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.  

No comments:

Post a Comment