Thursday, April 23, 2009

97. Nikolai Dante and the Strange Case of the Extra Word Balloons

Thrillpowered Thursday is a weekly look at the world of 2000 AD. I'm rereading my collection of 2000 AD and the Judge Dredd Megazine, one issue an evening, and once each week for the foreseeable future, I'll see what I'm inspired to write.

I'm afraid it's an abbreviated entry this week, but I did want to share a little about the run of Nikolai Dante that appeared in April 2001. Here's the cover of prog 1238 by Simon Fraser, who was mostly unavailable at the time to work on the series. (This is, in part, because he was living in Tanzania at the time. Fraser is profiled this week at Graphic NYC, which you should check out.) Management had already juggled the second and third storylines in the planned five-volume "Tsar Wars" storyline to accomodate his schedule, but it was evident that he would not be free to draw the fourth when it was desired. So the plans were revised, and what were the fourth and fifth books were revised into a single, 13-part storyline, painted by John Burns, which would be coming later in the year. Bridging the third book and the one forthcoming is this short run of six episodes, illustrated by the wonderful Steve Yeowell and Chris Blythe, comprising two stories.

In a break from the heavy and melodramatic storyline of "Tsar Wars," these two stories are much lighter. "The Beguiling," inspired by the 1971 Don Siegel film The Beguiled, sees a wounded Dante recovering behind the lines at the family estate of the jealous, feuding Arbatov sisters. "Fiends" shows that present-day Romania has become a haven for vampires in the far future. These lighter tales are certainly a refreshing break from the larger war story, which is about to get unbearably messy, and feature a return of the devil-may-care Dante, silly quips and rejoinders in the face of trouble, like in the strip's earlier days.

Except Robbie Morrison apparently didn't write all those quips and rejoinders.

I think the best way to describe what happened with "The Beguiling" as an unfortunate misunderstanding. Reading David Bishop's Thrill-Power Overload, you'll find a reference to Morrison taking objection to some additional dialogue added by then-assistant editor Matt Smith. I compared the original progs to the reprint in the collected edition and noted that five word balloons were left out of the book. This was not, apparently, a problem of incomplete films being used for the graphic novel, as would happen with the 2005 release of Devlin Waugh: Red Tide (a story, coincidentally, also drawn by Yeowell), but a deliberate decision to omit the dialogue added by Smith. There's also a minor art change: the coloring of the Arbatovs' uniforms is a noticeably different shade of blue.

"Fiends" is perhaps not as wonderful as "Beguiling," but it introduces the spinoff character that never was, vampire hunter Emmanuelle Chekhov. She didn't seem to really make any impact on the fan base, but in a book as short on lead female characters as 2000 AD can be, an Emmanuelle series might have been an interesting idea, and one which might have avoided many of the cliches and stereotypes of the genre.

In other news from the period, it was announced that April that Titan Books had the license to print collected editions of 2000 AD properties again. For most of the previous decade, Hamlyn had been releasing graphic novels, typically in batches of six, twice a year. Eventually, their interest seemed to fade and fewer books were released. Before Hamlyn moved on, they did issue an extra-sized collection of the 1994 Dredd serial "Wilderlands" and its several prequel stories which remains awesomely impressive. The "Win Judge Dredd graphic novels" blurb on the cover shown above is for a competition to win their final two compilations, reprinting the 1999 "Doomsday" epic across two books.

Titan was, of course, the original home for 2000 AD collected editions. The line started in the summer of 1981 with that first, wonderful collection of Wagner and Bolland Judge Dredd stories, and eventually grew to encompass many more stories and lines from several comics, always with those distinctive black spines with the white text. I was never sure why, but Titan seemed to lose interest in all of their properties by the late eighties, not just the 2000 AD stuff. Charley's War and Jeff Hawke were phased out after only a pair of slim volumes apiece. James Bond and Modesty Blaise made it to four before they were all shelved in 1991 or so.

Regular readers of my Bookshelf and Reprint This! blogs know that most of these have since roared back to life. Frank Bellamy's Garth hasn't made it to a new edition, but otherwise, those old 48- or 64-page slimline albums have been replaced by a great range of large, beautifully-designed books. They're actually on target to finish the James Bond newspaper strip later this year with the seventeenth and final volume. But 2001 was effectively ground zero for the modern Titan, and Judge Dredd and company were integral to the company's plans. It would only last a few years before Rebellion took it over to do it in collaboration with DC, and while Titan would hit a pretty rough pothole early on, for several months, the company did issue attractive, oversized collections of classic 2000 AD storylines. The first two, released in July, were Alan Moore's Ballad of Halo Jones and the Dredd serial "Emerald Isle." These would later be complemented with some very nice hardback editions.

Next time, It's hell on earth in Mike Carey's short-lived Carver Hale. Plus a look at the latest of the Judge Dredd Complete Case Files. See you in seven, fellow Earthlets!

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