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The Webcomic Overlook #67: SPQR Blues

It seems like every so often, someone gets the brilliant idea that the Ancient Rome is going to be the biggest thing in genre fiction. Sometimes, they’re right. Gladiator was a hit in theaters and ended up grabbing a bucket load of awards at Oscar time (even though I remember commercials that were aired during WWE television that heavily promoted Gladiator as a boffo action movie that fans of The Rock would enjoy). HBO’s Rome was highly acclaimed, winning 7 Emmys in all.

To me, though, these two are rather isolated cases. I don’t think the entertainment industry ever fully succeeded in turning America into Rome-osexuals. Compare Wikipedia entries for “Fiction set in Ancient Rome” (which spans at least a millennium if we don’t count the Byzantine Empire) vs. “King Arthur in various media,” and you come to the realization that potentially fictional English kings outclass the civilization that gave us the origins of modern language, a Senate, and the aqueduct.

Incidentally, the most surprising find of this quick look? There are at least 11 entries for Roman detective fiction. To me, that’s a fairly curious concept. I personally imagine Humphrey Bogart, in a flowing toga and beaten fedora covering the steel in his eyes, turning the corner of the Temple of Venus and lighting his cigarette in the moonlight while tailing a perp who just murdered one of the temple virgins (by stabbing her in the back with a dagger, naturally). It’s like oil and water, two concepts that shouldn’t go together. Yet 11 different authors thought that this was a good idea?

While our review today is more of a soap opera drama set in Roman times, it does contain elements of crime fiction. Its protagonist, after all, is a bodyguard with a mysterious past who’s hired to protect a pretty dame from some folks who want to do her wrong. The name of the comic is SPQR Blues. It’s written and drawn by Carol Burrell, a dame people call “Klio.” If knowledge about ancient history could kill, she’s got a Pompeii gladius aimed right at your heart.

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By the way, I always mistake reading SPQR Blues as “speaker blues.” It’s probably pronounced more like “ess-pee-cue-are blues.” According to Wikipedia, SPQR stands for “Senatus Populusque Romanus.” In current vernacular, that stands for “The Senate and the People of Rome,” a term that referred to the Roman government. The acronym shows up a lot on monuments and buildings. I pronounced “Blues” correctly, but mistook its meaning. It’s doesn’t mean someone in a sad little funk. Rather, “Blues” were the local Roman police force who were sometimes hired by the upper class to be personal thugs.

SPQR Blues is loaded with all sorts of similar trivia. It reminds me, sometimes, of those classic novels where the main narrative is secondary to the author’s passionate research. Fortunately, SPQR Blues integrates the trivia rather well and sequesters Klio’s observations and fangirl love of Roman antiquity in accompanying posts. Incidentally, methinks The Hunchback of Notre Dame would’ve been less clunky had the dissertations on Parisian architecture been hidden via hyperlink (or footnotes or appendices or whatever they had in the old days).

Even the characters are (allegedly) based on real people. Comixpedia notes:

Most of the characters are based on the actual inhabitants of the cities of Pompeii and Herculaneum, whose names are known from graffiti, inscriptions, and the records of a notorious (and unresolved) ancient lawsuit.

Our hero is Felix Marcus Antonius. He’s a bruiser. His toughness gets him employed as a soldier in the Roman legion, a bodyguard, and a Blue. He bears the name of Marcus Antonius, i.e. Mark Anthony, legendary politician, general, and Latino pop sensation. (Yes, no one has made that joke before. Ever.) He also frequently runs around in his birthday suit. I mean, hell, his very first scene is emerging from the water, completely starkers, like some homage to Ursula Andress only sans bikini.

Major elements in Chapter II shed light on Felix’s mysterious past. It turns out that he was an accountant. But not just any accountant. He’s an accountant who kills! I’m guessing he has a Masters in Badass Administration. It leads to some of Felix’s darkest secrets, including the reason behind a mysterious tattoo that brands him as a love slave.

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Mus is Felix’s stringy-haired cousin. Mus’ pa, Josephus, doesn’t approve. Felix’s regiment has been in Judaea, and despite Felix’s insistence that he was a bookkeeper, Josephus suspects that the blood of his Hebrew people is on Felix’s hands. Nevertheless, Mus tries his best to get his former babysitter back on his feet when he reappears in Herculaneum. Perhaps Mus has a strong sense of family loyalty. Or perhaps Mus is hot for Felix’s bod… which is going to be a problem, because Felix is a raging heterosexual who’s a hit with the chicks.

We’re introduced to a wider cast of characters: Iusta, an embattled young woman that Felix is protecting; Calatoria Themis, Iusta’s cold-blooded stepmother; Elisa, Mus’s resourceful little sister; Spendusa, a maid; and several more. The Dramatis Personae page is indispensable. The plot then spirals into a tangled melange of intrigue too numerous to completely recount here. There’s political machinations, star-crossed romances, damaging secrets, ruthless vengeance … basically all the elements you would come to expect from a soap opera and/or crime drama. Volcanoes don’t yet factor into the plot, though when you set your story “in the shadow of Mount Vesuvius” you gotta hedge your bets that it will someday.

A lot of the dilemmas our characters face are unique to the era. When was the last time you’ve ever had to distinguish between a slave and a freeman? Or did you ever live in a time when not only was it totally OK for you to have the hots for your cousin, it was encouraged? Even the idea of an arranged marriage seems like a blast from the past. Yet some of the issues seem strikingly modern. There’s the issue of abortion, the trouble of mixed marriages, and the complications of homosexuality.

Incidentally, I think that your enjoyment of SPQR Blues depends greatly on whether or not you can stand the art. It’s not that Klio’s art is terrible. Her style is, in fact, very attractive and quite distinct. The characters seem like Greco-Roman statues both in appearance and poise. I imagine they’re inspired from Klio’s numerous visits to art galleries. I also sense a dash of Dave Gibbons, a.k.a that guy who did Watchmen. We frequently see people disrobed, but they’re not portrayed as supermodels. They’ve all got a healthy layer of fat that you’d expect from folk who lived in a world without Pilates. Felix, who’s the handsomest guy in the strip, mind you, looks like he’s got a bit of a paunch. Even Venus, goddess of love, is proudly portrayed as a full-figured Rubenesque lady.

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Klio also seems to have plenty of fun playing with the conventions of a comic form. She gives word balloons a life of their own, having them hide behind columns and bushes. Barely heard conversations are also barely seen. Sometimes she experiments with panel layouts that are picturesque frescoes. Then there are panels with no dialogue at all. Klio subtly conveys volumes of emotion though silent panels and well-timed close-ups, even reducing epic battle sequences to something more personal.

There is, however, a downside to Klio’s art. First of all, her characters tend to look the same. I often mixed up Iusta not only with her mother, Vitalis (which is at least understandable), but also some random servant girl. Then there’s Vespasian and his two sons, Titus and Domitian. You can tell these three apart mainly through the level of fat coursing though their jowls. At certain angles it can get confusing. This becomes incredibly problematic when it turns out that Felix serves two out of three of them. Exactly who’s double-crossing who?

Second, emotion is so downplayed that it’s sometimes registers as apathy. At one point, for example, a somewhat major character dies (spoilers). My first reaction: “Huh. Who’s this person again?” My second reaction: “Oh yeah. That’s who it was, and she’s dead.” I felt disappointed. I imagined I was supposed to feel at least somewhat devastated. Or SOMETHING. Yet, how could you feel the pangs of sorrow when even the dead person’s own child looks and acts more like she swallowed a chili?

And believe me, the nearly static tone does wear on you. The permanently serene look on everyone’s faces doesn’t always jibe with the melodramatic nature of the plot. I can hardly blame readers if they feel like they want to quit reading because the story is either too confusing, too inert, or frankly too boring. I, personally, felt like quitting sometime around the beginning of Chapter Three.

However, I’m happy to say that this is one of those rare webcomics where the longer you stick with it, the better it gets … and the better everything that came before it seems in retrospect. Through all those times I felt SPQR Blues was moving too slowly, Klio was patiently creating believable three-dimensional characters. These are characters whose day-to-day actions felt natural and unforced. Minor characters have their own distinct personalities. Even if a character comes off as a total jackass, you could, at least, understand where the character’s motivations were coming from.

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Interestingly enough, my interest in SPQR Blues spiked when Klio shifted the spotlight away from Felix and began to focus on Mus, Iusta, and other previously secondary characters. It’s not that Felix was necessarily boring (though his hard-boiled routine does get sorta predictable). It’s more that her narrative visuals was a better fit within the context of turbulent romance rather than Felix Marcus Antonius’ world of macho posturing. And, subsequently, Felix got more interesting the more his own story got more down-key.

At times, SPQR Blues is so infuriatingly torpid that I feel that the comic would do read better as a novel. (In fact, I only decided to push further after reading the synopsis on Comixpedia.) But prose wouldn’t pick up completely on the graceful power and emotional nuances of Klio’s illustrations.

Besides, it’s a soap opera set in the Roman Empire. How can you pass up a webcomic with a premise that original?