Comic Book Yeti Contributor Andrew welcomes Fred Kennedy into the Yeti Cave to discuss Dead Romans, his new series with artist Nick Marinkovich. Issue #1 is out March 22, 2023. Andrew and Fred have a fascinating conversation that every comic book fan is going to want to check out!
COMIC BOOK YETI: Thanks for making time for a chat today, Fred. How’s everything going?
FRED KENNEDY: So far so good, man. Hoping DEAD ROMANS does well… and I’m also working on a fan made Star Wars radio play that is a massive beast occupying my free time… but yeah. I’m good…just sort of riding the wave I guess.
CBY: Firstly, how did you end up arranging for DEAD ROMANS to be released through the new Shadowline imprint Image has launched? This is the first title I’ve seen under this banner, so I’m curious as to how the discussions arose around this approach. How does it differ from the existing Image Comics creator-owned publication structure?
FK: Shadowline has been around forever! Since the dawn of time! It was in the background during the opening scene of 2001: A Space Odyssey! Initially the script called for the ape to be holding a rolled up copy of Shadowhawk!
"The other big thing he [Nick Marinkovich] got was the tone…it is big and brash and violent…but at its core it really is a love story. Two people hopelessly in love, desperate to find each other amid a cacophony of gore. It would have been easy to ignore the love aspect in the visuals…but Nick understood that love in an environment like that is even more powerful."
Well, maybe not, but Jim (Valentino) and Shadowline have done a lot of my favorite books in recent years. In fact, when I was tinkering with where to submit DEAD ROMANS, Ed Brisson suggested Shadowline cause they’re great to creators.
It’s the standard Image deal…nothing out of the ordinary. And I am very happy with how things have gone. I’ve done indie stuff for a long time, but this is a very different animal and Jim has really helped me out with the process. Explaining everything as I went. I am also fortunate to have an incredible editor, Allison O’Toole, who has been a wealth of knowledge, not just with fine tweaks in the story itself, but all the stuff OUTSIDE of just writing a comic…I am very lucky to have this team in my corner with me.
CBY: Looks like I need to both pay more attention and pick up some more Shadowline titles! Beyond the publication arrangements, can you tell our readers a bit more about the creative team you’re working with? With Nick Marinkovich on pencils & inks, José Villarrubia as your colorist, and Andrew Thomas providing lettering, what did the initial discussions look like to enlist everyone to support the overarching vision of DEAD ROMANS, and how has your collaborative production process shaped up to get the title ready for print?
FK: DEAD ROMANS has gone through a few different stages of evolution over the past few months. Initially, it was just Nick and I. But I knew I wanted a solid editor to give me a hand. There are things that I wasn’t 100% on, and Allison has an incredible sense of what works and what doesn’t. Once she was in the mix I felt like the story readjusted and became much closer to that initial vision I had in my head.
Nick and I hit it off from the beginning. We knew what we wanted it to look like. The punch and power the visuals needed to have. There are so many big visuals at play in this book, massive action sequences, and the scale is something that was hard to capture. But every time Nick would send roughs it was chef’s kiss (I just did the chef’s kiss thingy as I typed this).
The other big thing he got was the tone…it is big and brash and violent…but at its core it really is a love story. Two people hopelessly in love, desperate to find each other amid a cacophony of gore. It would have been easy to ignore the love aspect in the visuals…but Nick understood that love in an environment like that is even more powerful. There are some scenes in the later issues where you can practically see Arminius’ hand with fear and anger as he wonders what’s become of the woman he loves.
Initially Nick was handling colors too, but it wasn’t right. He was working too hard, so we brought in José Villarrubia. That guy…he worked on Arrowsmith, man! I didn’t think he’d say yes…but he did! Reach for the stars, kids! It’s been pretty surreal opening pages from him. They’re as good as it gets. Him and Nick together…yeesh. Too good.
I’m glad you mentioned Andrew’s letters. Aren’t they dope? At first I was doing letters. But as moderately adequate as my work was, I felt like it was bringing down Nick’s pages. We needed something with more polish and Andrew had worked with me on some indie stuff in the past so he was the first guy I reached out to.
Again, I have been very fortunate.
CBY: You’ve also got Adam Gorham and Cary Nord providing cover variations – what I’ve seen communicates a rather somber, blood-soaked tone, setting the stage for a series run predicated on what looks like a rather visceral armed conflict. Joining Nick in delivering covers, what previous work from these artists convinced you they’d help make a good first impression with potential readers for DEAD ROMANS, and which version of the cover is intended as the “main” variant for the print run?
FK: That’s the tone we’re going for, yeah. It’s dark and terrifying for sure. The actual story of Teutoburg Forest is something that should prickle the hairs on anyone’s neck. Fifty thousand people were butchered over a hundred kilometer stretch of rainy swamp forest over a few days.
The night skies filled with the screams of the sacrificed. Horror is what it is. And I wanted to bring in people that got that. I think we have some really incredible people providing variants, just wait. People that I’ve been fans of for years.
Cary was doing art on that Dark Horse Conan run years ago…and those are still some of my fave books ever put to print. I love his art…and his new KS is nuts too…FolKlor. Nick actually did a cover exchange with him for that one. And Adam is one of my favorite humans on the planet. Just a wonderful human being and an even greater talent. I did my first book with him actually. It was called Teuton, and was an historic fantasy set in the Northern Crusades of Lithuania. He’s doing so many amazing things now, and getting to work with him again on something like this was rad. And he was one of the first people I explained the concept to actually. When I told him we got picked up, he immediately responded with…”If you need a cover, just ask.” What a great dude.
CBY: Noting from the outset the six-issue run of the title, did you have an enclosed, standalone narrative in mind from the outset, or are you keeping things open-ended for other installments within the same genre and narrative world to build beyond the characters and conflicts they face in this story arc?
FK: The story told in these six issues IS a complete story, BUT there are other parts I would like to tell. See, this book focuses on the events of Arminius’ great battle, his masterfully planned ambush, and how he and Honoria search for each other amid the chaos. BUT anyone who knows history knows that even though Rome never truly went back to Germania with the intent of establishing a new province, they did have their revenge. And that’s what I’m hoping we get to do eventually. I fully intend on telling that second arc…where Rome comes back. But who knows? This is a very cool story all on its own and I’m stoked to have it out there. But one can’t help but dream, ya know?
CBY: The “Swords & Sandals” genre has a long, well-established history across various media, with various films, video games, and other titles to draw upon. Would you say it’s rooted soundly within genre references, or have you drawn upon disparate sources of inspiration in putting together this title? When setting the tone for DEAD ROMANS, what have been your core aesthetic and structural influences?
FK: I grew up in Belgium, and when we were little sausages, our school took us on a field trip to a recreated tribal village near the ruin of a Roman fortress. I was blown away by it. Then I read Asterix and all that and thought Rome was the definition of evil…but also pomp and power. Wealth incarnate.
In fact, when I first saw Star Wars I immediately thought of the Empire as a sci-fi representation of Rome. As I got older, I became more intrigued with that era from an actual historical perspective. I always loved the history, but never thought of actually telling a story about anything involving Rome. I mean, I made up my own goofy stories and stuff, but they were just sideshow things. Nothing I thought of seriously aside from rough notes and brainstorming.
Now that I’m thinking about it…there was a hesitation to ever jump in with both feet because all the big events had been covered. Meaning, you KNEW what would happen, so why bother telling it all again. But now I realize that’s pretty silly, because we’ve all seen/heard the story of Caesar and Pompei, and Octavian waging war with Mark Antony and Cleopatra so many times…and yet…it’s almost always compelling because at their core those events are timeless and powerful. The scope and scale beat you over the head.
I really owe a debt of gratitude to Tini Howard for making me think it was a good idea to revisit my notes for a love story set in Teutoburg. Years ago I was interviewing her and we talked about spoilers and she gushed about Rome and how much she loved it. She said straight up, “we all know what’s gonna happen, but we wanna see HOW it happens. The 'why'!” So that’s what I did with DEAD ROMANS… I let the events play out. I didn’t even touch the how…cause that stuff was rad, and the historical side is too incredible to overlook. I just tweaked the 'why' a bit.
CBY: Noting the overarching theme of imperial occupation, how may you have drawn upon contemporary examples of power imbalance across our civilization to inform the intent and motives of Arminius in DEAD ROMANS? To what degree, if at all, do you intend this as a social commentary on issues of equity and representation, and what have you kept in mind as means of helping your prospective readers connect with the interpersonal and geopolitical issues you’re tackling over the six-issue run?
FK: Well…there are some heavy issues at play here for sure. But the empathy I want the readers to have for the main characters is much smaller. More intimate and universal. It’s difficult for me to empathize with someone who’s been raised to fight on horseback in an army 2,000 years ago, to charge into enemy columns of spears while arrows and spears fall around me. That’s pretty far outside my wheelhouse.
And it’s just as difficult for me to empathize with someone who’s been trained from childhood to spy and assassinate the people who’ve drawn my master’s ire. Those are experiences I don’t really see myself ever participating in…hopefully. BUT I know what love is. I know what longing and hope are. Those are universal human experiences. And the two main characters are knee deep in them. I focused more on those than anything else.
These two characters are dangerous and intimidating…but they’re also two people that are hopelessly in love and will do anything to be together. That’s what I drew upon, because all of us have had a time in our lives where someone we care for deeply is wronged, and you are overcome with an urge to make things right. The problem is that sometimes you become so focused on what you think is the proper solution, you don’t stop to think about the implications of what you’re doing. You feel justified, you feel like a paragon of virtue…but you’ve really lost yourself in emotion. Your center is gone, and what started as one thing grows into something entirely different. That type of thing happens in our day-to-day all the time. This is why open communication is always crucial. Love needs communication, man…otherwise you might overthrow an Empire for someone who would rather you don’t overthrow an Empire.
CBY: Pursuant to the nature of transboundary armed conflict, you have to dig a few centuries back into history to find a time when Germans can be framed in a sympathetic light. Were there any particular cultural motifs or scenes you knew you wanted to include which necessitated placing Arminius within Germanic culture? If you’d gone with a nod to Asterix & Obelix and picked the Gauls, for instance, or Thracians, Parthians, etc., would you have been able to find the same sort of narrative purchase with other historical figures who came into conflict with the Romans?
FK: The thing with this point in history (and I am sure there are some who would say today is no different) everyone is game to attack everyone else when it suits them. You could say the Germanic People are sympathetic in this story, but to the Gallic characters they are anything but. Germanic tribes like the Swabians had been crossing the Rhine for generations, taking slaves, stealing livestock…anything they could. So the Gauls had no qualms about helping the Romans do the same…even if they’d fought a massive war against the Empire and lost only a generation or so earlier.
The Romans can be viewed as vile and oppressive…but 390 years before the story the Gauls invaded Italy, brutalized the Romans then sacked Rome itself. It’s a question of the dragon eating its tail. It’s one big cycle of violence.
At the beginning of the story, it’s the German tribes who are being oppressed, forced to live under the yoke of new masters. But you could argue their lives are being improved. There’s a very famous scene in The Life of Brian that illustrates this nicely…”What have the Romans ever done for US?” And bear in mind, the Germans weren’t exactly kind to one another, and their confederation only existed for the purposes of driving Rome back over the Rhine. They still fought among themselves and took slaves, but they truly are living under the heel of a foreign power.
Arminius himself grew up with a very Hannibal-esque moment where he swore revenge against the Empire as his father handed him over as a hostage. Those early moments played a large role in his psyche. He knows Rome is powerful, but also knows its weaknesses. He knows it can be beaten. He reflects on his childhood, seeing entire villages burned for not paying taxes, some of his own kin dead at the hands of invaders. His actions might not be something you can sympathize with…but the motivation is. These people live in a world of violent forces, and respond in kind. At that point in time, it was just the way things were done. Again, doesn’t make it right, but I can empathize with his train of thought.
As for the cultures at play…I tried researching the totems of the individual tribes involved. Records indicate there were over 30 Germanic tribes at Teutoburg…some of whom openly despised each other, they just hated Rome more. And I would research what the names of each tribe meant and then worked with Nick to create symbols they would share. We had a talk about ensuring those symbols and totems were obviously the same thing, but didn’t look identical. You didn’t have a print shop to go to where everyone could get the same logo printed on their shield. You did it yourself, with what you had on hand. Arminius’ tribe, The Cherusci, roughly translates to “hart” or deer. So we created some mythology around the deer. I don’t wanna give anything away, but I am really pleased with a lot of that background work. It weaves its way into the story nicely and naturally.
CBY: Oh, I always appreciate that level of fastidious research, and I am very excited to see the results of your effort in how these tribes are represented on the page. Now, given this narrative is meant to be nested within the historic context of the Battle of the Teutoburg Forest, and Arminius was an actual historical figure, how did you utilize primary source material to inform the story you’ve constructed around his life and the impact he had on Roman military activities? Were there any particulars you felt you had to work around, or any ways in which you felt confined by the setting, or was it useful as a structural foundation upon which to build out your narrative?
"I grew up in Belgium, and when we were little sausages, our school took us on a field trip to a recreated tribal village near the ruin of a Roman fortress. I was blown away by it. Then I read Asterix and all that and thought Rome was the definition of evil…but also pomp and power. Wealth incarnate."
FK: There were a bunch of things that I needed to take stock of, and be aware of. He is a very powerful figure in German history, and for better or worse, you need to be familiar. I read up on his childhood, how he and his brother were handed over to Rome. This is something the Empire was known for. Take hostages (usually children and family members) of powerful enemies who had recently submitted to ensure they didn’t rise up. Then they were taken to Rome itself, educated, taught the ways of Imperial life. I don’t think he had an amazing childhood, but I don’t think he would have been mistreated much either. He became a well respected commander, leading auxiliary cavalry in battle many times. Even earning the Roman equivalent rank of knight by his own prowess in the field.
It was when he went to Germany and saw what happened to his people through the eyes of an adult, an experienced soldier. Saw what was STILL happening. That’s when he set out on his path of liberation. Now how much of that is true, who knows? But that’s where I started. It was Honoria that involved the most research. See, she was a slave of Varus…the newly appointed governor of Germania. The man meant to tame the wilderness. And I needed her life to fit the timeline. For her to be part of Varus’ household I needed to know where he was before that, and how that would also affect other characters…all of which is built into the story, but let’s focus on Honoria. Varus spent a good deal of time in Syria, and as such Honoria came into his service there. She was trained as frumentarii, I have read that they were predominantly a branch of the military…but the term has also popped up referring to spies, assassins, and gatherers of intelligence. So that’s the over reaching label I used. I also needed to have her manner of speech reflect her Hellenic background, because at the time Rome occupied Syria it was Greek. So Honoria’s family are Hellenic, and she worships Hellenic gods. And those little details are a huge deal to me. She needs to impart who she is as an individual the same way Arminius does. What does her life say about her actions? All of that stuff was clutch.
CBY: Compared to the narrative space you have with a fully fictitious environment like that of your previous work on The Fourth Planet, what sort of distinctions do you make in how you construct your characters when you’re dealing wholly with human interaction and leave the aliens out of the equation? Do you find it demands more cultural consideration when you know there might be a whole host of antiquities scholars and Roman historians who might turn an informed and critical eye to your work in a way that isn’t possible with a wholly fictitious alien society like that of The Fourth Planet?
FK: I may have touched on this in the last question and you nailed the reason why I think the research is so important. I very well COULD have informed people reading this book, in fact I hope they do. The thing is though…it IS a work of fiction. There are changes that had to be made for the narrative to flow properly, BUT there are a lot of things I was adamant couldn’t be touched. Mostly the logistics of what the tribes did. The sheer effort and planning that went into their ambush. Miles of roads prepared for battle over years of work.
Remember, this was a two year plan. Arminius gathered the tribes together in secret over the course of TWO years. They began building earthworks and gathering weapons the entire time. This wasn’t a bunch of guys sitting around going, “In two weeks, we roll.” It was a logistical nightmare, and the tribes were always at each other’s throats. Demands of who got what spoils, who held which part of the road, etc….all these things almost destroyed the plan before it even came to fruition. Arminius is having to manage thousands of people who have blood oaths of vengeance against one another…all while not letting the Romans get wise.
They did by the way, Governor Varus had been informed many times Arminius was plotting against him, but he refused to believe a soldier so honorable could dare betray the Empire that gave him everything. I feel kind of bad for Varus. I didn’t get as many opportunities as I’d like to dig into his brain. At least not in the story. He’s always portrayed historically as a dummy. A fool who was taken advantage of. But…I think his biggest flaw is just trusting people, and that’s not really a bad trait to have. He is usually cited as viewing Arminius as similar to his own son, and I think that betrayal must have cut pretty deep. This humiliating defeat destroyed his family, and his name was synonymous with failure all across the Empire. But…if you do a bit of reading about how brutal and harsh he was, you begin to feel far less sorry for him.
CBY: I am much the same in how I approach logistics within narrative, and avoiding the trap some stories fall into of "moving at the speed of plot" (which the aforementioned Star Wars is heavily guilty of), makes me all the more excited to read this story, Fred. To close, now is the time for you to let our readers know what other work (comics, film, music, books, etc.) has been inspiring you lately. What would you insist people make sure they don’t miss that’s been keeping your attention and entertaining you as you’ve been preparing for the launch of DEAD ROMANS?
FK: I love the Total War games. Lately I’ve been playing Total War: Britannia. It’s a bit streamlined compared to other titles in the franchise, but I really like it. I did just finish reading The Last Kingdom series from Bernard Cornwell…so maybe that played a role? Other than that most of my time is spent working on my Star Wars radio play, Mud79. It’s like Platoon meets Star Wars. A story set five years after the rise of the Empire, told from the perspective of a bunch of Imperial Conscripts in the army: Mud Troopers. It’s the biggest time consumer as of late. But it’s rad, so I don’t mind. We have over 90 cast members in the new season, so the logistics are a tad nutty. Not Teutoburg-level nutty…but still a fairly intense process.
CBY: Fred, it’s been a pleasure learning about your new title, and if you have any social media links or other promotional material to share, please let us know so we can keep our readers informed about what you’re up to!
FK: Twitter: @fearless_fred