Thursday, March 20, 2008

46. Too Cool to Kill

March 1997: In the real world, the first of the two best things to ever happen, the Hipster Son's birth, is just a few weeks away. I was still living in that awesome little duplex on Park Ridge Drive in Athens, and that neighborhood didn't yet look like the end of the world, with all the grass killed under the weight of the sixteen Chevrolets parked in every single yard. In Britain, John Major is still prime minister, though the inevitable victory of Tony Blair and the Labour Party is about six weeks away. I was still crazy about trading VHS tapes of every show under the sun then, and had a British friend and contact who suggested that the Hipster Son, who was premature, couldn't wait until the 1997 General Election to be born, he just insisted on being around long enough to see the Conservatives lose. Then my boy had his first heart attack, aged three weeks. Heady times. So between birthing babies and an unbelievable health scare, having half my online friends so utterly jubilant about politics that it kept me captivated, and then dealing with some horrifying financial issues that we experienced at the time, 2000 AD was really low on the priority list. This was worsened because, for the last time (we hope), Diamond missed another run of several issues, and progs 1033-1036 never made it to my local comic shop.

So when I did resume the progs with # 1037, I'd missed the first two parts of Nikolai Dante's first adventure. And it did not matter. I was completely hooked. Now this was a thrill for the ages - one of 2000 AD's all-time best series.

Dante shouldn't be mentioned in isolation from the rest of the 20th anniversary lineup, which is very good. The strips currently running include a new Dredd epic by John Wagner under the umbrella title "The Hunting Party," with early chapters illustrated by the likes of Trevor Hairsine and Calum Alexander Watt, which features Dredd and DeMarco, whom we met in "The Pit," training some cadets in the Cursed Earth. Also appearing are a seven-part Slaine serial by Pat Mills and Nick Percival, Al's Baby by Wagner and Carlos Ezquerra and the new thrill Mercy Heights by John Tomlinson and Kevin Walker, which is about a space station hospital full of weird aliens in a war zone.

Tomlinson, you may recall, had been 2000 AD's editor for a few months in 1995. Nikolai Dante had been commissioned by Tomlinson as an eight-part series, as had many of the strips during that period. When David Bishop took over in '96, he concluded that there was a lot of promise to this character, and that the story would really benefit from a longer initial run. It works tremendously well. Dante's first series ran from March to July 1997, and after resting for the summer, he then becomes a semi-regular throughout the rest of the decade. He's chalked up 216 episodes as of this writing, with a new story beginning in the current week's prog.

But who is this fellow, you ask? Well, when we meet him, Dante's been a thief and a con man, looking out for himself since his mother, a pirate, abandoned him as a child of nine or ten. This is 27th Century Russia, an empire under the heel of Tsar Vladimir, where amazing advances in technology haven't done much to improve the overwhelming poverty where most people live. Dante is a swashbuckling ladies' man, and we first meet him in bed with an imperial courtesan. After getting the better of a squad of officers, led by the first of many men of the Arbatov family that we'll meet, and getting hold of the courtesan's imperial boudoir costume, Dante makes the mistake of selling it, which allows the tsar's men to trace him.

Dante's expecting a death sentence, but what he doesn't know is that a bio-scan has revealed him to have a very strong connection to the Romanov bloodline, a powerful family which poses political challenges for the scheming Vladimir. He's pressganged by the tsar into joining the imperial Raven Corps, and sent along with the tsar's daughter Jena Makarov to investigate a crashed starship. The whole thing is a set-up; Vladimir knows that the starship belongs to the Romanovs and has been banking on Dante obtaining a Romanov Weapons Crest, a powerful weapon of alien origin which will only bond with a Romanov. In other words, it's still a death sentence: Vladimir fully intends to dissect Dante and get at that weapon.

Where it goes from here is, frankly, everywhere. As Nikolai Dante progresses, the cast and settings grow and we meet dozens of incredibly fun characters. The status quo gets dumped on its backside several times and the stakes get progressively higher. We learn that Dante's backstory already has some sad skeletons in it, and the gambles he has to take have increasingly chilling prices and repercussions.

The series was created by Robbie Morrison, who has written every episode, and Simon Fraser, the original artist, whose work is genuinely wonderful, vibrant and full of life. After the original 15-week run, Fraser still handled the bulk of the episodes presented during the series' first phase (1997-99), with periodic fill-ins by other artists, chiefly Andy Clarke and Charlie Adlard. There have been some lineup changes since then, which I'm sure we'll elaborate in time, but today, Dante's art duties are shared between Fraser and John Burns.

The sixth collection of Dante stories was recently released, so they've been chugging along putting all of this popular series in bookshelf format, but you can find these first fifteen episodes along with several others in The Romanov Dynasty, which was released in 2004 as part of the old DC/Rebellion deal. The Judge Dredd epic which is running at this time is also available in the 2006 book The Hunting Party.

Next week, Fetish concludes in the Megazine, but what you really want to see are pictures of cute girls dressed as 2000 AD characters, right? That'll save me having to find somethin' new to write about...

(Originally published 3/20/08 at LiveJournal.)

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