Written by Bryan Edward Hill
Art by Nelson Blake II
Lettering by Troy Peteri
Published by Image Comics/Top Cow Productions
‘Rama Rating: 9 out of 10
Secret societies. Drug-enhanced assassins. And a sword-swinging warrior fighting deep within the heart of the darkness. Bryan Edward Hill and Nelson Blake II go heavy on both the action and the mythology with Romulus, their new book from Image and Top Cow.
While some of the wolf-based mythology is still finding its balance, this comic as an experience is a fun one, with Hill, Blake and letterer Troy Peteri playing with pacing and the constraints of comic books as a form to provide a visceral, exciting read.
While comic books are rightly described as a visual art, there’s a sense of rhythm to this medium that I think is often overlooked, waved off since audiences control the speed at which they read. But the best writers in the business have a distinct rhythm and cadence to their scripts, a sort of timing that goes beyond their actual word choices and ventures into the realm of percussion. Frank Miller was a master at this sort of unmistakable pacing, and in many ways, Romulus feels like a direct love letter to Miller with the way that Hill parcels out his storytelling.
From the very first page, Hill adopts a staccato pace for his narrator, the trained warrior Ashlar: “I’m born on a mountain dusted with snow,” she says. “I’m a girl. So I get to live.” Just one panel later, we jump forward in time: “Ten years old. I’m marked for the path. The Seven Spheres of Perfection.” It’s an effective means of getting readers jazzed for this story, which has bits and pieces of works as varied as Miller’s Elektra: Assassin and Kill Bill-style kung fu to the sprawling secret societies of The Da Vinci Code or the film version of Wanted. While the narration can occasionally veer into the realm of redundancy when placed alongside artwork from Blake that sometimes does the same amount of heavy lifting, Hill’s punchy prose gets us inside Ashlar’s head as she tells us her origin, which gets readers up to speed before her prerequisite first fight against a drug-enhanced killer known as a Hunter.
On the art front, however, Romulus feels like a totally different animal, as artist and colorist Nelson Blake II’s pages have such a great interaction with Troy Peteri’s lettering. I’ve mentioned Frank Miller before, but it bears repeating here, as his work such as The Dark Knight Returns and Sin City has played with the placement of lettering for maximum effect, either to deliver novel-style narration in chunks alongside a page, or to drop boxless captions in a panel to provide an almost ethereal quality to the narration. There’s a really beautiful sequence that Blake and Peteri put together featuring Ashlar’s mother, Axis, just four panels of this warrior matriarch at different angles, with Peteri’s white text popping nicely off Axis’s shadows and black hair. Blake is delivering some of his imaginative pages here, excelling not just with the traditional superhero-style action imagery, but with his most abstract panels, such as Axis’s nose and mouth dissolving away as tears run down her cheeks, or a burning icon of a wolf standing in an otherwise black void. Blake’s colors are something that people will also overlook, but he does some superb work here, particularly in the book’s latter half, with hot pinks providing some great contrast to some sedate greens.
That all said, while there is a lot of good and a lot of promise to Romulus, there are a few kinks for the series to work out as it progresses through its first arc. Like I said before, much of this series rests on its rhythm and its visual presentation, both of which are top-notch - but like tuning out in the car or on the train to some good music, once you bring renewed focus to the lyrics, it becomes a different experience altogether. Romulus’s wolf-centric mythology isn’t quite there yet, and while in a sheer action perspective it’s cool to have female warriors having to square off against drug-addict hitmen, there’s a certain hook missing to this particular brand of secret society to make it stand out and seem memorable against the other cabals we’ve seen in fiction over the years. Additionally, while this book’s introduction is an exciting and energetic entree to Ashlar’s world, because of Blake’s ultra-clean lines, her fight against the Hunter doesn’t quite feel as tense as the pages before it (aside from one page where Ashlar does sustain a nasty-looking wound).
“What we are cannot be built. Or owned. Or sold.” There’s a spirit of tenacity and strength of Romulus, and while its influences seem easy to spot, you’d be hard-pressed to argue that this creative team didn’t at least pick fantastic talents to emulate. Where this book stumbles a bit is when it’s stepping into uncharted territory, of solidifying its particular modus operandi and mythology, of imbuing the Order of Romulus with that certain spark that will galvanize the whole enterprise. Thankfully, Hill, Nelson and Peteri have only delivered their first issue, and they have plenty of time to fully flesh out the whys and wherefores behind Ashlar’s crusade. But as far as debuts go, Romulus provides a slick and stylish introduction that’s sure to have readers coming back for more.