Sunday, November 27, 2011

Judge Death: The Life and Death Of...

(Reprints: Judge Death stories from Judge Dredd Megazine #1.01-1.12, 2.15 and 209-216 and 2000 AD Prog 1289-1294, and Judge Dredd stories from 2000 AD Prog 1114-1115 and 1168)

This week, I've got the honor of discussing Judge Death: The Life and Death of... with David Brothers of 4thletter!

DOUGLAS: David asked me for some background on how exactly this volume fits into the Dredd-matrix, so here's my statement of context: this is a weird goddamn book. The Life and Death of... is sort of the missing half of Death Lives, which came out at the beginning of the Simon & Schuster/2000 AD program in 2010. And the reason it's a companion piece is that John Wagner has been very very careful about not overusing Judge Death, but maybe not quite careful enough.

For a character who's central to the way people think about Dredd, Judge Death has had relatively little on-panel time--he's not like the Joker or Lex Luthor or Magneto, popping up twice a month. After his first two, brief, Brian Bolland-drawn appearances, in 1980 and 1981 (both in Death Lives), he appeared in a Judge Anderson story in 1985, then wasn't seen until the long "Necropolis"/"Theatre of Death" sequence in 1990. (There's also a ten-page story from 1991 that's a flashback to "Necropolis"; I'll get around to that in January, I believe.) In all of those appearances, he's a figure of total terror; he and his associates slaughter (many) millions of people over the course of "Necropolis," and the moment where he shows up in that story is really where the hammer comes down.

"Young Death," the first story included here, was serialized over the first year's worth of Judge Dredd Megazine, which launched immediately before the end of "Necropolis." As you can see, it sort of transformed Judge Death into a sitcom character, "Mr. De'Ath" with his ridiculously uncomprehending landlady. Incidentally, if it's unclear how he went from "still at large" at the end of "Young Death" to "in captivity" as of "Tea with Mrs. Gunderson," that's because of a curious aspect of the Judge Dredd intercompany crossovers: they're all in continuity. Anderson captures and confines Death at the end of the first Batman/Judge Dredd one-shot, Judgement on Gotham, which came out at the end of 1991, shortly after the end of "Young Death."

After that, Death spent most of the '90s appearing in relatively short, relatively funny stories, or in flashbacks, or (as with "Death Becomes Him") as an offstage presence. The post-Judgement on Gotham sequence goes "Tea with Mrs. Gunderson" (here, 1992), then three stories collected in Death Lives ("Judge Death: The True Story" from 1994, "The Three Amigos" from 1995, and "Dead Reckoning" from 1996), then "Death Becomes Him" (here, 1997), then the final Batman/Dredd team-up, Die Laughing (1998). "A Night with Judge Death" (here, 1999) was the last of the stories where his spirit is hanging around Mrs. Gunderson's place, although she kept appearing elsewhere for another few years. (In this interview, Wagner indicates that she's based on his mother!)

For the past decade, we've seen relatively little of Judge Death. The two long black-and-white stories here that Frazer Irving drew, from 2002 and 2003-2004, respectively, are just about it, aside from a Judge Anderson story, "Half Life," that ran at the same time as "The Wilderness Days" and got her out of her coma. (I haven't read it.) The end of "The Wilderness Days," in other words, is the last we've seen of him; we don't see a body or anything (as if we could), but it does seem at least moderately final.

That has to be by design: Wagner has indicated that he's done with the character. The problem with Judge Death is that there's no way to effectively de-escalate the scale of his stories. His first four appearances were each increasingly huger and scarier--"Necropolis" is maybe where the series' stakes feel highest ("Judgement Day" has a higher body count, but less of a sense of the roof falling in). After that, any straightforward follow-up would have just been a lesser duplicate of "Necropolis," so there was nothing left to do with Death except examining his wake and burlesquing his scariness. Wagner did both of those nicely for a while; he's very good at burlesquing things, including his own work. But I think he's decided that, as much as readers love Judge Death, he's gone as far as he can go.

So I haven't even talked about the actual comics in here yet (as a trick to make you talk about them). What's your take, David?

DAVID: Douglas, weird is the perfect word for the book.  I picked up The Life and Death Of... expecting to read a few short tales of skin-crawling terror or overt horror. I've read a few Judge Death stories, and he always came across as the ultimate in bad guys, a nuclear apocalypse in the form of a man. Not so much a character that you could dig into as a (pardon the cliché) force of nature. When he arrives, things go south, and there's nothing anyone can do about it. His presence should seem like a big deal, and The Life and Death Of... feels like it exists solely to deflate that aspect of his character.

I think the parts of the book that work the best are the ones that hearken back to the really scary aspects of Judge Death. I quite liked "Death Becomes Him," and particularly Gary Caldwell's strange, muted palette. I like the idea of Judge Death as an infectious agent, something that poisons everything he touches and whose influence is felt long after he's gone. It's a creepy little idea, and one that's pretty well-executed here.

The last page of "My Name Is Death" is fantastic, too. It's successful in a way that I never really saw in the rest of the story. Judge Death tearing through a juve home should have been much scarier than it was. Instead, it felt kind of rote, as if Wagner and Irving were going through the motions to set up a story down the line. But again, that last page, with Death walking the Cursed Earth and quietly going about his business, is exactly what I was hoping to see.

I think the weirdest part of this book is how "Young Death" seems like it should change Death from a flat character to more rounded one, but that transition never really happens. Not that I can tell, at any rate. We get Judge Death's origin and we see him out of sorts, and those moments are normally used to reveal secret truths about a character. Instead, they just confirm what we already know. Yep, he's evil. Always been evil, ayup. He hates torture, yessir, except when he doesn't. (Which was another weird thing about the book--Death contradicts himself when talking about how he feels about torture for some reason.) There aren't any revelations here, just confirmations. Those confirmations take some of the air out of Judge Death's sails. When his past was mostly unknown, he was scary. The more they reveal the reasons for his actions, the less scary he becomes. He went from flat force of nature to flat absurd character.

I feel like I'm criticizing the book for the wrong reasons ("It's not scary enough! Why are these stories so funny?!"), but Judge Death's transformation into a sitcom character in "Young Death" is a tough one to reconcile. I like the idea that Judge Death wanted to teach people about his goals in the hopes that they would convert to his cause and presumably join some type of Death cult. That idea was buried under the increasingly ridiculous scenes of Sidney Death's origin and a few tired sitcom landlord/old lady jokes. I mean, Judge Death bumming rent money--it's a bit much, right? It's hard for me to buy this Judge Death as the same one that turned Mega City One into a Necropolis. He's missing the eagerness and willingness to kill that made him a real threat.

The Life And Death Of... is particularly interesting in light of your comments about Wagner being tired of the character. The publication timeline is a little too long for this to be true, but the majority of the book feels like Wagner's attempt to bury his own character. "Death Becomes Him" is the sole exception, I think, but the others, with their sitcom antics and Las Vegas boxing, feel like attempts to turn Death absurd, rather than scary. You have a good point with the burlesque aspect of things, but I think Wagner actually takes it into the area of killing Judge Death's credibility. Death comes across as a joke, or at least an object of mockery, in most of these stories. All of that is intentional, sure, but it feels like a burial, rather than simply a series of jokes. "I'm sick of this character, but you guys want him... do you want him now?"

Am I totally off-base there? I think you're correct in saying that using Judge Death as he was in "Necropolis" would have just been diminishing returns, and that colors my opinion of these stories. Is it better to fade out and turn into a parody of yourself like the Joker or just to fade into the background? Wagner chose a third route, something like "This guy is actually pretty silly, so we're not going to play him straight any more."

I think "Death Becomes Him" and parts of "My Name Is Death" hit me the hardest, and "Young Death" was pretty entertaining. Was your experience similar?

DOUGLAS: As far as writing goes, "Death Becomes Him" is my favorite thing here--one thing Wagner does incredibly well is write about how the way major events are understood changes as they recede into history. "Death Becomes Him" is eight years out from the end of "Necropolis," seven years from the end of "Young Death"; Judge Death is understood as "an awful thing that happened a while ago," and his image has turned into a tourist attraction, something to scare the rubes with--but his presence, and what he actually did, is so horrible that it still lingers and corrupts everything that happens where it was. "Infectious agent" is exactly right.

"A Night with Judge Death" makes the same point considerably less effectively. (It does highlight another way that Judge Dredd likes to play with the ramifications of big events--the "Second Robot War" it mentions was part of the lengthy "Doomsday Scenario" storyline that had ended a couple of weeks earlier.) And I just realized that the episode that ran the following week also had a final scene set at Mrs. Gunderson's place: I don't think it's ever been reprinted, but Wagner's script for it is online.

And while I don't think I could handle Mrs. Gunderson very often, I do like most of her scenes with Judge Death; I like the idea that she survives everything just by being cheerful and completely oblivious to what's going on. Which is why "Tea with Mrs. Gunderson" really doesn't work at all for me. If his whole routine is "the crime is life, the sentence is death," then he can't exactly find her innocent, can he?

"The Wilderness Days" seems really off-kilter, too: I agree that by that point it's Wagner saying "do you still want him now?" The "Natural Born Killers" parody never even starts to find its footing; the vaguely "Dr. Strangelove"-ish ending doesn't really connect either, and having Death dragged off to hell by one of Wagner's Cursed Earth central-casting hillbillies is dopey and unconvincing. "You cannot kill what does not live" is a great catch-phrase, but it also means there's never a real threat that the character can be taken off the board for keeps.

But that's all writing; there's some very interesting visual stuff going on through most of this volume, especially the two long sequences Frazer Irving drew in that crazy early quasi-woodcut style of his. I've been reading the long interview with him in the new Modern Masters book about his work, and there's a quote I like from him: "In work where the color is absent or muted, the line takes on the additional role of doing the mood enhancing that the color normally would." The way he treats light in these stories is very, very clever: most of the scenes in "My Name Is Death" are set in the dark, and there's usually one incredibly bright light source that's blasting its rays across the visual field. (On top of that, the presence of Judge Death warps the path of light itself.) And then most of "The Wilderness Days" is set in the very bright daytime of the American Southwest, which does effectively the same thing. Also, check out Irving's tribute to a very familiar non-Dredd-related image by Judge Death's creator Brian Bolland...

I really like the look of Alex Ronald's artwork in "Death Becomes Him," too--it's much less dramatic than Irving's, but fragile and sooty in a way that suits the story (and I agree with you that the coloring's on point there). Peter Doherty's work on "Young Death" is very odd: really gorgeous color and textures that cover up for figure work that's a little bit iffy. According to this interview with him, it was actually his first professional assignment as an artist, and you can tell he's working out a lot of what he's doing as he goes along--the scene with Sidney's dog looks a lot like Sam Kieth's stuff to me.

Really, in general, the artwork in early-'90s 2000 AD and Megazine looks a lot better and livelier to me than most of the American comics that are coming out now. I gather from Thrill-Power Overload that the budget for the early Megazine was pretty high by the standards of the time; I wonder if the only difference is page rates, or if there was actually a broader range of styles that was acceptable for that time and place's idea of "mainstream comics." Did anything in particular strike you as interesting about the look of this stuff?

DAVID: I think the most interesting thing about the art is how varied it is. Which is kind of an ignorant thing for me to say, particularly in light of the fact I own a couple of the Mega-City Masters volumes, but when I think of Dredd and Dredd-related material, my mental image always goes to Carlos Ezquerra or Steve Dillon first. It's like how the name "Spider-Man" conjures Steve Ditko, John Romita Sr., and then Todd McFarlane first and foremost for me. So the diversity of art in this collection was a pleasant surprise for entirely banal reasons on my part. I quite liked seeing Dean Ormston colored like Simon Bisley and black and white art from Frazer Irving.

I was expecting to like Frazer Irving's half of the book the most. I was introduced to his art on Silent War, his strange and beautiful collaboration with David Hine during Civil War-era Marvel, and I've greatly enjoyed what he's done since, from Gutsville on through to Xombi. In the end, though, I was most impressed by Alex Ronald on "Death Becomes Him." The dry and dusty palette fits Ronald's stick legs and realistic faces very well. Things like Chuck Quite's kind smile in Quite Nice Bar or Giff attempting to calm down after freaking out that first time were very well done.

Irving's black-and-white art took some getting used to. I had a little trouble with the storytelling in a panel here and there, but once I adjusted, I found a lot to enjoy. There's a very good panel partway through "My Name Is Death" that appears just after Death wipes out the first dorm. Judge Caldero discovers Death on the linkway, and Irving renders Death as a shadow among shadows in the gloom of the fog. Death is obviously humanoid, but the darkness intersects his body in such a way that the shadows almost seem to emanate from him, rather than from the night. And the next panel--Caldero's Riot Blaster shot is drawn as two straight lines, but the light source Irving throws on the image makes the shot look like a huge and messy laser blast. It lights Death up in a very cool way, too. His badge and the bones on his shoulder pads are crystal clear. I'm wondering if these were originally printed on glossy paper. I'm curious to see how they'd look on something more coarse and matte.

The visual contrast between "My Name Is Death" and "The Wilderness Days" is fascinating. They feel like two sides of one coin, with "My Name Is Death" being dominated by black and "The Wilderness Days" being mostly white. Daytime versus nighttime, essentially. But Irving uses a few techniques in "The Wilderness Days" that I enjoy quite a bit. He sketches out the idea of clouds, smoke, speed, and a lot of other things with these harsh, thin, uneven, and kinda-sorta straight lines. The two pages beginning with Hocus Ritter leaving his son at a homestead were particularly effective. The graves are made of lines that are thicker at one end than the other, creating the illusion of a curve, the ground is a loose collection of roughly parallel lines, and shadows are just slightly off that same parallel. Most of the lines are the same weight, especially on the next page, but Irving still manages to use angles and the ghost of shapes to get across exactly what he wants to portray. I especially like how the windshield on the natural born killers' car sits in contrast to the rest of that panel.

Quick sidebar: Judge Death kicking a broken four-wheeler and then hitchhiking with a smile is another dissonant sitcom moment, another strip of menace pulled right off the character's back.

I almost can't imagine Irving's pages in color. They're clearly by Irving, but they feel so different that I can't see his palettes over the top of them. They seem like they'd only work as black and white pages, considering the way he uses light and shadow. This isn't a complaint, of course. I'm just trying to reconcile this Irving with the Irving of, say, Batman & Robin.

I absolutely agree with your assessment of Peter Doherty's "Young Death." The two-page sequence where Brian Skuter enters Gunderson's apartment and meets Jay De'Ath is fantastic. It's colored like a sunset, with bright yellow fading to reddish-orange and then on down to black. In fact, the reddish panel where Skuter inspects the habhold is very impressive. There's a bit of green on the floors and a light purple in the sky. I like the coloring in this one much more than the line art, which I found pretty shaky. I found another interesting point from that interview--Doherty colored Darrow's Shaolin Cowboy! I quite liked how that series looked on about every possible level, so that was very cool to see.

It's sort of funny that the story I liked the least looked the most like an American comic from the Marvel Knights era, an era that helped bring me back into comics. Andy Clarke and S. Baskerville's work on "A Night With Judge Death" reminded me entirely too much of the story early on in Brian Michael Bendis's run on Daredevil that featured art from Manuel Gutierrez and Terry & Rachel Dodson. Something about that story felt very fake and plasticky, and the same holds true for "A Night With Judge Death." It doesn't feel like it fits in with these other stories, despite the disparate art styles already on display.

DOUGLAS: I'm right there with you! As far as the range of styles on display... there's always been a pretty broad visual range in Judge Dredd stories proper, but there are also some drawing styles that don't seem to work as well for the main series. I can't see the kind of ultra-stylized, whole-bottle-of-ink technique Irving uses to such impressive effect here working for an actual Dredd serial (although he does seem to modify his style for every project he works on--and I'll second your cheers for Hine and Irving's Silent War). I'll also note that Doherty's been Darrow's regular collaborator for a while--you can see how their styles have merged a bit in this recent Dredd sequence--and that he went on to draw a bunch of Dredd material, including one of the best-loved stories that's never appeared in a book, "Bury My Knee at Wounded Heart."

Thanks again to David for joining me this week. Next week: Alyssa Rosenberg and I discuss America, which may be my favorite Judge Dredd-related book to date--the collection of the first three serials about the doomed romance of Benny Beeny and America Jara, and what came of it.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

The Complete Case Files 15

(Reprints: Judge Dredd stories from 2000 AD Prog 700-735 and Judge Dredd Megazine 1.01-1.10)

The period after "The Apocalypse War" had been consistently fertile for Judge Dredd stories--John Wagner and Alan Grant had been able to wring a lot of interesting story premises out of the post-war setting--and "Necropolis" seemed at first like it was going to be an opportunity for Wagner to get a few years' worth of juice out of changing the series' ground rules again. The first couple of post-"Necropolis" stories indicated that he was still treating the series as one big serial, and playing with the consequences of a natural (and political) disaster rather than the aftermath of a war. (McGruder's memorial speech in the first episode of "Nightmares" is a particularly sharp piece of black comedy.) Where a few months earlier Wagner had been hinting at ending the series, or at least his run, now he was hinting that he had long-term plans again.

So Prog 711 had a shock in it: the opening episode of "Death Aid," the first Dredd story in 2000 AD written by anyone other than Wagner or Grant since the end of "The Blood of Satanus" more than ten years earlier. Garth Ennis, then 20 years old, was very much the new kid: he'd published only a few comics stories (Troubled Souls and True Faith in Crisis, a goofy serial called Time Flies in 2000 AD, and the first few chapters of his "Chopper" story, and that was about it), and all of a sudden he'd been handed the keys to the Cadillac.

He immediately floored the gas pedal. Whether by design or happenstance, Grant's solo Dredd stories (and the very few that had appeared by other writers elsewhere) had avoided doing much with the supporting cast and subplots that Wagner had been setting up. Ennis jumps right into it: not only does "Death Aid" pick up on the Hunters' Club material that had appeared six years earlier, but by the second chapter he's grabbed the Yassa Povey subplot from "Nightmares" and is running with it, and the next week he brings back McGruder (and Wagner's running gag about her referring to herself in the first person plural). By the time Blondel Dupre shows up, it's clear that this isn't going to be a terribly radical change in direction.

You can tell that Ennis is trying very hard to make the transition from Wagner's writing to his own smooth--there's a song parody on the third page, for Grud's sake--although there are occasional hints of the voice he was already developing elsewhere, most notably his fascination with dismemberment. Not everything about Ennis's first storyline went smoothly, though: the sixth episode ran four weeks after the fifth, with three unusually filler-y one-offs (all written by Wagner) in the meantime, billed as "Death Aid interludes." I'm not sure why: maybe Carlos Ezquerra needed more time to get "Al's Baby" off the ground over in the Megazine, but there had been plenty of earlier cases where one artist took over from another in the middle of a Dredd storyline, and none in which one Dredd story was actually interrupted by another.

The first distinctly Ennis-ish story in here, though, is his second: "Emerald Isle," which I believe was the beginning of his very long-running association with artist Steve Dillon. The two of them clicked right from the start--this actually looks way more like the Ennis/Dillon Hellblazer or Preacher or Punisher than it looks like Dillon's earlier Dredd stories, even "Nightmares." The setting--which is both the ground-level let's-have-a-beer Ireland Ennis had grown up in and a this-time-it's-personal skewering of the fantastical, myth-loving Ireland he'd evidently had to grow up with--is a very clever contrast to the Big Meg; the scenes of people talking through their fumbling attempts to pursue their interests through violence were already becoming an Ennis hallmark. It's funny but effective that Ennis's Dredd always acts and talks exactly like Wagner's; here, especially, it's as if one writer's character has been dropped into another's entire world-view.

Ennis gets the two longest stories in the 2000 AD portion of this volume, but Wagner's responsible for the rest. BARNEY indicates that "Bill Bailey, Won't You Please Come Home" had originally been written as a post-"Apocalypse War" story. That's possible (although Wagner is credited as sole writer; wouldn't it have been co-written by Wagner and Grant at that point?), and indeed I don't think Necropolis is mentioned anywhere in the story as published--just that it's been nine years since the war. If it was indeed written at that time, though, I can see why it would've been canned: it goes on longer than its premise deserves, and Wagner and Grant wrote another a "soldier who thinks the war's still going on" story in that period anyway ("The Last Invader").

The episodes from the weekly here are bookended by Wagner and Ennis's takes on the same plot point: what exactly happened to Chief Judge Silver. In "Theatre of Death," Wagner (with returned prodigal artist Ron Smith, who wouldn't draw Dredd in 2000 AD again for another two years and wouldn't collaborate with Wagner again for nearly four) reintroduces a theme he'd touched on in the past and would come back to again later on: that a history written by its victors is a kind of heroic theater that may or may not have anything to do with the truth. "Was that how it happened?" Dredd wonders. Seven months later, in "Return of the King," Ennis answers: of course not.

And in that story, Ennis dares to add a crucial piece of information to the Dredd canon. As of 2113, Hershey's been a Judge for twelve years (well, eleven, Wagner later indicated, but still), and Dredd's been one for 34 years--since 2079, in other words. That's actually the shortest possible amount of time he could have been a Judge. If Rico served twenty years on Titan and returned fourteen years ago, he didn't have much time to go crooked and get found out after he graduated from the Academy. In fact, Pat Mills later retconned "The Return of Rico" to have happened after "The Cursed Earth"--and therefore after "The Day the Law Died"--which gives the timeline a little bit more room to breathe. This volume seems to have an odd relationship to in-story time, in general: the opening panel of "The Apartment," from Prog 722, indicates that it's happening "over a year after the defeat of the Dark Judges," although it'd been only five months in publishing time.

(A side note: one of the newly announced American Dredd collections, due next June, is called When Judges Go Bad. The only contributors named for it so far are Wagner, Mark Millar and Chris Weston, which leads me to suspect that it will probably include "Crazy Barry, Little Mo" and possibly "Purgatory." But wouldn't it be great to have Mills and Paul Johnson's 1995 remake of "The Return of Rico" in there too? Crossing my fingers.)

The other big news is the debut of Judge Dredd Megazine, which was monthly in the period covered here. There had been an earlier attempt to put together a spinoff series with stories set entirely in the Dredd universe (I believe "Helltrekkers" had originally been prepared for it), but it didn't get off the ground; this did, in style. The first issue of the Megazine was cover-dated October 1990; Thrill-Power Overload indicates that it hit newsstands in the middle of September, meaning around the time of 2000 AD Prog 697 (which came with a Megazine poster). The lineup, in order of appearance, was Dredd in "Midnite's Children," the Garth Ennis/John McCrea Chopper serial "Earth, Wind & Fire" (which I covered a few weeks ago), a very filler-y text feature, "Brian Skuter" (Wagner) and Peter Doherty's "Young Death: Boyhood of a Superfiend," Wagner and Colin MacNeil's "America," and Wagner and Cam Kennedy's "Beyond Our Kenny." Not a bad group at all.

Well, maybe aside from "Midnite's Children"--the fact that go-to speed demon Jim Baikie drew it suggests that it came together very quickly, and Alan Grant's story stumbles for a few chapters before it starts to make much sense. The rest of the Megazine stories included here aren't much better. Grant's two one-shots are exceptionally lightweight, and Wagner's "Black Widow" is a monster-in-human-form plot he's written before; in fact, it's very close to the original "Nosferatu" in some ways.

Also, John Hicklenton's art for "Black Widow" is just awful. He was a terrific artist in the right contexts (I liked him on Nemesis), but anything approaching realism wasn't his strong point at this point, and not only do his lumpy, squished faces and figures pop me right out of the story, his layouts are so messy they make it hard to figure out what's going on most of the time. (I only know he drew this one because of BARNEY, thanks to a regrettable detail about the Complete Case Files' design: it doesn't indicate who wrote and drew which stories in the Megazine, in which the credits appeared on a contents or title page rather than on the story itself.) There was a lot of first-rate art in the early Megazine--I like the Duncan Fegredo cover below--although it might not have been the best design decision to have the logo occupy half the cover space. 

It's a little strange that even after Dredd got his own series with his name in the title, 2000 AD remained the place where his main in-continuity stories happened. Aside from crossovers with the weekly, the only major contributions to the megaplot that the Dredd stories proper (as opposed to spinoffs) in over 300 issues of the Megazine have made are Judge Beeny, Mechanismo, and arguably "The Three Amigos" and a couple of PJ Maybe appearances. Anybody want to argue differently? Bring it on in the comments section!

Next week: the remarkable David Brothers joins me for a discussion of Judge Death: The Life and Death Of..., which encompasses the "Young Death" serial from the early Megazines, the Frazer Irving-drawn serials from the early 2000s, and more. 

Sunday, November 13, 2011

The Restricted Files 03

(Reprints: Judge Dredd stories from Judge Dredd Mega-Special 1990-1993, 2000 AD Annual 1991, Judge Dredd Annual 1991, 2000 AD Winter Special 1990, 1992, 1993, 2000 AD Sci-Fi Special 1991, 2000 AD Yearbook 1992-1994, Judge Dredd Yearbook 1992-1994, and Judge Dredd Poster Prog 1)

Even as the Megazine significantly increased both the number of Judge Dredd stories and the number of spinoffs that appeared every month, the demand for Dredd product was unstoppable: there were still book-format annuals for both Dredd himself and 2000 AD (which generally featured a few new stories, some illustrated prose pieces, and a handful of reprints), the annual magazine-format Mega-Special and Winter Special a.k.a. Sci-Fi Special, and oddities like the Poster Progs. The stories that ran in those publications in this era, though, generally had some reason they couldn't appear in 2000 AD (or the Megazine) proper. In a few cases, they were too long, or too odd; in other cases, they appear to have been audition pieces for new-to-Dredd creators that didn't quite make the cut to appear in the regular series.

For anyone who missed the wackier side of Dredd, Alan Grant and Cliff Robinson's "Carry On Judging"--which came out smack in the middle of "Necropolis"--must have been a pleasant surprise. (American readers may not know about the "Carry On..." films, a long-running series of double-entendre-filled comedies with an ensemble cast, but this story's very much along those lines.) Unsurprisingly, Grant ended up writing all three of the stories in the 1990 Mega-Special: John Wagner has to have had his hands full with "Necropolis" and the imminently launching Megazine.

Wagner's first entry in this volume, "Top Dogs," is a really strange one--the first team-up of Dredd and Strontium Dog's Johnny Alpha, and the first story to suggest that they were set in the same timeline. (They can't be, really, but never mind that right now.) Note that it would have appeared in early September, 1990--in other words, about six weeks after the end of "The Final Solution" and the Grant-written death of Johnny Alpha, and also while "Necropolis" was still running. Was it originally intended to run as a serial? The three-chapter structure suggests so, its overall length (29 pages) suggests otherwise. Carlos Ezquerra would have been the obvious choice to draw it, but Colin MacNeil at least had experience with both characters; it's an agreeable little crossover, but not anybody's finest hour. Neither is Grant and Paul Marshall's "Jonathan Livingston Dog-Vulture," the other new story in the 1991 Dredd Annual, whose title takes that particular joke as far as it's going to go.

As for those audition pieces: After the writer-go-round of 2000 AD's first year or so, Dredd had been very firmly staked out as Wagner and Grant's territory. (When Alan Moore had written a sample Dredd script circa 1980, he'd been informed that nobody else got to touch the character.) So (20-year-old!) Mark Millar and Brett Ewins' "Christmas Is Cancelled," from the 1990 2000 AD Winter Special--published immediately after "Necropolis"--was a watershed: the first official Dredd story in many years written by someone other than the core duo. Another 20-year-old, Garth Ennis, saw his Chopper serial begin in the Megazine around the same time, and his first Dredd story, "Death Aid," appeared a couple of months later; I'll be talking more about that next week.

A lot of these first attempts at writing Dredd are terribly wobbly, though. Some of them come off like nervous imitations of lesser Wagner, like Millar's piece and the two stories written by Transformers' Simon Furman (who would go on to write a handful of stories in the kid-aimed Judge Dredd: Lawman of the Future series). Dan Abnett succumbs to Grant's occasional here's-what-I've-been-reading-lately tendency in "The Mystery of Judge (Edwin) Drood," a string of Dickens allusions with no particular point; his future collaborator Andy Lanning's "The Juve Mutated Kung Fu Kleggs" might have been a bit funnier if Dredd hadn't already done a TMNT parody a couple of years earlier ("Eldster Vigilante Mud-Wrestling Ninjas"). And "Sonny Steelgrave" appears to have been a pseudonym for Alan McKenzie, who I believe was Tharg's earthly assistant at that point; his "Cage of Knives" is one of too many stories in a row here that involve "mysteries that science just doesn't seem to be able to explain," as an old issue of Yummy Fur put it.

A couple of stories here seem to have been Dredd auditions for artists, too: Geoff Senior's artwork for "The Sleeper" is so run-of-the-mill that it nearly sinks Wagner's clever concept, and Glynn Dillon's art on "Cult of the Thugee" encapsulates everything that could go wrong with the initial wave of painted comics--for all the care that went into its rendering, it's pretty much unreadable. Greg Staples' first published Dredd story, "The Squealer," worked out considerably better; at that point, he was still a bit of a Simon Bisley clone, but that's not a bad thing to be.

Then there are pieces that are fine in their way but simply not right for the ongoing series, or deliberately noncanonical, like Peter Milligan and Shaky Kane's lovely, batty psychedelic Kirby homage "Judge Planet," or "Joovz 'n' the Hood" with its bizarrely amateurish-looking artwork, or Robbie Morrison and Paul Grist's off-model-and-loving-it Avengers homage "Kinky Boots." Wagner and John Burns' modern-art goof "Virtual Unreality," likewise, is far sillier than the weekly ever got at that point, though I will give Burns credit for taking up almost the entire first page with a gigantic foot.

That's not the only head-scratcher here by Dredd regulars (aside from Wagner and Ian Gibson's reunion for "Love Story II: Futile Attraction," a sequel to a six-year-old story that would have made a perfectly fine weekly episode; they'd follow it up again another eleven years later). Just a few years after "Oz" and "Four Dark Judges," Brett Ewins and the uncredited but signed Brendan McCarthy's artwork on "Parallel Lines" seems like a stylistic throwback--and, in fact, their earlier work on Dredd didn't look much like this, or anywhere near as loose. Lots of peculiar visual gestures, too: in the scene with McGruder, we see her head three times, always from the same strange angle and with her face in shadow.

As for the other long story in this volume, one commenter on 2000 AD's message boards described "Serial Killer" as "perhaps the worst John Wagner-scripted Dredd strip I've ever read." It's far from Wagner's best, but I do like the fake-out at the beginning--the "right hand" gag is exactly the same one that appeared in "The Graveyard Shift" years earlier, and at exactly the moment you start thinking that Wagner's repeating himself, it turns out that that's the point, and that he's doing a "Silence of the Lambs" riff. It's also the only Dredd story Simon Hunter ever drew; his artwork, heavily mannered and texture-modeled, could have been ideal for a series that was conceived as light comedy and nothing else, but it doesn't quite work for this one. And the way he draws characters' faces exactly the same (very stiff) way from panel to panel reminds me a bit of Fletcher Hanks.

Next week, we begin the next level of Dredd madness: the first issue of Judge Dredd Megazine went on sale a couple of weeks before the end of "Necropolis," so we're going to plunge into it with The Complete Case Files 15 (in which Wagner and Ennis get ready for the big hand-off), and then investigate the early Megazine strips for the following few weeks. 

Sunday, November 6, 2011

The Complete Case Files 14

(Reprints: Judge Dredd stories from 2000 AD Prog 662-699)

"Necropolis" was the culmination of every major "Judge Dredd" plotline John Wagner had written over the past few years; it reads as if it had been intended to actually complete his run (more on that shortly). This volume--"Necropolis" and its lead-ins--is I think, the strongest so far in our trawl through the Dredd bibliography: smarter, bolder and more consistent than anything that led up to it, even the "Apocalypse War" sequence. Also, believe it or not, it's the only volume of the Complete Case Files to date whose sole writer is Wagner. (It's the only such volume we're going to get for a while, too; that might happen again around the "Doomsday Scenario" sequence, but we probably won't see that for a few years yet.)

Back in the entry on Case Files 8, I was talking about how each of the Dredd epics somehow addresses the relationship between Dredd and the city. "Necropolis" is, effectively, the story of the city without him: Dredd himself appears in it only briefly before its final act, and everything up until then is the consequence of his leaving to be replaced by a version of himself who's technically better but not as attuned to the place and its history. The city without Dredd (or, at least, without the promise of Dredd's return) is lost, almost immediately. Dredd's allegiance is to the law; Kraken's is to playing the part of a Judge. ("Like a Judge" is the key phrase in the way he keeps telling himself to act.)

You can also read "Necropolis" as a twisted variation on The Odyssey, with Kraken as its tormented Telemachus and Mega-City One as both Ithaca and Penelope. The slaughter of the possessed Judges is rather like Odysseus laying waste to the suitors--and by then Giant Jr. has revealed himself as a truer Telemachus than Kraken, the legitimate inheritor of both his actual father's legacy and Dredd's.

But the crucial moment of the story, for me, happens very early on, in chapter 3, as Kraken is reading Dredd's own copy of his "Comportment" and sees his handwritten annotation: "What about the big lie?" Wagner never directly follows up on that within this volume, but it echoes. The big lie is the one behind the system itself: the claim that the Judges are entitled to power indefinitely, by whatever means necessary. Dredd knows it's a lie, and has always believed it anyway. The city loses him when he stops believing it for a little while, and it turns out that without the lie, the city is doomed.

Or maybe he's the one that's doomed. 2000 AD had been hinting for a while that one of its major characters was going to die (see, for instance, that Abbey Road-inspired image I posted a couple of weeks ago). The one who actually did die was Johnny Alpha ("The Final Solution" concluded in the same timespan when "Necropolis" was running, after dragging on in fits and starts for more than a year and a half). But I have to wonder if Wagner thought he might kill Dredd off at some point too--to be replaced by Kraken, or in some other way. By midway through "Necropolis," though, it's clear that Kraken's getting the chop--his failure is absolute--and, in fact, we see him with his missing hand in chapter 12, although it's not clear that that's what's happening from the way the image is framed.

I gather from Thrill-Power Overload and a few other sources that Wagner had been wanting to step away from the ongoing grind of Dredd for a while, although it turned out not to be that easy. It was another year after "Necropolis" before he officially handed the baton off to Garth Ennis with "The Devil You Know"; Wagner didn't write any Dredd episodes in 2000 AD from Prog 754 until Prog 889, although he did co-plot "Judgement Day" and write a bunch of Megazine material during that two-and-a-half-year period. In any case, Wagner seems to be thematically wrapping up his own run on Dredd in "Necropolis," bringing back a lot of the ideas and characters he'd created for one more appearance.

The "Tale of the Dead Man" sequence that opens this volume reintroduces a handful of inside-the-Judge-system concepts from earlier in the series: besides the Judda/"Bloodline" subplot and the democrats from the "Revolution" sequence, it touches on Dredd's "Comportment" (first mentioned way back in "The Making of a Judge"), and recalls Judge Minty (from Prog 147) and Judge Morphy from "A Question of Judgement." Wagner's underscoring the idea that Judges have to be utterly loyal to each other and to the cause: the flash of insubordination that damns Kraken--"your time is over, old man"--contrasts with Dredd telling Morphy "you're not ready for the boneyard yet, sir." This story is absolutely crawling with daddy issues: Kraken's rejection of Dredd is a son's rejection of his father--but his actual father figure is Odell (who's willing to die for him), as Dredd's is Morphy (who does die in front of him).

One other note on "Tale of the Dead Man": the bit about how Dredd gets to keep his Lawmaster bike "as a special privilege" is covering up for the slip-up in "The Dead Man" where Dredd finds the ruins of his bike. (It's usually "the Long Walk," not "the Long Ride"!) Will Simpson's art on the first part of the sequence is, as usual, a little too delicate for Dredd; aside from one Megazine story, he didn't draw Dredd again until "The Chief Judge's Man" more than a decade later. As for Jeff Anderson's episodes... well, they don't look jarringly different from Simpson's.

And then Carlos Ezquerra shows up to start kicking ass for the rest of the book. "By Lethal Injection," the first of his long sequence here, is as perfectly arranged a piece of work as Wagner and Ezquerra have ever done. The second page (above) is a great example of what they were up to, one fantastically well-executed image and storytelling shortcut after another: Odell framed in Kraken's doorway as a watercolored silhouette without black lines (echoed in the next chapter when Kraken wakes up), the shadow of Odell's cane, Kraken pulling on his boots and adjusting his belt for what he believes will be the last time, the little splotch of blue and red that sets off Odell's head where no background's really necessary (and the way the light makes the side of his head open up the border of the page), the yellow-lit sequence of Kraken and Odell walking toward the deputy principal's office (with their earlier conversation continuing over it to get there faster), the refrain of Kraken thinking of Odell's oldness (the same charge he'd leveled against Dredd)... it's entirely a talking-heads sequence, but Ezquerra makes it so foreboding and suspenseful that it's as thrilling as the chaos of "Necropolis" proper.

"By Lethal Injection" is also a master class in Wagner's strengths of narrative compression and shock-after-shock--there's some twist in the story on nearly every page, some of them whoa moments, especially Kraken grabbing the syringe. (There's one great, dark Wagner joke, too: Odell's "all very tasteful...") And the punch line of the story, the revelation of the badge--the same image that provided cliffhangers in "The Shooting Match" and "The Dead Man"--is accompanied by dialogue that cuts off in mid-sentence for an additional aaah what's gonna happen next effect. It's clear what Kraken's about to say, but just think how much less dramatic it would be if he actually said it on panel. 

Points to Ezquerra, too, for the way he draws Kraken as having a younger version not just of Dredd's face but of his body. And I absolutely love the way he uses color in "Necropolis": massive blurts of purples and greens and reds, the red of Dredd's helmet the only consistent tone, everything else shifting from one register to another like a bruise. (Anderson's face is pale blue for most of the story, because why not.) I sometimes get frustrated by Ezquerra's airbrushed-looking computer coloring of recent years; the thick, juicy colors here are so much more blunt and satisfying.

"Necropolis" itself is an intense, frantically paced story, but it's also the most strangely structured of any of Wagner's Dredd epics this side of "The Judge Child Quest." The way the back cover of this volume describes the plot is that "The Big Meg is under siege from the Dark Judges, Dredd has been exiled to the harsh wastelands of the Cursed Earth, and time is running out for the citizens he once swore to protect. With the body count rising and hope running out, will the Judges be able to turn back the tide of death?"

That's a straightforward way of describing what happens--but it's not actually what we see on the page. The first act of the story is actually about the decline and fall of Kraken: it's a psychological thriller in which the protagonist is gradually losing his mind, and Anderson and Agee are brought in as near-primary players. (We don't actually see Dredd at all for the first 11 chapters of the story.) It's a little odd that this story brings in Kit Agee only to corrupt and dispatch her. Notably, though, she serves exactly the same function as Judge Corey did in Alan Grant's early Judge Anderson stories, and also seems to have picked up Anderson's habit of referring to the Chief Judge as "CJ." Corey was off the board at that point, having killed herself in "Leviathan's Farewell" about a year earlier; anybody happen to know if Agee was originally supposed to be Corey and got rewritten/redrawn sometime during the process of constructing "Necropolis"?

Act two starts in chapter 12 with the big symbolic splash (of the city overtaken by a smear of festering greenness), with two red splashes on it: one of the inset panels is about the escapees from the gates of the city, one about the death of Silver. That's the meat of the story as it would ordinarily be described--but immediately after the Dark Judges show up (and we get that weird image of Kraken turning away from them and pumping his right, Lawgiver-less fist at us), Wagner elides over the effects of what they've been up to as hearsay. We don't even get a representative scene of the conflict, as we did with the "Dan Tanna Junction" sequence in "The Apocalypse War." And the ambiguity of what's happened to Silver leaves the gaps that Wagner subsequently started filling in with "Theatre of Death" (and that Garth Ennis filled in some more with "Return of the King").

After that opening scene, we finally get back to Dredd (for the first time in four months), in a Cursed Earth setting that Wagner and Ezquerra are once again playing as a fairly straight Wild West scenario, then to McGruder--the redesign with the goatee is pretty brilliant--and the Benedict Arnold Citi-Def group. (How many British readers would even know who Benedict Arnold was?)

But once it's been established that Dredd and McGruder have teamed up, the story of them getting back to the city isn't where the action is, so after the scene-shift provided by the Dark Judges' morning newscast (Wagner can't resist parodying the tone of public service announcements, not that anyone would want him to resist it), we move on to the lengthy sequence with the cadets. (Led, of course, by young Giant, who's got some father issues of his own.)

The cadets give us another image of the city without Dredd-as-the-Law, and another image of children without parent figures; they also give Wagner an opportunity to show us a bunch of high-energy scenes while two of the story's protagonists are in a rowboat and two others are comatose. The plot mechanics require that McGruder and Dredd meet up with Anderson and compare notes--but, of course, the setup of the story makes it very difficult for them to get to the same place, and the mobile judges are in a trip-through-the-underworld situation rather than one that permits much suspense or action. When they finally hit the Big Smelly, the full-page splash panel Ezquerra draws feels like a sigh of exhaustion rather than a revelation. And, again, a big scene that would've taken a while to show is elided over: Anderson wakes up, and there's Dredd, who's met up with the cadets and somehow convinced them that he's not under the Dark Judges' influence, despite the way he looks now.

The third act is a short one, just the final seven chapters: Dredd and his little crew retake Control (and jeez, Giant's pretty cold-blooded about killing Judges), they get rid of the Sisters by killing Kit, they reinstate McGruder, they dispense with the Dark Judges, and at last we get that jaw-dropping confrontation between Dredd and Kraken, who once again faces death without flinching. So how do you end a story like "Necropolis"? With a joke, as Judge Dredd almost always does. (I never understood the final panel until I looked it up. "Muggins" is a Britishism, a deprecating reference to oneself: Anderson is effectively saying "yeah, I'm probably going to have to be the one who takes care of that.")

"Necropolis" has to have required even more careful timing than "The Apocalypse War": this time, Ezquerra drew 31 consecutive episodes in full color, all of which were published on time. (Remember, "The Apocalypse War" missed a week, and shifted to black-and-white only, near its end.) And just before "Necropolis" ended, the Megazine launched, with Wagner and Ezquerra's "Al's Baby" in its first batch of issues. I'm guessing that at least some of "Al's Baby" had been drawn earlier (as I understand, it had been prepared for Toxic!, then rejected by Pat Mills, and the introductory page of the first episode was clearly grafted on after the fact--although Toxic! didn't launch until half a year after "Necropolis" ended). Still, that is one hell of a lot of work for a single artist.

So it's not entirely surprising that Ezquerra only drew a handful of covers over the course of "Necropolis," although one of them is among his best (that terrifying shot of Kraken preparing to "execute" himself). Ezquerra has all but disappeared from 2000 AD's covers over the second half of its run to date: believe it or not, he's only drawn six Dredd covers for the weekly since the end of "Necropolis," plus a couple more for the Megazine. Maybe it's that his sensibility isn't quite in line with what post-1990 comic book covers are supposed to look like, but that's a shame: he's got more raw power than nearly any other contemporary cartoonist I can think of.

A few "Necropolis"-era Dredd covers are other artists' attempts to work with the material Ezquerra was drawing on the inside (the best by far is Steve Yeowell's Judge Death from Prog 696). A lot of others seem to be stock Dredd cover images that 2000 AD had lying around, although I particularly like two of them, both homages to modern artists by David Hine: #666's Andy Warhol pastiche and especially #678's riff on Gilbert & George. How many of 2000 AD's readers even got that joke? I suppose more British than American readers would, but it still seems like it might have been sailing over a few heads.

Next week: a sideways move to the third volume of The Restricted Files--in which a whole lot of new names take a crack at Dredd--before we plunge into the wonderful madness of the post-"Necropolis" aftershocks and the initial Megazine era.