After two earlier volumes Lawless now embraces a wide cast and Dan Abnett has set so many plots and conspiracies rolling, Ashes to Ashes begins with a detailed synopsis page. The gist of it is that newly arrived on a remote planet, Marshall Metta Lawson decides to end the corruption permitting the local branch of Munce Inc. to behave as they like. They have considerable resources at their disposal, and it’s tantamount to a declaration of war, with Lawson surviving the initial skirmishes. Long Range War ended with all parties expecting an apocalypse.

If readers were disappointed the final battle didn’t happen last time, surely no-one will complain about the spectacle Ashes to Ashes supplies. Abnett raises the tension consistently over the opening chapters, the accumulating foreboding taking its toll on some of the cast, especially Hetch, who it’s believed can see the future. He’s used as a smart storytelling device, with Abnett having him relate the action as he remote views from a distance.

Lawless may not be issued on the same schedule as other 2000AD features, but a glance at Phil Winslade’s art shows why. He puts the same amount of effort into composing each panel as Renaissance artists put into considering a painting. Those panels are detail-packed, but not just for the sake of it. An invading army features in the early chapters, and they’re not shown as a few stick figures or howling faces shown in close-up, but as uniformed individuals with equipment and vehicles in their masses. This isn’t just once for effect, but time and again. Winslade doesn’t always get the credit he deserves for work that’s up there with the British greats of old, and it’s about time he did. For the weak-stomached, it should be noted that Winslade applies the same intensity of detail when it comes to wounds and killings. Be thankful Lawless is in black and white.

This isn’t a graphic novel to read in isolation. Abnett has spent much of the two previous books building up people and their backgrounds, and much of the emotional weight won’t be apparent if they’ve not been read, and neither will a major plot point make much sense, seeming too contrived. In context, though, it’s logical, surprising and a clever trick. As in all the best Westerns, a desperate battle takes a turn, but an even more desperate solution is the only apparent way to settle matters once and for all. The way Abnett handles that is unconventional, and much of Ashes to Ashes is a prolonged, fatalistic settling of affairs, not just from earlier books in the series, but also its predecessor Insurrection. And just when the point is reached where readers will begin to suspect how things will play out, Abnett springs a bravura surprise. It’s a fantastic ending to a fantastic series, but you need to start with Welcome to Badrock.