The retro-futuristic Russian rogue Nikolai Dante began in 2000AD Prog 1035, dated 25 March 1997, and came to its conclusion 15 years later in Prog 1791.
Created by the Scottish team of writer Robbie Morrison and artist Simon Fraser, who would eventually alternate on art duties with industry veteran John M Burns, the popularity of the series shows in the 10 different graphic novel compilations of Nikolai Dante stories that Rebellion have published over the years. The 11th and last Dante book is Sympathy For The Devil, available now.
Jeremy Briggs talked to Simon Fraser for downthetubes about his work on the character.
DTT: How did you first hear about Nikolai Dante?
Simon Fraser: Robbie mentioned it to me while I was working on drawing Shimura ‘Dragonfire’, which he wrote for the Judge Dredd Megazine. He had been doing a lot of research in the Mitchell Library (in Glasgow) on Peter the Great for a historical project he had wanted to write involving two Scottish mercenaries. That was transformed in a more fantastical direction when he knew that 2000AD were looking for new ideas. Robbie is always very enthusiastic about his ideas and enjoys talking about them when he gets a few drinks in him.
DTT: How much input did Robbie Morrison give have on the look of the series and how collaborative has the work with him been over the years?
Simon: Robbie’s only specific visual instructions were that it should look Napoleonic and that there should be Onion Domes. There’s actually a lot you can get from those two ideas. Robbie is very good at getting to the essence of something, then he has the confidence to let an artist run with what they come up with.
DTT: It is unusual these days for a British adventure series to run for such an extended period of time with the same creative team. Did it pose any particular problems for you such as aging the characters, maintaining visual continuity with John M Burns, or maybe even getting tired of drawing the same characters?
Simon: Absolutely! My life has changed enormously during those 15 years and it has sometimes been very difficult to keep focussed on an idea that we started working on in our mid 20s. It was essential for Dante to age (if not mature exactly ) because we were ageing ourselves. So to keep the character vital for us he had to reflect ourselves in at least that way. We did actually take a few breaks here and there.
John Burns did most of the heavy lifting during the first war. That was great as I found that I had no particular appetite to draw a war story. I’m much more comfortable with the swashbuckling and the character pieces and the comedy. Burns really gave the sieges and the massacres an epic sense of tragedy and scale.
It’s surprising how little interaction there was between the artists. Periodically I sent John a sketch, Dante’s crewcut for example, but most of the time I deferred to him and he to me. There were certain characters that were his designs, Dante’s Mum, Kurakin and the Rhudinstein Irregulars, who I had to really work at to get my own recognisable versions of. There are some points on which we disagreed. He drew Kurakin rather soft and pretty, which I felt didn’t match who the character was. A Mongol swordswoman can be beautiful, but there has to be real steel in her bearing , not just in her hands. Kurakin would never be passive or merely decorative. Dante’s mum was a perfect design however, I couldn’t improve on his version.
DTT: Robbie included his versions of various British comics characters into the stories, from Bryan Talbot’s Luther Arkwright as Captain Luther Emmanuel to Warlord‘s Lord Peter Flint as Lord Peter Flintlock. Did you enjoy these ‘in-joke’ sections of the stories and how much reference material did you need for these characters?
Simon: Those references were all good fun. I like that we could tip our hats to the stories that inspired us. Luther Arkwright particularly is a work which both of us have a huge amount of respect for. A certain irreverent cheek is one of those 2000AD traditions that makes the comic what it is. I don’t remember doing any particular reference for the characters in question. It’s not important to get bogged down on what are essentially throw-away gags.
DTT: Now that the series is over and you can “choose your favourite child” as it were, was there a particular Dante character that you particularly enjoyed drawing?
Simon: I became very fond of Dante’s Mum, Katarina Dante. She became a key figure in the story and her strength as a character probably pushed her further forward in the narrative than we might have expected at the beginning. Mad King Henry and Papa Yeltsin were always a hoot to draw. While I love Lulu as a character she was by far the most problematic to draw. This was entirely my own fault (all that lace!), but once you have a strong look for a character you kind of have to honour it. No matter how much of a pain in the arse it is to render.
DTT: What are you working on at the moment and what can we expect to see from you in the future?
Simon: That’s hard to say for certain right now as I’m just at contract stages with a couple of big projects. It looks like I’m working on a Doctor Who story for IDW, which is a thrill for me as I grew up immersed in Wagner/Grant/Mills and Moore’s Doctor Who Weekly work. Dave Gibbons, Steve Dillon and David Lloyd had a huge influence on me through that comic.
I’m in negotiations right now over a short sci-fi piece for Dark Horse with a writer who I’ve wanted to work with for some time. I’m also working on a pitch for a series of books of comics journalism trying to explain the ongoing events of the Arab Spring. That’s going to be a big project and something I feel very strongly about. I’m still working on more Lilly Mackenzie in my spare time too.
• There are more details of Simon Fraser’s art on his blog. http://simonfraser.posterous.com/blog/
• Simon helps run and contributes to the New York based webcomics collective ACTIVATEcomix.com http://activatecomix.com/
• Simon is a member of the Scotch Corner daily art blog where this interview has been cross-posted. http://scotchcorner.blogspot.co.uk/
• Simon is a member of the DrawBridge Studio in Gowanus, Brooklyn which also has a blog http://draw-bridge.blogspot.com/