The Royals: Masters of War has an interesting concept. Writer Rob Williams and artist Simon Coleby present an alternative history where the members of the British Royal Family have super powers. Sadly, the concept gets somewhat wasted in this Vertigo limited series that takes place in World War II.
The first issue introduces the reader to an alternative Britain ruled by equally alternative House of Windsor. Its monarch is King Albert, is non-powered and determined to keep his children’s abilities secret from his subjects. His oldest son, Prince Arthur is a drunken, privileged louse with an extreme lack of decorum. The younger son, Prince Henry, is the complete opposite, troubled he has to hide his Superman-like powers during the London Blitz. It's suggested that his brother is even more powerful than he is. Finally, there is Princess Rose, is telepath, and might be having more than just a brother-sister relationship with Henry.
It's here that a reader with a better-than-average knowledge of the modern British monarchy, may get distracted with the more broadly satirical fictional Windsors. For starters, there would never ba a real-life King Albert, as Queen Victoria asked her descendants not to take the name of her consort, Prince Albert. In fact, when Albert, the Duke of York, ascended to the throne following the abdication of his brother, Edward VIII, he took the name George VI.
Henry is troubled at his father’s insistence not to use his powers in the war. While the Royals may be super-powered, they can be killed. The super-powered French monarchy goes to the guillotine in the French Revolution, and the family of the Russian Czar are murdered by the Bolsheviks. It is suggested in the first issue that there have been agreements between the various European royal families that kept them on the sidelines of the conflicts that plague European history. The King’s desires to protect his family are not enough. Henry and Rose witness yet another Luftwaffe bombing raid over London. He finally takes matters into his own hands, which his father fears may have fearful consequences.
It’s a shame that The Royals is set in WWII. The series teases the possibility of other super-powered royalty elsewhere in the world. However, its alternate history doesn’t seem to diverge too much from the real WWII timeline, where the German and Russian empires fell in the wake of World War I. The core concept of the limited series loses a lot its potential in a world that is still very similar to our own. It’s here where the book’s concept starts to suffer. It hasn’t been allowed to create an alternative history as opposed to being inserted into one without being allowed to shape it from the inside out.
The Royals main characters feel shoehorned into a real-life setting. They live a sheltered life mostly divorced from the sufferings and sacrifices their subjects dealt with during the war. This contradicts with the real-life Windsors, who lived under the same rationing measures as the British public. The King and Queen barely survived a bomb dropped in the Blitz that exploded in a Buckingham Palace courtyard. They also lost a family member during the war when the King’s brother, the Duke of Kent, died in a plane crash while serving withe the Royal Air Force in 1942.
The family is presented in the first issue as being more in a satirical, 2000 AD-style of characterization. This is not surprising, as Williams is a 2000 AD alum. The result is a lack of more well-rounded characterization. Characters like Henry, the protagonist, feel flat and lack what the reader might need to make an emotional investment in them. Other characters come off as not being fully developed.
Artist Simon Coleby’s artwork gets hampered by the sometimes crassness and royalty-bashing. The Rouge Trooper and Judge Dredd artist's pencils balance the royal trappings of the Windsors with the horrors of the war outside the palace gates. The graphic presentations of aerial combat and the bombing of London are in stark contrast to the lush lifestyle of the Royal family.
The Royals had much potential as a concept, but wastes it by tying it into an alternate WWII Britain with a royal family filled with oafish and hard-to-like characters. Coleby’s artistic talent isn’t enough to save the book from heavy-handed storytelling. Its Royals are a far cry from their real-life counterparts, who did not cower from the call of duty.
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