The latest high concept mini-series from DC’s Vertigo imprint, Royals: Masters of War, is a fairly ingenious premise that, shockingly, no one had ever thought to do before. Creator Rob Williams, a British writer best known for his work at 2000AD on books like Asylum and Low-life, has created a world in Royals in which the only people who have super powers are actual royalty, and the purer the royal bloodline, the more powerful that individual is. Williams takes us through an alternate World War II history that never was in this first of a six issue mini-series, and based on this first issue alone, has done a good enough job to make me very curious to see just where this story goes from here.
As the first issue opens, it’s 1945 and we are heading towards the end of the second World War. We are introduced to the series’ protagonist, Prince Henry of the House of Windsor, as he is about to go where no actual royal would ever go, into the very front lines of battle. From there we flashback to 1940, and begin the story of just how he broke all the rules and got involved in the first place. I should make note that although this is the House of Windsor, the line-up of the Windsors is totally made up by writer Rob Williams. This isn’t a story about an alternate universe version of Prince Edward and King George; this isn’t The King’s Speech with superpowers (although that would have been kind of awesome).
I’m not entirely sure why Williams went in that direction, although I suppose its possible he didn’t want to be tied down to the real royal family’s established and well known personalities. Although both the characters of Prince Henry and his brash, impulsive brother Prince Arthur could be interpreted as being somewhat based on the real life Prince Edward and his younger brother Prince Albert (who would become King George once his brother Edward abdicated the throne), making them totally fictional creations instead gave Williams a little more wiggle room, I suppose.
As portrayed in this story, the British royalty are at worst seen as callous, and at best, self indulgent; they have incredible power, but don’t life a finger to use it to defend their homeland because of an old treaty made decades prior that the royal families wouldn’t use their powers to change the tides of war and politics in the world of commoners. So as Hitler’s Luftwaffe unleashed the Blitz, and thousands of Brits suffer the consequences and soldiers lose their lives, the House of Windsor sits back and enjoys their Downton Abbey lifestyle behind the gates of Buckingham Palace.
In this world, resentment towards powerful royal families is high; it said that the Bolshevik assassination of the Russian Royal family in 1918 was the first sign of growing resentment from the populace towards their super powered rulers. Because of this, the King has allowed the British people to believe his first born son and heir to the throne, Arthur, was born without powers, as he was. So when the Prince Henry and his sister, Princess Rose were born (I’m not entirely sure if they’re meant to be twins, but they are very close in age) most people assume they too are without powers.
In one particularly well executed moment, Prince Henry (who counts flight among his powers) takes his sister Rose (who is psychic), and they sneak off from the palace. “It’s like Peter Pan,” she says, until they go to a part of London that was ravaged during the Blitzkreig… we see the streets on fire, children crying, bodies everywhere. “No… it’s not” says Henry to the Peter Pan comparison. And this is his moment when he decided he needs to act; He joins the fight against the Nazis, and handily turns the tide of battle in the British favor while barely breaking a sweat. But exposing his superpowers and using them in the war now gives permission for ALL the royalty across the globe to do the same, so at the end of the first issue, Henry might have done more harm than good, as his actions have sparked a whole new theater of war and all the royals now are poised to get involved.
Writer Rob Williams does a pretty good job of introducing the main characters here, all while trying to explain his alternate Earth’s history at the same time, although some of his dialogue borders on just being exposition at times. And although Prince Henry is fairly well written, I can’t help but think his older brother is a bit too much of a cliche of the spoiled rich, entitled brat. But it’s only one issue out of six so far, so maybe we’ll see some layers present in the characters that just aren’t there yet. The art by Simon Coleby is gorgeous; although he’s been in the business since 1989, mostly working for 2000AD, I’m slightly ashamed to admit this was my first exposure to his art. His pencils remind me of the best days of Tony Harris on Starman, with a mix of Daniel Acuña. It’s clear there are portions of the book where he is relying heavily on historical photographs of the time period, but it looks far better than that suggests. I don’t think he just traced a Time/Life book using a light box; his stuff is too good for that.
The Royals: Masters of War is a great series for the History Channel addicts out there, the ones who can’t get enough of all that old grainy WWII footage shown on a loop (you know who you are), and those who love superheroes but are looking for an interesting new take on the concept, which are few and far between.