ROMULUS Vol. 1 by Bryan Hill and Nelson Blake II
ROMULUS Vol. 1 seems to hit all of the right keys with its unique premise and its high-energy art. However, pacing and world-building fall apart, and Ashlar, the protagonist, does not get the attention she deserves.
73 %
Empty Howls

With such a varied list of stories from some of today’s best writers, it only makes sense that Image Comics has something for every reader. On the surface, ROMULUS Volume 1 seemed like everything I could want in a story, with secret societies, ancient Roman gods, spy-on-super-spy combat, and a world-spanning story following sarcastic characters with real willpower. ROMULUS promises a lot in this four-issue volume and the included bonus material. However, it never quite lives up to those promises.

By the Light of the Moon

Courtesy of Image Comics

Ashlar was a child when she was recruited into the ranks of Romulus. This secret society has manipulated world events for centuries, using their fever grip on politicians, revolutionaries, and scientists to always come out on top. The Wolves, highly trained female warriors, acted as their eyes and fists in the world. That is, until they were no longer needed.

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ROMULUS Vol. 1 follows Ashlar after her mother, Axis, is killed fighting her former leaders. Vowing vengeance, Ashlar works tirelessly to save those targeted by Romulus’ new, steroid-enhanced soldiers, all while trying to cut off the god-wolf’s head. After saving Dr. Nicholas Franklin, a science prodigy, Ashlar joins with the Illuminati to stop Romulus for good. However, Nick is soon captured and tasked with creating a devastating bomb for Romulus. In their minds, Romulus must purge the planet of weak links, killing 5 billion to save only the best and brightest. Soon, it is a race against time as Ashlar dives back into the heart of Romulus’ deceits to save the world.

Lies and Deceits

Courtesy of Image Comics

ROMULUS is a fast-paced thriller with beautiful combat sequences and highly emotive art. Artist Nelson Blake II’s style echoes some of my favorite action cartoons like GARGOYLES. Ashlar comes alive on the page as she makes most of her opponents… well, dead. Blake II uses heavy lines, while focusing on subtle shading and coloring. The result: a number of highly detailed pages with easy to follow action and interesting character designs.

Writer Bryan Hill digs deep into modern action thrillers, while also feeling primal and echoing William Shakespeare’s Hamlet. Axis’ death cements Ashlar’s motivations and makes her a wholly interesting, if not fully relatable, protagonist. Hill’s greatest success in ROMULUS is creating a badass, autonomous and strong-willed female warrior while avoiding femme fatale tropes. The second Hill introduced Nick, I dreaded the moment he became a love interest. He never did. Ashlar’s story does not focus on her social ineptness or being raised as an assassin. Instead, it drives home the point that this is a personal story about vengeance and loss.

Hill’s writing is beautiful, crafting potent voices for our main protagonists. In particular, he expresses Ashlar’s thoughts and feelings with a powerful poetic lilt that brings great force to her philosophical battle throughout the volume. More importantly, our villain, CEO Reagan Strauss, takes over every page she inhabits. While you cannot bend your mind to her way of thinking, you fall under the sway of her lies and deceits, which speaks to Hill’s talent.

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Too Good to Be True?

Sadly, these positives only work to highlight the faults of ROMULUS Vol. 1. Despite the beautiful writing and interesting characterization, something never clicked with ROMULUS. Hill’s pacing for the story was the story’s biggest flaw, bouncing all over the place and never giving true weight to the series’ events. The action sequences are well-constructed, but long, introspective, world-building dialogues besiege the issues’ calm moments. From page 1, Hill has a tendency to just dump information on the reader, devoting the first 10 pages of the series to giving every detail of Ashlar, Axis, and Romulus’ history. The sheer exposure overwhelmed me.

Glaring out from ROMULUS’ depths were the failings in characterization. While the dialogue, philosophy, and motivation of each character made sense, the overall character arcs did not. Nick begins the story as a beneficent scientist, working to solve world issues. However, the second Reagan Strauss steps in, his resolve falters. While this makes Strauss’ abilities as a negotiator stand out, Nick doesn’t grapple. In one panel, he is holding up a pair of middle fingers; the next he is planning to kill five billion people.

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Ashlar: The Fallen Wolf

Courtesy of Image Comics

Nothing is more problematic than Ashlar’s own character arc. Every character needs to have their own internal conflict with themselves. In fact, this mental battle can lead to some of the most potent story moments. Ashlar believes that she is not good enough, that she isn’t as strong or fast or smart as Axis. This inner conflict bounds off the page from the first issue. And again in issues 2, 3, and 4. Ashlar’s inner conflict is never ending, leading to heavy repetition throughout the course of the story.

On the flip side, Ashlar’s other conflicts throughout the piece just seem to resolve themselves. When she begins training with the Illuminati, she has to answer why her mentor beat her. Normally, this moment would provide some powerful character exploration. However, it just goes away. Ashlar answers the question in two panels, which takes away the potential for the question, if left unanswered, to serve as a hardship.

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Final Thoughts: ROMULUS Vol. 1

I really wanted to fall in love with ROMULUS. From the start, all these interesting undertones and conspiracies made Bryan Hill’s world stand out. His writing is beautiful, and he gives Ashlar one of the most poetic and interesting voices in comics. The art works well for the high-paced action sequences and gives ROMULUS an air of danger.

ROMULUS feels like an outline to a potentially amazing story. The story jumps around too much, not focusing on any of the most potent moments for any length of time. Trying to be edgy, this story falls hard into the realm of silliness. No story needs that many middle fingers or intentionally witty one-liners. This is not an eighties action film, and it doesn’t want to be one. ROMULUS doesn’t yet know what it wants to be, but so much potential lies in this concept. Here’s hoping further issues realize that.

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