3 out of 5
While boasting unique, intricate storybook-esque visuals from Simon Fraser, the Nikolai Dante that premiered in prog #1035 took a while to evolve past being something of a generic space rogue. The beginning stages of that evolution are captured in the first volume of Dante tales collected in The Romanov Dynasty, in which writer Robbie Morrison shows a flair for to-the-point world building – a sense of complexity in the background, without overwhelming the reader – but struggles to find a balance between making a sci-fi strip, a pulpy adventure strip, and then maybe something more layered, all of these things kind of at war from the outset and making the book read more generically than it could.
Dante is a gentleman’s thief type, bedding the lasses and robbing the undeserving, and finds himself in the middle of a squabble between ruling families in future Russia that winds up with him being discovered as of the lineage of one of those families – the Romanovs. This link is made due to Dante’s ability to bond with a “crest”, a techno-organic creation of some type, tied to the bloodline, that gives its bearers special powers. This is the sci-fi / comic booky bent of the strip, and it’s incredibly underutilized, to the extent that Morrisson almost seems disinterested in it as soon as he introduces it. Fraser’s dense layouts also don’t bring its application to the fore all that effectively – Nikolai’s crest-granted ability to craft some type of automatic weapons of his hands could almost pass completely undetected if you’re breezing through the strips; the crest is otherwise used as a shorthand way to have odd couple banter, as it “talks” to Dante and fills him in on Romanov lore.
The pulpy stuff vibes much better with Nikolai’s persona, which has him oft-quoting an eye-rolling “I’m too cool to die” catch phrase – which feels exactly like the kind of catch phrase someone makes up explicitly for the purpose of being a catch phrase – and getting tasked with various nonsense chores from the Romanovs at which they hope he fails (and maybe dies while doing so), as this lout isn’t really their ideal family relation, but at which Dante inevitably ends up succeeding, often by throwing himself right into the midst of troubles. These adventures are quite a lot of fun, and are also the best match for Fraser’s playful art style.
As Morrison begins to work in more complexities with the Romanov family and their opposites, the Makarovs (amongst whom there’s Jena, our femme fatale / tsundere type), he’s also able to add further notes to Dante’s character, showing a deep compassion for the underdogs of the Roman empire. The way this is first introduced feels rather sudden, going from snippy one-liner Dante to crying over the poor masses, but that’s part of the strip’s growing pains; by the concluding, Henry Flint-drawn tale The Gulag Apocalyptic, it feels more effectively embedded, and reading the strips in close sequence is very satisfying in this sense – there’s a true path of growth throughout that makes the desire to continue on to the next volume intriguing.