Sunday, July 10, 2011

The Complete Case Files 02

(Reprints: Judge Dredd stories from 2000 AD Prog 61-70, 73-76, 79-115)

It's fascinating how abruptly Dredd shifted from the "mostly short stories" format of the first half of vol. 1 to the "extended storylines" format. I don't know if somebody decided that the "fighting crime in Mega-City One" premise wasn't working, but just a couple of weeks after he gets back from the moon, he's sent off to the Cursed Earth for the first half of this volume, and as soon as he gets back the Judge Cal/"The Day the Law Died" storyline kicks off.

"The Cursed Earth" is a strange piece of work. For one thing, it's Pat Mills' single longest contribution to Dredd as a writer (although John Wagner pops up in the middle of it for a couple of episodes), and his most sustained piece of worldbuilding in the series--although it probably didn't add as much to the series overall as the six pages of "The Return of Rico." (The business with the final U.S. President, Robert L. Booth, being held in suspended animation does turn out to be mighty significant later, though. "Booth" is a nicely pointed last name for an American President, too.) It's got a whole lot of Action The Way Kids Like It; it's amazing how Mills is capable of shoehorning images of dinosaurs eating people into pretty much any context, even now. But give him credit: his story about a national park filled with cloned dinosaurs came out a solid 12 years before Michael Crichton's Jurassic Park. Even if they're cloned from, er, "DNA cells." 

We've gotten some requests for more pictures, so here you go, sport:

Mills' Dredd never really feels like Wagner's, though. In some ways, more power to him--nearly every other writer's Dredd feels like a watered-down imitation of Wagner's, and Mills definitely has his own voice. (Even Garth Ennis, Mark Millar and Grant Morrison, when they wrote Dredd, often seemed to be doing Wagner lite, and they're not writers you can ordinarily accuse of not having strong voices.) But a tiny thing that illustrates the difference is that Mills' Dredd exclaims "By Stomm!" all the time. Wagner's Dredd is more likely to say "Stomm!"--a curse, but not an oath sworn in the name of some sort of greater entity.

This is also the volume where "the complete case files" suddenly turn incomplete--the stories from progs 71, 72, 77 and 78, in which Dredd first encounters a war between McDonald's and Burger King partisans and then meets a bunch of mutated corporate mascots, are unreprintable, thanks to legal problems. Thank goodness we have the Internet. Honestly, they're not the best parts of the story, although it's pretty hilarious to see Brian Bolland's super-serious Mr. Peanut and Michelin Man. 

(And speaking of completeness: it'd have been nice to see the final few Walter the Wobot strips in this volume.)

The first big problem with "The Cursed Earth," though, is that it's built on a premise that falls apart if you think about it for eight seconds. Dredd, who has just come back from the moon, is assigned to transport a Blatant Plot Device--excuse me, the vaccine for the "2T(FRU)T" virus, whose name seems to have been devised in an "oh the hell with it, the kids won't care" moment--across the country. They can't send it by air, because all the airports are held by the "plague men." So of course they can't fly to, you know, five miles outside Mega-City Two's borders, or even get a head start on the distance by flying to Texas City, or any of that. They have to go overland all the way. This makes no sense.

Neither does their route, really. Somebody seems to have figured out that you wouldn't see Mount Rushmore the moment you crossed the Appalachians, and added an explanatory caption to Brian Bolland's hilarious image of the augmented Rushmore to the effect that it had been "moved to just outside Mega-City One"--talk about public works projects! Likewise, in "The Day the Law Died," it's explained that the Big Smelly is "the old Ohio River... it got so foul and polluted they had to concrete it over." Which would be a pretty funny idea if, say, Cincinnati were anywhere near close enough to New York to be part of Mega-City One. (And the joke would've worked just fine in the '70s if it were the East River!)

That brings up the big lost opportunity in "The Cursed Earth." Judge Dredd, as I tend to tell people I'm trying to describe it to, is (among other things) a smart, vicious satire of American culture by British people. So the "road trip across the country" format should yield lots of opportunities for satirizing bits of America that the feature can't get to when it's got a (mega-)urban setting. There's a hint of that in some chapters--the moment we get out of the Meg, we're instantly in a town called Deliverance, McMahon's image for "General Blood 'n' Nuts" is fantastic, and Wagner's lost "Burger Wars" sequence gets at Americans' ridiculous obsession with brand identities a little bit. But those possibilities mostly get lost: the Tweak sequence is as hamhanded a commentary on the U.S.'s legacy of slavery as anyone could devise, and at some point Mills seems to have decided "screw it, I haven't written about dinosaurs eating people in weeks." (To be fair: this stuff was written for eleven-year-old British boys, not aging American aesthetes.)

The figure that really fixes "The Cursed Earth" as a 1978 story is Dredd's guide, Spikes Harvey Rotten, the requisite slightly-behind-the-times punk rock caricature, with a name that nicely evokes both Lee Harvey Oswald and Johnny Rotten. Just for perspective's sake, note that the Sex Pistols played their final show (in Mega-City Two or thereabouts) three months before Spikes first showed up. And in case anybody missed the joke the first few times, four weeks into the story, Spikes gets himself a hand-grenade earring: "D'you think I look cute... like one of dem twentieth century punk rockers?" OKAY YES WE GET IT. See also "Punks Rule," at the end of the volume, in which punk fashion is again a sign of genuine sinister intent.

More grousing: Brian Bolland's amazing, of course, and Mike McMahon's stuff has its own rugged charm--though I like his later stuff much better than the early stuff--but having them alternate chapters in "The Cursed Earth" produces serious stylistic whiplash. That said, I also really like the look of the chapters Bolland and Dave Gibbons collaborated on; as I recall, they'd collaborated in some capacity before 2000 AD, and I wish they'd gotten to work together on Dredd more.

"The Cursed Earth" feels like it was largely structured ahead of time: "let's spend six months sending Dredd across the country, now let's see, what can he meet each week?" When Wagner takes over full-time again for "The Day the Law Died," though, the strip gets a much more seat-of-the-pants vibe, as if each episode were constructed leading up to a cliffhanger with no particular thought as to what was going to happen next. The opening premise there--"Dredd gets back home, but Caligula has taken over the city, frames him for murder and sends him into exile"--sets it up for more of a so-what-happens-next? thing. (Incidentally, he's "Judge Caligula" in the next-issue box at the end of "The Cursed Earth," and "Judge Cal" thereafter; wonder what happened there?)

So there are some bumpy transitions between episodes--the second one ends with Cal revealing to Judge Quincy that he's captured Dredd and has him in a crate, the third begins with a splash-page image of Dredd fighting Dredd ("It's a fight I can't win! How can I kill myself?"--yes, that's just the kind of Silver Age-ism Brendan McCarthy has to have loved drawing), then cuts to the manhunt for Dredd, and eventually gets around to showing us that Cal's got a Dredd robot, without actually explaining that that was the one in the crate. The pacing of the overall story seems strange, too: the "Dredd gets sentenced to Titan" thread has promise (I gather that Wagner went back to that well shortly before "Wilderlands," 15 years or so later), and gives Bolland a chance to recapitulate McMahon's indelible image of Rico's altered face, but Wagner doubles back from that possibility very quickly. And Cal announcing that he's sentencing the entire city to death seems like the climax of his madness, but it happens midway through the story and gets dispensed with fairly quickly.

For all its rickety construction and inconsistency, though, there's a mischievousness to "The Day the Law Died" that I love. Judge Pepper's selective credit-taking, Cal's revenge on Slocum, Judge Schmaltz's protracted death scene: there's a lot of stuff here that might fly over the heads of its intended audience, or gets at the ultraviolent tropes of boys' comics from really weird angles. Not to mention, you know, Caligula. I'm guessing that the Klegg and Fergee have to be jokes about cultural figures that I would've known about as an adult in England in 1978; if anybody can explain them, please fill me in. It's also neat to see the first significant chunk of Dredd artwork by Ron Smith, maybe the most underrated early Dredd artist; it doesn't yet have the relaxed clarity he'd develop a couple of years later (his fancy layouts get in the way of storytelling), and his characters still look a little too posed, but his character work is already dead-on.

Finally, after Cal is dispatched and the personality-less Judge Griffin is installed as Chief Judge, things return to non-epic "normalcy." After three extended storylines, though, the final six episodes this time--the one-off, Bolland-drawn "Punks Rule," the two-part "The Exo-Men" and the three-part "The DNA Man"--seem almost truncated. "The Exo-Men," in particular, reads like a leftover from the pre-Luna era, and its routine about a gullible, bleeding-heart "Citizens' Committee for Compassion for Criminals" being taken advantage of by hardened bad guys is about as subtle as a latter-day Steve Ditko comic. Also, Brett Ewins' artwork really doesn't work for Dredd--he plays it as a comedy, which it sort of is, but it's the kind of comedy that depends on underselling the joke.

Next time: the third volume of the Case Files brings us the first appearance of Judge Death, as well as more of Pat Mills' dinosaurs eating people!


  1. Nice critique. Of course, it just makes me all nostalgic. I was 13/14 when I got into the Judge Dredd series in the early 80s. It totally informed my dystopian/snarky view of the world. And the satire was dead on for a juvey growing up in Reagan's America. My favorite issue was set on a planet that treated war as a giant game show. Very funny stuff.

  2. Dredd also can't just fly because of the "Death Belt" - a bunch of flying rocks that prevent regular air travel. It's basically a straight rip off of all the dirt hurled through the atmosphere by weird weather conditions in Damnation Alley, which prevents a simple cross-continent flight to deliver a vaccine in that as well. Though, like everything else ripped off from Damnation Alley in this story, and that is a LOT of things, the Death Belt is considerably weirder - dirt and stones hurtling through the air you can just about buy, but giant floating rocks populated by flying rats?

    For what are probably fairly obvious reasons the death belt gets immediately forgotten about after this story, getting mentioned only a handful of times in Dredds history compared with all the times people DO overly the cursed earth without hitting any rats or rocks.

  3. Kevin Moore - You're going to like Volume 4...

  4. As far as I can remember, Kleggs and Fergee weren't cultural references, just Wagner oddness.

    But I was only 6 at the time.

  5. As Pete said, I don't think Fergee or the Kleggs are a comment on anything culturally, except perhaps internally - I think a lot of the rough edges of Early Dredd are really brought into focus when you dont read them in the actual prog with an alien editor, 4 other (usually inferior) kids stories to provide the context, and adverts for Texan bars, stamps and airfix kits.

    you also have to see the other comics on the shelves at the same time to see just how radical it was and was to increasingly become.
    These tales are still Mills and Wagner just starting to explore what they could add to the boys adventure recipe to amuse themselves or subvert the whole culture of British boys comics (guess who seems to be doing which!). But that means theres a whole heap of boys adventure cliches that are more than acceptable to the intended audience - no-one was thinking there would be collected phone books 30 years on!

    It's probably over simplifying to say you can see the writers inspiring each other to up the subtext and satire. But you can see how Alan Moore would have seen the cool "adult" and humour subtexts in these earlier tales and felt a certain kinship that led to his 2000AD strips setting the recipe to maximum subversion.

    You're right that Cal is a bit of an oddity plot wise but the humour is so great I'll forgive it twice over. In some ways, its to the strips benefit that it gets this wacky early on, as it perhaps stopped things getting a bit too serious later on. Dredd remains a strip that can be ridiculous one week and intense the next, and at its best, the one rarely diminishes the other.

  6. He's been doing it for decades now, but Mills still gets a kick out of having dinosaurs eat people, with another new (and gloriously messy) Flesh series running in 2000ad this year....

    While the Cursed Earth/Day The Law Died epics do flesh out his world, I think the Dredd series really finds its feet when it starts telling those weird little one-offs that follow the epics and reveal that Mega-City One and its awesomely mental citizens are the real stars of the strip.

  7. Re: Bolland-Gibbons connection:

    They met at a London convention in '72, and were friends and joined-in-artistic-starvation from then on. Gibbons was quicker to go pro than Bolland, but he was able to get Bolland some of his first "real comics work" or whatever you want to call it.

    "Then word came from Barry Coker that a small publisher in Suffolk called Pikin (consisting of a husband and wife team whose names I can't remember) was planning a bi-weekl comic about an African superhero and it was gonna be sold in Nigeria. Dave Gibbons and I would draw alternate issues. We met at Bardon, then Dave and I went our separate ways to produce samples. Very soon Dave had drawn his entire story and I had produced just a few pages.

    "Back in my student days I'd play a bit of table football, smoke a bit of dope, involve myself in whatever social intrigue I was into at the time and by the end of one week I would have drawn one page. Now, the certain knowledge that Dave could produce a page a day complete with a one color overlay, and that I was going to have to do the same, came as a hammer blow." (Bolland himself, The Art of Brian Bolland, p. 37)

    That 'Art of Brian Bolland' book Desperado put out a few years ago has a lot of art from Bolland's time working on the strip, 'Powerman' -- and it's amazing to see him get more and more... Brian Bolland-y by the page, so that he had almost arrived at 2000 AD in full masterful bloom. Definitely worth a look.

  8. Wasn't there a notorious Tory politician named Nicholas Clegg around at the time this story was first published?

    Also, "Fergee" could be a reference to Sarah Ferguson, the Duchess of York. Her partial nickname at least in British satirical magazine Private Eye was Fergie. Private Eye's full nicknames for her were "money-mad Fergie" (understandable if you remember a scandal involving access to the Royal Family), "fat Fergie," and most cruelly funny "Fergie, the Duchess of Pork."

  9. Nick Clegg is the current leader of the Liberal Democrats. Walter Clegg however was a Conservative politician, and MP at the time, who was (according to his own obituary) "a serious advocate of the restoration of capital punishment", so it is a distinct possibility.

    I think Fergee probably predates the general public's awareness of Sarah Ferguson as she didn't become part of the royal family until 7 or 8 years after this strip was published.

  10. As a lad I thought Klegg amusing, a 'Clegg' in Scottish slang is a nasty fly (horse fly, I think) and have heard it described as excrement of a particularly stubborn kind. John Wagner was raised in Scotland and the US, so it might be a joke on his part.

  11. Mark is right, Fergee was 'the King' long before Fergie was the Duchess. His name is Scottish sounding though. Fergus, Ferguson, it may reference something from his background...but I doubt it. I think he represents a kind of brute that is either a hero or villain depending on the spin. History is full of them.