Rob Williams and Simon Coleby are the latest 2000 AD old boys to hit Vertigo, with The Royals: Masters of War – a witty and imaginative tale of super-powered toffs in World War II.
I’m not much of a flag-waver, but it’s always nice to see alumni of the venerable and irreverent British anthology comic 2000 AD turn up in the preppy world of US mainstream comics. The first influx of British creators to DC in the 1980s, led by Moore, Milligan and Morrison, helped to fuel an incredible creative explosion in the medium. And although that was the product of a very particular set of circumstances, series such as Dan Abnett and INJ Culbard’s New Deadwardians (2012) have kept the contamination going.
That subversive element is very present in The Royals: Masters of War, by Low Life collaborators Rob Williams and Simon Coleby. The story takes the perennial British obsession with World War II and the quintessentially American format of superheroes, and moulds them into something that bears the mark of a humongous global corporate monolith but has been squirted with 2000 AD‘s DNA: political engagement mixed with outlandish action and dark wit.
The series is set an alt-history with a few key points of divergence from our own. Not only is the House of Windsor (the British royal family) stocked with a totally fictitious line-up, but they also exist in a reality where the world’s dynasties have superpowers – and the purer the bloodline, the greater the powers.
However, in the strange fantasy world that Williams and Coleby have created, the super-rich have agreed among themselves not to get involved in the petty life-or-death affairs of the rest of us. So while the rest of London burns under the Luftwaffe’s relentless Blitz and soldiers die in their tens of thousands on the front line, the social niceties of the 1% go on as normal behind the gates of Buckingham Palace; despite the conflict outside, the King’s balls continue to be legendary.
Nevertheless, there’s one good apple in the rotten barrel. The dashing young Prince Henry, horrified by what he sees on an incognito jaunt to the East End with his sister Rose, decides that something needs to be done and takes matters into his own hands – a move that threatens to have dire global consequences.
Williams and Coleby make themselves very much at home in their new format, rolling out a mix of efficiently handled exposition, witty character beats and widescreen action, delivered with confidence and brio (with capable artistic back-up from colourist JD Mettler.)
There’s obviously nothing very original about the notion of superhumans taking part in World War II; the first few pages here provide a bit of nod back to 1987 and the opening of Grant Morrison and Steve Yeowell’s Zenith, which also kicked off with super-soldiers slugging it out in the smoking ruins of Berlin.
However, the tone and execution of The Royals (described memorably by Williams as “Downton Abbey meets the opening act of Saving Private Ryan“) keep it fresh. From its flash-forward prologue on, the comic packs a lot in, from the, um, complex family relationships of the Windsors to extravagant scenes of aerial warfare, with Coleby’s realistic art style delivering splendidly throughout.
And for all their presumed ‘status’ at the top of the social pyramid, the royals aren’t held in high esteem by all of their subjects. There’s a refreshing level of lese-majesty in these pages, especially in their depiction of the oblivious patriarch King Albert and his feckless heir Prince Arthur.
The six-issue series promises to take us through the key events of the war, from Pearl Harbor to D-Day, so it looks set to be a pacey ride. The Royals: Masters of War might not strive for the historical plausibility of something like Kieron Gillen and Canaan White’s Über (Avatar Press), but what it lacks in that kind of veracity it makes up for with energy and wit.
Once more, with feeling – THE BRITISH ARE COMING!
Rob Williams (W), Simon Coleby (A) • Vertigo Comics, $2.99, February 12, 2014