(Reprints: Judge Dredd stories from 2000 AD Progs 271-321)
As one of our commenters guessed correctly last week, the short story in this volume that I particularly love is "Blobs," from Prog 290, a six-pager that exemplifies everything I love about this era of Judge Dredd. It's a formula that John Wagner and Alan Grant leaned on rather heavily at the time: new cultural development leads to criminal activity; Dredd finds a way to clamp down on it. (It's also the first appearance of a more specific formula that Wagner and Grant invented in this volume--the "top criminals meet every month to plot the perfect crime" thing--and then dispensed with as of its third appearance, "Prezzel Logic," whose first two pages are a particularly great example of Dredd cutting a Gordian knot.)
But what's amazing about "Blobs" is only partly the nature of the cultural development itself: a new fashion craze that requires people to be surgically altered to look both bizarre and identical, and to wear identical outfits ("dungarees, glitter shirt, black toe boots and one kneepad, luminous green, worn low on the left knee! An exciting change from all that drab variety!"). It's pretty close in some ways to the sort of gags Devo had been pulling off a couple of years earlier, with the additional explicit suggestion that a cultural craze that erases people's visual identities is way more sinister than you'd even guess. And the punch line is that the fascist state not only suppresses individual identity, it suppresses individuals' attempts to not have an individual identity.
What really puts it over the top is Ron Smith's artwork: his design for the Blobs is unbelievably creepy. Just look at this thing:
This is not just a unifying costume, this is a modification that removes any possibility of expression. Which of course is the joke. "Blobs" is a broadly funny story, and Smith plays it as a comedy--see, for instance, the MAD-worthy caricature Lola Pastramy, a couple of pages in--but it's a comedy that's got a sick, scary McGuffin being framed as something everyone finds somewhere on the spectrum between mildly irritating and desperately desirable. The total erasure of visual expression of the self is just another wacky fad here. That's haunted me for close to thirty years now. (As much as I generally prefer to the Dredd pages that were originally printed in color reproduced that way, Smith's Blobs look even more unnerving in black and white, too.)
There's a lot to like in this volume on the visual side in general; this is one of the most consistent-looking eras of Dredd, since Smith and Carlos Ezquerra were drawing nearly every episode between them. (Jose Casanovas, whose sub-Will Elder approach to comedy was probably more appropriate to the Max Normal strips he drew a few times, draws "The Game Show Show"; John Cooper, whose art had something of an old-school boys' comic look to it, drew "The Last Invader"; and Steve Dillon drew "Trapper Hag.")
Smith generally gets the jokey/grotesque stuff ("The Stupid Gun," "Gunge," "The League of Fatties"), and runs with it--the slightly more serious "Shanty Town" isn't as much his speed. Ezquerra is more suited to gritty action, and he gets a lot of it here, especially "Destiny's Angels"; he gets to stretch himself a bit, too, especially in the sci-fi/Lovecraftian horror of "The Starborn Thing" and the tragic-romantic tone of "The Executioner." And he has to have been racing to meet some of these deadlines. Dredd's head looks totally wrong on the cover of Prog 288, for instance:
There are some kinds of swaggering comedy Ezquerra is really good at too, it turns out. The Mean Machine sequences of "Destiny's Angels," in particular, are so gruffly funny it's hard to believe he didn't design the character. But imagine, for instance, a Smith-drawn version of "Condo": it's easy to see how it'd be much more about the characters' reactions than about the grand-scale kaboom of Ezquerra's version, and probably a lot funnier in practice.
Wagner and Grant spend the early part of the volume assessing the pickle they've gotten themselves into--having spent the past six months on "The Apocalypse War," they've now forced themselves to deal with the aftermath of a war that's destroyed half of their setting. It's telling (and also kind of great) that their first impulse is to go straight for the giggles: the immediate follow-up to "The Apocalypse War" is "Meka-City," a story about evil robot wrestlers. (Dredd's "next time we get our retaliation in first" wisecrack appeared here before the Daily Star strip I mentioned a couple of weeks ago.)
Nearly every other story in here mentions the effects of the war at least in passing, or acts as a riff on some kind of post-war cliché. Food shortages? "The League of Fatties" and "Gunge." Scavengers? "Rabid." Contamination? "Night of the Rad-Beast." Crazy holed-up soldier who won't believe the war's over? "The Last Invader." And so on. "Fungus" (could it be a riff on PTSD?) seems to have a lot of admirers, although the fantastic cover (above) that Brian Bolland did for the first American reprint just makes me wish he'd drawn it instead. I do love the cynicism of that ending, though.
Then there's "Destiny's Angels," in which Grant and Wagner resurrect the character they really shouldn't have killed in "The Judge Child" (Mean Machine Angel, who promptly demonstrated that he had a whole lot of mileage left in him--his explanation of his dial's settings is one of the funniest moments in this volume) and kill the character they really should've gotten rid of the first time around (the Judge Child himself, who is powerful, menacing and boring as toast, despite the fact that he provides an excuse for Ezquerra to draw the hell out of the Grunwalder). That still left open the dangling plotline of Judge Feyy's prediction, which they'd have to deal with later on in "City of the Damned" and eventually "In the Year 2120."
A lot of Wagner and Grant's victories here are small ones, perfectly turned bits of language or gags or observations of character: Fink's "general purpose pizenin' pizen," Dredd giving the never-before-seen Judge De Gaulle the third degree in "The Executioner," the Resyk benediction of "as he was useful in life, so let him be useful in death," the Prankster's artificial chin, "I'm... going to have... a baby!" They weren't about to plunge back into epic-length stories for another couple of years. But you can see them starting to play the long game, reaching back for stories a few years earlier that might have more repercussions and setting up little bombs they could detonate later.
Next week: we move onward to Volume 7 of the Complete Case Files, featuring a whole bunch of short stories and "The Graveyard Shift."