Britannia #1 Review
Written by: Peter Milligan
Art by: Juan Jose Ryp
Colors: Jordie Bellaire
Letterer: Dave Sharpe
Review by Robert Coffil
Ancient Rome is a time period that continues to captivate minds over 1,500 years after its demise. Just this year we have had movies like Ben Hur and Risen set in Ancient Rome. While not as recent, TV shows like Spartacus and HBO’s Rome also come to mind. Nobody claims this is a renaissance of Ancient Rome in mass media consumption, but it does seem to be an itch that we just have to scratch. Comics are no different. Valiant’s Britannia #1 is Peter Milligan and company’s crack at the time period.
Britannia is the story of Centurion Antonius Axia and his life after he receives a mission from the Chief Vestal Virgin Rubria. I never heard of Vestal Virgins or the Sacred Fire of Rome prior to this comic. Britannia #1 does a great job of providing the reader with enough information, with the introduction and backstory, that you never really feel lost. The Vestal Virgins basically serve as the high priestess of Rome and ensure that Rome’s legacy continue on with the Sacred Fire. This might be just a myth, but the people believe it.
What drew me to this book was the creative team of Peter Milligan and Jordie Bellaire. Milligan has this irreverent bent to his writing that I just love. His X-Stactix and Hellblazer remain some of my all-time favorite books. His most recent New Romancer from Vertigo was a really fun read. Bellaire’s resumé speaks for itself; she basically colors all the books that win awards or are in the running for awards. A good creative team will draw in savvy readers. I am also a sucker for historical fiction. Going in with those expectations, I can say Britannia #1 definitely works as a historical fiction comic. Milligan’s narrative is tight, Ryp’s artistic storytelling is great, and Bellaire’s choices for tone and color adds enormously to the book. I’d never read Ryp’s work before Britannia #1, but this issue ensures that it’s a name I’ll be on the lookout for in the future.
Peter Milligan’s narrative brings the book to life, and this is shown clearly through dialogue. The banter between characters has the appropriate pacing that makes it feel natural. When book opens in-media-res, you feel like you’re eavesdropping on the middle of a conversation because of how well the dialogue is written. Conversations between Rubria and Nero have the right amount of sass, petulant whining, and political manipulation. Two heads of different aspects of the Empire trying to bend each other to their will. Milligan pulls it off.
Juan Jose Ryp’s storytelling and panel construction blew me away. The first panel of the second page is a shot of Antonius, Rubria and a Roman Eagle. Even though the Roman Eagle is the closest to the camera, Rubria, who is further away, is drawn at the same height, with Antonius positioned under both of them. The positioning of each character in the panel illustrates each of their positions in society, with the Roman Eagle representing the empire and thus Nero because of the monarchy, and Rubria (as the head of the Vestals) representing the religious portion of society. Antonius, a centurion and plebe by birth, is below both. This social stratification is running theme throughout the book and the way its visualised here is absolutely brilliant. Little things Ryp does in the panels like characters pointing in certain directions, a flying spear, or smoke billowing in the wind leads the reader’s eye to the next panel in extremely deft storytelling. At no point during Britannia #1 was I confused about which panel would be next.
As always, Jordie Bellaire’s color work is phenomenal. When it is night in the book, and the moon is out, the moon looks like it’s reflecting the sunlight. The fog in Britain made me feel like I needed a flash light. When Antonius is saving Drusa and a mystical event occurs, Bellaire uses this otherworldly green. This color shows up consistently when events like that happen in the rest of the book.
Buy It! A brilliant start to what looks like an incredible story, Britannia #1 is genre-mash of political thriller, historical fiction and horror that consistently hits on all cylinders. All of the creators who worked on this book are at the peak of their powers and it shows. This is must buy no matter what your tastes because there is something for everyone, especially the historical junkie.