In AD 323, a fleet of Roman ships is lost in a storm, and they find themselves on the shores of the New World, one thousand years before Columbus. Unable to return home, they establish a new colony, Roma Occidens, radically altering the timeline of America and subsequent world events as seen through the eyes of one family. – Dark Horse Comics
This exploration of alt-history is what writer Justin Giampaoli calls Rome West. We sat down with Justin and talked about his first San Diego Comic-Con signing, the genesis of Rome West, and learned more about his path to getting his book published through Dark Horse Comics.
How did your first signing at San Diego Comic-Con go?
It went pretty well overall, a good mix of family and friends, and the random people that rolled through. It was the first time that the cover artist, Matt Taylor, had been to the U.S. and been to Comic-Con. I think it was a really cool experience for him.
How did you get teamed up with Matt Taylor?
I met Matt through Brian Wood. Matt had done some covers for the Rebel series at Dark Horse, the Revolutionary War comic that Brian Wood and Andrea Mutti did. And we really never considered anyone else except Matt.
Brian showed me pictures of the Rebels covers before they went to print and said, “Hey, how would you like to have this guy do to cover for Rome West?” I was like, “Yeah, sold, that's it. He's the top of my list.” Our editor approached him and made it happen.
Matt's work is really good. It's got sort of a warm depth to it that I really like, and kind of a painterly aesthetic that I feel transcends the world of comics and is almost at the level of Fine Art. It was a really great, eye-catching cover. We're really proud of it.
Brian Wood, how are you two connected? Give us a little about your path and how you got to Rome West?
The arc I'm on now started in 2005. I started a blog, Thirteen Minutes, where I reviewed comics because I just wasn't really seeing the type of critical work that I wanted to read. You sort of had the frat boy humor of Wizard magazine on the lower end of the spectrum and then you had kind of this like haughty erudition of The Comics Journal on the other side, which was very academic and there was nothing really in between.
The blog ran for 10 years from 2005 to 2015 and through the course of doing that for a decade, I met tons of writers, artists, editors, industry folks, and kind of struck up a relationship with Brian right around 2007. I've known him for more than a decade now. And that morphed into doing some editorial work; writing introductions to books, contributing to back-matter of some of his books, and other friends' books. Then in 2015, we decided to co-write a project together. After pitching a couple different things, that became Rome West. Now I'm kind of branching off and doing my own writing as well.
Do you have any other books, or projects, coming down the pike?
Nothing that has been announced, a little bit of a scoop for you. What I can say, Andrea and I will be doing another mini series at Dark Horse. We hope it's out about this time next year and it's sort of a Sci-Fi drama.
Andrea Mutti is your illustrative partner for both Rome West and this new book. You feel like there’s a solid combo there?
Andrea, again, I met through Brian, is a really prolific artist in Italy and in Europe, and he's done a lot of Italian comics. Particularly, a series of Dylan Dog, which is a huge comic in Italy that's a very long multi-year ongoing series that different people have contributed to and he's really been breaking big into American comics.
He recently relocated to the U.S. as well. He lives in Florida. That happened just this summer in July, literally like a week ago. Andrea is a great collaborator, he's full of energy. He's always willing to jump in and do thumbnail sketches, redo pages, do character designs, he's just an endless ball of energy.
I like his style because he really fills the panels with a lot of detail. He also works traditionally still, in pen and ink, and he's not digital yet. Because of that I feel like he has the ability to really load the pages with a lot of detail and he'll kind of spatter and speckle the page with flecks of ink. He has a willingness to really dirty up his pages that I think a lot of other artists don't do. That gives a lot of grit and realism to his pages.
How is the collaboration like with Andrea?
I would say it's become collaborative the more projects we've done together. Doing Rome West was really the first project I'd worked with him on, so I tended to write more full scripts and kind of went in as an egotistical writer and expected him to just follow my script. With our next project at Dark Horse I scripted a little looser and I sort of went into it asking him, “What kinds of things do you like to draw?”
He's a big Sci-Fi fan. He actually worked for the Italian government in a certain capacity that I can't really reveal but it ties directly to the nature of this book we're doing. So, he has a background in this and he was a lot more involved collaboratively in doing character designs, what to include in certain sequences, and in story.
Like I said, I'd scripted a lot looser. I will typically just tell him know, “Hey, these three things need to happen on this page. However you want to do that and whatever panel configuration that you feel would tell the story the best visually, go for it.” And so, I think we learned to trust each other a little bit more now that we've been collaborating for about three and a half years now.
Rome West is your first project to get yourselves out there and get exposure at Comic-Con. Are you going to try something different for this new book?
Not totally different, the big difference is that Rome West was serialized in a digital book at another publisher first. At Dark Horse, we went straight to trade (paperback) and it's basically being solicited as a graphic novel for the book market. Our next series at Dark Horse will be a little more of a traditional comic. That will come out as a four-issue miniseries first, we'll get to have floppies, and go on to a monthly cycle. But after that, I'm assuming it'll be collected. I'd say it's more of a traditional approach to the comic book industry.
Does Andrea plan to go to Comic-Con next year, if you two go that route?
We've talked about it loosely. We're really trying to get him out here. I'd love for him to come to San Diego. He's never been to San Diego Comic-Con before. He's done New York Comic Con a couple times. So, I'd love to be able to get him out here for our next series. Maybe line that up with a store signing as well at our local retailer.
How is it going from a creative/creator mindset to thinking about the business end of it?
I think it's been maybe a smoother transition for me than other folks trying to break in, basically, because I've had Brian Wood as a mentor. He's been in the industry for 20 plus years now. Not only did I feel like I had good mentorship from him in terms of how to approach a script and actually hammer out the writing end of it but on the business side.
I really learned a lot from him, in terms of how to interact with editors, how to pitch, how to speak to artists that are involved. I've learned more about coloring, and lettering, and color theory but also about the business side, how to self-promote, market, and particularly, how to read the contract. That’s something that you never really get trained for anywhere. But really looking critically at the contract in terms of of the big three R's, as we call it; Rights, Reversion, and Royalties are the three things you want to look for. That's been tremendously helpful and sort of eased my transition into that business end of the industry as well.
It's not a world of showing your portfolio, or sample writing, to get your story out there is it?
It really doesn't work that way anymore. Maybe at the big two but when you're talking about pitching creator-owned work, most companies now, whether it's Dark Horse, Image, or some of the smaller publishers, Black Mask, or Vault. They really want you to come to the table with an assembled creative team ready to go. In that case they want you to have writer, artist, inker, letterer, colorist, and when you're pitching they're asking for sample pages up front. So, you're no longer in the concept phase, really. They want to see finished work. Having at least half of the first issue done, maybe the whole first issue. You've really got to have the team assembled and present them somewhat of a finished concept that's ready to roll.
What’s your pitch to those who have not heard of Rome West and why should we consider it?
The pitch was basically one line. What if the Roman Empire found the New World a thousand years before Columbus? That was really the pitch and we wanted to, sort of, acknowledge the fact that in real life we had the New World, had pre-Colombian contact with the old world. Right?
We know that Vikings came over from Iceland to Greenland to Canada. But you never really heard about that in history books. And so, I started reading a bunch of different articles, I was a history nut about real Roman artifacts that were found in the New World. There's been Roman coins found in California Central Valley or in the Ohio River Valley, there was a fossilized ship down in Galveston Bay in Texas that look like a Roman Galley ship. There's been daggers found in Canada. And no one can really explain how these artifacts got to the New World.
We wanted to really create a What-if scenario that would explain how those artifacts got here. One of the things we wanted to avoid was the Roman's just coming over and exterminating, systematically, Native Americans because it wouldn't really deviate from real life and Western European colonialism. We went out of our way to look for excuses why the two cultures would coexist. Whether it was similar beliefs about the afterlife or having a polytheistic society that believe in a Pantheon of gods.
One of the early ideas I had was that I wanted to see a Cherokee Legionnaire, whatever that would look like. It's sort of was a personal challenge to me, figuring out what has to happen in the writing to get us to that point where we have a Cherokee Legionnaire. It created a great visual storytelling opportunity for Andrea to design something like that from scratch. What does a Cherokee Legionnaire look like after hundreds of years of Romans and Native Americans coexisting, and kind of creating this hybrid culture. So, there was really limitless storytelling opportunities there.
Rome West is currently individual stories, it's not a serial-based. Why this format?
Originally, it was 12 individual chapters that ran digitally. To tie it together we follow the descendants of one family through several hundred years of history as a kind of the through line from chapter to chapter to give it some cohesion and through the course of doing that we try to explore multiple different locations, multiple different characters, even multiple genres. There's a chapter that's a love story, a chapter that's a war comic, a detective story.
Is this the end of Rome West for you, did you have more planned for it?
It really depends on the interest level. There's sort of a finite story presented in the graphic novel that's currently out but we certainly have ideas for additional chapters. One of the great things we did, we tried to really build a storytelling engine, we call it, where it's something like Gotham City or the reservation in Scalped, the Jason Aaron series, where the environment, the world is the main character. We cover something like 1700 years of history in 112 pages. You could literally go up and down that time line at will and pick out any setting, any location, any character, and tell additional stories in this fictitious world. If the interest is there we would certainly be willing to do more.
Were there any stories you didn’t get to tell or really wish you had time to explore?
You know, one that I really wanted to do is a story set in the world of Rome West but it takes place in the future. Maybe at the year 2100. And one of the ideas I had is that this fictional society we created would be colonizing the moon and trying to apply the lessons learned from both the real world and the world of Rome West and colonization that occurred in the New World. And trying to apply those lessons to colonizing the moon and maybe trying to do it the right way that didn't subjugate cultures.
We always thought we got the interesting play on words, not only was it the Roman Empire, Rome West, but they were traveling, or roaming West, right? Now we could tell story where we roam to the stars. That would be a fun way to kind of punctuate the series as the final chapter.
Rome West is an unexpected take on what America could have been with commentary on how we're functioning now socially. It's an interesting mirror but even more, a thoughtful read.