Sunday, January 29, 2012

Heavy Metal Dredd

(Reprints Heavy Metal Dredd stories from Judge Dredd Megazine #1.14, 1.16-1.19, 2.13, 2.19, 2.21-2.25, 2.34-2.36, 2.61-2.62, 3.15, 3.17, 3.33)

The short-lived pan-European heavy metal magazine Rock Power launched in June, 1991; the first issue's cover featured Skid Row, and also billed interior appearances by the likes of LA Guns, Faith No More, Metallica and... Judge Dredd. For some reason, they commissioned a series of six-page Dredd stories by John Wagner, Alan Grant and Simon Bisley (at least at first), which mostly had something to do with hard rock in one way or another, and were subsequently reprinted in random issues of Judge Dredd Megazine whenever it needed some extra content. Then, as I understand, there were more similar stories commissioned for the Meg when the Rock Power ones ran out; they were followed, then and in this collection, by early pieces that had initially seemed not quite tasteful enough for Dredd's own title, or something.

(Speaking of the Megazine: with this week's installment, we officially move into the period where David Bishop was editing it. It's a fairly well-documented period, thanks to the warts-and-all history that appeared in the Meg itself, written by one David Bishop, who curiously refers to himself in the third person throughout. As he does in Thrill-Power Overload, for that matter. What I gather is that the creative budget for the Megazine was trimmed around the time he came on--it was rather extravagant for its time and place, hence the fancy painted artwork in a lot of its strips--and Bishop started reprinting the Heavy Metal Dredd stuff as a cost-saving measure.)

(There are also a handful of unreprinted-in-book-form Dredd-universe strips from the final issues of the Megazine Vol. 1. John Wagner and Steve Sampson's "Brit-Cit Babes" has one great selling point--a Brian Bolland cover on the first issue in which it appeared--but it's distinctly lesser Wagner, and in fact he apparently gave up on it midway through its final episode, leaving it to Bishop to finish off. The Dave Stone-written, Brit-Cit-set "Armitage" has continued to appear intermittently right up to the present. And Bishop and the wonderful Roger Langridge collaborated on a comedy strip I've never seen, called "The Straitjacket Fits"; given that they're both from New Zealand, that has to be a reference to the Dunedin band of the same name.)

But right: Heavy Metal Dredd. That's heavy metal as in rock, but also Heavy Metal as in
Fluide Glacial-but-crasser: visual spectacle trumps plot at every turn, what plot there is tends to be pretty dumb, and the way-over-the-top hyperviolence seems to be more about assuring their readers that this isn't namby-pamby kid stuff than anything else. (It was apparently debated at length in the Megazine letters section.) Eight of these stories are by the Wagner/Grant/Bisley team, and none of them are as thrilling as any six-page cross-section of Judgment on Gotham. The polite John Major-as-Batman type who gets his head bitten off in "Chicken Run" is a nice touch, though.

Curiously, the Bisley episodes that work best are the ones where he doesn't try to do a hastier version of his Judgment full-painting style: "The Great Arsoli" has a spluttering Ralph Steadman-ish approach that's rarely been attempted in action comics, and "Bimba" strips Bisley's technique down to very little more than gestural doodles. (A lot of its its final page appears to have been produced by Bisley deciding "fuck it" and seeing what he could do with two Magic Markers in forty seconds. Don't try that at home.)

Commissioning editor Steve McManus asserted that HMD was out of continuity, "a separate and aggressive Dredd world"; not much implies otherwise, and even the version of Judge Karyn that appears in "Graceland" doesn't look much like the familiar one. That might have something to do with the other featured artist here, the late John Hicklenton, whose eight episodes might be the closest Dredd has ever come to "outsider art" (put that in as many sets of quotation marks as you like). They're more Throbbing Gristle than L.A. Guns, really. Hicklenton, per his interview in the Megazine in 2003, drew one episode while on acid in his tent at the Glastonbury music festival; it says something that I can't tell which one.

Grant and Wagner weren't a particularly apt match for Hicklenton--their scripts for him follow the "when all else fails, stupid = funny" formula. Hicklenton was much more focused on grotesquerie than on stupidity, so John Smith's scripts for a handful of these episodes were right up his alley. (I believe these were the first published Dredd stories proper by Smith, a very interesting if frequently frustrating writer whose early Devlin Waugh stories Graeme McMillan and I will be discussing at some length here in a couple of weeks.) I mean, Dredd unzipping and emerging from a female-bodied fat suit? I can't think of any earlier artist on the series who'd even have attempted to get away with that. Hicklenton didn't truck much with subtlety, though, as you can see below.

As for the three other artists who drew an episode apiece during the Grant/Wagner period here: I do like Brendan McCarthy's work on "The Ballad of Toad McFarlane," which gives him the opportunity to draw psychedelic effects again, and even letterer Tom Frame gets to have a little fun in that episode, returning to the eagle-shaped caption borders of "Oz." But how many Rock Power readers in 1992 would have gotten the joke of the title?

Here's a question that's less rhetorical: I gather that Bisley's very first Heavy Metal Dredd strip was reprinted in a poster magazine included with 2000 AD #1068, but with entirely rewritten captions and dialogue. Anybody able to confirm or deny that, and/or (if it's the case) explain how it happened?

Next week, the mighty Joe McCulloch joins me to discuss The Complete Case Files 17, featuring "Judgment Day," Garth Ennis's sole stab at a mega-epic. 


  1. You don't seem to have enjoyed it very much, Douglas :)

    I quite liked it as a pure popcorn trip, totally inconsequential and a complete throwaway but with beautiful art. Hickleton is purely a matter of taste though.

  2. of the three you mentioned at the start only straitjacket fits has never been reprinted both brit cit babes and a large chunk of early armitage ended up reprinted as part of the current megazines mini graphic novel imprint.

  3. The Straightjacket Fits is a terrible story, but it isn't totally irredeemable - it's still got that beautifully angular Langridge art. It is, however, covered in a horrible colour scheme that makes it look like somebody has vomited all over the page.

    (And the title is definitely a reference to the Dunedin band - there is also a Tall Dwarf, and characters named Flying Nun, Martin Flips and Split Ends. Oh, the hilarity.)

    I hated Hinkleton's art as a teenager, and now I can't get enough of it. It's an acquired taste.

  4. Whatever the reasons behind their commission, the Heavy Metal Dredd strips provided an opportunity for Bisley to familiarise himself with Dredd and his world before launching into Judgement on Gotham. You can see the artist finding his range in the variations in the manner Bisley draws Dredd's helmet, gun and armour from strip to strip. Check out the cover of 2000ad 589 to see how ghastly Dredd/Batman could have looked if The Biz had gone with his first instincts. Bisley credits Brendan Mccarthy with changing his take on the character:

    "I think the guy who really knocked it on the head was Brendan Mcarthy. That back page pin-up he did (2000ad 583), where Dredd had these skinny, skinny arms; I thought was actually spot-on ... all the gear, the pads he wears make him look ... (daunting and powerful). I find if you stick muscles all over the guy, with the pads as well, it just looks too much' (interviewed by Peter Hogan in the 2000ad Winter Special, 1989: Fleetway Publications).

    If you view the strips as Bisley calibrating his often wayward style to allow him to portray a character as rigid and clearly defined as Dredd on Judgement On Gotham, then you can view Wagner Grant and Bisley's depiction of the John Major Block Batgliders as killjoy busybodies as a cheeky way of pointing out that the straightedge, monomaniacal Bruce wayne and Dredd have more in common than JOG's depiction of Batman luring Anderson back to his cool pad for cosplay sex might suggest.

  5. All the good bits in The Straitjacket Fits are done to Roger Langridge. The rest is my fault. And it's absolutely chocka with NZ music references, as I was very much a new arrival in the UK.

  6. That fact about the poster in prog 1068 is true. David Bishop rewrote it, and I have no idea why.

  7. Just tracked down my copy of the poster, and even more strangely, the first two pages are totally rewritten and the rest is intact...