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Stela’s Five Questions: Catching up with creators Brian Wood and Justin Giampaoli

Author: Wes Moots

Look back on your life and consider how altering any single decision could fundamentally change who you are today. Now consider how history would be changed if one proportionately major event did or did not happen, and the consequences that could come from over a millenia of alteration caused by that single shift.

Rome West runs with this very concept, and questions how major historic events including Columbus, the Panama Canal, and European colonialism would be altered by a union of the indigenous tribes of the North America and a lost Roman legion centuries before even Scandinavian explorers made contact.

Chapter 10 of Rome West is available today, and the tension is rising. I got a chance to sit down with the amazing creators, Brian Wood and Justin Giampaoli, to discuss this new timeline and the events contained within it with them.

1. You’ve done a lot of work together on DMZ, but there are some major differences between that series and Rome West. What inspired you to tell a story like Rome West?

JG: Well, I love history, and I've read several articles about Roman artifacts found in the Americas. From a leather pouch of Roman coins found in the Ohio River Valley, a Roman coin in California's San Joaquin Valley, the remains of a fossilized galley ship in Galveston Bay, Roman amphora jars in Central and South America, and even an account of a supposedly lost Roman colony in the southwest called Terra Calalus. Now, some of these have been debunked, but some have not. I think it's interesting that we don't hear about them, and we barely seem to acknowledge Vikings having hopped from Iceland to Greenland to Newfoundland, or any other pre-Columbian contact with Europe, because it just doesn't fit the accepted narrative. There's the Fort Ancient culture that built Serpent Mound in Ohio, which seems oddly out of place, and the list goes on. This all got my mind racing, imagining what could have explained the found artifacts. When you combine that intrigue with Brian's catalogue of historical fiction, and his ability to create beautifully flawed characters, and tell socially relevant stories that resonate today, it felt like a great world to explore.

2. Brian, in your work on Northlanders and Rebels you explore history, and in a similar way you have shift from one time period to another in Rome West. In what ways do you feel working on Northlanders helped prepare you for telling the story of Rome West?

​BW: I think what I learned on Northlanders, and am able to apply to both Rebels and to Rome West, is the necessity of binding the history to the modern day to help a reader invest himself in the story. Finding parallels between the then and the now is ​fairly simple, but weaving that into a narrative can be tricky—it shouldn't come off too dry, like a lesson, or too on the nose, like you're trying too hard. Northlanders skipped around in time over the span of a couple hundred years, but Rome West is a linear narrative. That allows us to more or less “follow” actual history and riff on it when need be, like with Columbus, or the Panama Canal, and our version of WW1.

3. Justin, you have a lot of experience reviewing the amazing stories that are told throughout the comic community. What, in your opinion, sets Rome West apart from other alternate history stories?

JG: I've never seen this type of mash-up before, the Roman Empire and pre-Columbian indigenous people in the New World. We wanted to deliberately deviate from the typical path of European Colonialism. If the Romans simply came across the pond and conquered the New World, it wouldn't be all that different than reality. We thought it would be interesting to explore a world where this weird hybrid culture is created, natives aren't systematically eradicated, so native culture flourishes, albeit under the banner of a unifying language, a form of government, and technology brought over by this contingent of Romans.

Instead of one culture wiping another out, we wanted to explore the reasons they may have coexisted, their similarities in polytheism, and sacred animals like the eagle, owl, or wolf. The early Hopewell Culture in the Eastern US believed in this concept of "orenda," part of which encouraged them to take in outsiders, and that might mesh well with the Romans wanting to expand the franchise, new cultures being assimilated, becoming citizens and given the right to vote, etc. From a visual storytelling perspective, we kept seeing these great opportunities too, things like a "Cherokee Legionnaire," or Romans fighting Aztecs, stuff that should be like catnip to an artist.

Another way to look at the uniqueness of the world, is that I live in California, was born in a town called Merced, went to college in San Jose, and now live in San Diego in a community called Del Sur. Every single one of those names is of Spanish origin, but we're asking you to imagine a reality where we completely erase every shred of Spanish influence in the New World. It's a huge departure that has all sorts of repercussions, not only in the Americas, but in the rest of the world, as the European powers are forced to expand their brand of colonialism elsewhere.

4. Rome West includes a number of tribes of Native American peoples, what lengths did you go to in order to research these groups and determine how you would represent them in Rome West?

JG: We did a lot of research. I learned this from Brian, but I really try to front-load my brain with information. For example, I read a great book by Charles Mann called 1491, about what life was actually like just before Columbus arrived. I did research on specific tribes in certain chapters, and then included authentic or plausible character names, locations, beliefs, bits of the language, or even food. One of my favorite chapters is ten, and it's a good example of this type of research. It has a sad end, but is a love story at heart, which we set in a large Washoe colony in Lake Tahoe. This culture was around for something like 4,000 years before the Romans arrive in our story, so we took a look at what they believed about the lake, why they settled there, and how their beliefs could inform our story, even down to the type of fish they'd eat and how they'd traditionally prepare it. I probably spent a full day learning about the Washoe, and ultimately it became just a few lines of dialogue, but the hope is always that those hours of research add detail and authenticity. Our collaborator Andrea Mutti also has a keen eye for detail, and went to great lengths to design objects that had plausibly evolved from the hybrid race, so that buildings, statues, clothing, or even shields used in battle have little motifs worked in from both cultures.

5. You’ve worked with more publishers than a lot of other writers in the industry. How has working with a digital distributor like Stela differed from your other experiences in printed comics?

​BW: I've been writing very standard comic book scripts for twenty years, and whatever variations I've come across have been minor: 22 to 20 pages, learning how to use decompression, short arcs versus long arcs versus orginal graphic novels, understanding Comixology's ​”panel view,” how to do double page spreads in the age of tablet reading, and so on. Writing in this format for Stela is a big change, no mere tweak. So the creative challenge involved with that has been fun and exciting, and a change to use different mental muscles to figure it out.

Check out the first 10 chapters of Rome West today, and keep up with each new chapter as they are released every Thursday only on the Stela Books app—available for free on the iOS app store now!

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