I'm sitting down to write this little feature about seven days before Robbie Morrison's final Nikolai Dante story, believed to be an eight-parter, begins in 2000 AD. It has been a blast. There has not been any other comic adventure, at all, to provide such an incredibly fun and long roller coaster of a ride in the last fifteen years.
With the tenth and penultimate collection of the series here, I can't think of a better example of a roller coaster. This book starts with the story of Dante leading his army of thieves and whores against Tsar Vladimir, and this epic, painted by John Burns, takes up about half the book. There are fatalities and losses along the way. Lauren's death is one of the few in the series that's really telegraphed ahead of time, as I don't believe that there was room for both her and Jena in the same narrative. Nevertheless, it's still a kick in the head when it happens.
When these episodes were originally published across 2010, everybody reading them believed that they were the last great war story, and that all that would be left, after the surrender of Vladimir, were loose ends and final farewells. "Heroes Be Damned," the next story, begins with the wedding of Dante's brother Viktor and the promise of a happily-ever-after ending for Dante and Jena. There's a school of thought that the series could have ended right there, sort of like Phoebe from Friends reporting how her mother would turn off Old Yeller before he tries to bite the younger brother. Because that episode is beautiful and upbeat, but just a few pages later, one of those weird loose ends turns out to be a genuinely stunning game-changer. Nikolai Dante had never shied away from killing off its supporting cast - some of us still raise a glass to Andreas - but what happens to Dante and his allies at the trial of Vladimir is just thunderous. You remember how, last year in Doctor Who, Alex Kingston was talking about how the Doctor would rise higher than ever before and then fall so far, and then we scratched our heads as he neither rose particularly high nor fell all that far either? That's not what happens in "Heroes Be Damned."
This is capped by the hallucinogenic masterpiece "A Farewell to Arms," drawn by Simon Fraser, in which a valued supporting character gives Dante a last goodbye, and it is right up there with all the very best "remember when" moments of great deaths in comics. It probably has very nearly the same impact as Tonantzín Villaseñor's end in Human Diastrophism, or at least I think that it might. An acquaintance of mine, who's really a lovely person, is still due something of a brutal ass-kicking for spoiling it for me, should I ever make it to England again, so I'll never know.
The sense of desperation and resolve at the end of this book is just amazing. It's like Morrison and his artists asked, "You know all the hell that Dante went through in this series to beat Vladimir? Well, now he has to go through all that hell again, but worse, and with far fewer resources." The last chunk of the book, featuring 2010's final episodes, puts the pieces in place for the grand finale. 2011 saw only a single short, six-week run of the series - that's how The Love Bunglers was able to walk away with everybody's vote for best comic of last year, 'cause there wasn't enough Dante - but the first four months of 2012 were just a wild and amazing seat-of-your-pants / depths-of-despair triumph.
Only six or eight more weeks of this to go. I am going to miss this series when it ends like you just don't know. Hot damn alive, is this ever recommended; what in creation are you waiting for?
I'll write again about the final run of Dante episodes later in the summer, after the next batch of Thrillpowered Thursday blogs wraps up. That'll give everybody time to buy some vodka and join me for a celebratory toast, okay?