Britannia #1 is an unconventional and ambitious debut issue, of that there’s no doubt. Writer Peter Milligan tries to marry pseudo-historical political intrigue with police procedural and then mix in supernatural, primeval horror to the narrative. The result is an issue that occasionally feels a tad overstuffed and wild, but is always surprising and in the end a creepily enjoyable read.
The story opens in 60 AD, set in the Roman Empire under Nero. Antonius Axia, a heroic centurion, is sent on a special mission to rescue a kidnapped Vestal Virgin. The girl was taken by cultists, worshipping something very old, and very sinister. Though Antonius succeeds, there are costs physical, mental and presumably supernatural. Flash forward six years later, when Antonius has become known as the Detectioner, and Nero sends him on another mission. This time it’s to the farthest reaches of the empire, to the primitive and forbidding region called Britannia. Something terrifying waits for him there.
There’s a LOT going on in Britannia #1, the first issue of a miniseries that opens Valiant’s line of prestige format books. With Milligan and artist Juan Jose Ryp on board, you can’t fault the pedigree of the creative team. And the story is full of meaty details, from the depth by which the story examines the mysterious and fascinating role of the Vestals in Roman Society to the shadowy way the script sketches in the haunted and wounded Antonius. Milligan is smart enough to reveal only what the reader absolutely needs to know in order to follow the narrative, dropping hints and clues to deeper and darker things along the way. This allows the reader to have questions about characters and their motives, about what certain characters may believe to be true that may be false, and therefore leaves things nicely unresolved for further issues.
At the same time, the supernatural element that forms the main narrative is direct, engaging and disturbing enough to hook the reader immediately. Ancient gods, sinister cults and the Roman Empire work together surprisingly well, and Milligan and Ryp’s specificity and level of detail create a verisimilitude that sustains the reader when things move headlong into supernatural Lovecraftian-horror territory.
If there’s a flaw it’s that there’s almost too much happening in the issue. For instance, we don’t really get any idea of the role of Antonius as a Detectioner in Rome before he’s sent on his mission to Britannia. If one of the selling points of your book is the story of the First Detective, it would be nice to get an idea of what makes him a detective as opposed to a solider. We don’t see Antonius do any detecting per se, but rather see him interrogate a guy. Soldiers of course do that too, and it would have been nice to have the scene where he’s acting in that role feature some kind of investigative qualities that set him apart from his earlier role as a conventional centurion.
But Milligan has to keep the plot moving toward Britannia, as well as introduce as whole host of other elements, such as the political machinations involving the Vestals and Nero, clarifying Antonius’ various relationships, and establish mysterious plot points that will undoubtedly pay off down the line. It’s an embarrassment of riches, as all these elements are well-done, but it does serve to diffuse the focus of the book just a bit. To my mind, if Milligan either had more issues or less elements, the different facets of narrative, character and concept would have had more time to breathe and therefore land with more impact. It’s a mild critique, and maybe the best critique any piece of art can have is that one wishes for more space, but it’s a bit of a flaw nonetheless.
Ryp’s art is great. He makes Rome feel like a real and earthy place by pretty much eschewing the grandeur we’ve all been conditioned to think of from all those old Hollywood epics. The Rome and Roman Territories we see here are dark, dingy, blood-soaked places, full of vice and deception. Sex and violence are common and ever-present, and the art doesn’t shy away from either. The parts of the story that are horror-influenced feel appropriately so, and Ryp does a solid job with all the characters, most of whom seem to be far more duplicitous and enigmatic than is probably good for our protagonist Antonius.
All in all, Britannia #1 is a solid opener for the series, with its over-packed plotting the only flaw. However, I’d always rather have an entertaining book whose reach exceeds its grasp a little bit over a conventionally familiar story any day of the week. Now that all the set-up is over with, I can imagine that the remaining three issues could wind up being a scary, compelling and refreshingly unconventional read. I’m giving the issue a strong 7.5/10.
Britannia #1 will be released tomorrow, Sept. 21, 2016.