(Reprints: Judge Dredd stories from 2000 AD Prog 116-154)
After the two long arcs of Volume 2, "Judge Dredd" reverses course again: most of this volume is very short stories, and nothing's longer than four episodes. The tone seems to be dumbed down a bit at first, too, and softened. Instead of the hilariously badass Dredd of "The Cursed Earth" and "The Day the Law Died," we get a gentle-hearted action hero with a tough-but-fair attitude: the star of Lawman of the Future, in other words. Five of the first six stories in here respectively end with Dredd cuddling an adorable moppet and deciding "she's suffered enough because of me," thinking about the cityblock escapee as one of "the sad cases, the ones that should never come before me," concluding that "sometimes even a Judge can be merciful," forgiving Walter and taking him back in, and having Walter declare that Dredd visits a little boy who failed out of the Academy every week and treats him just like a real son. That last one is just wrong.
Still, there's some enormously entertaining stuff in here. John Wagner was firing wildly at this point: some of the episodes this time are funny or thrilling or both, and expand Dredd's world considerably, while others are forgettable at best and risible at worst. (See, for instance, the one that starts with a talking cat getting Dredd's attention while he's on patrol and ends "Two days later a new law was passed--'the Dredd Act'--banning forever the use of animals for experimentation.") Occasionally, he was trying out ideas he'd refine later on: "New Year Is Cancelled" is another instance of Wagner's "we've hidden bombs all over Mega-City, can you find them all in time?" plot that would show up later in "The Big Bang Theory" and "Total War," and its evil megalomaniac child Albert Sherman is a much less funny rough draft of P.J. Maybe.
"Vienna," which opens this volume, is one of the cornerstones of Dredd's own backstory, or alternately one of its stumbling blocks: John Wagner, in an interview a few years ago, mentioned "Dredd's impossible niece" as one of the continuity problems he'd set for himself. Right: not only do Judges not tend to have family lives, but Rico was on Titan for twenty years, and Vienna looks to be about three or four. I vaguely remember that that gets explained eventually, but it's still a head-scratcher.
It's the next episode, "Cityblock 1," that turned out to be an endless wellspring of story material: the idea of 60,000-person apartment buildings named after 20th-century celebrities has turned up in nearly every Dredd story since then. (It's hard to believe that "Judge Dredd" had run for more than two years before Wagner got around to mentioning that, or inventing it.) There's a howler on the first page, when the narration mentions that people could spend their whole lives in their block, "from birth in the cityblock hospital to death in the cityblock crematorium"--when did this feature turn into Logan's Run? But Ron Smith promptly makes up for it with his precisely imagined shot of the block lobby, featuring a cinema showing "Fergee: The True Story." Now that's a quickie exploitation movie!
Smith's really the star of this volume, as far as art goes: he nails the design of both Otto Sump and Johnny Teardrop in "Sob Story," pulls off the sweep of "The Black Atlantic" (the first time Wagner really has some fun with the fascism inherent in Dredd, with its opening "crime blitz" scene of Judges showing up at random citizens' homes to see what laws they happen to be breaking), and totally sells the scope of the spider invasion in "The Black Plague." Either Smith specifically told Wagner that he wanted to spend a month or so drawing a zillion giant spiders, or he was a really, really good sport. Every time I see a story like that where an artist has to draw a single creature hundreds of times in every panel, I think of Carl Barks' story of nearly losing his mind drawing "The Lemming with the Locket."
Smith half-flubs the ending of "Father Earth" by burying its sight gag in another complicated layout that has no empty space to guide the eyes, but give him credit: he had to finish yet another story started by Brian Bolland, probably in a hurry. And he manages to cram a whole lot of plot into every page of this volume's single Pat Mills-written sequence, "The Blood of Satanus," which was perhaps an attempt to remedy the dangerously low people-getting-eaten-by-dinosaurs quotient in the middle of 2000 AD's second hundred issues. (It also features Dredd settling a conflict with his left fist, while yelling "Suck my kid glove, punk!" That's much more a Bill Savage line than a Joe Dredd line.)
We get to see Wagner consciously world-building here, setting up threads he'd play with later on, calling back to earlier throwaways, and inventing the culture of the Judges and Mega-City One. I'm pretty sure we hadn't seen any women judges before this volume--there's an unnamed one in "The Great Muldoon," another unnamed one in one panel of "The Invisible Man," and then the unlucky Harkness in "Death of a Judge," but after they appear it's not a surprise when Judge Anderson (not yet "Cassandra") strolls into the second episode of "Judge Death." "Jack Caldwell's Old-Fashion Umpty Candy" is mentioned in "The Invisible Man," several months before "Uncle Ump's Umpty Candy." (The "particle analyser" gag in the latter is the best joke in this volume; that's actually one of the first Dredd episodes I can imagine being published now.) And "Judge Minty," which inspired the fan film for which this is the impressive trailer, introduced the concept of the Long Walk.
Finally, right near the end of the book, we get its jewel, "Judge Death." It's the first multi-part Dredd story that Brian Bolland drew all of (the second and last was "Judge Death Lives," in fact). And it's got just about everything that this era of Dredd did well: a hilariously over-the-top concept played straight ("life itself was made illegal"), wild comedy in the context of serious adventure, casual but nonstop world-building (the "highly-strung" Psi-Judges!), excellent character design (aside from Death and Anderson, that DJ with the bugging-out-eyes glasses is fantastic; was he modeled on Buggles-era Trevor Horn, or did he prefigure him?), and a concluding twist that calls back to an earlier episode, and not a likely one: "Palais de Boing." Who'd have thought that one was going to turn out to be important later?
A brief word from our sponsor here: if you happen to be at Comic-Con this week, come to my panels! I've got "Page One" (on great first pages of comics, with Jen Van Meter, Greg Rucka and Carla Speed McNeil) Friday from 11 to 12 in room 32AB, "Is the Comic Book Doomed?" (with Mark Waid, Laura Hudson, Vijaya Iyer and Amanda Emmert) Saturday from 1:30 to 2:30 in room 24ABC, and "Watchmen: 25 Years Later" (with Len Wein, "Letter from a Democrat" artist John Higgins and "Lips Lazarus" artist Dave Gibbons) Sunday from 11 to 12 in room 7AB.
And, assuming I survive Comic-Con, I'll be back next week with the fourth volume of Complete Case Files, in which Alan Grant arrives as co-writer and we get "The Judge Child" and the first appearance of Marlon "Chopper" Shakespeare.