Monday, June 10, 2013

Nikolai Dante: Sympathy for the Devil

What I try to do with reviews at this Bookshelf blog is keep it simple and spoiler-free, and let you know whether I'd recommend you pick up a copy of what I just read. Seems to work okay. This time, a brief review of Nikolai Dante: Sympathy for the Devil (volume 11, Rebellion, 2012).

A few people, not least a couple of the good people employed by 2000 AD's publisher, Rebellion, have expressed a little disappointment that the conclusion of Nikolai Dante after fifteen years did not attract a little more comment from the comic-book-world media. Rereading his final adventures, collected here in the eleventh and last volume in the series, I can't honestly claim to be surprised myself. The American-led funnybook press is built around the world of endless continuity. The notion of a story ending is not just anathema to most of their writers; they don't quite understand what it means for a "continuing" character to reach the end of his journey.

As finales go, not very many come grander than this. Over the course of the previous installments, compiled in Book Ten, we learned that the Romanov patriarch, Dimitri, was still alive, very active, very powerful, and ideally poised to take advantage of the power vacuum at the heart of far-future Russia. As Book Eleven opens, Nikolai and his allies are ready to strike back, rescue Jena Romanov, and finally bring some conclusion to a war-weary world. But things get off to a terrible start when one of the allies pulls a not-entirely-unexpected betrayal and our hero is captured.

The amazing thing about this book is that by this time, Robbie Morrison's story should by rights have been at least a little patience-exhausting, with two twist endings, if not more, too many. As the series continued, it built up a gigantic cast of recurring players, and while its reputation among fans and readers was almost always a good one, it did get occasional teasing for suggesting that quite a few of these characters were dead only to have them resurface, often switching sides. One of the really great twists comes when one of the principal villains, Vladimir, is shown here to escape captivity. There's a sense of "you have got to be kidding; our heroes have to beat him and his loyal forces again?", but what actually happens is wildly unpredictable.

The entire series is completely terrific, of course, but I really enjoyed the pacing and setup of the final stories. The major climax to all of the action comes about two-thirds of the way through this book, leaving plenty of space to say farewells to the characters who made it so far. Katarina Dante and Viktor Romanov each get just about the best send-offs of anybody in the comic medium, and the final fate of the recurring cowards Flintlock and Spatchcock is terrific fun. I love the balancing act of humor and knife-in-your-heart tragedy in these stories, with moments that are completely unforgettable.

Dante was co-created by Morrison and artist Simon Fraser, who handles most of the artwork in this collection. John Burns, who became a principal artistic collaborator as the series continued, got to make his farewells in the six episodes that precede the six-part finale. Both artists are on the top of their game and their work is wonderful throughout. Nikolai Dante has been one of my favorite comic characters since his debut in 1997, and while I will certainly miss the guy, I am very pleased that this epic can honestly be said to have a beginning, middle, and, that rarest of things in the comic world, an end. Highest recommendation.

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