Thursday, May 10, 2012

169. Fraser's Back in Town. (well, actually, he's in New York City...)

November 2006: On the cover of this week's prog, 1513, is something which is, I believe, unique. With the exception of two one-off Tharg's Future Shocks, the only ongoing series for 2000 AD to which Arthur Ranson has contributed any artwork have been written by John Wagner or Alan Grant. This cover for The Red Seas marks his only contribution to anybody else's ongoing project. It's kind of a shame, when you think about it. Wouldn't a Ranson-illustrated Devlin Waugh look interesting?

Inside, Red Seas is again Steve Yeowell drawing Ian Edginton's scripts, and it is another installment that sees the action shift away from Jack Dancer and the pirates during their adventures in Earth's underworld to see what the supporting cast is up to. In this five-part story, the heroes' ally, the presumed-dead Sir Isaac Newton, looks up Julius's estranged father, the renowned composer and pianist Chevalier Augustus. They get involved in a problem with shapechanging Roman werewolves in London. I love how every time I mention the plot of a Red Seas story, it sounds like I'm just making something up. There's just no way a series this fun ever really got printed, is there?

The real big news, however, is that Nikolai Dante has reached the end of that long pirate adventure and is back in Imperial Russia, which is now firmly under the thumb of Tsar Vladimir as the Romanovs have been destroyed, killed or dispersed. Lulu, of course, remains at large, acting as a terrorist somewhere in Europe, and Arkady has been adopted as a ward of Vladimir's court, but all the others are believed to be dead. Well, okay, the audience knows that the brutal Konstantin is in the weird body armor and acting as Vlad's Lord Protector, but none of the protagonists do.

As this story opens in prog 1511, the tsar's forces overwhelm the last of Sagawa's resistance, rescue Dante, and make him an offer he can't refuse: act as Vlad's public agent and investigate forces suspected to be disloyal to the imperial throne. The weird techno-aliens who gave the Romanovs their weapons crests are believed to be active in our reality, for starters. In return, Vlad won't blow Nikolai's mother and her fleet out of the water. Our hero gets to dress well again, and charm his beloved Jena all over again.

The panels above have always felt to me like they have an additional meaning. I really love the artwork of Simon Fraser, who co-created the series with Robbie Morrison in 1997, but he had been absent for quite some time from the comic. His most recent episodes had been in 2000 and 2002, and I don't think I'm stepping on anybody's toes when I say that "Battleship Potemkin" and "The Romanov Job" were far from his best work. There's a very good reason for this; Fraser's wife works for the United Nations and, in the first part of the last decade, she was doing important work in impoverished areas in Africa. Fraser left comics for a few years while accompanying her on, let's be fair, much more important business, many thousands of miles from the nearest Dick Blick art supply store. Her career brought the couple to New York City in the summer of 2006, and Fraser found a studio there, allowing him to resume his work in comics.

Dante's pirate days - the middle chunk of the soon-concluding saga - always felt like the heaviest part of the series. John Burns did a terrific job - actually, there are certainly places where he worked wonders - but even with the more lighthearted segments of this phase, there's still that undercurrent of very bleak danger. More precisely, I'm thinking about stories like 2005's "Primal Screams," the sort-of Meltdown Man tribute with the jungle animal-people and Lauren spending almost the entire story topless and in a g-string, and "How could you believe me...," with its rollicking double-page opening spread, the characters chasing each other around the ridiculous lettering like a good Saturday morning cartoon. Morrison certainly made an effort to lighten the mood, but it's never much more than a detour from the lingering threat underneath all the antics: Dante has to betray his mother and deliver her to Sagawa, or Sagawa will murder two hostage children who love him. That mood permeates this period, and it's with a huge sigh of relief that the series abandons the Pacific and returns home to Russia.

2007 will prove to be a very big year for Dante, with 26 episodes appearing in the comic. Fraser and Burns alternate on art duties, and Tharg takes advantage of having two artists working in tandem and commissions more of this strip than any other but Judge Dredd from 2006-2010. It really feels like the artists are competing with each other, each inspired by the other's work to do better themselves. This will occasionally produce jawdropping moments, especially an amazing double-page spread of the city that opens a critical eleven-part story, "Amerika," in 2008. But I'm getting ahead of myself. More on that some other time.

Stories from this issue have been reprinted in the following collected editions:
Chiaroscuro: The Complete Chiaroscuro (free "graphic novel" bagged with Judge Dredd Megazine 303, from 2000 AD's Online Shop)
Judge Dredd: Origins (2000 AD's Online Shop)
Nikolai Dante: Sword of the Tsar (Volume Seven, from 2000 AD's Online Shop)

Next time, two major new series debut in the year-end Prog 2007: Kingdom and Stickleback. I'll need to take a short break but the blog'll be back in two weeks. See you then!

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