Nikolai Dante: The Romanov Dynasty
Nikolai Dante is a strip from the UK institution 2000AD which has been running since the mid 90s (issue 1035 to be exact). Nikolai is a very popular strip and is now arguably second in popularity to Judge Dredd himself. The series was created by writer Robbie Morrison and artist Simon Fraser. This trade collects the first seven of Nikolai's adventures that appeared in 2000AD.
Nikolai Dante is set a few centuries in the future and is primarily based in a futuristic version of Europe that is ruled by a Russian Tsar descended from Mafia royalty. The look and feel of the setting is futurist Victorian (some may say Steampunk but there’s no steam powered devices and it’s not actually set in the Victorian era, so there). There are starships, hovercars, nano technology but the costumes of the nobility are Victorian/Renaissance in appearance and there is a clear rich/poor divide as the peasantry serves their rich, uncaring, noble masters. In the midst of this setting is Nikolai Dante, an irresponsible and irrepressible thief and scoundrel. Through a series of early misadventures he becomes a member of the nobility when he accidentally discovers his true heritage. Armed with nano technology, wealth and a disregard for his own safety, Nikolai travels the world, drinking, whoring, fighting and occasionally sticking up for the peasantry.
The reason I love this book is the sheer spectacle of it and the wittiness of Robbie Morrison’s scripts. It’s a fantastic blend of action, comedy, sci-fi and courtly intrigue and it’s much deeper than the pitch or first appearances would suggest. Nikolai always manages to get himself in trouble either through his own reckless actions or through courtly manipulation. The noble families are well fleshed out and the various personalities are well established. One of the devices that Morrison uses is to have excerpts from historical documents serve as exposition to introduce certain background elements, new concepts, or to explain the setup for some plots. Morrison also manages to introduce equal measures of pathos and humour through his slowly developing, grand story. Simon Fraser’s art is the perfect fit for the strip as he adds a lot of energy to proceedings. In the first book you see his style develop from sketchy and pale colouring, to detailed backgrounds and bold colours. Although there are stand-in artists for some stories (and they are usually very good stand-ins), the strip always seems to miss something when Fraser isn’t present.
My favourite stories in this collection are 'The Gentleman Thief' and 'Moscow Duellists'. 'Duellists' is particularly funny as Dante is manipulated into a simultaneous duel against several opponents; a telepath, some midgets piloting a mecha suit, a talking gorilla, some passing circus elephants, and the court's greatest duellist. It's great fun to see Dante extricate himself from these situations through a combination of personality, skill and dumb luck.
The Nikolai Dante series has been collected into several trades, this is the first one and it's a key to an incredible journey as the later books continue to increase the quality of the series. Copies can be found on Amazon or The Book Depository (for some reason that site has it listed as part 2, I can assure you that it's book one and not the second part of anything). Check it out.