By Rob Williams, Simon Coleby, Gary Erskine, and J.D Mettler
War. What is it good for? For setting the world right. For sorting the proper order of things. For letting those who rule assert themselves so that their lesser will never forget where they stand. War is for kings. Rob Williams and Simon Coleby deliver an emotional, brutal and beautiful blitzkrieg of a story with The Royals: Masters of War.
This is one of those ideas that is so perfect, you’re shocked that it hasn’t been done before. The royal families with their well-preserved lineage, bluest of blood running through their veins, and chosen by God believe themselves superior to the great unwashed masses, and that’s because they are. Brimming with unimaginable strength and abilities, the royal families of this book are quite literally superior beings. It’s brilliant and immediately captivating, but Williams also cleverly toys with the premise of the waning influence of traditional monarchies as the world entered the modern age. Instead of watching their kingdoms move forward while they stood still, Williams inverts the power dynamic of World War II so that the royals become the de facto deciders of world history. On its own that premise would be entertaining enough, watching princes and emperors fly through battlefields burning tanks with heat-vision, but Williams adds far more depth by crafting an inner war amongst the royals themselves and infuses a mix of melodrama and raw, visceral humanity that both delights and exhausts your senses.
Beginning in media res with a last ditch assault by a lone super-powered English prince in Germany, the story flashes back to introduce its primary royal family, The House of Windsor. Using the perspective of a retiring and utterly fed-up intelligence officer, we meet an aging and altogether powerless King Albert wishes to keep his family out of the growing conflict and hold to the pact set forth between all the royal families of the world, Japan and Russia included. Known to have no supernatural abilities to call his own, the family’s true powers derive from his wife, Sofia, whose own telepathy has imprisoned her in a state of madness. Their children, each imbued with all the gifts royalty allots, are the naïve and noble Prince Henry, the passionate and empathetic Princess Rose and the entitled, drunkard of an heir to the throne Prince Arthur. Arthur is, to use an epithet of the plebs, nothing short of a dick. To further stoke the soap opera flames, Henry is also madly in love with Rose, who feels similarly, all to the dismay of Arthur. Cue DUN DUN DUN sound effect. But no of it reads like a harlequin novel, far from it, instead the inner conflict each and every character has is thoroughly engrossing and serves to contrast with their sometimes brutal, sometimes merciful actions on the battlefield. Oh, that’s right, these royals entered the war, pact be damned, all because Henry couldn’t sit idly by and watch good men die while powerful men did nothing.
Williams structures the story exemplary well, having all six issues move rhythmically to build towards a crescendo of recognition, violence, failure, and triumph. While the supporting characters are fleshed out to satisfying degrees, The Royals is ultimately examining the character arcs of Henry and Arthur. Not quite perfect analogues of Shakespeare’s Edmund and Edgar, but even more tragic, Williams’ royal brothers are a skillfully sculpted duality that soar to great heights and fall just as far.
The historical accuracies of the script show a great respect and knowledge of the actual sacrifices and victories of our world and the changes made for this alternate world are captivating and believable. The locales, the strategy, the equipment, the and the figures themselves, including Churchill and F.D.R., all ring true and add great depth to an already loaded book. Anyone who’s a history-buff (or just gets stuck on the History Channel when they can’t find the remote only to wind up watching for four hours unblinkingly) has plenty to revel in with the historical fiction on display, fantastically splashed across its 144 pages.
Simone Coleby grabs you by the back of the head, pushes your head deep into the pages and says “look at the horrors of war!” only to let go, turn the page and put a calming hand on your shoulder and say “look at humanity’s will.” Coleby absolutely nails the art to the degree that any other artist would just feel wrong on this book. Tasked with not only having to layout massive aerial, marine and terrestrial battle sequences including detailed era-specific equipment, Coleby also depicts giant water-monsters and clashing demi-gods tossing around aircraft carriers like they were twigs. It’s tonally on point in firmly rooting the world in the 1940’s via the clothing and such and at times feels exactly like you’re watching a newsreel. If there were a critique to be made, it would be understandably be the challenge of depicting real world characters in comic form and having them look just the slightest bit off, maybe rubbery as if they were wearing a Churchill mask as opposed to actually feeling like a living breathing character in this world. The most striking aspect to the art is the atmospheric chiaroscuro effects, allowing for rich and heavy shadow to give shape to the world and the characters in a manner reminiscent of Sean Phillips. Coleby handles inking duties for the first half of the book and the great Gary Erskine takes over for the second half without missing a beat, deftly using the weight of the inks to highlight while appearing to obscure. Colorist J.D. Mettler paints a murky, ruddy battle-filled and battle-fueled sepia toned world rife with olive bomber jackets, auburn explosions and terra cotta mud, yet provides moments of great tranquility with pink and cotton hued Japanese gardens with cerulean blue skies. Often the colors are just slightly washed and worn adding to the textured age of the setting only to pop to great effect with a fiery detonation. The art tells the story in all its glinting glory and blood stained shame via an art team executing to a thunderous tee.
While the introductory preamble may seem to highlight a certain splendor to war, The Royals: Masters of War makes it quite clear that war is not something to take pride in. It merely is the sad, inevitable way of man, super powered royal or humble peasant alike. A wonderful examination of a fading power structure framed within a shrewd and irresistible conceit, The Royals casts a wide net of appeal and delivers on a multitude of levels.