Sunday, July 29, 2012


(Reprints Purgatory from 2000 AD Progs 834-841 and Judge Dredd stories from 2000 AD Progs 842-853, 867 and 879)

Wait, weren't we just here? Well, sort of. Grant Morrison and Carlos Ezquerra's "Inferno" was reprinted in The Complete Case Files 19, but current British readers had to turn to the supplement included with Megazine #321 to get its prequel, Mark Millar and Ezquerra's "Purgatory." America now gets this volume, with a handful of the biggest names in contemporary comics splashed across its cover. You know, this kind of thing gives young people the wrong idea.

That said: "Purgatory" is actually not quite as awkward as "Inferno." I mean, it's stupid--it wouldn't be a mid-'90s Mark Millar story if it weren't. The not-very-cleverly named Khurtz being run through with an electric saw, then thrown into a pit of molten slag--and resurfacing four pages later with his uniform slightly scorched--is the point at which eyes cannot be restrained from rolling. Grice, in the meantime, has melted the flesh off his left hand, but declares "it'll heal." And indeed it does, by the time of a scene that happens less than fifteen minutes later.

But honestly, it's really just an over-the-top prison-break story--Harry Twenty on the High Rock, except that absolutely everyone in it is despicable--and it's pitched up so high that it really is sort of thrilling. It's also (and please correct me if I'm wrong here) the final appearance to date of my favorite minor Dredd character, ex-Judge Degaulle, from "The Executioner," "The Interrogation" and "Twilight's Last Gleaming." She's written out very quickly after the second chapter--the last we see of her is when she's screaming at Kaufman to help her, and I don't believe she turns up in "Inferno" at all. The story implies fairly strongly that nobody from the Titan penal colony lived through the explosions in the final chapters of both parts. But Titan seems to have been up and running by the time of "Wilderlands," not much later, and if Degaulle did survive... hmm, her twenty-year sentence would have ended right around Chaos Day, wouldn't it?

Also, you know, Carlos Ezquerra means it can't be all bad. (The panel excerpted for the title page of this edition is a particularly wonderful drawing, with one of the prisoners apologizing to the guard he's throttling, an appalled/helpless expression on his face.) Millar really is skilled at giving Ezquerra some of the things he's good at drawing--explosions, ugly people, berserk levels of violence.

The American edition is filled out with a couple more Millar-written one-offs--a Christmas episode that Ezquerra seems to have phoned in, and "Top Gun," on which Ron Smith does his level best with a script that demands a lot of detail and is still kind of dumb. One panel sums up most of what I dislike about the Millar era of Dredd: he dismisses the new Lawmaster design with an "it looks okay"--and then a caption pounds that in with a touch of contempt for the readers: "Nothing impresses Judge Dredd!"

Next week: another catchall collection, Mega-City Masters 03.

Sunday, July 22, 2012

Judge Anderson: The Psychic Crime Files

(Reprints Anderson: Psi-Division stories from 2000 AD Progs 657-659 and 1102-1103, as well as Judge Dredd Megazine 272-278 and 300-304, and Cadet Anderson stories from 2000 AD Progs 2011 and 1734-1739)

With the Dredd movie due out in a couple of months and Olivia Thirlby about to kick ass all over movie screens, it was not at all a bad idea to put together an Anderson-specific volume for the American book market.* ** I'm not totally convinced that giving it a title that's very easy to confuse with The Psi Files was the wisest use of the English language, but whatever, it's 150 pages or so of mostly*** unreprinted Anderson stories in glorious color, who's complaining?

* This is the first blog entry I've written since I got to see the movie, and it's not clear whether I'm going to be writing about it elsewhere at some length, but the short version is: I liked it a lot. Generally terrific script, on-the-money performances, highly thrill-powered, extremely violent. Excellent use of both 3-D and slow-mo, i.e. things you can do in movies but not comics. For those of you wondering if it's comics-canonical: not 100%, but I wouldn't want it to be, either, and it's altered in ways that make it work better as a movie.*** And, to the extent that it is canon-congruent, it seems to be set a couple of months before Prog 2. How about that? Plus Karl Urban turns out to be a confirmed Squaxx.

** Also, that thing I mentioned a couple of weeks ago about how "Judges going bad doesn't seem to be a big plot element in the movie": yeah, I was very wrong about that.

*** The exception to that "mostly" is "The Random Man," now on its fourth go-'round; Carlos Ezquerra's color artwork was was poorly served by black-and-white reproduction in the first Psi Files volume, though, so it's welcome here. I also hadn't realized before that diceman Sam Laffin's name was a Jimi Hendrix joke, for what that's worth.

**** Four stars for a four-star trainspottery note: there actually is a never-reprinted, Wagner/Grant-written "how Joe met Cass" story that's nothing like what we see in the movie, but it's the one I've mentioned before from the first four issues of the American series Legends of the Law.

As a latter-day Anderson collection, this is entirely Alan Grant's show on the writing side. I often end up wrestling with Grant's solo writing, partly because his gift for world-building is often nudged off balance by the "I've just read the most interesting book--here's a story directly inspired by something I read in it" syndrome, partly because he can let stories get out of hand and then speed them to their emotional-beat conclusion without bothering to resolve the plot. See, for instance, the end of "House of Vyle": "Somehow, the spirits of the Salem witches--the radioactivity from two atomic wars--Arterio Drac's magic--all combined to turn the house into almost a living thing." Oh, did they? I'm not asking for a Scooby-Doo "meddling kids" wrap-up, but some acknowledgement that the last few dozen pages were anything other than inexplicable would be welcome.

I've mentioned before that Anderson: Psi-Division as a series keeps running up against the difficulties of being about supernatural phenomena in the hard-SF context of the Dredd universe, and of having a protagonist who can effectively think almost any plot into its resolution. More recently, there's been the additional road-bump that Wagner's part of that world and Grant's tend to steer clear of one another. Wagner used Psi-Division to set up "Day of Chaos"--but in the person of Hennessy, who's more of a Cassandra than Cass is (and, actually, a weak psychic makes for a more interesting character than a strong one: Hennessy's inability to make sense of her precognitive flashes makes the story more suspenseful). I don't think we ever found out what Anderson or the rest of Psi-Div were up to once the heavy stuff started coming down. Likewise, I don't get the sense that the later stories happen in a setting that's changed significantly since, say, "Oz," beyond Anderson having someone new to call "C.J." every so often. On the other hand, Grant's prose story "The Pack" in the new Megazine is set post-Chaos Day; maybe the Anderson story that starts next issue will be too?

Grant's setting the "Cadet Anderson" material in the period when she's just figuring out what she's doing is a smart way of getting around some of those issues. I've seen interviews with Grant where he's mentioned being happy about Anderson aging in real time--she has to be in her mid-fifties in current continuity, so there's maybe something extra-untoward about e.g. rookie Aicer's being in love with her in "Wiierd"--but writing her as a teenager dodges that too, curiously. It's a head-scratcher that the underclass youth of the late 21st century would dress like the punks of 1976, although I do love that Sean Phillips cover of young Cass, below. Too bad about the ending, which hits two overfamiliar Grant/Anderson notes: Abusing Children Is Bad, and Cass Has Compassion For Even Her Enemies.

The one real anomaly here is "Lawless," whose only evident reason to show up is that Anderson does something in the course of it that's a bit like something she does in the movie. It's a throwaway two-parter from 1998 that's mostly notable for the fact that the antagonist is very similar to Anarky, the surprisingly durable character Grant created for Batman in the late '80s. Grant also wrote an Anarky miniseries that had come out in 1997--and I'd forgotten that Anarky's political sensibilities were partly shaped by a correspondent named Xuasus! (Anybody happen to know if Lawless has ever turned up since this story?)

The bulk of this volume is the Anderson stories drawn by Boo Cook between 2008 and 2010 (but not the most recent one, "The Trip," which I liked a lot). The way Cook draws figures and the way he draws backgrounds are often very different, which can be jarring in some circumstances, but works out nicely for Anderson stories--particularly for "House of Vyle" and "Wiierd," both of which place people in not-quite-right contexts. ("Wiierd" signals that from the get-go--three pages of Tharg vs. Bill Savage before we even get a glimpse of Mega-City One!) Cook's color technique for each of his stories is really terrific, too: nuanced, unsettling, several notches too garish and vivid to be reality as we know it.

I'd also really love to see more Brendan McCarthy-drawn Anderson--the cover of this volume is a wonder. The contrast between Carlos Ezquerra's artwork in 1989's "The Random Man" and 2011's "Teenage Kyx," conversely, is a little bit vexing. Ezquerra's getting-the-story-across chops are inalienable, and his line is a lot cleaner when he collaborates with his son Hector, but "cleanness" has never been his selling point for me. I miss him slopping watercolors all over the place, inking with a broken tree branch, letting figures and objects protrude out of their panels in a way that seems willy-nilly but actually almost always leads the eye where it's supposed to go. There's something strange about the way Ezquerra draws faces now, too--it reminds me of ROM-era Steve Ditko, actually, and the way he'd reduced his art-board-scoring lines to blobby gestures.

A bibliographic note: Besides the early stories I mentioned in the context of Psi Files 02, the still-unreprinted Anderson material is 29 episodes from 2000 AD that ran between 1997 and 1999 (mostly drawn by Steve Sampson), plus the recent "Algol" sequence; the Megazine serial "Something Wicked" from 1995; 32 episodes that appeared in the Megazine between 2004 and 2007; and the 2011 Megazine serial "The Trip."

Next week: we retrace our steps a bit for the new American collection Inferno, which also includes that story's lead-in, "Purgatory," and a few extra pieces.

Sunday, July 15, 2012

The Scorpion Dance Featuring Beyond the Call of Duty

(Reprints Judge Dredd stories from 2000 AD Progs 1101-1110 and 1125-1132)

We've got another special guest this week on Dredd Reckoning! Amy K. is a mysterious figure. She's an adult convert to comic books, and she reads a whole lot of superhero stuff but was new to this blog's terrain. I got to discuss an out-of-print collection I particularly like with her.

AMY: I've never read any Dredd before, and I haven't even seen the old movie with Stallone, so I hope I'm bringing fresh and unjaded eyes to the book you sent me, Douglas. On the other hand I am aware of the movie, so everything Dredd said, I read in Sly's voice. Sorry England.

The Scorpion Dance has a second story mentioned on the cover; it's called "Beyond the Call of Duty." It's interesting that "Duty" is listed as 'featuring' because it certainly does feature – it's the first and much longer of the two stories in the trade. While there are stories which introduce the characters and situations of "Duty" that aren't included in the trade, "Scorpion" would make little sense without "Duty."

DOUGLAS: The two of them clearly belong in the same volume; I suspect The Scorpion Dance gets top billing because it's the one that's easier to represent in an exciting cover shot. The big visual moment of "Beyond the Call" is the kiss--but that's also its thrilling twist, so giving it away on the cover might not have been a great idea.

"Beyond the Call of Duty" started in 2000 AD Prog 1101, in the summer of 1998--#1100 had actually been the first issue since #155 in which the Dredd feature didn't appear. (The issue was taken up by a full-length Sláine story.) By the way, I love that caption on Dermot Power's cover for #1107: "Not a dream! Not a hoax! Not an imaginary story!"--that was DC's old tag line for issues in which something significant appeared to happen... extra points for having the little dots in the upper corners that were briefly part of 2000 AD's trade dress replaced by tiny hearts.

AMY: "Beyond the Call of Duty" gives us Judge Galen DeMarco – a freckle-faced redhead female judge, newly appointed Chief of Sector 303 – an area described as well-ordered, so it's a surprise she'd bring in someone like Dredd. I'm not sure why she'd go from reporting to him in 301, as they tell us, to him reporting to her in 303, but there you have it. Through the course of the story we discover that one, there's a band of vigilantes sport-killing even low-level criminals, and two, DeMarco's open to having romantic relationships (which are a no-no for judges) and would love to have one with Dredd (absolutely verboten for judges to get it on together). By the end of "Duty," she's made her play for Dredd, only to be rebuffed – although not particularly forcefully. By the end of "Scorpion," we're forced to wonder what exactly she means to Dredd.

We also get Roffman for both books – a nosy parker nutjob with a moralistic streak carved in policy and set with cowardice.

DOUGLAS: Here's the thing I love about Roffman: he's a voyeuristic, cowardly, self-righteous creep--and, as the story keeps pointing out, that's what makes him a great Judge in some ways. (Particularly fun: the bit where Preen is dressing down Roffman for snooping on DeMarco and not trying to rescue her, and Dredd points out that Roffman did exactly the right thing under the circumstances.) Roffman's stuck around ever since this sequence, as one of the stars of the Public Surveillance Unit, Justice Dept.'s spying-on-the-public division; he does indeed have a knack for uncovering people's secrets. He's still a creep, too. And, of course, the law demands that Roffman be rewarded and DeMarco be punished: hooray for the law!

DeMarco had first appeared in "The Pit," a few years earlier--that's the storyline in which we see her getting in trouble for having an unjudicial liaison with one of her co-workers, and in which there are the first rumblings of the idea that other Judges incorrectly suspect she's got something going with Dredd. She'd subsequently tagged along for the first 2/3 of "The Hunting Party" until John Wagner apparently realized he didn't have much of a role for her there; I think she hadn't appeared for about a year when she turned up again here.

As for the question of who's reporting to whom, I get the sense that street Judges can command each other depending on how their specific duties shift. (See, for instance, the scene here in which Dredd instinctively takes command and his partner reminds him that he's technically the senior judge...) When Dredd was running 301, it was presented as an assignment rather than a promotion, as such.

AMY: I quite like DeMarco as a female character in a comic book. She's quite obviously pretty, and sexy in the way that anyone with a good body and face would be. But her body isn't really the center of focus here – her mind and heart are. There's no silly posturing while she thinks and acts. She's physical, and while she ends up being both mistaken and overpowered while in action... It's Dredd's book. Every character exists to catalyze him, so it's hard to get too upset.

I also enjoy DeMarco for representing normalcy. She needs affection and believes Judges would be better off able to express those needs to one another. Unfortunately for her, she's knowingly entered an order which won't let her practice her beliefs – not for herself, and not for the people who report to her. The two situations we're given end in loss of life and/or loss of career. I suppose that's supposed to illustrate the difference between a good person and a good judge. DeMarco makes the right choices for a good person. Dredd, for the most part, makes the right choices for a good judge. I don't think DeMarco particularly needed to be a woman, other than that Dredd appears to be straight.

Additionally I appreciated that Burns only went so far as to unzip her uniform - I assume to attach electrodes for the lie detector - for the interrogation. Most big two books would have had her down to her bra for that. Refreshing.

DOUGLAS: As regular readers may recall, I was mildly disgruntled about the "Demarco Unzipped!" cover that ran during "The Pit." So, when I was looking through my old progs recently, I was delighted to see Kevin Walker's cover for #1072...

The really beautiful bit of character work in this sequence is the suggestion that it's not that Dredd is totally sexless--it's that he's so deeply repressed that he doesn't have any idea what he's feeling, or why he might be inclined to go easy on DeMarco. I also love that we rarely see DeMarco being "sexy," but we almost always see her being hypercompetent; maybe that's what he likes. Wagner often suggests that there are lots of different ways to be a good Judge, and not only is Dredd's standard of "driven badass" only one of them, but he's open to other standards too. (As of a few years ago, we see him defending Beeny for handling a case completely differently than he would have, because she knows what she's doing.) 

DeMarco's "report it if you like, but don't forget" is a great line: she quietly craves soap-operatic drama, for which Dredd has no time at all. And her weakness--her capacity for love, and for strong feeling in general--isn't actually a character flaw by anyone's standards other than the Judges'...

Then there's DeMarco's real opposite number in this story: Judge Edgar, who had been introduced three years earlier as an occasional adversary for Dredd, and stuck around until 2008. Edgar and Roffman are similar in a lot of ways--they've got official duties that are, fortunately for them, aligned with their unsavory interests--and that may be why she cuts him a break, just as Dredd cut DeMarco a break. But knowledge, for Roffman, is itself a source of pleasure and a sense of superiority, and Edgar really only cares about information as a tool of control, especially controlling people who can be useful to her or might rise up against her. (Roffman wants to take DeMarco down because, in his world-view, he wins by demonstrating that somebody else has broken the rules; Edgar only takes DeMarco down to show Dredd that he'd better not mess with her.)

So here's my question for you: what do you think of Judge Edgar as a female character in a comic book?

AMY: Well, you virtually cannot tell she's a female character, visually.  She's controlling, powerful and ugly. She wouldn't even exist in the New 52, she'd be Wallered into sexiness so potent her Hoverround would be upholstered in studded red leather. So I think she's sort of awesome in that way. Her time on the panels is rather brief, and without seeing her buildup, she's a little bit two-dimensional in her pursuit of Dredd's downfall. For the brief space she's given though, she comes across as brilliantly nasty. I hope there are more female characters in the Dredd books overall who don't fall into 'romantic pitfall' or 'spiteful old hag' categories, though.

DOUGLAS: There definitely are a few--and, as I understand, when the series began in 1977 it was fairly rare that women characters appeared in any capacity in British "boys' comics." I think Exhibit A in Dredd has to be Hershey, who's been a semi-regular character since around 1980 (which means she's aged from her early twenties to her mid-fifties), and is roughly four parts "thoughtful, well-liked executive" to one part "sneaky boss." Judge Beeny has turned into maybe the series' most compelling supporting character (and seems, just in the last year or so, to have picked up a non-white skin tone, taking into account her Latina mother; works for me). McGruder's an interesting case--she started off as a "hardass boss" character, went offstage for a while, and came back as a spiteful old hag (with a goatee!), alternately horrible and sympathetic...

This is way out of the present book's scope, but I really like Judge Maitland, who first showed up just a couple of weeks ago: another POC woman Judge with a distinctive personality and a role we haven't seen before. I note, though, that her second appearance showed her in some cheesecake-y poses (that didn't seem to be called for by the story), with uniform unzipped to show cleavage--argh!

AMY: The art on both storylines is great, although quite different. "Duty" is done by Carlos Ezquerra in 'comicky' style, while "Dance" is the work of John Burns, and is more painterly. They both use a bright palette of colors, which is a pleasant change from the brown-purple-orange that DC's darker books and much of Vertigo stick to. 

DOUGLAS: Ezquerra's a caricaturist at heart--he's the source of a lot of the visual grotesquerie that makes the series so much fun to look at. But Burns' artwork, whether it's the painted style he mostly uses here or the more pen-and-ink-based version we've seen elsewhere, is much more illustrative: he gravitates toward believable details and reasonably realistic poses. (Burns' Roffman, I'm amused to see, barely looks like Ezquerra's, because Burns isn't about to attempt that peanut-shaped head.) That makes Burns great for the palace-intrigue stuff that drives "The Scorpion Dance," less thrilling for the supernatural/violent aspects of the story. 

Actually, I'm curious what you think of the vigilante plot in "Call" and the Vitus Dance plot in "Scorpion Dance"; to me, they seem a little bit awkwardly grafted on, just as a reminder that this is a sci-fi/action comic. Have there ever actually been people who thought "Judge Dredd" was too talky and character-driven?

AMY: I was all right with the vigilante plot in "Call"; it gave the characters a reason to be, things to do. As you know, Douglas, I have little patience or affection for romance in my action books. Stop kissing and go save people! Comics verge upon soap opera already, and I'm just not interested in love triangles and kids taking center stage. Having a coherent plotline which Dredd and DeMarco could intersect with worked for me. The Vitus plot in "Dance," on the other hand, was mostly annoying, and I wanted to flip past it to see what happened to DeMarco in interrogation. She got some good lines off - the one about sniffing the sheets is familiar, but I still laughed. 

I think the thing I come away from this most in love with is Dredd's mouth. Both artists portray it similarly, although Ezquerra definitely goes all in on this - his mouth is an intense scowl at almost all times - it's virtually an upside down U running to the very edges of his chin. I couldn't look at it and not think of Beeker on the Muppets. Since Judges' faces are as obscured as Batman's will ever be, but there are a lot of them in virtually identical oufits, it's crucial that Dredd be easy to pick out of a crowd. You'd never miss that mouth, and it's pretty representative of the man behind it.

I am curious - does Dredd ever sway? Has he fallen into bed/romance? Are Judges supposed to be celibate or just unfettered? Does he call anyone ELSE by their first name?

DOUGLAS: No, what you're seeing in "Beyond the Call of Duty" is, I believe, the one and only kiss Joe Dredd has ever experienced. (There might be another kiss in one of the "Love Story" episodes involving Bella Bagley--I don't remember clearly--but if so it wasn't his idea.) He very rarely calls other Judges by their first names: both Ricos, certainly, maybe Cassandra Anderson. He really only goes out of his way to be kind to his niece Vienna, and even so he's not very good at kindness, and he visibly doesn't quite understand why, say, she would want to have boyfriends. Judges are, I gather, supposed to be celibate, although there's a bit in The Pit about how certain undercover Judges (like Guthrie) are allowed to have liaisons to keep up appearances. But there are a lot who slip--not least Dredd's clone father, Fargo, the creator of the whole system!

And yes, I have to agree that Dredd's mouth is a splendid piece of design.


Thanks again to Amy! Next week: we switch back over to the Judge Anderson track for the recent American collection The Psychic Crime Files.

Sunday, July 8, 2012

The Complete Case Files 19

(Reprints Judge Dredd stories from 2000 AD Progs 830-855 and Judge Dredd Megazine #2.27-2.43)

Before we get started, a special announcement: if you're attending this year's Comic-Con International San Diego, come to the Judge Dredd 35th Anniversary panel, this Friday, July 13 from 12:30 to 1:30 PM in Room 8! I'll be moderating it, and the other panelists will include Chris Ryall of IDW, Matt Smith and Ben Smith of 2000 AD, Jock, and "some very special guests." Trust me when I say you will want to be there.

And speaking of very special guests, we've got another one visiting Dredd Reckoning this week! Dr. Marc Singer is an assistant professor at Howard University, the author of Grant Morrison: Combining the Worlds of Contemporary Comics(University Press of Mississippi), and the former-and-still-occasional proprietor of the excellent comics blog I Am NOT the Beastmaster. I had the pleasure of discussing Case Files 19 with him.

DOUGLAS: Marc, I should apologize a bit to you first for sticking you with this particular volume. On the one hand, it's got "Inferno," the only Judge Dredd story proper that Grant Morrison has written on his own (and there's a bit of a caveat to that--see below), and you're about the most hardcore Morrison expert there is, so I'm very curious what you have to say about it. On the other hand, as far as I'm concerned, it's one of the worst stories Morrison's ever published, and a lot of the rest of the material in this volume is pretty shaky too.

A little background on what we've got here: In 1993, Judge Dredd as a feature was floundering for various reasons. Garth Ennis had pretty clearly burned out on it, and shifted to working on his American comics projects, although a few stories (like "Goodnight Kiss") continued to trickle out over the following year or so. Mark Millar, another 23-year-old (he, Ennis and I were born within a few weeks of each other!), was doing warmup exercises in the wings, getting ready to take over. John Wagner had left the feature in 2000 AD; he was still writing Dredd in the Megazine, but not all the time, and during this period John Smith handled some fill-ins for him (including "The Jigsaw Murders" and "LaDonna Fever"). Each magazine's Dredd writers were apparently ignoring the stories in the other magazine. Everything needed a shakeup, and for the weekly, it came in the form of the "Summer Offensive."

That was an eight-week period--Progs 842 to 849--when 2000 AD was taken over by new strips written by Morrison and Millar, plus Smith and Paul Peart's ridiculous "Slaughterbowl." Most of those strips haven't aged terribly well (although Morrison and Rian Hughes' "Really and Truly" is at least pretty), but it was indeed a break with the familiar. The centerpiece, though, was the first 2/3 of Morrison and Carlos Ezquerra's slam-bang Dredd serial "Inferno"--although he'd clearly come up with the idea in collaboration with Millar, since it was directly preceded by an eight-episode lead-in, "Purgatory," by Millar and Ezquerra. (I'll be getting to that in more detail with the standalone Inferno volume in a month or so.)

I'd also be willing to bet that the role filled by Psi-Judge Judy Janus was originally written as a supporting part for Judge Anderson, but since Anderson was offworld at the time, Janus was, like, wholly whipped up as a substitute, just as Karyn had been a year or two earlier (and as Kit Agee had been, in her way, a year or two before that). Janus ended up appearing in her own Morrison-written stories, most of which I haven't read, on and off for a few years thereafter; I'd be curious to see those reprinted sometime... 

As for the rest: I covered "Mechanismo - Body Count" a while back in the context of the Mechanismo collection, but it's mostly notable as Wagner trying to get the continuity of the Megazine jumpstarted again, and starting to build toward the Wilderlands sequence that began about a year later. His other stories here are generally one- or two-part comedy pieces, although it's worth noting that "Slick Dickens - Dressed to Kill" concerns a character he returns to every decade or so, and that he seems to find the central gag of "Hottie House Siege"--the Branch Moronians' combination of ideological-fanatic violence and X-Treem stupidity--funny enough to have dipped into that well kind of a lot, too. (Okay, fine, I will again admit that I also think it's hilarious.)

Beyond that, we've got Garth Ennis grinding it out. "The Chieftain" is the leading example of an Ennis story that groans "I really don't want to do this any more": a gruesome revenger's tragedy with an anthropomorphic, weaponized set of bagpipes incongruously plunked in the middle of it. We've got Millar flailing--his one-offs are radically, like Branch Moronian-level, dumbed down from what readers had come to expect, and "War Games" is a setup for some kind of massive Yellow Peril terror-from-the-East scenario that, thankfully, never arrived. And we've got John Smith uneasily balancing Wagnerisms and his own interests as a writer--"LaDonna Fever" is a run-of-the-mill "funny" one-off (mocking Madonna mania in 1993? Seriously?), but "The Jigsaw Murders" is basically Smith using Dredd as a vehicle for his favorite subject: body horror! When a writer with one arm comes up with a story whose MacGuffin is a missing arm, you kind of have to wonder what else is encoded in that story.

So yes, the specter of Wagner and his absence looms over this volume even more than usual. And what particularly alarms me about "Inferno" is that Morrison--as strong and distinctive an action-comics writer as I can think of--loses almost everything that I think of as being interestingly Morrisonian in trying to imitate, or maybe parody, the tone of Wagner's Dredd. Next time I'll get a bit more into what exactly I dislike about the story; for now, I'll just say that I see only two brief passages in "Inferno" that make me think "ah, yes, that's Morrison, all right"... and I'm not going to tell you what they are yet, because I'm very interested in where you think "Inferno" fits into the overall shape of Morrison's work!

MARC: Where do I think "Inferno" fits into the overall shape of Morrison's work? That's probably best answered by observing that I just wrote a book on him and it doesn't mention "Inferno" once. As a matter of fact, it barely mentions the Summer Offensive at all--I took out a casual reference to "Really & Truly" because I decided explaining it would be more trouble than it was worth. So in a way I'm grateful that you've given me a chance to talk about the Summer Offensive, even if I find "Inferno" to be Morrison's least interesting contribution.

The Summer Offensive as a whole is hard to place in Morrison's larger career because it falls into a kind of dead space. By 1993 Morrison had wrapped up his revolutionary work on Animal Man and Doom Patrol, but it would be a few more years before he returned to superheroes with Flex Mentallo, Aztek, and JLA; he'd helped launch Vertigo with the Sebastian O miniseries, but it would be another year before he began his longest and most ambitious work in The Invisibles. Morrison was living off the money he made from Arkham Asylum, taking a breather from long-form comics, and transitioning between two modes, the radical experimentation of his early years and the epic storytelling of the late nineties.

The Summer Offensive also came after he'd largely given up on the British comics industry and 2000 AD in particular, having been enticed by the greener and far more lucrative pastures of American superhero comics. The year before, Morrison had gotten bored while writing Phase IV of Zenith (a story I adore, as it happens) and he'd long since stopped writing for the more independent or adult-oriented British comics. Returning to 2000 AD at this time, particularly in such a juvenile fashion, feels like a step backwards; the Summer Offensive reads like a blind alley, or maybe a bad hangover. I guess it's most notable for featuring his earliest collaborations with Mark Millar on "Big Dave" and in the "Purgatory"/"Inferno" two-fer, but nobody is covering themselves in glory here.

As for Judge Janus, I'm not so sure that she was a last-minute replacement for Anderson. David Bishop quotes Morrison as saying that Janus was "a rave-era character, the kind I was meeting, so she felt more relevant to me than Judge Anderson, who had this kind of dated Debbie Harry vibe." His interviews should always be taken with a grain of salt but since "Inferno" ran concurrently with "Really & Truly," which Morrison boasts was written in a single day while he was high on ecstasy, I'm inclined to believe him about the rave inspiration. Unfortunately, none of that inspiration comes through on the page. Other than a couple of references to karma and Tibetan healing balls she doesn't come across as particularly counter-cultural, and her most distinguishing features (bald head, psychic powers) are about as relevant as Persis Khambatta.

Janus also has the problem that there's no real reason for her to be in the story. All of her psychic insights are duplicated if not trumped by Judge Bhaji (oh dear) and the role of saving Dredd's life is given to his old comedy sidekick Walter the Wobot. Judge Hershey plays the tough-as-nails lady judge, and Janus's only contribution is to note that when a big statue crashes through the city walls, that's a way into the city! Morrison was apparently fond enough of Janus to revisit the character later, but I still can't tell you why. If being offworld was the only thing that kept her out of this story, Judge Anderson should consider herself very lucky indeed.

DOUGLAS: Ouch! That's the first Persis Khambatta reference I've seen in about thirty years, which I guess proves your point. Yes, this does seem like an anomalous Morrison story: I can't think offhand of many other established franchises he's written without at least attempting to come up with some ingenious twist on or deep reading of how that series had previously worked. (Steed and Mrs. Peel? Doctor Who? Zoids?) As you say, he'd just come off of both Animal Man and Doom Patrol, both of which had reached into relatively shallow concepts and found something fascinating within them. It's odd that his three stabs at Dredd (this and the Mark Millar co-writes "Book of the Dead" and "Crusade") don't bother to find a fresh angle on the series at all. That's 181 pages! That's Seaguy + Seaguy II length!

Instead, there's so much horribly clumsy writing here. Morrison asks us to believe that Grice's small team of disgraced, hobbled ex-Judges could drive all the current Judges out of the city (off-panel); that the Grand Hall of Justice is built directly on top of iso-cubes; that Dredd would unblinkingly slaughter a building's worth of prisoners rather than allow them to potentially be freed (although "it was only a parking offence!" strikes me as a very Morrisonian joke--that's one of the two idiomatic moments I mentioned, the other being Janus' Tibetan healing balls); that the Titan escapees would be packed on board a "pre-programmed robot ship" (cough) so Dredd could blow it up; that the Statue of Judgement is perched adjacent to the Cursed Earth, i.e. on the western border of Mega-City One (hint: it's directly adjacent to the Statue of Liberty, which is on the eastern edge of North America); that the Judges would have an oh-well attitude to germ warfare decimating the population of MC1 ("fewer citizens means less crime"--er, that's Judge Death's position); that, after killing a bad guy in a career-record gruesome way, Dredd would go for a James Bond-style one-liner; that hand-to-hand combat between Dredd and Grice could settle the entire problem...

Wagner seems to have ignored "Inferno" altogether, if he even read it. He brought Walter back himself barely six months later in the Megazine's "Giant," in a form that's completely inconsistent with this story, and you'd think his many references circa "Wilderlands" to McGruder's questionable programs might have include a mention of the virus that killed a huge chunk of citizens, but no. So it's interesting that "Day of Chaos," the massive Wagner-written storyline that just concluded after running for most of a year in 2000 AD, is, in some ways, a vastly improved variation on a lot of the plot devices of "Inferno." (It involves psychic premonitions of doom, germ warfare, turncoat Judges, the Statue of Judgment and Hall of Justice attacked...) The key difference, I think, is that Morrison's story is Badass Vs. Bad Guys, and Wagner's focuses on how painfully vulnerable the badasses' system is: in "Day of Chaos," there's nobody for Dredd to shoot to solve the larger problem, and so the story becomes about the Judges struggling to cut their losses.

So what is there to like about "Inferno"? Well... there's Carlos Ezquerra. This was the last major storyline on which he used his classic watercolor technique, and that era's version of his color sense and lighting and those wonderful Mega-City landscapes always makes me happy to see. I love his character work, too--Hershey here genuinely looks a bit older than she had a few years earlier--although his Grice has about as many facial expressions as your typical Fletcher Hanks character.

As far out of control as the writing lineup was getting, this was actually a pretty solid era for Dredd art-wise. For whatever reason, both 2000 AD and the Megazine could afford to commission painted artwork a lot of the time (it's nice to see some Mick Austin artwork that didn't have to be banged out overnight, like the cover below, featuring the aforementioned anthropomorphic bagpipes). The line-art episodes are mostly really attractive too, especially the two drawn by Brett Ewins. Actually, the fancy painted technique sometimes strikes me as overdoing it on the gag episodes from the Megazine; I can only imagine what Ron Smith could've done with "Hottie House Siege." The exception is the Slick Dickens sequence, for which Xuasus' overwrought, marbled pulp-cover style is right on the money (and the switch to David Millgate's art on the final page is a nice touch).

I'm curious: did any of the non-"Inferno" episodes here make a particular impression on you one way or the other?

MARC: Morrison never really wanted to find a fresh angle on Dredd. To go back to David Bishop once again (all of these quotes come from Thrill-Power Overlaod, his history of 2000 AD), Morrison said he took a “filmic” (read: Michael Bay) approach to the character because he couldn’t see anything else to do with him. As he said, “at least Batman also has Bruce Wayne, giving him all of two dimensions. Dredd is just Dredd.” I suspect the Grant Morrison of today would scoff at that description of Batman, but I also suspect the John Wagner of 1993 would scoff at that description of Dredd.

Morrison also compared Dredd to one of his least favorite comic book heroes when he said “the character is now as relevant to the new century as Dan Dare was to the 1970s,” when 2000 AD famously tried and failed to modernize him. Of course, Morrison had written his own profoundly contemptuous revamp a few years earlier in Dare, but at least that book had a point of view. “Inferno” doesn’t even hate Dredd enough to develop a serious critique. Nor does it show any particular affection for him, any desire to revamp him, any effort at making him or his world seem real even on their own ridiculous terms.

And as you note, he usually makes more of an effort even when he’s working on somebody else’s characters. Steed and Mrs. Peel is more or less an Avengers episode in comics form, but it does sneak in a couple of sly digs at the class privileges of Steed’s character and it’s buoyed by Morrison’s obvious fondness for the series. Zoids was a toy tie-in comic, but Morrison not only threw himself into the miserable premise with gusto, he turned it into his first stab at the metafiction that’s come to define his career. “Inferno” just isn’t trying.

I like the parking offense joke, which struck me as a pretty funny parody of a certain popular image of Dredd, but from what you say it sounds like more of a misconception. I guess that’s part of the problem – this is a story written for and by people who don’t read a lot of Judge Dredd. Morrison is ticking off all the established elements (Grice, Hershey, Walter, Cursed Earth, Lawmaster, and one punch that I’m pretty sure is a mirror-image restaging of “Gaze into the fist of Dredd!”), but even a novice like me can tell he isn’t using them with any particular verve. He lets his palpable revulsion at the character override any desire to do something interesting with him.

I enjoy Ezquerra’s art as well – even the dismal “Purgatory” was enlivened by some great caricatures in the riot scenes, and I can’t fault him for the faces when the script saddles all the fugitives with those ridiculous nose thingys (which, as near as I can tell, serve absolutely no purpose in the plot). That said, I think he’s one of the few artists in this volume who’s able to pull off the painted look. With most of his peers, there’s an odd tension between the art’s ambitions (okay, pretensions) to maturity and the scripts’ proclivities for juvenile humor and mindless action – or worse, the art tries to get in on the joke with Bisley-style exaggeration. Ezquerra works because he’s invested in the reality, the internal consistency of Dredd and his world in a way that Morrison never is.

As to the non-“Inferno” episodes, I’d have to share your dire assessment of most of them, but I will confess to liking Slick Dickens. I loved the point you made in your earlier review that this is a character who could only exist in that narrow window after writers decided it was okay, even desirable to include queer characters but before they realized that maybe they shouldn’t make them all flamboyant stereotypes. (For what it’s worth I put Danny the Street in that same window, but at least Danny wasn’t also a serial killer.) Still, there’s something very engaging about the story – the way Dickens’s broadly drawn caricature starts to trickle into the other characters (“What a showman!”), the clever reveal at the end and the accompanying art switch, the deliriously overheated script in general. At least this one is having some fun.

Other stories? The Megazine pieces certainly fare better than their contemporaries in 2000 AD. Whether they’re going for comedy like Slick Dickens or more serious material like the Jigsaw Killer or Mechanismo – well, those aren’t great, but they have the good sense to commit to a direction and take their own premises seriously.

I don’t know, that’s a pretty sorry review, isn’t it? “This collection occasionally achieves mediocrity, and there’s one funny story about a horribly transphobic stereotype. Zarjaz!”


Thanks again to Marc! Next week: the mysterious Amy K. joins me to discuss Galen DeMarco's return to the spotlight in The Scorpion Dance/Beyond the Call of Duty.

Sunday, July 1, 2012

Predator Versus Judge Dredd

(Reprints Predator Versus Judge Dredd #1-3)

A little headache of a book, this, and one of the few really wrongheaded sequences of late-'90s Dredd.

I'm not sure what the Predator franchise has to do with the Judge Dredd franchise, or where the idea of having them meet came from: this wasn't a natural match like the Batman crossovers. I also don't know enough about Predator stuff to have any sense of how well this works as a Predator story. It's a weak, dull Dredd story, though--one long, sadistic fight-and-slaughter sequence with very little sense of suspense or dramatic development. It ran in the Megazine a couple of months after its U.S. appearance (in issues #3.36-3.38), and the first issue of the American version even featured one of Brian Bolland's very-rarely-produced-by-that-point Dredd covers, pictured below.

It'd have been a lot more entertaining if Bolland had drawn the whole thing, but it's a really ugly-looking story, to the point where it's tough to get through. Enrique Alcatena has generally drawn fantasy stuff, rather than hard-edged SF (this is the only time he's ever drawn Dredd). He may or may not have had adequate reference material for the look of Mega-City One--although I doubt it, given the scene on which Schaefer gets into her car, which looks for all the world like a 1972 American model (there's that "outdated automobiles" problem again)--but he clearly wasn't terribly interested in it. And the presence of four colorists suggests that at least some aspect of this book was a serious rush job. Still, I do prefer Alcatena's underslept auxiliary-in-civilian-clothes Schaefer to the boom-boom Anderson lookalike version of Schaefer that Dermot Power drew on his cover for the American miniseries (in front of another, slightly less anachronistic car). 

Parts of Predator Vs. Dredd read little enough like the rest of John Wagner's post-1980 writing that I almost wonder if it was heavily rewritten by somebody. Flipping through it, I see some kind of not-quite-right thing every few pages: "We got a right to a jury trial!"; Dredd narrating his initial fight with the Predator; the reference to "2049th St." (are there numbered streets in any other Dredd story?); Dredd apologetically noting that he's a little short-tempered, then thinking "it's myself I'm angry at" (thought bubbles don't tend to be his way); "C'mon, Tulk! In at the death!"; the "Mark 7 war droids" that resemble neither the Mechanismos nor anything else we've seen, as far as I know... And is it a little weird that one of the decapitated Judges is named Millar?

Anyway. Next week: this blog's first long entry in a while--Marc Singer joins me to discuss The Complete Case Files vol. 19, in which we get our first look at Grant Morrison and Carlos Ezquerra's "Inferno."