Wednesday, April 04, 2007

10 years of Nikolai Dante

It's been pointed out over on the 2000AD Review website that Nikolai Dante is now in his 10th year of appearing in 2000 AD. That's a major achievement for any comics character, all the more so in this case because he's been a steady feature in the Prog for all of those 10 years, unlike some other long-running series like the ABC Warriors or the VCs, say.

So let's give Dante his due.
Yes, the best thing about Dante is that he gets bested by women all the time (and why do I feel sexist just for commenting on that?)

Anyway, Dante arrived on the scene with Prog 1035 in 1997. A time when the Prog had been struggling for a while. Well, I say struggling, but I have no way to prove that. As a reader at the time, I certainly felt that whilst each week's Prog was still pretty good, there was a lack of something special of late. I think mainly it was the lack of any major new characters and series since maybe Finn in the mid-700s. Various others had come and gone, never to be seen again. Folk like Slaine and Friday kept on turning up but weren't doing it for me the way they had years ago.

Sinister Dexter had started appearing, but still seemed like they could vanish at any point. In many ways it's a wonder they didn't, but I'm glad for the shot of pure humour they provide, even in their vaguely serious epic storylines. However, they're not a patch on Dante, although he's a completely different beast. He could have appeared just for his initial 15 Prog run, disappeared, and been like so many other new efforts from Tharg's droids. Luckily, we got more, and a new great in the 2000 AD pantheon appeared. And since then, it's felt like more and more new characters have been able to make the jump from 1 or 2 trial series to regular fixtures. And frankly that's what a want - worthy characters who can reappear almost endlessly, although leaving room for new efforts as well, of course.

Dante is I think unique in 2000 AD for it's attention to emotion and sex. It's as if Morrison has a mission to make people laugh (he's ok at that but not great) and to make people cry (he's very good at that). Dante is the best kind of anti-hero, in that he's not evil or hard or amoral, but he does routinely do unheroic things because he can sense that he has to, and all too often because he's a selfish coward. Anti-heroes such as Dredd, Alpha or even Slaine aren't like that. Sure, they can be ruthless, but never cowards.

But let's get back to the sex.

There's a large undercurrent of carry-on humour in Dante, more often than not better than the film series that inspired it. Partly because Morrison and Fraser never resort to the Brit staple of Dante thinking he's going to get some and then being thwarted (quite the opposite), and partly because the art of Fraser and Burns is so delightful. I can't help but view the above shooter as providing winking innuendo, rather than being there just to forward the action narrative.

Various other great things about Dante:
The series always feels like it's going somewhere. Sure, there have been several throwaway plots, but then that's a good thing, right? A successful character should be able to enjoy some standalone adventures. (I recommend Bishop's novels for example)
Undoubtedly a big part of the success of the ongoing thing is that Tharg knows how to maintain interest. Since the strip began, it's been in the Prog often enough to keep interest without getting irritating. There was a long break between the first sea-story and the next, and it's no coincidence that this period is generally not so well liked. I predict that by the time the Burns-only era is collected, these stories will be re-appreciated.
The artwork. As I've already said, it's delightful. Fraser always impresses me with his dynamism and child-friendly gore. He's drawn some pretty vicious stuff in his run, but it doesn't make me sick like a Hicklenton might. He's especially good at depicting the various Romanov weapons crest capabilities. They're really Cronenbergian, and I love that. Burns isn't so adept at that, but he paints a mean scene, keeps up the lovely facial expression work that Fraser started, and he draws some superb vehicles. Both make me visualise a working world with a mixture of high-tec equipment, but ever-present politics and personalities.

It's all about the dialogue, and the roguish charm of Dante which is so roguish and charming it's virtually impossible to find any other adjectives to describe him with.
I salute the genius behind it all - Robbie Morrison. I have to admit that I've never much cared for any of his other stories. Shimura is ok in places, but that really stands or falls on the art (with which he's been lucky). Dante, I think works with every artist who's had a go. It's all about the main character. Morrison knows when to make him cheeky, when cocky, when self-deprecating, and above all, keeps him human. Giving him a super-gun was a bit rubbish, but as long as Dante keeps having to run away, it doesn't make him invincible.

Ten more years? Probably not, as the story seems destined for a genuine and quite possibly glorious climax. There's pletny more to say, but until I have the scans to say it, let's leave Dante doing what he does (second) best - getting in over his head...


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