Thursday, June 25, 2009

The adventures of Nikolai Dante

I don’t know when I first noticed the Russian Rogue, but it didn’t take me long to get hooked and a little bit obsessive. That obsession has come and gone over the last 10 years, but it’s still there, so I’m just going to come out and say it:

Nikolai Dante is my favourite comic of the decade.

Combined with an unexpected deepening of the world of Judge Dredd, Dante has been a shining light in the new parade of 2000ad characters brought in over the years. While Sinister Dexter has arguably been the most popular new strip to gain strength in the comic in recent times, Dante is a far richer, deeper and exciting experience.

2000ad has always tried its hand at genuinely new stories and characters, an editorial decision that cannot be praised highly enough. While the vast majority come and go, some stick around for a second or third storyline, and others even manage to make the leap to regular feature.

This has seen some extraordinary stories produced, including Gordon Rennie and Dom Reardon’s eerily British Caballistics Inc and Ian Edginton and Steve Yeowell’s surprisingly resilient Red Seas, over the past few years, so they must be doing something right. 

* * * 

Back around the mid-nineties, 2000ad was stuck in a bit of a rut. There was still the odd hotspot, but the comic was definitely cruising on past glories. New stories never really caught on, with a general feeling of apathy from both readers and creators. John Wagner wasn’t even writing Judge Dredd any more and it soon became obvious how difficult it actually was to capture the voice of Dredd and his city.

But there was still that drive to find the next big thing, and while that resulted in some godawful strips that need no mention, the odd thing caught on, especially when a talent pool that had proven itself in the Judge Dredd Megazine signed up for the grind of weekly deadlines. Sinister Dexter was the first major success, stretching out from an initial short run into a long-running gangster saga that is still going.

Robbie Morrison, who had already shown a willingness to try new things with his Shimura work on the Megazine, had his own idea for another saga. Looking at the comic’s long history of grim-faced men with big guns, Morrison kept the guns, but replaced the grim with a grin.

Even though it was a sharp concept from the start, it still spent an extraordinary length of time in development under editors John Tomlinson and David Bishop, (Bishop would later go on to write three massively entertaining Dante novels). It was a long road from Morrison’s initial pitch until it actually appeared on the page, with several changes happening along the way.

Morrison has said he would have been a lot happier if Dante had been an historical epic, but reluctantly had to add in the sci-fi elements to satisfy the 2000ad faithful. He also switched the timeframe around, starting at an earlier point than originally intended. This gave him the chance to flesh out the background of Dante’s world and the characters that inhabit it, before ripping it apart again in the magnificent Tsar Wars.

After all this time fleshing it out, Nikolai Dante hit the ground running when it debuted in 2000ad prog 1035 in late 1997. In half a dozen pages, Dante’s character was fully fleshed out, and he was shown to be a man of humour, wit and energy, a gentleman thief and killer swordsman.

After a few more of these small parts, an entire setting in the year 2666 had been established, one of deadly rivalries and vast intrigues, of political assassination and family feuds that would destroy empires.

The impact that the art of co-creator Simon Fraser brought to these early stories cannot be underestimated. Fraser had established a good working relationship with Morrison on Shimura, but he really started to shine drawing Dante’s world. An odd mix of 17th century fashion and the latest in organic cyberware, knights in armour rode metal horses that fly into battle, while decadence mixed liberally with technological dreams given flesh.

And there was horror, as any empire has its share of suffering. And under the tyrannical grip of Tsar Vladimir, the world of the 27th century was a cold and cruel place, where terrible things happen to good people, simply because the ruler wills it.

Fraser drew it all, and could be surprisingly effective and showing determination or misery or terrible vengeance, while also cranking up the pace in some extraordinarily well-rendered action scenes. His line could get a little loose, but it all just helped in the energy and vigour of the story.

Although it was certainly lighter than many of the strips it shared 2000ad space with, the undercurrent of darkness was always there, as the sheer weight and inevitable movement of history bore down on the characters. A vicious war between two mighty houses was always one tiny step away from breaking out, and Dante would sometimes go to extraordinary lengths to keep the fragile peace ticking over, and save as many lives as he possibly could. 

* * *

Eventually, Dante was unable to hold off that march of history, and the world devolved into the war the great powers had been salivating over. This was actually the point where Morrison originally intended to start the series, before he got the bright idea of fleshing out the world and its inhabitants a bit better.

Apart from the original concept, this might be the best idea Robbie Morrison ever had. For the first couple of years, he filled Dante’s world with a vast array of fascinating characters. The most important was undoubtedly Jena Makarov, the love of Dante’s life and the daughter of his greatest enemy, the cold, cruel and calculating Tsar. Although she would have been quite happy to see Dante skinned alive at the start of the series, she gradually warmed to his charms, and eventually fell fully in love, just as the war began and tore them apart.

And then there were the Romanovs, Dante’s father, half-brothers and sisters. Almost as cold as the Tsar and monstrously powerful, they also displayed a wide range of passions and skills. There was Konstantin, the paladin of the clan and possibly the biggest bastard of them all, but there was also Andreas, who shared Nikolai’s tendances towards wine, women and dismemberment. Between these extremes, the rest of their family had their own unique charms and disturbing perversions.

The strip featured a host of other fascinating characters, from the highest halls of power to the lowest gutters of poverty, but it was Dante who strode through it all, sometimes oblivious, occasionally calculating, always noble.

Despite his frequent assertion that “honour be damned”, Dante was easily the most noble and honourable of all the characters. With the hardest of upbringings, he is a character who is intimately familiar with the worst humanity has to offer, but could still be shocked by the level of depravity and callousness his family and the other ruling classes were capable of.

Disgusted by their games of intrigue that left death and misery behind them, Dante has always sworn to raise an army of the damned, a legion of whores, beggars and thieves that would destroy the aristocracy and the damage they caused, once and for all. This slow-burning subtext took a long time to come to the boil, but has recently done so, with fascinating speed.

But a while back, several years into its run, Dante needed a shaking up of the status quo and was given one in the Tsar Wars storyline. With the addition of the legendary British comics painter John Burns as a second regular artist, the strip went off in an extremely dark direction.

Suddenly, the suffering of innocents was increased a thousand times over, as Dante’s world was ripped apart by the open warfare between its two biggest houses of power. Corpses began piling high and those caught in the crossfire had to resort to desperate attempts to stay alive, in that uniquely miserable way that Russia seems to handle almost all of its warfare.

The Tsar Wars storyline saw Dante become a legend on both sides, carrying out daring raids in attempts to slow the flow of innocent blood. Even with his compassion, he still kills more enemy soldiers than any other fighter as the war bleeds out his humour and joy for life.

Morrison’s story was perfectly paced, even if he was left tearing his Scottish hair out by a change in the order of the books that was forced upon him by artist problems. The terrible destruction of the war was established, there were a few men-on-a-mission stories and just when it looked like Dante’s side was about to win the conflict, the world turned upside down, the Romanov family were almost wiped out, and Dante returned to the life of an outlaw.

* * *

Post-war Dante tried to get back into his ‘gentleman thief’ guise, but was a different man with new depths. Many of those he had fought beside were gone, along with the innocents he had been unable to save, while he was alive. Dante survived and was still always up for a bit of slap and tickle, but was also more prone to melancholy.

At about this time, Simon Fraser stopped his regular contributions, and while John Burns was a worthy full-time replacement, the strip got becalmed in a long-running pirate story. This part of the tale added tiny new bits of texture to the overall saga, especially with Dante’s mother becoming a regular character, but Dante’s adventures on the high seas didn’t really go anywhere new or exciting.

The story chugged along slowly for several years, before the tempo picked up again. This was partly due to Fraser’s return, as he might just be the best action artist in modern British comics. While John Burns can still produce some stunning painted pages, the story comes alive in Fraser’s hands.

But it also kicked back into life with a return to the court of intrigue of the Tsar, and the return of Jena as a regular character. Finally consummating their love at the instant the war began, they ended up on the opposite side of the conflict and crossed blades. There was still the love and they still couldn’t really hurt each other, but their affection for each other had been shattered by the pressure of history and blood.

By the time Nikolai returned from the seas, their relationship had transformed into a romantic cold war and the question of their inevitable reconciliation was a fine backdrop for the next chapter in Dante’s tale as the Sword of the Tsar.

 * * *

The ease with which Dante fitted in to the Imperial Court was a little jarring, but the fresh legs the new status quo gave the series was more than enough to compensate for this. The fates of several minor characters, some of which had been dangling for years, were finally revealed and Dante used his position to gather up some occasionally unexpected allies as he swore loyalty to his bitter enemy.

Dante’s service under the Tsar could not last. Last year, it all came to a head in the stunning Amerika story, where Nikolai and Jena were sent to the former superpower to enact the Tsar’s will. While there was the usual cheap thrill of seeing beloved American comic characters such as the Fantastic Four and Captain America transform into nasty analogies in the hands of a British writer, there was also a lot of depth in the story, as Dante is pushed to the limits of his fealty. 

At one point, Dante sees a picture of himself, taken several years ago, hanging in the room of a young girl who just blew herself up in a crowd of Imperial soldiers, and the difference between the two Dantes is huge. The crushing weight of his own deeds and legacy is hanging on his shoulders. Morrison is incredibly good at letting the silent panel speak for itself, often ending entire storylines on an ambiguous smirk or a sudden realisation, but this was one of the best moments.

Dante’s reaction to the horrific climax of Amerika is genuinely shocking, even as it is tempered with some disbelief that it took so long to happen in the first place. Since then, the story has kicked up into its final gear.

Right now, the story might just be at the most interesting place it has ever been. A decade of plot development and character growth is finally paying off in fascinating ways. Dante has his army of thieves and whores, and is poised to destroy the empire responsible for so much death and misery.

It’s unlikely to end well for Dante on a personal level. With Jena finally at his side and choosing to defy her father, some sort of tragedy is inevitable. It’s highly probable that the series will end with Dante’s death, defying authority to the end, taking his enemies all down with him.

And that’s not so bad. Dante has already been promised by a clairvoyant (another of his beautiful victims who suffer for his sins), that his death will be spectacular, and Dante needs nothing else. His life has been loud and bright and extraordinary, his demise will undoubtedly be the same.

 * * *

When I got back into 2000ad after an absence of eight years, it was all Nikolai’s fault. 

I just regret taking my time about it. By the time I started buying new 2000ad comics from the local bookshop for the first time this century, I had been out of Tharg's orbit for a long, long time. I had missed hundreds of issues and hundreds of stories.

It took a while to fill that hole and it's an ongoing process, but I’m getting there. In the last couple of months, I’ve bought 13 2000ad progs with Nikolai’s adventures contained within, and some of the gaps in my knowledge is slowly being filled in.

It’s a little weird, reading it in such a non-linear order. The first Dante stories I ever read were set both during the war and before, years apart from each other in the narrative (and publishing order), but read within seconds of each other. I only discovered last month how the Tsar came to power, even though the strip revealed this fact nine years ago.

But it all helps keep the interest up, and I’m staying well away from any spoilers that could ruin this last run. It takes nearly three months for 2000ad issues to get here from the UK and I’m determined to keep myself from skipping ahead to see how it all works out.

Because I really do believe Nikolai Dante is a fantastic comic, one that I’ve enjoyed immensely over the past few years, one that I look forward to every week.

Nikolai Dante is my favourite comic of the decade.

* * *

Almost all of Nikolai Dante’s adventures are available in trade paperback, although they may be difficult to track down. The Tearoom of Despair reckons you should, because it would be good for you. 

For an example of how good Simon Fraser can sometimes be, check out his Lilly McKenzie webcomic.

1 comment:

Mike Gloady said...

Fantastic overview of easily the most imaginative story to appear in 2000ad in many a year.

Hope you enjoy the closing chapters as much as I think I will.