes a lot of time to learn how to use properly, and is expensive to mass-produce. Other weapons are far cheaper to produce, far easier to learn to use, and pretty much as killy when deployed en-masse.

But there’s more to it than that. If there’s one person who did more than anyone else to bring sword fighting to Hollywood, it’s Bob Anderson. The former Olympic fencer worked on so many major franchises that his filmography reads like a who’s who of swordfighting flicks. To wit: Highlander, Princess Bride, Zorro, Star Wars, James Bond (both official and unofficial), Lord of the Rings (and the Hobbit), Pirates of the Caribbean… I could keep going.

Bob Anderson portrait

However, while all this is impressive, it does also mean that one particular style of combat has dominated the film industry (and influenced other media as a result) for several decades. Fencers are perhaps the only professional-standard swordsmen around, which means that the style of sword-fighting that prevails is the style learned by fencers. For obvious reasons, this wasn’t the style that was prevalent for most of the period that the sword was in use.

But I think what I keep going back to is the fact that there are some truly bizarre weapons throughout history, and these deserve more time on our screens. Perhaps surprisingly, this is an area where the games industry is taking the lead. When your game runs out of ridiculously-oversized swords to give the hero, it’s time to break open the armouries and see what else is in there.

Making memes of unorthodox gods

This was the week that I stumbled across teashoesandhair.tumblr.com. It’s a great blog and that I would recommend to any classical scholar. The reason I came across it was because Anwen posted a very funny series of screenshots detailing what might happen if Zeus got an iPhone.

This all got me thinking, Zeus has been a figure of fun in the circles I move in. Possibly because, if you look at it objectively, Zeus was a complete slut. And plenty of people are looking at it objectively. Just take Happle Tea for example:

But there is an inherent problem here. Zeus, and many others that are gaining meme status, comes from an unorthodox religion. His identity is not concrete, and his mythology comes from myriad sources. In fact, the very fact that Zeus is such a slut is because everyone wanted to believe that their local goddess hooked up with the king of the gods. When these myths convalesced into a single identity, it was that of a guy who had it off with EVERYONE.

The issue is that, for a meme to work, everyone must instantly understand what it refers to. Memes are regularly used as an analogy to explain real-life situations, so the analogy must be relatively concrete. This stands in direct opposition to their unorthodox roots. These guys do not have sacred texts. Their identity has not been handed down to us in a single book. It is made up of a myriad of stories. As such, their identity is flexible. You want a Female Thor? That happens in at least one story, she’s all yours!

Female Thor

And yet, these myths cannot be distorted out of character too much, or your hero loses their defining attributes, and therefore what makes them memeable. This is exactly what happened with Odin in Marvel’s Thor. To be fair, Thor did at least start out as the boozey brawler we know and love:

But there is a lot of doubt in Marvel’s Thor. Something that may not have featured as heavily in the mythology of the character.

I get it; you don’t want an invulnerable character. The Superman-only-hurt-by-kryptonite dynamic gets boring pretty quickly. The mythology itself is fun, but a man with demons of his own is more interesting.

I guess my point is, if you want reliable memes, unorthodox gods are pretty niche.

History We’d Like to See: Rockstar Games’ Court of Henry VIII

Assassins Creed 2

Before you go and get all excited, this is not a thing. I’m just saying it should be. This week Henry VIII was voted ‘the worst monarch in history’ by the Historical Writers Association (HWA), in a vote that was controversial at best. Sure, he did fuck things up for a lot of people, but was he the Worst Ever? A lot of people with a lot of qualifications disagree.

But I’m not here to get involved in that. I’m here to tell you why the world needs Rockstar Games to do a Tudor era video game.

When it comes to historical computer games, few big-league studios are really investing in them to make them major hits. Off the top of my head, you’ve got Assassin’s Creed and Red Dead Redemption in the first-person category, and then a bunch of others like Total War and Civilization in the strategy corner.

And Assassin’s Creed feels like it’s earning diminishing returns.The free running ‘n’ murderin mechanic has been run into the ground, and now it’s time for something a bit different. With the main franchise ostensibly brought to an end, it remains to see whether Ubisoft will revitalize the series with a new offering. But it’ll be an uphill struggle for sure.

And that’s why Rockstar Games are a logical fit for the studio best placed to produce a Henry VIII game. The court of the Tudor megalomaniac would be a brilliant place to stage an environment-based game. A game like Grand Theft Auto, or Bully, or Red Dead Redemption. The games that Rockstar produce so well are the ones where you have repeated interactions with the same people. And each time, the tension grows.

The attention to detail is an absolute must for any studio that is looking to produce a historical game. But equally, it is important to strike a good balance. For example, Rockstar has shown that its games can be fun, in many cases they allow the gamer to dive head-first into a sandbox world and enjoy themselves in their own twisted way. And I like to think that’s something Henry VIII would’ve appreciated.

But equally, Rockstar games understand the narrative of rags-to-riches, often on the backs of others. This is another thing that fit well with the behaviour of the period. Thomas Cromwell and Anne Boleyn came from relatively minor families and built themselves up. They were symptomatic of the times. Imagine a game where you slowly accrue power by bullying monks or seduce the king himself.

The mini-games are another important aspect, and drunken debauchery and mounted jousts make for excellent mini-games. The scions of nobility clearly had a lot of fun in this era if court gossip is to be believed, and it’s exactly this kind of behaviour that makes for fun gameplay.

It wouldn’t have to be black and white morality. As long as you accept the corrupt nature of the court, then Rockstar is great at satirizing a situation. With a wink to the gamers behind the controls, player characters could find themselves in outrageous situations.  Let’s be honest  here; sex, combat and comedy are three of the biggest drivers in the games industry. Here is a situation rife with all three.

So can you make it already?