Aliens Meets Gladiator Meets Philip Marlowe: Peter Milligan Talks ‘Britannia’ [Interview]
In Britannia, Peter Milligan, Juan José Ryp and Jordie Bellaire tell the story of the world's first detective, a Roman centurion with an unusual understanding of psychology. When something that defies his knack for logic causes a murderous kind of trouble in the far reaches of the Empire, he's sent away from his home in the city to a colony far to the north --- and given the title of the series, you can probably guess which one.
To find out more about the series, which launches in September from Valiant, ComicsAlliance spoke to Milligan about his approach to introducing a "detectioner" into the ancient world, the challenges of creating a character who combines modern sensibilities with Roman society, and the historical facts that informed his story. We also got an exclusive look at pages from the upcoming issue.
ComicsAlliance: Britannia has a very interesting premise. It's billed as the story of the world's first detective, a Roman soldier who's the first person to understand psychology.
Peter Milligan: Psychology, but not only psychology, the idea of cause and effect, which might be recognizable to a modern audience. The idea of clues, the idea of evidence, and psychology. This is an era when people sacrificed to a lot of gods, and there was a real causal link between what you sacrificed to the gods and what then happened to you. I was interested in this guy who had a slightly more recognizably modern viewpoint and a way of looking at evidence-based consequences and psychology.
CA: Was that a challenge, to give someone that modern perspective when he's in that ancient era?
PM: There were a number of different things I was interested in, and one of them was that. In the story, he didn't just wake up and go, "Oh my God, I've got an insight into psychology!" Something happens to our character, Antonius Axia, which accounts for the fact that he has a different way, a more rational way of looking at the world where there are a lot of different gods and sacrifices. And he's about to go to a place where there are even older gods --- namely, Britannia.
CA: You set that first issue largely in Rome during the time of Nero. Even as a fan of history, that's a time that I'm not super familiar with, aside from the apocryphal stories. Why that era? Was it just a matter of pinning it to a time when Rome was losing its grip on outlying colonies?
PM: I was interested in doing a story set in Ancient Rome, because of the idea of empire. I think empire is a theme that's prevalent today, in economic empires --- what is the European Union, if not an economic empire?
The reason why I set it in that particular time of Nero's reign was because the story also deals with Britannia, this furthermost boundary of the empire, this dark, remote place. It was around that time, give or take a year, that the Roman soldiers defeated some druid armies in what's now Wales, this huge massacre of druids. It was around the time that the border was pressing into Britain, and as I wanted the story to be set both in Rome, and in my country of Britain, that was the perfect time, historically. I attempted to follow basic historical rules. There was an emperor called Nero, it was his time, and it was about this time that the Roman Empire pushed further North and West into Britain. It just so happens that Nero was a really interesting character and a very famous emperor.
CA: Nero makes for an interesting contrast, too. I don't think anything illustrates that quite as much as the scene where Nero brings in a witness, someone who has information that he needs and who could be interrogated using that modern approach, and then he kills him and asks Antonius, the detective, to commune with his spirit.
PM: Antonius is getting a reputation as a "detectioner." The word "detective" doesn't exist, and Nero infers that that means he can detect spirits. I thought that would really illustrate the different world views of the people. It also illustrates how brutal the world was --- and how brutal Nero was.
The scene is based loosely on another emperor, I think Hadrian, who attempted to find out something about spirits by killing a condemned man and getting some wise soothsayers to read this dying man's last breath, believing that this man, being some halfway place between life and death, would be able to commune with spirits. I took that, and thought, "That's interesting! I'll give that to Nero. I'll make it work for me, and have our detectioner there."
CA: Were there other pieces of history that you were able to adapt from your research?
PM: If I say "yes," you're going to ask me which bits. [Laughs] It all gets munched up and mixed into my own story. There are little bits, like when we get to Britannia and there are references to the slaughter of the druids, which did happen. That's an historical fact. Our hero is known as the hero of a certain battle, which did happen at the correct time. Even though it's fiction, and a lot of it's fantasy and a lot of it is stuff that didn't happen, it has a bedrock of historical fact to it.
I've read quite a lot about this world and Hadrian's Britain. Hadrian's a really interesting emperor, and again, he seems to our standards to be more modern, but then he'll do something like slit a man's throat to see if he can talk to spirits. But that's what I found fascinating about Ancient Rome. It seems in some ways quite modern --- they had streets, they had theater, they had central heating! But they were also really other, in very deep ways. This story is one way of exploring that strange cognitive dissonance between this world that seems kind of like our world, and these people who are very unlike us.
CA: Along the lines of that idea of contrast, there are events in this first issue that would seem to be supernatural --- we see them in very vague but scary terms, and there's a debate over whether it's monsters, or fumes. That seems like an interesting way of setting up another layer of conflict when your protagonist is rooted in that rationality despite the world around him.
PM: That's what I wanted to heighten. I made magic real. He lives in this dark age where supernatural belief systems were believed, so I wanted the story itself to be a clash between a supernatural horror story set in Ancient Rome --- Aliens meets Gladiator, if you like --- but into this, we have Phillip Marlowe meet Sherlock Holmes, trying to use his rational senses to work out what's going on. It highlights the issues confronting our hero.
CA: And you set up that conflict on multiple fronts, with Antonius dealing with the beliefs at the core of his own society, and then the very specific events that challenge his way of thinking.
PM: I wanted contrast and conflict. For example, we have this character, the detectioner, who likes Rome, and he's forced by his Emperor to leave Rome. This guy, Antonius, has a son, who he loves, and he's conflicted between obeying his Emperor, because if he doesn't he'll be killed, and obeying his heart, which is to stay with his son.
I wanted a sense of conflict between duty and heart, but also between magic and the rational, between the modern and the ancient, between Britain and the dominant imperialist power, Rome. I wanted it to have that all the way through it.
CA: You mentioned setting up his son and his role in Rome, and that environment, but then he's taken away from it. Is there more to it than just laying groundwork for the character and letting us empathize with him? I guess it's a cheat question to ask if he'll be returning alive!
PM: We do go back! This is, of course, the pre-jet age, so it takes a while to physically get from Rome to Britannia. Antonius won't be going backwards and forwards, but we go back. We're aware of Rome. Also, Rome isn't just the city. The Empire of Rome obviously spreads its fingers out to the far reaches in Britannia. Even though Antonius is a long way from the heart of Rome, he's still in the empire, and in the Roman sphere of influence.
Again, that's another contrast between the comforts of Rome and, as he sees it, the lack of comforts in Britannia. I wanted to see enough of Rome so that we could get an idea of the world Antonius is leaving, and who this person was and how difficult it is for him to go. It highlights the difference between Rome and, as he sees it, this barbarous place that he's going to.
CA: When you talk about the research and Roman society, especially with the way that it plays out in this book, we see Antonius as a protagonist, and we sympathize with him, but he's still a Roman. He's a slave-owner, for instance.
PM: I wanted to give him some trappings of modernity, but he's still a Roman, that's exactly right. The idea of slavery doesn't seem to be abominable to him, as it would be for right-thinking people today. That's what people did and what they were, and I think that's quite important. The element of him that's different and important is how he looks at life, the way he looks at psychology and cause and effect in evidence.
Apart from that, he likes Rome, he likes theater, at the beginning, anyway. His journey to the far reaches of the Empire is, in some way, a journey to the heart of the city of Rome itself. He learns more about how the Empire operates and what it is, and what it isn't, by the end of the book, and we'll see that his attitude has changed.
CA: One thing I've experienced when I'm reading ancient history, and it might be because I grew up on comics, is that I tend to divide things up into heroes and villains, and it's very easy with the way Western history has treated the Roman Empire.
PM: Well, the victors write the history, and our idea of who the Gauls were, who the "barbarians" were, that comes from Rome.
CA: Exactly. But you've mentioned that you wanted to set it in your home as well.
PM: Well, Britain is Britannia. I live in London, and that was a Roman city --- it was Londinium. Ancient Rome is all around us. There's a road, a big road that goes up north, called the Roman Road. The stamps that they left are all around us, and that's interesting to me. Growing up in Britain, you always have a sense of that, and my interest in the history of Rome probably comes from that, and also reading the I, Claudius books by Robert Graves when I was a teenager. I really loved this stuff, and it can put the germ of an idea in your head.
CA: Was there any difficulty in figuring out who to side with, so to speak?
PM: What, with the Romans? No. I think that actually, Julius Caesar, what he did in Gaul, he'd be known as a war criminal. It was near genocide. He was quite brutal, and at the heart of Rome, there was a lot of darkness. As you get further into it, I think that's what Britannia is about. They were an imperialist power, taking over other countries. And whatever they say, countries don't do that for any other reason but to help themselves.
A lot of our conversation has been about history and Ancient Rome, which is good. Comics are often very, very black and white --- here's the villain, here's the good guy. That's why I deliberately wanted there to be a degree of ambiguity about Antonius. He was a Roman soldier, he would've been in imperialist wars, he does have a slave. He is a Roman, so he's not completely blemish-free, the way we would see him. It's meant to be a bit more nuanced than that.
One of the things I'm really interested in writing about is the Vestal Virgins, which is such an interesting group of people, and such a powerful bunch of women in a society where women are quite put down. They couldn't inherit property, or own property, but the Vestal Virgins had power, had complete trust, could own property, and assumed this role which was very atypical for women in this ancient culture. One of my interests is to forefront the Vestal Virgins in this story.
CA: They seem to be the spoiler in it. You have Nero and the Government, you have Antonius being manipulated, and the Vestal Virgins inciting the plot all around him. They're the ones who specify that he should be the one sent to Britannia.
PM: Absolutely. They were not shrinking violets. These were powerful people with the ear of emperors, they had immunity and were thought to have magical powers. They could free condemned slaves, these people had power. Obviously, I'm taking that, and because it's a comic book, I want to write things quite large. So I'm taking that idea and elaborating a bit, but essentially, they hold that power between church and state, which makes them a very interesting thing about Ancient Rome.