Sunday, December 30, 2012

Tour of Duty: The Backlash

(Reprints Judge Dredd stories from 2000 AD Progs 1520, 1536, 1542-1548, Prog 2008, 1569-1575, 1577-1581, 1589-1595, 1600-1603, 1611-1612 and 1628-1633)

As we careen toward the end of this blog (and hit the really good stuff from the past few years), we're going to have a few more special guests; this week I'm delighted to be joined by Jamaal Thomas, one of the geniuses behind Funnybook Babylon. (He also Twitters here and Tumblrs here.) He was kind enough to send over his own bio: "Lifelong reader. Loved comics as a child, fell out of love as a teenager. Started reading again in my twenties. Day job: lawyer and planner (fundraising and program planning/evaluation) for a NY nonprofit. Other: lawyer for small businesses, (occasional) writer/podcaster at Funnybook Babylon."

JAMAAL: Thanks for inviting me to discuss Tour of Duty: The Backlash. It's amazing to see how much the franchise has changed in the years since I read Dredd on a regular basis in the mid-1990s. When I first started reading Dredd books, the tensile permanence of the status quo in Mega-City One made me slightly uncomfortable. The books were filled with military attacks, massacres and riots, but the essential features of Mega-City One - the massive city blocks, brutal justice and absurdly long prison sentences - seemed eternal. Mega-City One felt almost as static as Batman's Gotham City, but far more terrifying. Even as my discomfort waned, the impression stuck with me over the years. 

DOUGLAS: One of the things that's interesting to me about this series, actually, is that the status quo isn't so permanent: every blow the city suffers is one from which it takes a long time to recover; characters age; things slowly crumble. But I think that the Dredd most American readers have encountered is one where everything's pretty much the same: the Grant-Wagner period's stories have been reprinted over and over, but the later material like this has been pretty hard to come by in the States. This is a long-game volume for sure--"The Edgar Case," in particular, is the final piece of a subplot that had been simmering for more than ten years, with dying Judge Edgar taking her friends and herself down just to get one last knife-twist in on Dredd. (The still-unreprinted sequence "The Cal Legacy" is part of the setup there...)

JAMAAL: Even though I knew that time was continuing to pass in this world, there was still a small piece of me that was surprised to read a Dredd story that shows us a MC1 in decline, and an aging Dredd grappling with his legacy and struggling to define himself in a changing world. It’s particularly noticeable in the stories illustrated by Patrick Goddard ("Fifty-Year Man," "The Edgar Case"). I'm so used to reading adventure comics that take place in an eternal present that Goddard's depiction of a slowly aging Dredd was slightly jarring. Goddard’s Dredd is still a powerful figure, but the decades of battles had taken their toll. It felt like we were watching the beginning of the end of Dredd’s story. I loved MacNeil, Fraser and Dyer’s contributions to The Backlash, but Goddard’s was the one that haunted me the most. I don’t think I’ve ever seen Dredd as tormented as he was in "Fifty-Year Man" or "The Edgar Case."

DOUGLAS: I love the title of "Fifty-Year Man," in particular, because it's easy to read as "Fifty-Year-Old Man"--and Dredd hadn't even been that for a while. This particular story was, as I understand, planned to appear in the 30th anniversary issue of 2000 AD (it was pushed back a bit because of the delays in "Origins"), and the point is that when Dredd first appeared he'd already been on the force for 20 years--so he's now been on the streets for fifty years. Goddard actually strikes me as the most "American-style" of the significant British Dredd artists; I can imagine his artwork in an issue of, say, Amazing Spider-Man much more easily than Nick Dyer's or Rufus Dayglo's, for instance.

But yes, the tormented Dredd is a relatively recent phenomenon. (I think John Wagner had occasionally written omniscient-but-basically-from-Dredd's-POV captions before, but he's been doing it in earnest from "Fifty-Year Man" onward.) When Wagner and Alan Grant tried it with the "A Case for Treatment" sequence in the early '80s, it didn't quite work--it seemed to run in opposition to some of what readers understood about the character. This time, it's right on the money, especially since "Fifty-Year Man" ran immediately after "Origins." ("The Streets of Dan Francisco" actually ran during "Origins," as a fill-in.) Dredd's just had everything he knows about the world upended, and he's shaken--but he's not willing to let on. Maybe the most effective "no, seriously, time has passed" gesture in that story is Mean Machine's cameo appearance: one of Dredd's classic adversaries, now old and decrepit and harmless. In any other series, Dredd would be right that Mean's putting on an act and planning to go right back to his Yosemite Sam act the moment he gets out. In this one, that's it--Mean's been shuffled off for good, it appears.

JAMAAL: There was something genuinely tragic about that scene with Mean Machine. In some sense, was Wagner showing us who Mean Machine always was - an unstable disabled man with a malfunctioning implant? I couldn't help but wonder if Mean's "rehabilitation" can be attributed to his advanced age or the repair of his implant (and removal of his claw arm). I'm sure that it's some mix of both, but it changes our view of Mean Machine.

Wagner also presents a far more complicated Dredd than the one who lives in my memory. He’s more measured and pensive and far less assured. He seems to recognize the human impact of his actions and is even questioning his legacy. At the same time, Wagner doesn't let the reader forget that Dredd's motives aren't entirely pure. "Origins" did open his eyes to the possibility that the system was broken (the most heartbreaking moment in the story was when the dying Fargo told him that the system wasn’t meant to last forever), but there's something meaningful about the fact that Dredd only developed a commitment to justice after being personally affected by the laws. He only recognized the humanity of the mutants when he found out that some of his relatives were mutants too - it offsets some of the sympathy the reader develops for Dredd, but makes him seem more fully human.

He's slowly evolving. Early on, we see Dredd behave sympathetically toward the parents of a mutant baby. He gets involved in the world of Mega-City One politics. Wagner shows us a Dredd chafing against his external and internal limitations (he does a particularly brilliant job of this in "The Edgar Case"). But he can only go so far. Although he's a tactical genius, his strategy frequently comes up short - not only does he underestimate the potential backlash to mutant law reform, he seriously misreads sentiment within the judicial forces. The street violence and petty corruption are just distractions, and even when Dredd is aware of that, he is unable to avoid them. He has to be focused on the small picture, it’s just fundamental to his nature (I guess that this is one of the reasons he never ran for Chief Judge). Wagner does a great job of subtly forcing Dredd out of his comfort zone. The stakes aren't just different, they feel elevated.  Dredd may be a hyper-competent judge, but he's still a naif in the world of politics.

DOUGLAS: Absolutely. Dredd's never really been written as a fully sympathetic character, and I particularly like the sympathy switcheroo Wagner pulls off here: he pretty much spells it out that discrimination against the mutants is totally wrong, then gets Dredd to do the right thing for the wrong reasons, and sets it up so that "doing the right thing" is incredibly problematic and not easy to defend (and brings down Hershey, too). Same thing with Dan Francisco: he's a cheesy glory-hound, and the familiar action-comics formula has gigantic neon signs saying "this guy is actually a corrupt, incompetent bastard" with arrows pointing at him. But Francisco turns out to be a reasonably competent cop himself, with a talent for playing to the cameras; he's an ideologue, but he genuinely has the convictions he claims.

And yes, of course Dredd can't see the forest for the trees; in a lot of ways, neither can the Judges as a group. This volume makes it even clearer that they can deal with immediate threats of violence, but not with systemic corruption. (Even the bit about the crime boss who had his larynx replaced with a robotic voice to evade lie detectors--which I think had also shown up in "Mandroid" a few years earlier--suggests that they can't do much about certain major crime problems they know exist.)

JAMAAL: After "The Streets of Dan Francisco," I expected that Francisco would turn out to be corrupt or have feet of clay. I even suspected that he would be the antagonist for this arc. I wonder if we're meant to see Francisco as an updated version of Dredd (as iconic street judge) for an era in which public perception and media savvy have become more important. I’m also fascinated by Wagner’s emphasis on Mega-City One’s internal politics (although there’s plenty of traditional crime-busting action). It’s interesting to see how the will of the citizens is expressed in an explicitly authoritarian society.

I may be reading too much into this book, but it felt a lot like a passion-play of post-Civil War America. There was something eerily familiar about the way that citizens define themselves against the "other," and their willingness to use terrorist tactics to enforce a tyranny of the majority against a discrete and insular minority. The violence that pervades "Mutie Block" and "Backlash" were reminders that the Judge-monopoly on the use of force and violence was tenuous (you even see this in Al Ewing and Simon Fraser’s hilarious "Mutopia," when Dredd states that almost half the citizens of Mega-City One are capable military tacticians). The end of the book is a sad reminder that domestic terror is an effective way to subvert official policy.

DOUGLAS: Oh, there's all kinds of political commentary going on in this one--I don't think it's possible to read "The Facility" and "The Secret of Mutant Camp 5" without thinking of Guantanamo Bay (or, for that matter, of Potemkin villages, various sorts of American internment camps, and so forth).

JAMAAL: Agreed. I think Wagner did a great job of balancing commentary relevant to our current state of affairs with universal political themes. The mutant drama seemed to be an  allegory for post-Civil War America, but could easily be applied to any aggrieved minority striving for equality' story. I don't know anything about Wagner's personal politics, but I'm also struck by the ambivalence of the political messages in this volume. The mutant story can be read as a critique of the violence that surrounds the expansion of political rights or as a cautionary tale about an overbearing government imposing change from above before the people were ready. The camp sequences evoked our tradition of detaining suspect groups (and deception around the detention), but also suggested that they just needed better regulation and oversight. I wonder if this reflects Wagner's political philosophy or if he's aiming for political ambiguity to keep things timeless.

I fear that I’m making this book sound like a bit of a downer. It’s also a ton of fun. While Wagner tells his big political story, the individual episodes and arcs constantly shift in genre and tone, which complemented the style of the individual artists. Colin MacNeil's clean style and clear storytelling aligns perfectly with the frontier justice meets the Silver Age style of the mutant-camp sections of the book as well as the more modern feel of "The Life and Crimes of PJ Maybe." Nick Dyer's more cartoony style matches the lighter tone of the Fargo visit. When Wagner switches to a more noirish style, Goddard is there to meet him in the darkness. And, of course, Kev Walker captures the dark humor of Dredd in his unique fashion. When the backlash finally hits, Carl Critchlow's loose style leads us through the chaos.

DOUGLAS: The stories reprinted here are from another one of Wagner's periods of stepping his game up--in this case, integrating the satirical and dramatic and violent sides of the series more tightly than ever. The funniest piece in the book is probably Ewing and Fraser's X-Men parody "Mutopia"--can't have a book about human-mutant relations without having a one-eyed mutant named Scott, a manipulative professor, and so on. But there's something amusing (or at least grimly amusing) in almost every story here: the subtle mock-documentary format of "Mutieblock," the "Tree Ham" ("suitable for vegetarians"), Quilp good-naturedly agreeing to kill his co-workers, Dredd automatically giving his niece's friend the third degree...

JAMAAL: Don't forget about the Fargo clan! I expected the grim humor, but was pleasantly surprised by the lighter, funnier stuff in this volume. It's a great contrast to the darker elements of the book. I was also pretty impressed by Wagner's balance of episodic and long-form storytelling. I imagine that it must be difficult to satisfy monthly readers (especially when the story is part of an ongoing anthology) while telling an epic narrative.

I've got to say, this volume is surprisingly dense... and that's not even touching on the terrific procedurals littered throughout the story. I feel like I'm barely scratching the surface of this - there are all the parallels between Dredd, Francisco and Beeny, the mystery of PJ Maybe (I suspected that he was going to play a greater role in the story) and the surveillance motif that runs through the story.

DOUGLAS: The surveillance motif has been an ongoing one--although it was a big part of the Judge Edgar sequence, in particular. But the rest of what you mention has a lot to do with the fact that this is really the first of a two-volume story: "Tour of Duty" proper, the sequence that ran in 2000 AD #1650-1693, is collected in Tour of Duty: Mega-City Justice (which this blog will be getting to in a few weeks), and this one is really pretty much the immediate set-up for it. In particular, yeah, the PJ Maybe business doesn't pay off in this volume; that happens much more in the next. It would have been useful to see "The Gingerbread Man"--in which PJ-as-Ambrose is elected mayor--in this volume, although it turned up in The Henry Flint Collection. And Beeny's history and significance aren't really clear unless you've read "Fading of the Light" and "Cadet," but she's an absolutely terrific character, and I've been glad to see Wagner continuing to use her.

JAMAAL: Ah, that explains a lot. I've got to read the second volume of the story (and "The Gingerberad Man"). Yeah, Wagner's depiction of Beeny was a real highlight of this volume. It's fascinating to see how other judges solve mysteries, particularly less experienced ones. That may also explain why Maybe-Ambrose wasn't killing more people and seemed like a reasonably competent mayor. I know, I know, he killed his biographer and planned on killing a young killer inspired by his legacy, but I was surprised that he wasn't secretly massacring dozens of people. Some quick final thoughts: 

*I haven’t seen Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln yet, but after reading the PJ Maybe arc, I suspect that the political procedural may have benefited from a murder mystery/thriller plot.

*Wagner should have showed us more interrogation/torture scenes. We should see the price of "justice" in Mega City One.

*Am I the only one who wants to read a Nick Dyer-drawn Wildy (Fargo Clan member who solved the Larssen kidnapping with his unusually powerful sense of smell)/Judge Beeny adventure?

*Is Judge Francisco Judge Dredd 2.0? Is he the ideal/iconic judge for the modern Mega City One?

*Did you read this story as it was being released? I imagine that this reads very differently in serial format.

DOUGLAS: Good questions! I think there've been a lot of terrific/scary interrogation scenes in the series over the years--maybe to the point where it's almost a cliché--but Wagner rarely pulls a Zero Dark Thirty: the torture in "Total War" yields nothing of value, Dredd and De Gaulle get nothing but corrosive enmity out of their respective humiliating grillings of each other in "The Executioner" and "The Interrogation," etc.

Is there a Dredd 2.0? That's been a big question for a long time, too--Kraken was obviously one candidate, Rico II is another, and I really like Ewing's suggestion in an interview a few weeks ago that as far as he's concerned it's Giant Jr. Francisco, though, seems like another kind of character altogether; as we can see from the way Dredd treats the media in "Fifty-Year Man" and "Mutieblock," neither of them really has any patience for the way the other does things.

I actually didn't read any of this volume as it was being serialized (with the exception of "The Spirit of Christmas"). I read 2000 AD weekly--or as often as I could find copies, which rarely showed up weekly at whatever American comic book store I was frequenting at the time--from Prog 253 or so (smack in the middle of "The Apocalypse War") until around Prog 1350, at which point I moved across the country and the weekly issues' spotty availability became non-availability. I think the only issues I was able to pick up over the next few years were actually the ones almost immediately after this volume: #1637-1639, with Gordon Rennie and Paul J. Holden's "It Came from Bea Arthur Block" (because Bea Arthur, that's why). ...And then when Wagner was announced as writing a long storyline that started with #1740, right around the time I started this blog, I got back on board, and have been following it ever since. Boy was that ever a good idea.


A quick bibliographical note: This volume collects 42 episodes from about a two-year span. The as-yet-unreprinted material that ran during this time includes the Gordon Rennie-written serials "Judgement" and "Road Stop," the conclusion of Ian Edginton and D'Israeli's time-travel trilogy, a bunch of Robbie Morrison-written one-offs, and the Wagner/Paul Marshall ten-parter "The Ecstasy," which is one of those "sometimes Homer nods" situations.

Thanks again to Jamaal! Next week: back to the Low Life, with Mega-City Undercover 2.

Sunday, December 23, 2012

The Garth Ennis Collection

(Reprints Judge Dredd stories from 2000 AD Progs 727-732, 775, 780-785, 804-807, 810-814 and 819, and Judge Joyce story from The Judge Dredd Yearbook 1993)

Wait, didn't we cover these already? ...Almost. Most of Garth Ennis's Dredd stories have already appeared in the Case Files series, and some of them have been reprinted several times over in various formats. The one previously unreprinted piece here is the Steve Dillon-drawn seven-page Judge Joyce throwaway "When Irish Pies Are Smiling," another entry in Ennis's "bumbling Irish criminals" sub-subgenre. (And the three Ennis-written Dredd-universe stories that I mentioned last week as not being in here are the John Higgins-drawn "Monkey on My Back," from 2003, which is distinctly reprint-worthy, and the lesser spinoffs The Corps and Sleeze 'n' Ryder.)

Otherwise, this is a decent sampling of Ennis's spotty tenure on Dredd, featuring both of the significant Dredd-and-Joyce sequences ("Emerald Isle" and "Innocents Abroad")--the former holds up particularly well--plus "Raider," praised on the inside front cover by Karl Urban, and some shorter stuff. It'd have been nice to see a bit more historical context; Greg Staples' brief commentary on the same inside front cover is about all there is here.

Still, this makes sense for an audience that's going to be picking this up for the writer credit on its cover more than than for the guy with the gun. These are arguably the Dredd stories that most anticipate, in germinal form, the tone and themes of at least some of Ennis's later comics. (He does love his gross-outs: human eyes turn up in processed food in both "Emerald Isle" and "Irish Pies.") It's interesting that Ennis found most of his enduring collaborators right out of the gate--John McCrea on Troubled Souls (the only Ennis/McCrea Dredd piece was "The Craftsman," which doesn't appear here), Carlos Ezquerra on "Death Aid" (Ennis's first published Dredd story), Steve Dillon on "Emerald Isle" (his second). I do wonder, actually, what a more extensive Ennis/John Burns project might be like, absent the shiny costumes and such of "Raider"--Burns is particularly good at drawing fraught moments and significant glances, and that's right in Ennis's wheelhouse.

Next week: back to longer discussions, as Jamaal Thomas and I take on the ferocious Tour of Duty: The Backlash.

Sunday, December 16, 2012


(Reprints Judge Dredd stories from 2000 AD Progs 1500-1519 and 1529-1535)

This week, we've gotten to one of the biggest Judge Dredd stories, so we've got two special guests to discuss it with! Sara Ryan is the author of two award-winning young adult novels, Empress of the World and The Rules for Hearts, and has written some terrific minicomics; Dark Horse will be publishing her and Carla Speed McNeil's graphic novel Bad Houses. Gordon Dahlquist is the author of the Victorian fantasy thrillers The Glass Books of the Dream, The Dark Volume and The Chemickal Marriage, as well as a whole lot of plays. I was delighted to talk to both of them about Origins.

DOUGLAS: Origins has to be one of the oddest origin stories I've ever seen in comics. For one thing, it's an "origin" that showed up thirty years and 1500-plus episodes into its series--after decades' worth of hints about the backstory it revealed. For another, it's not really Judge Dredd's origin, or rather there was nothing all that secret about his origins. We knew that he and Rico were clones of Fargo, that he had no real memories of anything before he entered the Academy of Law, and that we'd first seen him in 2099, when he'd already been a Judge for twenty years. (The "revelation" about him here was mostly that his cloning process had been accelerated, which was a bit of retroactive continuity explaining how he could have been born in 2066 and joined the force in 2079.)

It's not entirely clarifying on the subject of Fargo's early life and career; Dredd points out that the expository movie he sees in Fargoville is partly falsified. (That may have a bit to do with the messy and slightly contradictory information about Fargo that had turned up earlier in the series, when John Wagner and company were more or less winging it; Origins doesn't even touch on the Arden Polders business from "The Cal Files.") It also elides over most of the Pat Mills universe's putative connection to the Dreddverse; if the chaos of the 21st century started with a Volgan invasion of Britain in 1999, Wagner doesn't touch on it here (but also doesn't contradict it).

What Origins is the origin of is mostly how Dredd's world got to be as horribly messed up as it is. It's been pointed out more than a few times that the real subject of the series isn't Dredd himself--that he's basically the catalyst for stories about Mega-City One, and about the Judge system. Wagner had also been hinting for many years that there was a "big lie": that the Judges' power was fundamentally illegitimate, or that they weren't worthy of it. Fargo's inability to abide by his own rules is part of his "original sin," although arguably the greater error is that he isn't able to forgive himself for it, putting his honor above the greater public good. The payoff of this story is its next-to-last scene, in which the dying Fargo (who's not only effectively Dredd's father but his other self) disavows the system he created--the world-view that's the only one Dredd has ever known ("It was never meant to be forever, Joe!")--and Dredd lies about it to cover it up in the very next scene.

The amount of backstory here means that Origins is also heavily weighted toward info-dump, which is unusual for a series whose hallmark is usually worldbuilding-in-passing. There's a bit of present-day plot near the beginning (and I kind of think the biggest misstep in the story is that it instantly gets sidetracked into the subplot with the mutants), and then chapter after chapter of rattled-off history until it finally gets to the big fight scene at Booth's compound.

So my first question for the two of you is a broad one: What's an origin for? Why do we, as serial readers, always want to know about a character's (or setting's) beginnings? How much is it possible to imply about a science-fictional world before you have to sit down and spell out its internal workings? What do you think Dredd gained or lost by deferring this story for thirty years, and by finally telling it--and what does this one tell you, or suggest to you, as readers who are getting your first exposure to the series at this point?

SARA: I think an origin story is a kind of reverse fortune-telling. It's just as compelling as the standard variety, but instead of asking what's going to happen, you're finding out what happened then that made things the way they are now. And particularly in a speculative fiction context, with an origin story you're working your way back to the "what if?" questions that the creators asked themselves to generate the setting and characters; in this case, what if a combination of social unrest and political corruption gave rise to the professionalization of vigilante-style justice as a means of keeping order? 

And Douglas -- even though you explain that it isn't actually Dredd's origin and I believe you -- as a new reader, that is how I read it; the macrocosm origin of the world-as-it-is-now juxtaposed with the microcosm of Dredd's place in it. 

I also experienced it as a mashup. Within the overarching genre of 'origin story', we go through a lot of other genres, and every time another one showed up, it was like hearing another hook. And there was a self-aware quality to the narrative; I liked the moment in "The Connection" when one judge explains to another that the box (which we don't know yet contains a sample of Fargo's tissue) is a Maguffin. (I also really liked the name 'Brad Pitt Eldsters' Condo,' although I was somewhat disappointed to read it in full, since when the words "Brad Pitt" first appeared, I interpreted them as a sound effect to associate with the cars that were also present in that panel.) 

"How much is it possible to imply about a science-fictional world before you have to sit down and spell out its internal workings?"

I think you don't ever have to spell them out; it's often the case that a reader can fill in the gaps more compellingly than the writer(s). And yet there's also a readerly appetite for consistent, resonant worldbuilding, especially when, in the words of the immortal Lester Freamon of The Wire, "all the pieces matter."

GORDON: Well, it seems like one reason to keep world-origins fuzzy in science-fiction is the same as to make your character embody a few big ideas - justice, violence, law, order - without necessarily cluttering that up with a bunch of sidebar stuff, like 'emotional complexity'. I don't mean that negatively, and I don't mean JD can't be emotionally complex - just that this structure allows the complexity to rest more in the realm of ideas than in personal dynamics, and that seems a pretty classic way of structuring things in sci-fi. Which is maybe only to say, that when you have characters who are even broadly emblematic, then whatever they're doing carries an automatic interplay between those embedded ideas and an immediate story line, and their creators have an enormous and ongoing flexibility about what they can address, since the given circumstances aren't so much bound by fact as theme. Which is really a long way round to say that my first response to Origins was to wonder "Why now, after all this time, when things were going so well? Weren't they?"

My sense is that Origins doesn't speak so much to Dredd's actual conception - that is, material they didn't have time to address or include at the time - as much as how our world might have changed in the meantime. I can't read the subplot about Booth exploiting computerized voting to steal an election without thinking of Diebold's disputed role in various elections, especially Ohio in 2004. Booth's plotting feels well in the range of standard, internalized 2006 paranoia - and however extreme the consequences for the world, those sections of Origins strike me as weirdly prosaic. Similarly, while we hadn't seen the Tea Party by 2006, certainly the worst of post-9/11 nationalism can be seen to inform Booth's ideologies. So one question I have about Dredd's origin is whether it comes when the necessarily paranoid machinations have become more credible?

My other question was about the info-dumping. I found "The Connection" to be a pretty crisp trail of mayhem with a genuine mystery at its center, and while "Origins" definitely follows up that mystery, it's nowhere near as crisp in its story-telling - again, so deliberate is this that I don't even mean it as a criticism, just an observation. Sara's point about mashups struck me as well. "Origins" repeatedly swerves between the quest for Fargo itself and a handful of extreme side-trips - and hook is a good way to describe the way each manages to seem relevant as much because we recognize it as because what happens naturally follows. But of course, I don't know if the short-hand here - mutants! Mad Max! Westerns! - is itself old news to anyone who's actually up on past excursions through the Cursed Earth. Or is it that narrative structure gets mutated there as much as anything else?

DOUGLAS: Dredd is fundamentally unknowable in some ways; he's the embodiment of justice without goodness, of a person subsumed by the law. The most obvious symbol of that, famously, is that we never see his full face. (Which leads to some visual side-stepping in "Origins": since Dredd's a clone of Fargo, he would of course look like him, so we never get to see Fargo's face either! He's always wearing his riot gear, or a football helmet, or in too long a shot to make out his features, and so on.) Still, you can't publish 2100-plus episodes about a character without at least hinting at some kind of interiority; the compromise with Dredd is that he denies having emotional complexity, even to himself.

You're right about the relative narrative murkiness of "Origins," Gordon. The best long Dredd stories have some kind of very solid structure--the constant escalation of "The Apocalypse War," the focal shifts of "Necropolis," the gradual convergence of "Trifecta," the domino-setup/knockdown of "Day of Chaos." But the climax of "Origins"' action, the showdown with Booth's people, doesn't have a lot to do with the information it's been throwing at us; the emotional climax is Fargo's deathbed confession, which still doesn't quite hold together everything that's come before it.

That's also a really good point about narrative structure getting mutated in the Cursed Earth. Mutants/Mad Max/westerns is indeed the usual formula there, but what also tends to happen is that everything gets really jumpy and episodic. That may be a function of the way that particular setting was established (a 25-part serial that mostly subdivides into pretty-much-self-contained increments, four of whose episodes are permanently out of print), but the idea that "the way the story's expected to go gets derailed" is also true of a few other Cursed Earth stories, especially "The Hunting Party" and, most famously, "The Dead Man"...

As for the "why now": it might have been that a lot of the best Dredd stories in the five years or so leading up to "Origins" had circled around the Fargo bloodline, or had directly addressed the force of history. ("Cadet," one of the most effective Wagner stories to make use of many years having passed since an earlier sequence, ran in the Megazine at the same time as "Origins"!) Or it might have been that there had been so many stories addressing the backstory piecemeal that it had to get codified before it got impossibly tangled. No idea.

Sara, I like your comment about genre mashups too. One of the things that's particularly interesting to me about this series is that it's wide open in terms of genre--the character and setting are almost flavor enhancers for whatever you combine them with. There are good-to-great Dredd sequences that are undiluted slapstick, body horror, Westerns, war stories, police procedurals, thrillers, and on and on. There's almost always at least a little comedy in there, though. The hillbilly stuff in "Origins" generally seems a bit forced, but I did crack up at Booth's fate: "We want another president, we can always elect one. That's democracy, ain't it?" (And, again, what a perfect name for the final American President, shared with a Presidential assassin...)

GORDON: I also appreciated the humor that runs throughout, both the this-is-how-it-works-here gags like Dredd being flogged and doing back-breaking manual labor still wearing his riot helmet, and the guignol slapstick like the unlucky leaders of Fargoville who've tried to use the Judges' weapons and stand gobsmacked looking at their bloody stumps (cue sad yokel trombone). But the cynicism behind the entire Origins narrative demonstrates another, darker vein of humor, a blasted irony where even the honest efforts of the various hard-working judges are seen to be in service of a routinely corrupted and misunderstood ideal. It's this darkness that I've always associated with Dredd, despite not having read it - and frankly, what surprises me most in Origins is how the narrative takes pains to portray the Judges struggling to to keep Fargo's legacy - Solomon, Goodman, etc. - in such a positive light. While I assumed that the martial-law violence of Dredd came from a fundamental pessimism about the human character - that, on some level, or in many circumstances, Dredd's actions made sense - there's also a lot of old Roman virtue on display as well. Despite that end-note of Fargo repudiating his work, the villain of the piece - and the destroyer of worlds - is clearly Booth, and only for the Judges was anything saved at all. So even in that last moment - which I agree, is the emotional climax - I'm unsure what impact his revelation is supposed to have, since in Origins, at least, the Judges seem the best of a battered world. Or is it that no one looks back upon their origins without feeling regret?

One more thing, too, about the "why now" - or maybe I just can't let go of the topicality. But as an American, I can't read Fargo's last words that "it wasn't supposed to be forever" and not think about the Bush/Cheney national security state, something that's only become more deeply entrenched under Obama. While the nuclear scenarios in Origins that lead to the Cursed Earth and the other destroyed Mega-Cities may seem like a sci-fi cliche we (fingers crossed) have moved past, almost everything else seems perfectly credible as an outgrowth of our present, even up to the environmental destruction.

DOUGLAS: I agree that it's pretty fascinating that Origins' fascists generally aren't shown as being evil or megalomaniacal; they genuinely believe they're doing what's best. Booth, on the other hand, is nakedly an American exceptionalist--remember, this is a series by and (mostly) for British people: "Foreign states have been every opportunity to come to a reasonable settlement over their reserves. Foolishly, they insist on holding our country to ransom." Ouch!

One of my favorite tricks in this series, though, and one that's come up here a few times, is that it's constantly switching where its readers' sympathies lie. Mega-City One is, absolutely, a national security state: a "war on crime" with exactly as much of its concluding conditions defined as our world's "war on terrorism." (Maybe Fargo's real error was not figuring out how the Judges' reign could end.) The bitter twist is that it has in no way made its citizens safer, and a lot of the worst things that have happened to the city, including Chaos Day and what Hershey refers to in #1812 as "the Titan rebellion" (I see what she did there), are directly or indirectly the Judges' fault--they're consequences of the Judges' actions, at least.

Origins is almost totally a story from the Judges' point of view, so of course they're the protectors of the broken world in it; the more distance any story in that world gets from them, the more they look like the ones who broke it. A state whose citizens are forced to be lawful is not at all the same thing as a state whose citizens are helped to be good. That reminds me, actually, that there's a sharp insight in Simon Spurrier, Al Ewing and Rob Williams' discussion at Comic Book Resources of the crossover that just concluded between Dredd and two spinoffs involving undercover Judges, The Simping Detective and Low Life: that those three series' protagonists each occupy the Venn-diagram intersection of two of the three categories "good," "lawful" and "sane"...

Let's talk a little about the visual side of Origins--"The Connection," drawn by Kev Walker (who had previously drawn a couple of mood-intensive Dredd stories in 2002 and 2005) and "Origins" itself, drawn by Carlos Ezquerra, Dredd's co-creator. Before I say anything more, though, I'm curious about your thoughts.

SARA: I'm not sure I have much of interest to say about the art. I was struck by the frequency of panels featuring giant heads (which strategy, I am informed, is technically known as Large Vignetted Inset Closeups), and also of figures breaking panel borders. I loved the way the mutants were drawn, and felt like there was something Northern-Renaissance-grotesque about the approach; the hat-wearing wood-carrier in the beginning of "Legacy" would be right at home in a Bosch or Brueghel painting. And paging through the issues quickly again, I note a lot of purple tones throughout, which made me think of the book that analyzes the symbolism of color palettes in film, If It's Purple, Someone's Gonna Die: The Power of Color In Visual Storytelling -- implying, perhaps, that someone's always gonna die in the world of Dredd. 

GORDON: Douglas, I have to say that my first reaction is to prefer Kev Walker's art for "The Connection." The clean lines and sparse compositions - mainly setting simply drawn figures against an all-but-monochrome field - foreground the noirish procedural plot pretty effectively, and deftly throw the focus onto Dredd's internal process. In contrast, Ezquerra's art strikes me as oddly crude, a weird mix of too much detail and broad, coarse characterization. And yet, I can't deny that this coarseness fits the black humor and the ultraviolence. I might not like it per se, but no doubt it carries a charge. How much of this is about Dredd being a non-American comic, I wonder? There's a slickness to "The Connection" - it reminds me of the few Hellboy comics I've read - that seems very consistent with American comics. But Ezquerra's art seems really non-American to me, or at the least quite out of the mainstream. I'd be curious what your take on the art is, and how Ezquerra's art works in dialogue with the other visual takes on Dredd's world. It's interesting to me that, if his is the mainstay art, or the template, that the comic would stray so far in different directions.

DOUGLAS: One of the ways that Dredd's unusual in British and European comics is that there isn't necessarily a single "definitive" artist associated with the look of the series--or, rather, there are lots of different ideas about who the definitive artist would be. Americans often tend to think that it's Brian Bolland, who drew most of the phenomenal early covers for the 1983 Eagle Comics reprint series--the first exposure a lot of Americans had to the character. (The one that appears above was for a reprint of the part of "The Cursed Earth" that introduced President Booth.) The image on the cover of Origins is, I believe, the final 2000 AD cover Bolland's drawn to date.  

But I've also talked to people who think the definitive Dredd artist is Ezquerra (his work is always at least interesting, and when he's on, it's on), or Ron Smith (who drew the weekly newspaper strip for its early years). Ben Saunders waved the flag for Mike McMahon, whose work I totally didn't get when I first encountered it thirty years ago, and now love. Al Ewing named Henry Flint in an interview last week, and it's hard to argue with that, given the way Flint's been knocking it out of the park lately. You could make a solid case for Cliff Robinson, who drew the image of the cadets below. And so on.

Ezquerra's an interesting case, though, because his stuff is so idiomatically unlike American mainstream comics. (And that's a good point, Gordon, about how Hellboy-ish Walker's art on "The Connection" looks, although I think some of that may be that his color sense shares something with Hellboy colorist Dave Stewart's.) Ezquerra's a European artist through-and-through--a European pulp artist, really, with his background in Westerns and war stories. (I can't think of any other American artist who does the sort of thick, scalloped lines that he tends to use for the contours of Dredd's helmet.) He's drawn a few American comics, virtually always working with Garth Ennis or Wagner or Grant... and it's true that his work is really coarse-looking at times, but that grit is a lot of the fun of it for me. In a lot of ways, his work reminds me of Steve Ditko's; neither of them can get very near "pretty," but they do "grotesque," both people and spaces, really well, and they're incredibly good at communicating complicated action visually. We don't get a lot of that here--the action of "Origins" is sparse and mostly straightforward--but we get a few tastes of it, like the escape from the hospital. That's the Ezquerra I love as much as the one who draws Brueghelesque mutants.


Thanks again to Gordon and Sara! Next week, an unexpected addition to our running order: The Garth Ennis Collection. But what previously unreprinted-in-book-form Dreddverse Ennis story ended up in there--and which three didn't? (If you know already, sssh, no telling!)

Sunday, December 9, 2012


(Reprints Judge Dredd stories from 2000 AD Progs 1453-1464 and 1555-1566)

We've got another special guest this week. Rachel Edidin has thought more about the internal workings of comics than just about anyone else I know. She's an Associate Editor at Dark Horse Comics, tweets at @RaeBeta, Tumblrs at Postcards from Space, Scrapscallion and Kevin!, led the legendary Idiot Nerd Girl meme-coup, co-edited the Pete & Pete zine Waiting for October, and wrote a story in the issue of Womanthology: Space (#3) that came out this week. I had the pleasure of discussing the collection of "Mandroid" and "Mandroid: Instrument of War" with her.

RACHEL: I came into Mandroid completely cold: I'd been wanting to read 2000 AD for a while, but when you asked me to do this, I decided it would be more interesting for both of us if I held off. So, this is my first and only Judge Dredd: No comics, no movie, not even Wikipedia.

Given my Dredd virginity, the intimidating volume of material that technically precedes Mandroid, and the notoriously intricate chaos of the world (worlds?) of 2000 AD, I went into this expecting to be confused, and I was pleasantly surprised at how accessible it proved. John Wagner's very good at integrating information into dialogue that's not otherwise expository, and he's written himself a premise that allows for a lot of Mega-City 101 lessons without the impression of infodumping, as Nate and Kitty struggle to navigate first the city and later the justice system. Plus, it's part police procedural, which is a signed, sealed, and laminated license to exposit.

Speaking of the justice system, the one place I found myself consistently confused was with the Judges themselves. They might be designed to represent a faceless, fascist system, and it's done well enough that I have a hell of a time telling them apart, which I'm obviously supposed to be able to do easily. I can't. I had to poke around for clues and re-read sections, and it screwed up the pacing, and I suspect there's a whole lot of ongoing intrajudicial intrigue and drama that sailed straight over my head.

DOUGLAS: Good point on police procedurals as an excuse for exposition--Dredd is sometimes, if not always, that. (Sometimes it's a comedy, sometimes it's a straight-up action piece, sometimes it's something else altogether.)

One very odd thing about Kev Walker's artwork on the first "Mandroid" sequence--that's a Walker cover above, by the way--is that he doesn't show anyone's badges, which are usually a useful sign of which Judges we're seeing. (When he shows us one who isn't Dredd, he usually still gives us some visual indication that it's somebody else: Tillson in part 2 is a trainee, which is why he's wearing a white helmet, and the other Judges in part 6 don't have Dredd's jawline.) And while there's a touch of intradepartmental intrigue in Mandroid (the SJS stuff near the end), there's actually not nearly as much as there usually is: Dredd is, unusually, the only recurring character who appears in this sequence.

Here's a question for you: as somebody who knows the internal clockwork of American comics very well, what seems formally different to you about this stuff (other than page dimensions and six-page episodes)?

RACHEL: Honestly, not much that can't be accounted for by the larger format. If you'd told me this was an American book, I wouldn't have blinked. I don't know how much of that is era-specific--I came into comics mid-Vertigo, post-British Invasion, so it could be that what an older reader might see as specifically British comics sensibilities are, to me, what a significant swath of comics have always looked like.

That said, the difference in what you can do with pacing and layout in a larger page is really striking.

Do you know if Wagner wrote the first Mandroid story with a sequel in mind? It's such a quasi-conclusive ending--Slaughterhouse limbless, in prison; and coming back two years later to start a story with his escape--still limbless, mind you--is both straight-up insane and a little brilliant.

DOUGLAS: I have no idea! Wagner doesn't talk much about his long-term plans--he talks about his work, in general, as little as he can get away with--but he does tend to let stuff sit for a long time, and if he hasn't actually killed a character off, that means it's a character we stand some chance of seeing again at some point. The third "Chief Judge's Man" story, for instance, appeared almost two years after the second, the idea being that Armon Gill has been rotting in jail for a long time, waiting for his contact to come through... and Vienna showed up again close to twenty years after her first appearance.

RACHEL: Yeah, but "jail-break after two years of rotting in jail" and "jail-break after two years of rotting in jail while fully dismembered" are two pretty different animals. the former is pretty standard sequel fodder; the latter is such a direct inversion of what's usually a decisive end to a story--Johnny Got His Gun notwithstanding--that it's hard to imagine it wasn't set up as such.

DOUGLAS: True enough--except in mainstream comics, where if you see the corpse the character might be dead, and if you don't the character definitely isn't. To be fair, "dead is dead" usually applies in the Dreddverse, with very few exceptions.

RACHEL: But, again, usually not dismembered! In some ways, that kind of mutilation is more final than death in comics.

As for the exposition I mentioned earlier, I'd love to test it out--tell you how I think the world works based just on the story, and see how close I am to the real deal.

DOUGLAS: Bring it on!

RACHEL: Okay, so, the world, based off Mandroid: The U.S. is under totalitarian government--how the judges connect to the military is unclear, but they're obviously not the same body. Whether or to what extent that influence extends to other nations isn't clear; we establish in "Instrument of War" that Canada, at least, is outside of the judges' jurisdiction, so I assume relative sovereignty's roughly the same as what we've got now.

Mega-City One, where the story takes place, is a sprawling megalopolis divided into districts or neighborhoods. Here, we see mostly the slums; presumably there are higher-class sections.

The Judges seem constrained to some extent by due process--Shultz, for instance, can't be held without charges--but at the same time, they're law enforcement and court rolled into one, and they seem to have little to no external oversight, at least within these couple stories. What they do have is rocky and factionalized internal politics; Dredd himself seems significantly more moderate than most of his compatriots.

As with most authoritarian states, there's a pretty wide class divide, and thriving organized crime, which controls--at the least--drugs, human trafficking, and extortion rackets. The judges are aware of this stuff but have limited power to take it down--which, again, speaks to limits on their power to act discretionarily.

All we really see of the military in these stories is Space Corps--presumably national, although if they're dealing with extraterrestrial conflicts, they might be a coalition force. Either way, they're at war, or at least engaged in an ongoing conflict of some kind.

This is made possible by significantly advanced tech--in Mandroid, we see someone rebuilt from almost nothing, not even a full torso; crazy battle armor; and brainwashing with electronically enabled remote-control.

DOUGLAS: That's very sharp reading, and also speaks to how much information Wagner's able to sneak into a story that's about something else. The backstory--most of which was hinted at for several decades, and had its details spelled out in "Origins," which ran between the two "Mandroid" sequences (and which will be covered here next week)--is fairly close to what you figured. (Although, for instance, the U.S. doesn't exist any more in these stories, following an atomic war 29 years before the series starts and 58 years before the events of "Mandroid." Despite e.g. the American flag on the Boo Cook cover shown above.)

Since the war, the Judges have been basically all Mega-City One (roughly the Boston-to-Washington corridor) has in the way of government--judicial, executive, legislative, you name it. The Space Corps are their extraterrestrial military affiliates: a professional army, rather than Judges as such. (I believe they were invented by Garth Ennis for a 1994 storyline that he's subsequently more or less disowned; Wagner, as he often does with ideas someone else has dropped into the series, let it sit for a while, then picked it up and ran with it.) 

The Judges do have internal regulations, which are subject to change, but they don't have an overseeing body (although they have internal police, the "SJS"--Special Judicial Squad--mentioned near the end). One department doesn't necessarily know what the other is up to, as tends to happen in a bureaucracy. They have a relatively hard time dealing with organized crime because it's, well, organized; the Judge system was formed to combat street crime with "instant justice," but it's less well suited to dealing with systemic problems. Which may be why Mega-City One has wall-to-wall systemic problems.

Dredd is not always more moderate than other Judges--in some ways, he's the hard-liner to end all hard-liners--but he does tend to be sympathetic to people who believe they're acting in the public interest, as long as that's compatible with his view of acting in the public interest. The Judges are, in some ways, Plato's philosopher-kings, raised from the age of five to be in the service of the law and nothing else.

So are there things that bug you about the two "Mandroid" stories?

RACHEL: Nothing overwhelming. Wagner is remarkably unsubtle--especially in the second sequence, I worked out both the twist behind Kitty's remarkable recovery from freezer burn (see what I did there?) and General Vincent's angle almost immediately, and the execution of those wasn't artful or satisfying enough to make up for the transparency. Speaking of Kitty, I was disappointed to see how quickly she was out of the story as a character--between her and Nate, she's the one whose PoV I found way more interesting, and I genuinely thought at first that Wagner was building her up as the main character. That she was instead fridged to inspire Nate's hackneyed vengeance spree was a damn shame; in addition to objecting to how flat-out tired that device is, I think the bulk of the story would've been much stronger for her inclusion.

DOUGLAS: True enough on the unsubtlety, although if subtlety were what Wagner were selling here, he probably wouldn't have named the central character Slaughterhouse. I'm of two minds on whether Kitty counts as a woman-in-refrigerator, i.e. killed to give our hero motivation, and on whether I think it's as weak an aspect of the story as you do. Kitty's definitely set up as a sympathetic character--much more than Nate--but she gets all of ten pages before she disappears. What motivates Nate isn't that she's dead; it's that he doesn't know what's happened to her. (Tommy, on the other hand, is fridged for sure; I definitely thought that was pretty cheap.)

When we see her again in "Instrument of War," we know just about immediately that the real Kitty isn't coming back--but Nate doesn't get that. So what's driving him isn't entirely vengeance, it's also (misguided) hope. Even after we know exactly what's happening, though, it's something of a shock when we see Dredd speaking through her mouth: that's the moment when we know that everything's lost. Really, both parts of "Mandroid" are stories in which nobody gets what they want. Everyone, from Nate to Tillson to Melody to Shultz to Lefty, gets hammered for even trying. For the first few chapters, what we want--and what we think we're going to get--is a story about Kitty; we never really get that either.


Thanks again to Rachel! Next week: novelists Sara Ryan and Gordon Dahlquist join me to discuss Origins

Sunday, December 2, 2012

The Batman/Judge Dredd Collection

(Reprints: Batman/Judge Dredd: Judgement on Gotham, Vendetta in Gotham, The Ultimate Riddle and Die Laughing, as well as Lobo/Judge Dredd: Psycho Bikers Vs. the Mutants from Hell)

I'm going to keep it extra-short this week, since a) we're going to be going long from here on out (only six books left to go, and they're all doozies), and b) Brenna Zedan and I discussed most of this one's contents at some length early this year. So just a few points:

*This came out a couple of weeks ago; it's the complete collection of the Dredd/DC Universe material: all four of the Batman crossovers (including the previously uncollected Vendetta in Gotham, which is among other things an excuse to use that lovely Mike Mignola piece on the cover), plus the 1995 Lobo/Judge Dredd team-up Psycho Bikers Vs. the Mutants from Hell. The Lobo story is... uh... I'm not really sure why it happened, or how it happened, other than that Alan Grant was writing a lot of Lobo comics in the mid-'90s. Dredd and Lobo appear together in all of six panels, perhaps because they don't really make sense in the same story. This is, for all practical purposes, a pretext for Lobo to fight Mean Machine Angel, who's just at the outer rim of the Dreddverse's level of acceptable lunacy (and was prominently featured in the Judge Dredd movie that came out in '95).

*Man, Carl Critchlow's painted artwork in The Ultimate Riddle looks different from his pen-and-ink-and-color work in "Trifecta" this week in 2000 AD. I think I like the latter much better, though.

*I'm trying to imagine who else in the DCU would make for an interesting intersection with Dredd, and coming up blank. It's worth noting, though, that Dredd analogues have turned up in Marvel comics a couple of times, notably Justice Peace in Thor #371 (back in 1986, above) and Boss Cage in Dark Avengers recently (below--although he's kind of a Dredd/Iron Man/Luke Cage/Thor/Captain America mash-up). And then there was Judge Elmer Dwedd in the 1997 Howard the Duck Holiday Special...

Next week: Rachel Edidin joins me to discuss another volume with Critchlow's work in it, the collection of Mandroid