Travis Horseman is a Columbus, Ohio comics creator and actor. Horseman is currently running a Kickstarter campaign for Amiculus: A Secret History, a speculative history graphic novel that he's been working on for nearly seven years. Illustrated by Italian artist and comics veteran Giancarlo Caracuzzo, Amiculus chronicles the fall of the Western Roman Empire, and hints at a hidden mastermind responsible for its collapse.
Horseman's current Kickstarter campaign isn't his first attempt at funding Amiculus. In 2013, he ran an unsuccessful campaign to fund the comic. Undeterred, he self-funded a 20 page preview comic for Amiculus, which debuted at Columbus's Small Press and Alternative Comics Expo (SPACE) this year.
I spoke to Horseman about Amiculus, Roman and speculative history, and his new Kickstarter campaign.
Christian Hoffer: Let's start with an obvious question: how exactly does one pronounce "Amiculus". Are we using the Church Latin pronunciation, or the classic Latin version?
Travis Horseman: I pronounce the name "uh-MIK-you-luss," in the more modern style. The classical Latin version would have been "ah-MEE-koo-loos," but I thought it's already hard enough to say, so I made it a little easier on the reader. "Amiculus" means "dear little friend" in Latin.
Hoffer: Amiculus: A Secret History bills itself as the lost history behind the fall of Rome. How did the story originate, and how long have you been working on it?
Horseman: The nucleus of it started as a ten-page play I wrote in college. It was a pretty terrible play, but the idea never really left my mind. about seven years ago, I had the idea to write another story idea I had as a graphic novel, but I thought I should start smaller. I thought Amiculus would be a better small project, like 24 pages or so. After about 15 drafts over seven years, it's grown to almost 180 pages.
Hoffer: As someone with a background in theatre, how does scripting a comic differ from scripting a play?
Horseman: Scripting a comic is (for me) much like scripting a film. I use a lot of the same language as you would use for a film script when setting up each panel and page, since each panel is like a shot in a movie. It's probably the reason so many comics become films: they're already a storyboard. Comics and films control where the eye goes and what it sees, whereas a play opens that view up.
Hoffer: Who are the main characters of Amiculus, and do you think readers will be able to relate to them?
Horseman: There are six main characters. Procopius, the historian who occupies a sort of framing device in the story, determined to find out the truth behind the lost history. Anastasius is the elderly monk who introduces Procopius to the secret history and Amiculus, hoping the truth will enlighten him and the returning Romans. The rest of the characters exist in the history itself: Romulus, the boy-emperor of Rome, the general Orestes, his father, and the barbarian general Odoacer, Orestes's mortal enemy. The bizarre relationship that is revealed between these characters is the meat of the story.
And then, of course, there is Amiculus, the mystery man, tipping scales, influencing events, and driving western civilization toward its destiny. Procopius, Romulus, Orestes and Odoacer are all established historical figures, by-the-way.
Hoffer: Exactly how does one bring about the fall of one of mankind's largest empires? Are we talking political intrigue, brute force, arcane magic, or a little bit of all three?
Horseman: Well, it kind-of helps that it was already declining pretty precipitously toward its fall at this point. This book focuses on Rome's last days, on the final conflict between Orestes and Odoacer that sends the Roman Empire in the west flying apart. (The empire in the east survived, but this story also focuses on their attempt to take Rome and the west back from the barbarians.) With the turning point focused on a single battle or set of battles, it is relatively easy for one man to turn the tide in one direction or another. Amiculus' ability seems supernatural, in that he is able to almost read the Romans' minds, guiding Odoacer past their defenses, laying their weaknesses bare and turning Roman victories into total routs. However, no one, not even the barbarians, are quite sure whether or not he is entirely human.
Hoffer: How did you first become interested in Roman history? And why did you choose to write a story about the fall of Rome, as opposed to one of its other eras of history?
Horseman:I have loved classical Greek and Roman history ever since I started reading their mythology in second grade. I prefer Rome ever so slightly over Greece because I think Rome was the most relatable ancient civilization to modern times in customs and thinking. Naturally, the parallels between a falling Rome and the fear of a teetering American empire are easy to draw, too. As for the characters and situation of this particular instance, I was able to personally relate to Romulus for reasons I can't get into at the moment, since I don't want to spoil the book.
Hoffer: How much Roman history did you research while writing Amiculus?
Horseman: A ton. Like I said, Procopius was a real historian during this period, and a lot of details come from his work The Gothic Wars. Also, one of his most famous works was called The Secret History, which influenced my title. Edward Gibbon, Priscus, Jordanes and the Anonymus Valesianus were other sources. There was also this interesting conspiratorial history book, The Night Attila Died by Michael Babcock, that was very informative in creating Orestes character.
Horseman: I care a lot about historical accuracy. That said, I'm also writing speculative historical fiction, with scenarios that I would never claim were actual history. I think the best version of historical fiction entertainment has to include certain fantastical elements, which, while possibly not true, should feel like they could work in the historical context. I may be alone in that assessment among historical fiction fans, but if I want a textbook, I'll read a textbook.
I love the HBO series Rome, because, even though it took serious liberties with characters and histories, it succeeded in feeling authentic while providing a compelling story. Gladiator irritated the hell out of me because the biggest liberty it took with history, that Rome was going to turn from an empire back to a republic, did not and could not ever happen within any context of the period, and totally took me out of it. It may seem like a small thing, but that's what works and doesn't work for me.
Hoffer: Speculative and alternate history comics have long been a popular fiction trope, and they've experienced a recent surge of popularity in comics lately, with series such as Manifest Destiny and East of West. Why do you think people enjoy speculative history stories so much?
Horseman: I think it says great things about our collective imaginations, because it shows people love to imagine what could have been, what could be, what never could be but perhaps should, or what is but shouldn't.
It's interesting you mention Jonathan Hickman's series. One of my absolute favorite graphic novels is, naturally, Pax Romana, which exemplifies this perfectly. What if we could go back in time and use modern technology to keep the Roman Empire from falling? What if we could keep the Dark Ages from ever happening? And how could we, being human, still manage to fuck things up? History is finite and limited, but there are endless possibilities and scenarios in our heads.
Horseman: I hope not. I think there is something very fun about reading and writing about conspiracy theories in fiction, but I am no believer in real conspiracies of that sort simply because of the level of complexity involved in most of them. The thing that makes them fun to write about in fiction - the creativity, the intricacy, the puzzles to solve - would make them almost impossible to execute in real life. I'm a big believer in Occam's Razor, or the simplified version of it, saying that the least complicated answer is often the correct one in those cases.
Hoffer:You turned to industry veteran Giancarlo Caracuzzo to illustrate Amiculus. How did the two meet?
Horseman: Over LinkedIn, believe it or not. A friend of mine pointed him out on a comic creator group site, where he was looking for a writer to work with. I thought he'd never go for my script: who was I anyway? But it turned out he loved it, in part because of the story, in part because it would give him an opportunity to draw his city and his ancestors (Giancarlo is a native of Rome.)
Hoffer: Has Caracuzzo added any unique insight to Amiculus, since he was born in Rome, and still (I believe) lives in the area?
Horseman: He has! I doubt the color, the texture, and the look of the characters and world in the book would be as authentic without his native knowledge of it.
Hoffer: Tell us a little bit about the format of Amiculus. Why did you decide to publish the comic in 60 page volumes as opposed to a more traditional format, such as single issues, or as a single graphic novel?
Horseman: I originally wanted to publish it as a single graphic novel. However, the costs were...prohibitive for a newbie with no backing or fan base. I decided on a trilogy because the story divided the best into three parts, and thought publishing in a series like this would allow me to build a following and fund-raise easier. Ultimately, I do want it to appear in a single book.
Hoffer: This marks your second attempt to fund the publication of Amiculus via a Kickstarter. What lessons did you learn from your first Kickstarter campaign, and how does this campaign differ from the failed one?
Horseman: First, I asked for too much money. Second, I didn't take enough time to build up a following and interest for the book before launching last time. That said, I did raise quite a bit for a complete unknown with no credentials at writing graphic fiction, which indicated there was some potential to this project yet.
Hoffer: Were you discouraged at all when your first Kickstarter failed to meet its goal?
Horseman: I was, but I had already made a contingency plan to run another campaign, and producing the first 20 pages of Volume I as a preview to help promote the second attempt. I funded the preview entirely out of pocket, and shared bits of it with my Kickstarter backers who had supported me the first time, which I hope will get them excited for the new campaign. I've also spent the last year promoting the book online and at various shows, so I think I'm better prepared in 2014 than i was in 2013.
Hoffer:You released a preview comic for Amiculus earlier this year, which is how I actually first heard about this project. Do you think the preview comic succeeding in attracting additional attention for Amiculus?
Horseman: It absolutely has. It is hard physical evidence of the amazing potential of this series, which I feel will be the big dividing factor between the last campaign and this one.
Hoffer :Do you have any other comic projects in the pipeline?
Horseman: This may be premature, but I'm drafting a sequel (or really a mid-quel) to Amiculus, taking place between the Fall of Rome and the Byzantine reconquest (the events in A.D. 538 that frame the history). I know what people say about -quels, but I think this one will be pretty good. The working title is Amiculus: King of Italy.
Horseman's Kickstarter campaign can be found here. Amiculus's website, which contains additional information about the comic, can be found here. Caracuzzo's website can be found here. A translation of Procopius's Secret History can be found here, and a translation of his Gothic Wars can be found here.