Monday, January 3, 2011

#5 for 2011

Nikolai Dante
By Robbie Morrison, Simon Fraser and John Burns

A couple of years ago, the creative team behind Fables took the audacious step of wrapping up the comic's main storyline without having the decency to put The End on the last page. The series has gone on after the defeat of the evil empire, and while this has left current issues with a weird sense that they’re just not essential enough, it has also made the whole thing a lot less predictable, and a comic that has made a habit out of killing main characters could still go anywhere.

Nikolai Dante has taken a slightly similar route over the past year. The evil Tsar Vladimir – who has been the big, evil enemy ever since the story started a decade ago – was defeated in a short and brutal war, and against all odds, Nikolai Dante actually had a shot at a happy ending. He got his girl, defeated the evil empire and was surrounded by a loyal group of family, friends and compatriots. After years of war, death and horror, he actually seemed genuinely happy.

It lasted about a dozen pages.

The adventures of Nikolai Dante have been running on a semi-regular basis in 2000ad since early 1997 and has been a shining light in the British weekly for much of that time, infusing its story with wit, humour, honour, tragedy, energy and sexiness.

Co-creators Robbie Morrison and Simon Fraser are still there at the helm, with the help of some brushwork from the legendary John Burns. While the latter artist is slightly disappointing, this is only because Fraser is so damned good, with more energy and emotional gravitas than ever before. His art is exceptionally good in colour, with a heavy reliance on a bright and purple palette that makes Fraser’s line pop out at the reader.

After a decade of political machinations and two horrific world wars, Morrison’s story is now approaching some sort of climax, as the true villain of the tale – who has been somewhat dormant for most of the past decade – returning more powerful than ever.

The latest sudden upshift in the comic’s status quo has raised all the stakes, while sending the title character all the way back down to the gutter. During the long history of this single story, Nikolai Dante has been a gentleman thief, the bastard son of a twisted aristocracy, a bitter and cynical warrior, a pirate king, the Sword of the Tsar and the hero of a revolution fought by an army of thieves and whores.

Now, after these latest losses, he is all of these things at once – a brutal man with no mercy who is still too cool to kill. And he still has the magnificent supporting cast - the brutally beautiful Elena Kurakin and the beautifully brutal Lulu Romanov; the implacable former Tsar, who knows the score; the immortal Spatch and Flint; the latest tyrant to rule this empire and his ridiculously complex double personality.

Some of the most interesting characters in the series meet unfortunate end during Heroes Be Damned. Considering the loss of several other important characters during the re-emergence of the story’s real threat, the destruction of Dante’s crest should come as no surprise, but it was genuinely surprising at how touching that end was.

The weapons crest was a complex artificial lifeform that bonded with Dante at the start of the series. It generated weapons for him, monitored his health and provided a running commentary for the series as a sarcastic voice in the back of Dante’s head.

This isn’t the first time I’ve ever had an emotional reaction to the breakdown of a machine – Blade Runner has the most poetic system meltdown in all of cinema – but it was still truly touching to see the Crest fade out of Nikolai Dante’s life, and devastating to see him on the final page of A Farewell To Arms, alone on that cot.

Still, while there was a genuine emotional gut punch of the Crest’s destruction, Dante is still not dead. He still has his mother, Elena, and that army of thieves and whores at his back.

Morrison has admitted that the story of Nikolai Dante is now reaching its natural conclusion. It will be thrilling to see if Nikolai finally gets that spectacular death he thinks he deserves – there is the distinct possibility that he will be denied this fate – but sad to see it go. At least it’s going out on a high.

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