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Milligan Offers a ‘Visceral’ Take on the Roman Empire in Valiant’s “Britannia”

by  in Comic News Comment
Milligan Offers a ‘Visceral’ Take on the Roman Empire in Valiant’s “Britannia”

At its Valiant Summit earlier this year, the publisher announced several new ongoing comics and miniseries — but one of them, “Britannia,” was particularly interesting. From the creative team of writer Peter Milligan and Juan Jose Ryp, this miniseries features an all-new character to Valiant, exploring an ancient mystery during the time of the Roman Empire.

The lead, Antonius, is a detective before detectives existed — a Roman officer dispatched to a remote outpost called Britannia in the hopes that he can solve a deadly and dangerous mystery which has claimed the lives of several of the men garrisoned there. A self-professed more visceral and disturbing story than some readers might expect from Valiant, the forthcoming series appears to be a change of pace for the publisher. CBR News spoke with Milligan to find out his plans for the series, telling a mystery story in an era before detectives, and retaining his unique sensibilities while writing stories for Valiant.

CBR News: “Britannia” feels a little like Arthur Conan Doyle, with a protagonist using an almost forensic logic and reason during a time period where detective work was a little… rougher. How does the time period affect the narrative — that mix of a mindful character stuck in a tougher time, and facing the strangest of incidents?

Peter Milligan: There’re elements of Sherlock Holmes in the way Antonius works, but our hero is no effete calculating machine — he’s an ex-soldier with loves and weaknesses. Part of the difficulty in using these methods to understand the world in this age of Ancient Rome is the suspicion and misapprehension that it engenders in others.

In the first issue, we see the Emperor Nero misunderstand what a “detectioner” does in a particularly bloody and brutal scene which highlights the difference between the old way of thinking and Antonius’ approach.

The story sees him drawn into a remote outpost to investigate “unnatural happenings.” What kind of approach are you taking to the narrative? Is this mystery, psychological thriller, or?

Yes, the remote outpost is Britannia. In one part this is a detective mystery, in another it’s what you might call historical supernatural horror.

How did the book come about? Was this something you pitched to Valiant, something they pitched to you — a little of both?

Peter Milligan: I had a couple of ideas that I thought would be a good fit for Valiant. I ran them past Valiant’s Editor-in-Chief Warren Simons, and Warren was intrigued by “Britannia.” So I worked up the idea a bit, and we moved on from there.

What books or works influenced “Britannia”? I saw you mention “I, Claudius” on Twitter recently as something you read as a teenager.

Yes, you could say that “I, Claudius” was the thing that first got me fascinated by Ancient Rome. Since then I’ve read a lot about Rome and its way of life, including Gore Vidal’s excellent “Julian,” about the last non-Christian emperor of Rome.

Also, growing up in Britain, one is aware of the Roman past — in the names of towns and roads and in the history. We know about the bloody uprisings, the imperialism.

The Romans as a whole were invested in progressing their own society and ideology ahead of any others — their goal was to invade and replace pre-existing traditions and religions with their own. With the book set far away from the heart of the Roman Empire, is this something you’re interested in exploring within “Britannia”?

What you’re describing is an element — maybe the main element — of imperialism, and that’s one of the things I’m interested in. I like how Britannia is at the far reaches of the Roman world — miles from the Roman “heart” — and therefore imbued with the sense of the other or the “uncivilized.”

Your lead, Antonius, is described as being interested in human psychology ahead of fate, the gods, and all the things you might associate with the Romans. What kind of a person is he? What makes him choose to look beyond tradition and religion?

Indeed, unlike most of his contemporaries Antonius tries to adopt what we might call a ‘rational’ attitude toward the world or toward problems: whereas many Romans would seek to sacrifice to the gods or look to those gods for an understanding of why something happens, or what a person is as they are, Antonoius seeks to understand cause and effect. He seeks to understand the psychology of a person by means of clues, by evidence.

Just how Antonius comes to have these “skills” or mind-set is something we discover in the story, but has to do with his strange relationship with that powerful group called the Vestal Virgins.

You’ve worked with Juan before, on a “Punisher MAX” one-shot a few years back. What do you think he brings to the comic, as a stylist and artist?

There’s an incredible intensity to Juan’s work and a real depth to his characters. His degree of detail also really helps to bring this ancient world alive.

And the collaborative process is simple, I write the scripts and Juan interprets. I wouldn’t say I’ve gone for a noir feeling exactly — I wanted a real grounded sense of realism, so that when strange or weird stuff happens it’s a shock, just as it is a shock to proto-rationalist Antonius.

Valiant tells me this is quite a visceral comic. How important to your narrative is it that this be more particular and feature more graphic violence than, say, “Shadowman” did?

Yes, it’s visceral. It’s set in an age that could be brutal; and it’s important to me that they comic conveys that. And though — by the nature of the story — there’s more graphic violence than “Shadowman,” I haven’t set out to deliberately push any boundaries. It’s all about what’s best for the story.

It’s interesting to see you find spaces within publishers like Valiant for books which sit within their continuity but still firmly retain your voice. How have you found working with Valiant over the years — do you find you have that creative freedom to be, well, “Peter Milligan”?

Yes, absolutely. I think this is what’s interesting about Valiant. They do have a continuity, but it seems pretty fluid and one’s able to find spaces whereby stories don’t contradict continuity yet aren’t straitjacketed by it either. With “Britannia,” I’d say this was completely my voice, but you could easily see book two interacting with some elements of Valiant continuity, [where] something like the Eternal Warrior could easily cross with this story set in Ancient Rome…

“Britannia” #1 arrives September 21 from Valiant.

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