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Britannia Volume 1 (review)

Britiannia Volume 1
Written by Peter Milligan
Publisher: Valiant Comics
Trade Paperback: 2017

American publisher Valiant Comics had a run during the 1990s that ended when the company, having been sold to video game maker Acclaim for the purpose of creating new characters for video games, went under. Recently, Valiant has returned with a modest goal of releasing no more than two to three titles during a given week, with relatively short trade paperbacks coming out usually covering four issues each. After reviving its 90s-era superheroes, the company is branching out with new characters in new genres. That brings us to Britannia, a series set in Ancient Rome and characterized as a psychological horror series.

The series is written by longtime comic book writer Peter Milligan. Like so many other UK-based comic book industry creatives, Mr. Milligan began his career in British comics like 2000 AD. He then branched out to American publishers DC and Marvel Comics, where his work covered the standard superhero series for those companies while also doing more mature-themed horror titles for the DC imprint Vertigo.

Britannia falls squarely in that latter category, and it is a place that works well having regard to Mr. Milligan’s particular talents. Though ostensibly set in the Valiant extended universe, the series is set far in the past, making it more approachable to newcomers than other Valiant titles.And there is nary a superhero of any kind in sight.

Instead, the series protagonist is a centurion named Antonius Axia. Antonius, within the opening pages of the trade paperback collecting the first four issues, is set upon a task by Rubria, the Chief Vestal of the Vestal Virgins. An opening prologue explains that in Rome during this time, the Vestal Virgins are the only women afforded any power whatsoever in all of Rome, and their job is mainly to keep the Eternal Flame burning. They have other, often ceremonial duties to perform as well, and are considered by most to be untouchable.

Rubria wants Antonius to take a handful of trusted men and desert his post to rescue a kidnapped Vestal from some cultists working out of the Northern Italian territory called Etrusca. The cultists in question are looking to sacrifice the young woman to a demon named Orkus.

While Antonius is successful in rescuing the woman, much of that rescue is left unseen to the reader. While the cultists fall easily, it turns out that Orkus is very much real. What happens with Orkus is left unknown, with Mr. Milligan instead choosing to show only that Antonius was psychologically broken by whatever happened. Antonius did manage to rescue the Vestal, and Rubria managed to keep the volatile Emperor Nero from killing Antonius. But the process of returning Antonius to some degree of sanity requires quite a bit of time and effort on the part of the Vestal Virgins.

The result consequent upon his recovery leaves Antonius an atheist in pagan Rome, someone who uses the gods’ names but without any faith in their existence. He believes solely in what he can see and touch, leading him to a new career within the city of Rome itself. He calls himself a “detectioner,” or, as he is being promoted by both Valiant and Mr. Milligan, the world’s first detective. The reader sees Antonius is actually quite good at his job over the course of the story, using what passes for forensic evidence and sharp observation skills to ferret out crimes.

While also quite good in a fight thanks to his days as a soldier, his sole companion is Bran, a slave originally from the far-flung corner of the Empire known as Britannia. Antonius also has a son named Avitus. Antonius’ wife died in childbirth, and at the suggestion of Rubria, Antonius gave his infant son to another couple to raise. He sees the boy frequently, though Avitus thinks Antonius is some sort of uncle, not his father.

As it is, Antonius’ skills as the detectioner lead him to the main plot of the book. Problems with morale and other issues in Britannia require someone to look into what is happening. At the suggestion of Rubria, Nero dispatches Antonius. Nero, shown frequently ordering executions when he is not murdering people by his own hand, would be more than happy to let Antonius die in some far-flung colony. But Rubria has a specific purpose in keeping the centurion alive: it seems that Orkus may be the center of the problems in Britannia. Antonius has been forged by the Vestals as a weapon specifically to deal with that particular devil.

Antonius, with Bran in tow, does have his work cut out for him. The Roman in charge, Prefect Gabinus, is hardly happy to see Antonius looking in on his post, while the other Roman soldiers are blatantly hostile. A local druid, an old man named Eryn, is likewise belligerent and possesses magical powers of an undefined nature. The only real ally Antonius finds out there is a woman named Bodmall, who is terrified of Eryn, who may be her master or her husband. Bodmall has some magical abilities of her own, the sort that can come in handy when dealing with a devil like Orkus.

Mr. Milligan is not going for historical accuracy here, but instead delves into Antonius’ head to see what makes him tick. As an opening story arc, the reader is given quite a look into Antonius and his worldview. A rational man, he is forced to deal with an increasingly irrational world while likewise being a pawn in various games played by people above and around him. Haunted still by the death of his wife, Antonius seeks refuge in the solid and real. It is therefore only natural that decidedly unnatural events force themselves upon him, but his observational skills are every bit as important to finding answers as anything else that happens.

Furthermore, Mr. Milligan makes some connections between the powers of the feminine in the world of Britannia and Rome. Bodmall, once out from under Eryn’s thumb, seeks out an older woman healer for help, as Bodmall sensed a “wyrd” on Antonius, and that would be a sign of woman’s magic. Indeed, that is the mark the Vestals put on him, and the older healer suggests in her dialogue that there is a connection between the Vestals and healers like herself, something that would mark Antonius as special and save his life.

The volume ends with Antonius back in Rome with more cases to solve. Mr. Milligan has given us a fine introduction to an intriguing setting and lead character, one who would be well worth following in the future.