Synopsis: In Britannia. Antonius Axia is a roman centurion in 65 AD. This is a Rome ruled by gods, superstitions, Vestal Virgins, and the mad emperor Nero. After Antonius saves the life of kidnapped virgin, he is wounded and shaken by the horrors he has witnessed. The sacred order of virgins use their closely guarded secrets and rituals to restore Antonius to his right mind. Furthermore, they teach the soldier the secrets of their Codex, and transform the former soldier into the world’s first detective. Antonius Axia now uses these skills to solve mysteries for Rome and her citizens.
In Review: Britannia #1 paints a vivid image of ancient Rome. Rome is a place where the gods are revered, and while women do not have the same status as men, a sacred order of virgins wield an immense amount of power. This sets us the power dynamic of the story. We have the traditionally male dominated society ruled by Nero. (Who is as petulant and deranged as history depicts.) On the other hand, we have a religious order of women who seem to rule by magical influence and secrecy. They are a vital yet separate part of roman society. At times, these women have just as much power as the emperor. This is what pits Antonius in the midst of a power struggle.
Antonius Axia, our centurion protagonist, is tasked by Rubria, the chief vestal, to rescue a virgin who has been captured by a cult. He accomplishes this goal, but the centurion is gravely wounded. The Vestal Virgins use their influence to have Antonius pardoned for what Nero considers desertion, and they use what some would deem as magic to heal his mind and body. The women also share their accumulated knowledge from their “Codex.” It is here that we get an interesting departure from the normal narrative.
This Codex does not teach Antonius magic but psychology. Through these studies, Antonius becomes the world’s first detective called a Detectioner. Peter Milligan has created a modern character in antiquity. Odd as it may be, it works. Milligan sets our hero apart from the rest of society. We are shown that he is able to solve cases of missing persons in an era where it would be beyond difficult to do so. He owns a slave, but their relationship indicates that Antonius does not in actuality own him. They are equals. Also, Antonius does not require the gods to explain his world since he now has acquired a modern sense of logic. So when Antonius is sent to the wild frontier of Britannia to quell unrest and is met with unlikely eldritch horror, it cements the promise that this series will be an interesting departure from the norm.
Britannia’s art team of Juan Jose Ryp and Raul Allen do a solid job with the material. Whether it is an army encampment, a roman villa, or Nero’s palace there is a level a detail in the backgrounds that heightens these visuals. Rome’s buildings look grand and elegant with the appropriate architecture, yet their artistic talents can also make the wilderness look primal and foreboding. And let us not forget the character work the art duo performs with Nero. Emperor Nero looks both manic and menacing. Panels with Nero remind you that Rome will burn while under his rule, and you hope that these two artists will demonstrate that carnage. Being able to convey so much emotion takes a lot of effort, but Ryp and Allen make it look effortless.
Britannia #1 delivers on a lot of different fronts, and it will be interesting to see if it can maintain this momentum in subsequent issues.