Peter Milligan has created some strange comics over the years, but there’s nothing quite as bizarre, or as unique, as Britannia. Mixing noir, Roman history, mythology, and horror, Britannia: We Who Are About To Die (Valiant) is the kind of story that could really only exist as a comic book. It’s too weird, and too tied to personal obsessions, to be anything else.
The basic idea is that Rome’s “detectioner,” Achillia, a former soldier with unusual ties to the Vestal Virgins, explores the mysteries and solves cases for the Emperor. Unfortunately, the Emperor in this case is Nero, and part of the fun Milligan has is detailing just how venal, corrupt, and cowardly one of Rome’s worst emperors really was. Rome’s young nobles are being mysteriously butchered by the gods, and it has something to do with a female gladiator who is close to winning her freedom, but Achillia and Antonius, his faithful slave, quickly find that everyone involved is less interested in solving the case than using the murders to further their own ends.
Milligan’s script is full of nods to history and the complicated nature of Roman mythology and belief, not to mention Roman politics. And Juan Jose Ryp, a Valiant regular, really gets a showcase here. Ryp does everything from turn classical statuary into nightmare fuel to painstakingly depict Rome as it was, and he fills the book with both life and death in equal measure. The Roman gods are not bloodless abstracts; they’re lurid, angry, vengeful entitites in Ryp’s hands, and it gives the book a sense of foreboding. You won’t find a story quite like this anywhere else, and it’s a reminder that comics are more than capes and masks.