Once upon a time, I assumed that every 2000 AD strip (save maybe Zenith) was pretty much the same: darkly comedic, macho, boy-oriented satire like Judge Dredd or hilariously twisted Future Shocks. I'm also willing to admit I'm wrong, because here comes the adventures of Nikolai Dante to blow my expectations out of the water. Created by Robbie Morrison and Simon Fraser, Nikolai Dante is a fairly recent creation in the magazine, having debuted 2000 AD Prog #1035 in 1997. Too Cool to Kill collects the first year of Dante stories, originally packaged in the collection Nikolai Dante: The Romanov Dynasty, featuring our hero's origin and subsequent misadventures.
As much as I love Judge Dredd, Nikolai Dante is a much-welcome counterpoint to the totalitarian satire that created a British comics icon. Where the straight-faced Dredd is bent on shooting every lawbreaker in sight to maintaining order, Dante is more Byronic — a cunning, amorous rogue son of a lady pirate whose self-describing catchphrase serves as the title of this collection. The two are miles apart, even geographically, considering that Mega City One is in America and Nikola Dante hangs around a retro-futuristic Russia.
In that futuristic Russia, Morrison and Fraser capture a fully-realized world where tensions between Tsar and a family called the Romanovs continue to mount and our hero finds himself not only between the two groups, but bonded with a strange alien technology that manifests in the form of a crest tattoo on his arm, giving him not only special abilities, but a knowledgeable computer sidekick to banter with as he gets into trouble. It's the future, yes, but one we recognize as being styled after older models with its circuses and Tsars and gulag planets and imbued with satirical absurdities like an entire city modeled after the Tsar's face.
Morrison's smirking, devil-may-care protagonist gives his scripts an adventure serial quality, often keeping the series fun even when it treads into dangerous territory. Not every story in this first collection is an epic one, but our hero feels equally suited to being forced on a dangerous mission or stumbling into brief sexual (and hapless) episodes without the former feeling overdone or the latter feeling slight. The circumstances are a broad array of misadventures that include Dante being forced to serve in the Tsar's army, discovering his compromising lineage, robbing the extravagant hotel he's staying at because his city-funded decadence has bankrupted the town he represents, Dante given a drunken striptease to upstage some sculpted Cossack Chippendales, dueling in a circus and being sent on a mission to the aforementioned gulag planet.
Simon Fraser, the primary Nikolai Dante artist, has a but thin-lined but clean and expressive style that really nails the strip's essentials: fight choreography, sci-fi technology and human emotions. Oh, and creatures: a woman who transforms into a purple tentacled vagina dentata monster, a brother and sister melded to form a three-eyed horror of androgyny, Fraser and even particularly nasty human beings. The other artists in this volume are equally impressive: Chris Weston gives a near-sinister lecherousness to our hero's facial features while Charlie Adlard turns him a cartoonish goofball. Henry Flint makes him look kind of goofy actually, but makes up for it with some great design work and trippy, Brendan-McCarthy-gone-sober imagery, with psychedelia-flecked color work.
The Nikolai Dante comics have been going on in 2000 AD since 1997, which seems like a daunting amount of material to read for even an interested newcomer such as myself. But Too Cool to Kill is a perfect place to start — not just because it's the very beginning of the story, but once you get through these charming sci-fi adventures, the personality alone will make you want to read the rest.
Danny Djeljosevic is a comic book creator, award-winning filmmaker (assuming you have absolutely no follow-up questions), film/music critic for Spectrum Culture and Co-Managing Editor of Comics Bulletin. Follow him on Twitter at @djeljosevic or find him somewhere in San Diego, often wearing a hat. Read his comic, "Sgt. Death and his Metachromatic Men," over at Champion City Comics and check out his other comics at his Tumblr, Sequential Fuckery.