Romulus: Stand For Something, Die For Everything [Interview]
October 3, 2016
BRYAN HILL: The Order of Romulus is based on a few real occult societies, like the Catholic Opus Dei, the freemasons, writings by Aleister Crowley, and Helena Blavatsky and the Thule Society, among others. In our story, The Order of Romulus is the most powerful secret society in the world, a group that has operated since the dawn of Ancient Rome, the tree from which all other branches have grown.
How do they operate? They operate like most occult societies do. They have a vision of the world, a vision of who should be free (the few) and who should serve them (the many), and they enforce that view by influencing the world through its power centers, finance, government, the pharmaceutical industry, entertainment, etc. They're hidden, but from the shadows they affect the development of the world. They have a hidden history and a mythology that we'll continue to reveal and explore over the course of the series.
ROMULUS is about the feeling that many of us share, the feeling that the world is influenced by powers beyond democracy, beyond our influence. Nelson and I wanted to tell a story about both the validation of that feeling and about a character named Ashlar that stands against that. Ashlar fights for our freedom, our right to live in a world where we have the power to make our own choices.
IC: Ashlar was raised by the organization that she's now chosen to oppose. What was her upbringing like?
HILL: Ashlar was raised to be a weapon. The Order of Romulus has a multi-generational line of female assassins. They're all women because The Order's mythology links back to a real myth about a female wolf that saved the life of the first king of Rome.
Ashlar grew up in the harshest conditions imaginable, separated from the world we live in, with strength and the willingness to kill in cold blood...but she's a person with a conscience like we all have, a soul as we all have. The Order of Romulus, through incredibly cruel training, sought to destroy that conscience but Ashlar fought to keep that candle alive inside her.
That's a key question in ROMULUS. Can you force the good from someone? I don't think you can. I think, unless we're talking about a true sociopath, the echo of conscience lives inside us all and we have to learn to trust it, to listen to it, to let it guide us through our fear. One of Ashlar's core relationships is with her mother, who is also an assassin for The Order of Romulus, and both of them have to reconcile the guilt of being who they are, of serving who they serve.
IC: This is a book that rockets from intrigue and conspiracies to big action scenes and back again. Bryan, how do you know when you've struck the right balance there?
HILL: Just because you have a point, that doesn't mean you can't blow a lot of shit up! [laughs] I LOVE comic book action and books that pump your adrenaline, books that make you FEEL the action as it happens. I would NEVER ask readers and comic shops to spend their money on my opinion of global power...unless it came with a lot of AWESOME action and ADRENALINE.
They best part about working with Image is that Nelson and I can do the same level of action that the Big Two books do, but we can also do so many things the Big Two would never do. It's imagination with the safety off and we wanted to take full advantage of the opportunity and make an experience that can get indie readers and Big Two die-hards because Nelson and I are tremendously immature [laughs].
Seriously. We have no sense. We're bad influences. [laughs] We listen to the wrong music and we play it too loud.
The first thing that Nelson and immediately agreed on was we wanted to create a character that would break the book in half if she needed to. Two of my biggest influences are the work of Marjorie M. Liu and Frank Miller. They make books that make you want to break shit, books that set off little explosions in your head.
Ashlar is fighting a war against the whole damn world, with The Order of Romulus hunting her constantly. There's a philosophy there and a history, but in many ways, she's like an occult assassin version of Jason Bourne—power looking for a purpose, created with terrible intentions, using her conscience and her power to make it all right. Nelson and I wanted the action to have purpose. We wanted readers to know what Ashlar is fighting for, so they'll want her to win even though nothing for her is ever going to be easy.
What feels better than reading a book about a character who's fighting for reasons you understand, a character that is literally risking her life for you?
Sometimes you protest evil. Sometimes you reason with it...and sometimes you have to kick it in the face and blow up its house and make sure it never builds the walls again. In ROMULUS, Ashlar usually resolves conflict with that option.
Like my grandmother would say, she's woke, but she ain't grown.
IC: Building on that point, Nelson, how do you know when you've nailed an action scene? What makes them good to go?
NELSON BLAKE II: One of the most thrilling things about doing ROMULUS at Image is the freedom Bryan and I have in planning the action. There are surface things that we love as fans of anime and action movies and fighting games, but more than that, Bryan has a real understanding that expression of character doesn't get put on hold when people start punching each other. ROMULUS is full of forces that are ready and willing to solve problems with violence, and these situations bring the survival mechanism to the forefront and reveal what our characters are made of. So, an action scene is always a question posed to the characters involved: Do you have what it takes to survive this? Do you give up here? Do you believe in your own weakness?
I know the action is working when I see the characters answer those questions in how they fight, how they move, how they apply past lessons in their success, or how they reveal the need to learn from their failure.
Also, I know the action is working if it's cool. Violence in real life is uncool, but we're playing make-believe and we're not going to pretend we don't like back flips and sword twirls.
IC: Nelson, this story spans a large part of human existence, giving you a lot to work with. What's your favorite thing that you've drawn so far?
BLAKE II: From a drawing standpoint, I'm always trying to make it better, so the tendency is to love the most recent drawing the most, but ROMULUS really is about nailing the characters. It's a brand-new universe, so the job is much more about painting them as people than doing cool illustrations. That having been said, this is the first time I've colored my own interiors, and that's changed my perspective on the entire process.
As a penciler, I could fall in love with a drawing very easily, but I might come in later and improve something in color, adding form or mood or even background elements. The color element really alters when I feel done with a drawing and how I feel about it. All that said, my favorite drawings are usually Ashlar. She's not a stoic hero. She's young and skilled and emotional and dynamic, so she gives me a lot of opportunities to fall in love with drawing her.
IC: Bryan, I know you like to work with layers of storytelling and themes. What are you looking forward to exploring in ROMULUS?
HILL: Heroism. What it really means. What it costs. As much as Ashlar is anything, she's trying to be a fucking hero, and she doesn't really know how to do it. A lot of books are cynical, and even though ROMULUS is often brutal, Nelson and I never wanted the book to fall into cynicism.
Comics often helped me face real world challenges. I drew strength from the stories about people who had to face incredible odds, and suffered, and always found a way to keep going. We live in a world where so many things are telling you "You Can't." "You're Not Good Enough." "You Have No Power." Ashlar is the embodiment of “Fuck that.”
Ashlar is afraid. She's fighting limitless wealth and power that wants to destroy her. She's human. She breaks and bleeds and cries and struggles, but she tries so hard not to give in, to not give up on doing what she knows is the right thing to do. That's the most important thing to me. The core theme of ROMULUS is "Change is possible. Victory is possible. Heroism is possible...but it will not be easy."
I want everyone reading this to know that I believe in you. Whatever you want to be. Whatever you want to do. You CAN do it. Ashlar's story is about my belief that we're all stronger than we think we can be, we're stronger than the people telling us we can't.
Ashlar won't always win, but she'll never quit. She will continue.
ROMULUS #1 goes on sale this week.