(Reprints Red Razors stories from Judge Dredd Megazine #1.08-1.15 and 2000 AD Progs 908-917 and 971)
This week I'm happy to be joined by the estimable Mr. Graeme McMillan, my former comrade at Techland's Comic Book Club and the Savage Critics. Graeme continues to kick ass on a daily basis at Blog@Newsarama and Robot 6 and I Am Graeme McMillan's Blog and Spinoff and the aforementioned Techland and SavCrit. And Twitter. I do not know how he does it.
And speaking of comrades...
GRAEME: I'll admit it: I didn't remember Red Razors being this bad.
To be fair to my memory, I'd never read the second series, which is by far the worse of the two collected in the book, but... To call this "Not Mark Millar's finest hour" is to be far too polite. The second series feels so disjointed and lacking in basic things like consistent motivation or explanation of what is actually happening that I'm left convinced that it's the victim of some really bad editing. For all the failures of the series' original Megazine run, at least it made sense, you know?
Both of the series feel, in their own ways, like parodies of Judge Dredd (the strip, not the character) in some way. Dredd at its pulpy best has always eagerly and shamelessly lifted from whatever pop culture Wagner, Grant or whoever was writing the strip at the time was paying attention to, but it was somehow more... I don't know, artful, perhaps, than what Millar does with Red Razors. Perhaps it's that the pop culture pilfering of Dredd was always more of an Easter egg (a passing reference to "David Blunkett Block" or whatever, there for those who'll get the joke but not standing in the way for those who won't) and less of a feature of the story, or that there was generally more done with the references than here. A Starsky and Hutch club where the informant is called Huggy Bear? That just seems lazy, and too straightforward. The same with the Posh Paws dinosaur that appears at the end of the first series - it's too on the nose, the comic equivalent of someone saying "Hey, do you remember [Insert Reference Here]? Do you? That was great, wasn't it?"
(I'll not even deign to mention the Scooby-Doo rip-off which, again, Millar doesn't do anything with. It's just "Hey, Scooby-Doo, you guys! SCOOBY-DOO!")
It's funny, looking back, to see how much of the first series is so much of its time. The Chief Judge is Adamski, whose biggest hit came out in 1990 - let's just consider this the first version of Millar using Eminem in Wanted, years later - and the villainous Judge Nutmeg takes his name from a character in the then-popular Vic Reeves' Big Night Out TV show. More pop-cultural references, yes, but here's something about their contemporariness (have I just invented that word?) that makes them different in some way that I can't quite put my finger on. Engaging the zeitgeist, perhaps, instead of just rolling along on nostalgia?
Of course, all of that is missing in the second series, which is just... a mess. Reading it, I kept on waiting for some kind of magical reveal that would make some sense of its plot, and that never happened. It was like a less comedic version of Axe Cop, with a plot that read much like "And then THIS happens and then THIS happens and then he's dead and then he comes back and he's killed again and Judge Dredd is defrosted and and and" without either taking a breath or realizing just how insane the whole thing is, and not in a good way. I genuinely am convinced that this was some script for the Megazine that was probably sitting on the shelf for years - there's, what, three years between the two series? - and was then pulled out when they needed a strip for 2000 AD and were desperate, and pages were just hacked off by editorial in a mad rush to make sure it was the right length. It's horrible. Or am I being too mean?
DOUGLAS: No, no, that's about right. To be fair, there's one very clever idea at the center of Red Razors: it's a strip about the collapse of the Soviet Union (let's note that the series began with the issue of the Megazine dated May 1991), and the horrible American junk culture that rushed in to fill the void. (The very first panel shows somebody ordering a cheeseburger and a Coke at a McDonald's in something like Red Square.) Piggybacking it onto the Dredd universe was a questionable move--and I still don't understand why it's set 50 years or so after Dredd continuity, when it's so clearly a very-near-future premise--but maybe it's part of the central joke: if the ultimate end of the American police ideal is the law-and-order fascist who traps the world in his panopticon, the ultimate end of the Russian police ideal ca. 1991 (at least as it was understood in the U.S. and U.K.) is the thug who'll kill you just because he feels like it and might get something out of it for his gang.
That said, yeah, Millar fumbles it badly. He was 21 years old at the time Red Razors launched, and I'm willing to cut him a little bit of slack for being incapable of subtlety then. (As opposed to now.) But you're right: all the pop-culture references are here's that thing you used to like! Again! I'd actually never heard of Posh Paws until you mentioned it above; what I thought of when I saw that dinosaur was an earlier dino that Steve Yeowell had drawn--the one with the enormous smiley-face on its head that Archie the robot shows up riding in Zenith Phase III. (That strikes me as much more of a transformative use.)
And the second run of Red Razors is insultingly stupid. It's as if Millar had it in for his readers, or for an editor; nearly every sentence of dialogue ends in an exclamation point, which for any post-Stan Lee action-comics writer is the equivalent of saying "YOU'RE REALLY EXCITED NOW! THIS IS VERY EXCITING! I CAN SEE HOW EXCITED YOU ARE!" I was wondering if I'd missed some sections too (especially when it goes from "Razors is back on the case!" to "Razors has gone berserk and needs to be stopped!" with no warning at all), but I think it's very charitable to think of it as an editing problem. There's no way in which this writing is passable. There's a section of Thrill-Power Overload where David Bishop is tearing his hair out over the publisher's edict that any work that had been commissioned had to be run; I forget what era of 2000 AD that applied to, but it might well have been this one.
By the final episode, both Millar and Dobbyn are just taking the laziest possible way out. Actual dialogue: "It's killing me! I'm going to die!" "That's the idea, punk! Hope it hurts!" I only made it bearable for myself by reading it in a Monty Python "Gumbies" accent. I'm amazed that the last page, with a kid finding Razors' badge on the ground and then tossing it aside, doesn't simply dissolve a quarter of the way through into a photocopy of a script page on which Millar has scribbled "oh, fuck it, I'm hungry, who's got the M&Ms?" The subsequent twist-ending six-pager (which itself ran a year after the second series ended) is almost as bad--you can see the origins of the Nemesis/Superior writer for whom no shock is too cheap.
(A bibliographic note: there are two other short Red Razors stories, both drawn by Steve Yeowell and originally printed in specials, that didn't end up in the collection. You're not missing anything, though.)
What I miss most in the second series, actually, is Yeowell's artwork. Yeowell's a sturdy artist rather than a flashy one, and his work sparkles when he's got a good script to work with, but it's almost never less than entertaining: even the slack parts of the Megazine run of Red Razors are clear and elegant-looking. I can't imagine his reputation hasn't suffered from his two best pieces of work, "Zenith" and "The New Adventures of Hitler," having been out of print for ages. He still draws various 2000 AD serials (especially "The Red Seas," lately), and I believe I saw his work turn up a year or so ago in The 99, of all places. I'm curious about your take on the visual side of Red Razors, Graeme--what do you think?
And one other observation about Red Razors: it was, I believe, the first Judge Dredd spinoff that was simply set in the Dredd universe rather than directly involving characters or concepts that connected directly to the main series (e.g. Judge Anderson, Helltrekkers, Chopper). A bunch of others have followed (Armitage, Harmony, Brit-Cit Babes, and so on up through Low Life and Insurrection)--can you talk a little about what you think makes a Dredd-universe series work or not work?
GRAEME: I'm glad you asked me about Yeowell, because I'd been meaning to talk about his work earlier and forgot, in my rush to explain just how disappointed I was in the writing. (And this coming from someone who has read Millar's other work, which should hopefully suggest just how bad the writing is here.) I'm a massive, massive fan of Yeowell; his work on the third series of Grant Morrison's Zenith is still some of my very favorite comic art ever--it's his brushwork, and the fearlessness with which he uses black as a solid design element on the page--and he's definitely one of the true saving graces of Red Razors for me. He's an artist who clearly works from life, rather than from comics, if that makes sense; his characters and use of line feel more individual and honest than the majority of his contemporaries as comic artists, and it's harder to trace his lineage in terms of influences. (There's Toth in there, perhaps, and maybe some Cam Kennedy...?) He's not really an artist who's easy to color, however, and the colors here don't really do him any favors. (Neither does the reproduction; at times, it looks more like a scan of the original printed version, with some Photoshop touch-up.) Everything's too flat, and a little too murkily colored to make sense to the eye.
(I'd agree that "New Adventures of Hitler" is some of his best work. Something that really helps that, for me, is the truly insane coloring that was used in the final version, with scans of paisley patterns or inksplots or whatever being used seemingly randomly, but somehow working with the story and the art in ways that you wouldn't have expected, heightening the unreality of what was happening - who really would've expected Morrissey to have a cameo in a historical series about Hitler's early days? - but allowing Yeowell's line-art to shine nonetheless.)
That said, I suspect that Yeowell would've been less successful for the second series than Nigel Dobbyn was. For all Dobbyn's faults, and he has many, he's a more dynamic artist than Yeowell, whose work can occasionally be too... I want to say static or fragile, but neither of those are exactly right; his art doesn't flow from the Kirby school of BANG DYNAMISM ON THE PAGE AND WOW, though, and trends away from spectacle in the sense that Millar was clearly looking for in that second series. Dobbyn's art is generic and bland, yes, but he's more of the school that Millar was clearly looking for in his odd, inflatable-John-Byrne-face action sequences. If Yeowell had handled it, I suspect the flaws in the writing would've been even more obvious, somehow.
...I'm kind of stunned that Red Razors was the first "Dredd Universe, but no Dredd characters" series to have seen print (there were others that were mooted before, of course, like Wagner and Grant's original Bad Company)--if only because... Well, do you think there was some point where they looked at what it was like and thought, "No, this will never work"? I think the problem with Razors is that it just fails to get what makes Dredd work, in a way that the other series do. There's a smartness to Dredd (and the Dreddverse, I guess), a self-awareness and humor about itself (even in the most serious strips, there's some level of humor, even if it is remarkably grim, and deeply hidden, or, alternatively, a silly joke name or whatever when you least expect it. What was the name of America's friend? Benny Beeny?) that allows it to be read on multiple levels in a way that Red Razors just can't be. Dredd stories, at their best, are things that can read and appreciated by people who have no interest in science fiction as a genre, because they're really something else in disguise: Comedy, tragedy, political satire or commentary. You can take the SF out of a good Dredd story and you'd still have something entirely enjoyable and worth reading, something that has "a point." But if you take the SF out of Red Razors, all you have left is a purposefully dumb collection of pop culture references and catchphrases.
DOUGLAS: Actually I might be wrong: Helltrekkers was, I suspect, the first spinoff that didn't involve any characters we'd seen before, although I think by that point Grant and Wagner had established the idea that there were desperate types who left the city to settle in the Cursed Earth. The Dredd spinoffs that work, though, generally seem to be the ones that have a protagonist with an unusual relationship to the fascist surveillance state. Anderson is a surveiller who can read people's minds, but she's obsessively troubled by the idea that the elect should impose their will on the masses by force, even as she's doing it. Chopper recognizes no authority at all. Low Life clicked when it shifted its focus to Dirty Frank, whose role within the Judges' world of regimented order is to be an agent of chaos, to the point where he's lost himself. I just read Dan Abnett and Colin MacNeil's Insurrection (which I'll be getting around to here sometime late next year!), and thought Marshal Luther was a terrific lead character: a rebel against the Judges who believes in their law to his core, which makes his loyalties irreconcilably divided. (I won't spoil it if you haven't read it, but the way the ending dramatizes that is brilliant.)
Judge Hershey, on the other hand, was never much of a series, as far as I can tell, even though it ran several dozen episodes: she's a tough, competent cop, and that's not enough. And Red Razors hitches a ride on Dredd's worldbuilding rather than expanding it (having it set a few decades after the era of the main strip not only means its additions to the setting aren't available to other writers, it seals off the possibility that Sov Block Two could someday get the "Apocalypse War"/"Judgement Day" treatment). Razors is a one-note killing machine, with no depth or motivation or agenda or relationship to anything in particular. I see where the series was trying to have a satirical point, at least the first time around--a joke about what happened to Russia once its ideological framework fell apart--but Millar simply wasn't up to taking it anywhere new or interesting after the first few pages.
Thanks again to Graeme for joining me. Next week, Dredd Reckoning rings in the new year with Mean Machine: Real Mean.