“And I learned to fight in the sleaziest bars of the thieves’ world. Let’s get it on!”
In 1997, Robbie Morrison and Simon Fraser introduced the readers of the 2000 AD comics anthology to a future where Russia never had its revolution and the Tsar’s power stretches not just over all the Earth but across the stars. There, just as now, an underworld flourishes in the shadow of the corrupt and debauched oligarchs. There, in the collision between the gangsters of the underworld and the gangsters of the nobility, flourishes the self professed man Too Cool to Kill.
Captured by the Tsar after seducing an imperial courtesan, Nikolai is given a choice between losing his skin or investigating a crash. Dante wisely chooses the latter, but lands in even hotter water when a Romanov Weapons Crest bonds with him. The Tsar wants the secret of the Crest, the Romanovs want the Crest back, and two other families just want him dead for honor’s sake. Only fast talking, fighting, and even faster running let Nikolai Dante keep his head when everyone else wants to take it from his shoulders.
This first volume of ten showcases seven stories. “The Adventures of Nikolai Dante” bonds Dante with his Weapons Crest. “The Romanov Dynasty” has him earn his place among his new family. “Moscow Duellists” introduces Nikolai to the cutthroat world of the Russian court, while “The Gentleman Thief” shows that his new station in life has not affected Dante. “The Gulag Apocalyptic” reveals the terrible secret behind the Romanov Weapons Crest while uniting Dante with his iconic rifle. The less said about the short “Russia’s Greatest Love Machine” and “The Full Dante”, the better.
The art of Nikolai Dante: Too Cool to Kill varies based on the artist. Simon Fraser has the definitive art for this, giving Dante the disarming charisma needed to give a dashing rogue that two second opening to dash away. The other artists in the volume have a tendency to forget the handsome part to a handsome rogue, and the glamour that should accompany him. It is fortunate that most of the other artists pick up the short fan-service one shots.
What remains consistent is the use of seven or more panels per page. Nikolai’s exploits in escape, fighting, and amore require more space to properly depict. The Russian rogue loves to leap, fly, and fall, after all. The extra panels are almost required to fit the high-flying action in the limited pages allotted in a 2000 AD programme. As a result, even the shortest five page one-shot delivers as much story as can normally be found in twice the page count.
If there is an annoyance to Nikolai Dante, it lies in just how fanservice filled the book can get. Sure, this seducer’s story oozes with déshabillé and nudity, although one can find more flesh in even the tamest peekaboo high school manga. What rankles, however, is how dated and pop-culture-laden the dialogue gets. The clever one liners of the swashbucklers that inspired Nikolai Dante are replaced by 90s song lyrics, cheerleader chants, and jeers at Bill Clinton’s White House scandal. And those more familiar with 2000 AD than I have pointed out the cameos and crossovers. These already threadbare references date the otherwise timeless anachronisms of a Russia that should never come to pass.
So, is Nikolai Dante indeed a man too cool to kill? Let’s be fair, this bastard son of the Romanovs believes his own boasts, and Morrison and Fraser delight in throwing Dante into situations where his mouth writes checks he cannot possibly cash. But Nikolai proves he can live up to his boast that he can out-drink, out-fight, and out-love any man around him. And that’s fine for slums and bars of the underworld. But the halls of power demand more.
Along with bioblades and a battle computer, the Weapons Crest gives Nikolai Dante the wealth and position of a Romanov son. With it, he becomes a pawn in the power games of his previously unknown father Dimitri Romanov and the Tsar. Absolute power corrupts absolutely in this Russia, and both men spill blood, even family blood, as though it was wine. Quick reflexes and quicker wits are not enough when pitted against the best assassins the galaxy can offer–especially when they are kin with the matching cheat codes that are the Weapons Crests.
What sets the dashing rogue apart from the blood-drunk degenerates that are the rest of his family is motive. Heroism in Dante’s world is a matter of honor and power. Nikolai Dante cares little for either. Empathy be damned. Both the Romanovs and the Tsar feel your pain–and want more of it. Honor and power grind most of the serfs of the Russian worlds under the Tsar’s heel. Instead, Nikolai acts out of compassion. Another’s tears may compel Dante to acts of defiance against the powers-that-be–warlords, thugs, and Romanovs alike–that cause ripples throughout the Russian space empire.
The wounds of Dante’s past, still unrevealed, provoke a rarity almost unknown among the powerful–selfless service. And that, indeed, makes Nikolai Dante too cool to kill.
Just remember, he will never be a plaster saint.