Sunday, October 9, 2011

The Complete Case Files 12

(Reprints: Judge Dredd stories from 2000 AD Prog 571-618)

The easy way of thinking about the split-up of the John Wagner/Alan Grant writing team in the wake of "Oz" is that Wagner kept Judge Dredd and Grant got most of their other gigs. But that's not quite true--besides the fact that they continued to work on occasional projects together, the actual distribution of Dredd stories over the next couple of years was more like joint custody, and as with any such situation, it was sometimes awkward at first.

A few of the earlier episodes reprinted in this volume are leftovers from the Wagner/Grant era ("Simp About the House" and "The Sage" are both drawn by not-terribly-speedy artists and seem to have been in the works for a good long while). But Grant actually continued writing Judge Dredd episodes by himself on a fairly regular basis: seven in this volume (by Barney's count), fourteen in the next. One of them, this time, is "The Brainstem Man," which set up the Judge Anderson serial "Helios" that began six months later. It reads as very Grantian, in the sense that it seems to have been inspired by something he'd been reading lately--the cerebrum/limbic system/brainstem bit.

Grant and Chris Weston's "Worms" is cute enough, although having the two writers' separate "murderous teenage unreliable narrator" stories in consecutive issues doesn't do Grant any favors. His other stories here are mostly light, wacky comedy of a kind that was at odds with the direction in which Wagner was driving the series. "The Power of the Gods," in particular, seems like the kind of premise-warping story that would have been more at home in an annual, and the central joke of "That Sweet Stuff"--the illegal drug of the future is sugar!!--was one that this series had already worn out. "Spok's Mock Chocs" is the really weird one of the bunch, on the strength of its loopy artwork: Barney credits Brendan McCarthy and (in his sole appearance as a Dredd artist) Jamie Hewlett, but the printed version names "R-MC2, Hewlett, Whitaker" (Steve Whitaker, I'd guess)--and credits the script to one "G. Grant." Huh.

As for Wagner's stuff: "Hitman" went out with a Wagner/Grant credit on it, but since Grant disavows participation in anything involving Chopper after the climax of "Oz," I'm guessing it's a Wagner solo. "Hitman" seems to have come together pretty quickly, judging from the fact that it was drawn by Jim Baikie, who'd also drawn the final couple of episodes of "Oz." Unfortunately, Baikie's work here looks considerably hastier than usual--its raw, dashed-off quality doesn't work for Dredd. The script also seems a bit off, tonally. The idea (derided by Grant in that interview I linked to last week) that Dredd let Chopper go out of respect comes up, but seeing a reflective, self-doubting Dredd, for the first time since "A Case for Treatment," in a scene where we can actually see his eyes (!!), somehow doesn't quite work. (Neither does Dredd telling Hershey "Get lost, huh? I want to sleep." That's not the way he addresses the colleagues he values.)

Within a few weeks of the split, though, Wagner's scripts are starting to fall into his natural voice again. "Full Mental Jacket" has some odd tonal fluctuation between its "nutty juves" comedy and its tragic domestic-melodrama turns, but the extended dog theme (including the Oliver Goldsmith quote near the beginning) works pretty well. (Though could it have been some sort of swipe at Strontium Dog?) It also seems to have run into deadline problems--it wasn't often that a serial this short switched artists partway through. The final two installments are drawn by the peculiar team of Brendan McCarthy and Steve Parkhouse, who draws at least a few panels in his "Bojeffries Saga" style, notably this one:

I complained about "A Case for Treatment" a few weeks ago, but this sequence from it does provide the springboard for "Bloodline." That two-parter is one of the crucial building blocks for the next few years' worth of Dredd stories, but it's also a bit of a mess. It's confusing enough that its narration switches between two different characters and doesn't entirely stick to its third-person vs. second-person scheme, but it's even more confusing that the characters in question are physically almost identical (and so are a couple of the other characters in the story, always a problem with multi-Judge storylines), and Will Simpson simply doesn't do enough to distinguish Dredd and Kraken in long shots. Of course it's the point that they're hard to tell apart, but it'd have been useful to have some visual cues here--this is where American comics' "multiple POV, multiple colored captions" technique of recent years might have come in handy.

Where Simpson shines, though, is the "Curse of the Spider-Woman"/"Return of the Spider-Woman" sequence. The obvious way to have tackled those stories would have been high-contrast grotesquerie, the sort of thing Ron Smith did in "The Black Plague." Instead, Simpson paints them in loose, light-toned watercolors, to echo the character's diminishing connection to her human life, and it makes them poignant where they could have been gruesome.

He's not the only artist to come into his own in this period: Liam Sharp, who had floundered in his earlier Dredd work, finally clicks with the two P.J. Maybe sequences in this volume. (Or perhaps they click with him: light farce with nasty undertones suits his style.) It was more than a year from Maybe's introduction in "Bug" to his return in "P.J. Maybe, Age 13," but this time Wagner has more of a sense of who he is and what his world is--the whole "Emphatically Yess" business is a dumb joke that somehow stays funny. I can't imagine that anyone thought Maybe would still be a significant character twenty years later, but he's actually kind of brilliant as an archrival for Dredd: if your protagonist is a defender of the law and a gifted investigator, it makes sense that his opposite number would be a character who a) is neutral-evil, alignment-wise (has anybody made a Judge Dredd alignment chart, by the way? If not, I may have to) and b) has a particular gift for avoiding suspicion. 

Alan Davis's artwork on "Bat Mugger" is really nice-looking--and the story calls back to "Citizen Snork," of all things!--but it was his only Dredd episode, and the final work he'd draw for 2000 AD. There's a bit of backstory there: Davis had been drawing Batman in Detective Comics and Batman and the Outsiders for a few years, and at that point he was supposed to draw the first Batman/Judge Dredd team-up. (It was clearly in the works for a long time, since it appeared 3 1/2 years later.) He notes in his interview in Modern Masters that "Bat Mugger" was a warmup for the project, but that he ended up dropping out "after months of contract wrangles."

The surprising art discovery here, though, is Colin MacNeil, who'd drawn the Chopper story "Soul On Fire" a few months before he took his first crack at Dredd with "Our Man in Hondo." "Our Man" has a clever premise--what appears to be a "Dredd teams up with the local law" plot actually ends up being about Dredd trying to cover up Justice Dept. malfeasance--but it's a frustrating story, thanks to Wagner's embarrassing fake-Asianisms. (The way that, as with the Stan Lee stuff, he even confuses Chinese and Japanese stereotypes is a clue to how tin-eared his script is. I know I sound like a broken record on this, but I'm going to keep complaining about Wagner's comedy foreign accents until he quits using them. "Strange Customs" is another offender on that front, too...) Still, MacNeil is a very solid if unflashy storyteller, and his design for Judge Inspector Sadu is pretty sharp; it turned out to have some staying power, too.

John Ridgway always seemed more suited to ground-level noir than to Dreddish futurism for me--that might have been one of the reasons why the Dead Man fake-out worked so well--but three of his relatively few Dredd stories proper appear in this volume, including two that couldn't have been much more different. The protagonist of "Alzheimer's Block" is named after Agatha Christie's Jane Marple (and drawn to resemble Joan Hickson, who played that role on a BBC series that ran from 1984 to 1992), and it's a barbed variation on the "elderly spinster detective" archetype--that final-page twist is Wagner at his cruelest and funniest.

"Twister," on the other hand, is a lot more fun in theory than in execution. You can pretty much imagine where the idea came from: when it was clear that 2000 AD was about to get a bunch more color pages and that Dredd could go all-color, somebody must have remembered the way The Wizard of Oz transitions from black-and-white to color, noted that some people had to have thought "Oz" was about L. Frank Baum's creations rather than Australia, and proposed a Dredd story structured the same way. (At first, the way the color sections worked meant that Dredd stories would begin on the centerspread and continue after an intervening five-pager of some kind; getting the color/black-and-white balance right every issue seems to have been tricky, and required the occasional reprint from Dredd's Daily Star strip.) But it expends so much effort setting up its formal structure that it never gets around to actually being funny or suspenseful, and the "it was all a dream--or was it?" gambit flops.

The only other extended storyline here is my favorite in this shaky, transitional year: "Crazy Barry, Little Mo." In some ways, it's one of Wagner's first solo Dredd stories to hint at his mature voice--as odd a thing as that is to say about someone who'd already been writing comics for well over 15 years at that point. But the crisp dialogue here, the offhanded worldbuilding, the rapidly shifting point of view, the mixture of police-procedural suspense, twisted comedy, violent action scenes and total weirdness, and the way Wagner's tone is shifting away from kids' entertainment (with a few Easter eggs for their parents) and toward the assumption that he's writing for an audience of his peers: they add up to something that wouldn't seem too far out of place if it appeared in next week's prog. Also, Kurten's origin is of course the same as Batman's. Whether or not that had anything to do with Grant's other gig--or with the Batman/Dredd project--is a fine question.

Next week: we duck away from the Case Files sequence for a look at Chopper: Surf's Up, the big volume collecting "Soul On Fire" (which coincided with the middle of this volume) and the subsequent Chopper stories. And by "we," I mean that I'm hoping to be joined by an as-yet-unconfirmed Special Guest. Stay tuned.

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