Thursday, May 2, 2013

200. Do you know me now?

May 2010: A month before this issue, prog 1685, was published, Nikolai Dante returned in a six-part story by Robbie Morrison and Simon Fraser that changed absolutely everything and in a big, mean, incredibly cruel way. Certainly, the Nikolai Dante series had never shied away from giving readers dramatic deaths along with huge changes in the direction of the stories, but "Heroes Be Damned" and its follow-up, "A Farewell to Arms" are on another level. You've got to go back more than 400 progs, to 2001's "Romanov Empire" to see such a stunning game-changer as this one. The really sad thing? The previous story, which finished in prog 1675, looked like it was concluding the whole dirty war business and finally bringing an end to the action-adventure story. Dante's army of thieves and whores had triumphed, and Vladimir's generals turned on him, forcing him into unconditional surrender. Abruptly and wildly, the war was over, and only the many loose ends remained. So "Heroes Be Damned" began in prog 1679 with the big imperial marriage of Viktor and Galya, and a huge, happy, state affair to give the unfortunate, war-beaten citizens of future Russia something to smile about at last. The first episode is an agreeably long eight pages, and finishes with Dante going out into the tide to meet Jena, and propose to her. She accepts, they embrace, and the really sad thing is we could've ended it right there, on that happy ending, but there was much more to come, very little of it at all happy.

In episode two, Nikolai and Lulu debate what to do with Vlad. She's in favor of just killing him outright, but he and the rest of the allies who have a country and an empire to rule want to do so with a public show of grace and good will. In front of a huge crowd, they offer Vlad a chance at exile rather than a show trial, but Arkady steps forward and starts making decisions. Nikolai Dante reminds Arkady of his position: he has no status in the new provisional government and no say in these matters, but Arkady screws absolutely everything up: he reveals that he's Dimitri. All those years ago, when it looked like Dimitri had died and Arkady had been taken in as a ward of Vladimir, Dimitri had actually used his weapon crest and downloaded his consciousness into his son's body. All this time, he'd been masquerading as Arkady. Readers had known that something was up (most notably in "The Chaperone," progs 1560-64), but this revelation counts as one of 2000 AD's all-time greatest shock cliffhangers.

In episode three, after a short flashback depicting Arkady's death at the Winter Palace years previously, the carnage starts. Dimitri has lost his mind and indiscriminately begins killing. Dozens of bystanders and soldiers at the trial are killed, and hundreds more are grievously wounded, including Elena. Then, in parts four and five, the supporting cast begins to go down. Galya, Papa Yeltsin, and Jocasta are all killed, with Vladimir doing the right damn thing for once in his life and making a heroic attempt to save Jocasta's life.

Being a supporting player in Nikolai Dante means having a bullseye on your back from your first on panel appearance.

Nikolai recovers from the beating he suffered in part three to make a last-ditch effort to save Jena, who's Dimitri's new target, except that he intends not to murder her, but, in classic mustache-twirling bad guy fashion, to break her to his will and force her to wed him. Nikolai puts up a terrific fight and would have won had Dimitri not had a weapons crest, and, specifically, one that can override and shut down any of the others. The story ends with Dante's arm on fire...

"A Farewell to Arms" is a double-length episode that ranks as one of my favorites in the comic's long history. It's the saddest thing in the world. Dante is having a dream. It's a very vivid dream in which he spends a little swashbuckling time with his long-dead love Eloise, and with his hellraiser brother Andreas. He knows that it's not real, but what the hell, he's having a ball. And when he finds a beautiful woman in need of some dashing derring-do, he rushes to her rescue and kicks some bad guy ass, despite not being sure that he knows who she is.

Oh, my GOD. It is so sad. I'm tearing up just remembering it.

It's all history now, so we can talk about it without worrying about spoilers too much, but man alive, was I ever furious with one of my fellow readers who decided to start a message board thread about great 2000 AD deaths about two days after print subscribers got their copy and before the digital version was released.

The hallucination was the crest, giving Dante one last chance to spend a little "reality" with the people he cared about the most before talking to him "in person" for the first time and telling him goodbye. It is so goddamn amazingly horribly sad. It is like Toy Molto has been dead for hours sad. It is almost on the level of "Hazel, you've been feeling very tired" sad.

All of the deaths in Nikolai Dante meant something on some level, but seeing an end to this prickly, weird, disjointed relationship between Dante and his weapons crest after thirteen years of snark and exasperation and silliness is absolutely heartbreaking. When he wakes up in a battlefield hospital next to Elena some days later, surrounded, shockingly, by hundreds of badly wounded survivors, looks at his arm and sees only a blackened, scarred shape where the crest once was, it's like the headbutt after the gut punch. It's one of the rawest and most shocking things ever, and it leaves readers thunderstruck, wondering how in the world our hero can come back from this disaster.

Next time... Mega-City Justice. "Tour of Duty" comes to an end and it's completely phenomenal. See you in seven!

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