On Thanksgiving, we celebrate the Pilgrim’s feast of 1621 for the year’s harvest and for their partnership with the Native Americans. Although this holiday smacks of colonialism, white supremacy and is historically inaccurate, let’s just imagine if America was “discovered” in 323 AD by the Romans and our timeline was radically changed.
Brian Wood, a favored author of mine (although he is currently mired in some sexual harassment controversy), along with co-author Justin Giampaoli, takes the trope of an alternate timeline and tries to breathe some new life into it. Told in eleven vignettes, the only thread is that all the characters are descended from the Valerius family originally from Rome.
323 AD Manahatta (NYC): Several Roman galley ships are pushed off course when a violent storm strands them in the Hudson River Valley area of modern-day New York. Legionnaire Lucan Valerius, who has a gift for learning languages, takes command when the Captain is washed overboard. When the Lenape tribe greets the bedraggled soldiers there is a small skirmish, but Lucan understands that diplomacy is the key to their survival, and this first contact leads to the first of future alliances with the Native Americans of the region. Each side believes their deal is the better of the two.
847 The City of Val Seneca (Rochester, NY): A 500-year jump is excessive, as we are led to believe that the descendants of a ragtag group of less than 100 Roman soldiers have remained a central force in government, and have retained the language and customs of their ancestors. As the only Roman men were soldiers, the only way they continued their bloodline was through intermarriage with the local tribes. So I find it incredibly unlikely that the Valerius family looks so white, and that Roman traditions are so prized.
990 The Outpost of Roma Dorsetus (Newfoundland): The Vikings discover an outpost in Vinland and the soldiers there put up an epic fight.
1492 Concordia (Caribbean Islands): Columbus lands and finds an advanced civilization speaking Latin already there. Shocked, he shares that the original Roman empire fell years ago, and makes reference to Jesus Christ, which seems to be news to the island leader. This seems off, as the original soldiers from Rome would have heard of Christ back in 323 AD, so this conversation seems disingenuous.
1503 Roma Auster (Norfolk, VA): In the eleven years since Columbus landed and his ships were seized, the Valerius family studied the European technology onboard, and are now weapon makers themselves. Alliances and wars with certain tribes are mentioned.
1545 Lepido (Panama): The Panama Canel is being constructed already? And Rome West is at war with the Aztecs? Alrighty then.
1869 Sioux Colonia (Davenport, Iowa): Now a Valerius heir is taking a leisurely transcontinental train around the nation and she thinks about the history of the nation, that has some parallels with our world. She meets a storyteller- obviously, Mark Twain is in any timeline!
1939 The Port of Barentsland (San Francisco, CA): A mass murderer is on the loose, seeming to target those with Roman bloodlines. The police struggle to solve these hate crimes.
1941 Washoe Colony (Lake Tahoe, CA): Love story with a bit of commentary on the Valerius family branch that the new bride belongs to. A sweet tale, but it didn’t fit with the other stories.
1979 Rome West, Capital City (NYC): James Bond is a Valerius!
1989 Roma Bareas (Portsmouth, NH): A college student faces extreme prejudice as public opinion has turned against the Valerius family and she is being judged for what her family has done centuries before. I actually wished this story was longer, for it had some biting commentary about cancel culture and paying for the sins of the past.
I am a fan of artist Andrea Mutti’s sketchy work, who has collaborated with Wood before. The grittiness of wilderness living and the gore of war are shown in a realistic manner, with earthen tone coloring that is evocative and helps convey the story even more effectively. All the pages are divided into quadrants with some smaller panels within, there is no elaborate splash pages or large panels, but these workmanlike configurations match the tone of the story.
Overall, this story disappoints. The two authors take what Wood has done well in the past- detailing the rise and fall of a family over the years (Northlanders- Icelandic Trilogy), vignettes with characters studies (Rebels), and mixes it with social commentary (Briggs Land) but it doesn’t quite gel in this story. There are too many leaps of logic with too much time between earlier stories, and then there are too many clustered at the end. This graphic novel should have had more entries, and perhaps then it would have fleshed out into a more cohesive narrative, and become what the authors were aiming for but missed.
Happy Thanksgiving everyone! May your choices today make your family proud in the future.
Wood, Brian, Justin Giampaoli, Andrea Mutti. Rome West. 2018.