Thursday, September 29, 2011

149. Poor Dante's Almanac

February 2005: The comic settles in for what will prove to be a disappointing year in its hopes for expansion into the bookstore market. I see that I completely missed covering the launch of the DC line of books, which happened in the summer of 2004, and so I'll come back to that in a few entries when I can discuss its closing. This was, notably, around the point where supporters of that line started feeling a little exasperation with the lack of promotion on DC Comics' part, and something about this cover painting by Jim Murray reminds me of that. Seriously, I see this artwork and I don't think of the character or the series or just what a nice job Murray does on him, I remember being aggravated with DC. I was probably writing an angry email to somebody that week.

Inside, one of the most interesting series in the lineup is the long-promised Tiger Sun, Dragon Moon by Steve Parkhouse. I am pretty certain that this is a very notable series for one reason: it is, I believe, the longest work to ever appear in 2000 AD by a single creator. It's seven episodes long, and written, drawn, colored and lettered by Parkhouse.

This is perhaps all the more remarkable as Parkhouse is not at all the name I'd offer for a tale of future ninjas and samurai having a bloody showdown over two powerful blades. Parkhouse is best known for his gorgeously skewed depictions of contemporary England. When I think of Parkhouse's best work, I think of The Bojeffries Saga, Big Dave, that Sinister Dexter story with the Inspector Morse parody, The Milkman Murders or those fantastic 1980s Doctor Who stories set in the village of Stockbridge. Ninjas, not so much. But visually, he really pulls this off brilliantly.

I understand that Parkhouse was a little frustrated by the experience. 2000 AD changed its page size before he finished the work, forcing him to go back and redo several pages. It seemed uncomfortably out of place when finished, a dark fairytale recalling traditional Japanese legends hammered into the Judge Dredd universe by way of some references to Hondo City in the narration. In the end, the serial is confused and not engaging, but it really looks completely terrific. I wish Tharg would let some more accomplished writer-artists have some longer space like this to play; even if it isn't a complete success, it's very interesting.

Speaking of space to play, in an earlier chapter I had bemoaned the lack of proper, really long runs for certain storylines, and how everything gets wrapped up in around three months. One of the few exceptions to this - another would come later in '05 - was a fantastic run of Nikolai Dante by Robbie Morrison and John Burns, which features 17 episodes across 18 issues, taking just one week off. The run, which is basically the middle third of the "pirate arc" - the third phase of the series - comprises three stories: "Agent of Destruction," "How Could You Believe Me When I Said I Loved You When You Know I've Been a Liar All My Life?" and "Primal Screams." This issue features the second episode of that second story, and as its ridiculous, long title might suggest, it's a welcome respite from the heavy double-crossing and backstabbing of this period of Dante.

Dante has often got in way over his head - in fact, this whole arc, where he's stuck in the middle of three warring bands of pirates, one of which is led by his estranged mother, is the very definition of "in over his head" - but this story is much lighter than what the series has given us recently, with the story played as a slightly bawdy heist farce. Burns provides some of his very best work for the series - and I say this from the perspective of a reader who doesn't like his work nearly as much as co-creator Simon Fraser's - as this comedic story falls completely apart around Dante's ears. This time, he and his paramour du jour, a blonde called Lauren, try to abduct Jena Makarov while she's on a state visit to England, only to have Dante's violent half-sister Lulu show up at the same time to try and kill her.

It's all played strictly for laughs, and Burns just has a field day with the spectacle. Lulu, as ever, is the sexiest woman in comics - you just can't blame me for including a picture of her as illustration - but everybody else is painted a little off-model. Burns relaxes and lets the calamity guide the visual definitions, and when an exhausted Dante wants to say something to get the squabbling Lauren and Jena to shut up, he doesn't look at all like the man of action depicted on the comic's front cover, but more like a Sergio Aragon├ęs character. Best of all is a wonderful double-page spread from episode one, in which most of the characters are seen chasing each other around the giant letters that form that unwieldy title, "How Could You Believe Me When I Said I Loved You When You Know I've Been a Liar All My Life?" Considering that the longtime supporting player Marguerite met a grisly end two weeks previously, this kind of wacky shenanigans is a pretty well-timed break. Did you notice the silly grin on the demon on Lulu's shoulder? Since when do those things smile?

Stories from this issue are available for purchase in the following collected editions:

Nikolai Dante: Sword of the Tsar (Amazon UK)

Next time, more men with mustaches invade the Megazine! See you in seven!

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