Sunday, December 25, 2011

Red Razors

(Reprints Red Razors stories from Judge Dredd Megazine #1.08-1.15 and 2000 AD Progs 908-917 and 971)

This week I'm happy to be joined by the estimable Mr. Graeme McMillan, my former comrade at Techland's Comic Book Club and the Savage Critics. Graeme continues to kick ass on a daily basis at Blog@Newsarama and Robot 6 and I Am Graeme McMillan's Blog and Spinoff and the aforementioned Techland and SavCrit. And Twitter. I do not know how he does it.

And speaking of comrades...

GRAEME: I'll admit it: I didn't remember Red Razors being this bad.

To be fair to my memory, I'd never read the second series, which is by far the worse of the two collected in the book, but... To call this "Not Mark Millar's finest hour" is to be far too polite. The second series feels so disjointed and lacking in basic things like consistent motivation or explanation of what is actually happening that I'm left convinced that it's the victim of some really bad editing. For all the failures of the series' original Megazine run, at least it made sense, you know?

Both of the series feel, in their own ways, like parodies of Judge Dredd (the strip, not the character) in some way. Dredd at its pulpy best has always eagerly and shamelessly lifted from whatever pop culture Wagner, Grant or whoever was writing the strip at the time was paying attention to, but it was somehow more... I don't know, artful, perhaps, than what Millar does with Red Razors. Perhaps it's that the pop culture pilfering of Dredd was always more of an Easter egg (a passing reference to "David Blunkett Block" or whatever, there for those who'll get the joke but not standing in the way for those who won't) and less of a feature of the story, or that there was generally more done with the references than here. A Starsky and Hutch club where the informant is called Huggy Bear? That just seems lazy, and too straightforward. The same with the Posh Paws dinosaur that appears at the end of the first series - it's too on the nose, the comic equivalent of someone saying "Hey, do you remember [Insert Reference Here]? Do you? That was great, wasn't it?"

(I'll not even deign to mention the Scooby-Doo rip-off which, again, Millar doesn't do anything with. It's just "Hey, Scooby-Doo, you guys! SCOOBY-DOO!")

It's funny, looking back, to see how much of the first series is so much of its time. The Chief Judge is Adamski, whose biggest hit came out in 1990 - let's just consider this the first version of Millar using Eminem in Wanted, years later - and the villainous Judge Nutmeg takes his name from a character in the then-popular Vic Reeves' Big Night Out TV show. More pop-cultural references, yes, but  here's something about their contemporariness (have I just invented that word?) that makes them different in some way that I can't quite put my finger on. Engaging the zeitgeist, perhaps, instead of just rolling along on nostalgia?

Of course, all of that is missing in the second series, which is just... a mess. Reading it, I kept on waiting for some kind of magical reveal that would make some sense of its plot, and that never happened. It was like a less comedic version of Axe Cop, with a plot that read much like "And then THIS happens and then THIS happens and then he's dead and then he comes back and he's killed again and Judge Dredd is defrosted and and and" without either taking a breath or realizing just how insane the whole thing is, and not in a good way. I genuinely am convinced that this was some script for the Megazine that was probably sitting on the shelf for years - there's, what, three years between the two series? - and was then pulled out when they needed a strip for 2000 AD and were desperate, and pages were just hacked off by editorial in a mad rush to make sure it was the right length. It's horrible. Or am I being too mean?

DOUGLAS: No, no, that's about right. To be fair, there's one very clever idea at the center of Red Razors: it's a strip about the collapse of the Soviet Union (let's note that the series began with the issue of the Megazine dated May 1991), and the horrible American junk culture that rushed in to fill the void. (The very first panel shows somebody ordering a cheeseburger and a Coke at a McDonald's in something like Red Square.) Piggybacking it onto the Dredd universe was a questionable move--and I still don't understand why it's set 50 years or so after Dredd continuity, when it's so clearly a very-near-future premise--but maybe it's part of the central joke: if the ultimate end of the American police ideal is the law-and-order fascist who traps the world in his panopticon, the ultimate end of the Russian police ideal ca. 1991 (at least as it was understood in the U.S. and U.K.) is the thug who'll kill you just because he feels like it and might get something out of it for his gang.

That said, yeah, Millar fumbles it badly. He was 21 years old at the time Red Razors launched, and I'm willing to cut him a little bit of slack for being incapable of subtlety then. (As opposed to now.) But you're right: all the pop-culture references are here's that thing you used to like! Again! I'd actually never heard of Posh Paws until you mentioned it above; what I thought of when I saw that dinosaur was an earlier dino that Steve Yeowell had drawn--the one with the enormous smiley-face on its head that Archie the robot shows up riding in Zenith Phase III. (That strikes me as much more of a transformative use.)

And the second run of Red Razors is insultingly stupid. It's as if Millar had it in for his readers, or for an editor; nearly every sentence of dialogue ends in an exclamation point, which for any post-Stan Lee action-comics writer is the equivalent of saying "YOU'RE REALLY EXCITED NOW! THIS IS VERY EXCITING! I CAN SEE HOW EXCITED YOU ARE!" I was wondering if I'd missed some sections too (especially when it goes from "Razors is back on the case!" to "Razors has gone berserk and needs to be stopped!" with no warning at all), but I think it's very charitable to think of it as an editing problem. There's no way in which this writing is passable. There's a section of Thrill-Power Overload where David Bishop is tearing his hair out over the publisher's edict that any work that had been commissioned had to be run; I forget what era of 2000 AD that applied to, but it might well have been this one.

By the final episode, both Millar and Dobbyn are just taking the laziest possible way out. Actual dialogue: "It's killing me! I'm going to die!" "That's the idea, punk! Hope it hurts!" I only made it bearable for myself by reading it in a Monty Python "Gumbies" accent. I'm amazed that the last page, with a kid finding Razors' badge on the ground and then tossing it aside, doesn't simply dissolve a quarter of the way through into a photocopy of a script page on which Millar has scribbled "oh, fuck it, I'm hungry, who's got the M&Ms?" The subsequent twist-ending six-pager (which itself ran a year after the second series ended) is almost as bad--you can see the origins of the Nemesis/Superior writer for whom no shock is too cheap.

(A bibliographic note: there are two other short Red Razors stories, both drawn by Steve Yeowell and originally printed in specials, that didn't end up in the collection. You're not missing anything, though.)

What I miss most in the second series, actually, is Yeowell's artwork. Yeowell's a sturdy artist rather than a flashy one, and his work sparkles when he's got a good script to work with, but it's almost never less than entertaining: even the slack parts of the Megazine run of Red Razors are clear and elegant-looking. I can't imagine his reputation hasn't suffered from his two best pieces of work, "Zenith" and "The New Adventures of Hitler," having been out of print for ages. He still draws various 2000 AD serials (especially "The Red Seas," lately), and I believe I saw his work turn up a year or so ago in The 99, of all places. I'm curious about your take on the visual side of Red Razors, Graeme--what do you think?

And one other observation about Red Razors: it was, I believe, the first Judge Dredd spinoff that was simply set in the Dredd universe rather than directly involving characters or concepts that connected directly to the main series (e.g. Judge Anderson, Helltrekkers, Chopper). A bunch of others have followed (Armitage, Harmony, Brit-Cit Babes, and so on up through Low Life and Insurrection)--can you talk a little about what you think makes a Dredd-universe series work or not work?

GRAEME: I'm glad you asked me about Yeowell, because I'd been meaning to talk about his work earlier and forgot, in my rush to explain just how disappointed I was in the writing. (And this coming from someone who has read Millar's other work, which should hopefully suggest just how bad the writing is here.) I'm a massive, massive fan of Yeowell; his work on the third series of Grant Morrison's Zenith is still some of my very favorite comic art ever--it's his brushwork, and the fearlessness with which he uses black as a solid design element on the page--and he's definitely one of the true saving graces of Red Razors for me. He's an artist who clearly works from life, rather than from comics, if that makes sense; his characters and use of line feel more individual and honest than the majority of his contemporaries as comic artists, and it's harder to trace his lineage in terms of influences. (There's Toth in there, perhaps, and maybe some Cam Kennedy...?) He's not really an artist who's easy to color, however, and the colors here don't really do him any favors. (Neither does the reproduction; at times, it looks more like a scan of the original printed version, with some Photoshop touch-up.) Everything's too flat, and a little too murkily colored to make sense to the eye.

(I'd agree that "New Adventures of Hitler" is some of his best work. Something that really helps that, for me, is the truly insane coloring that was used in the final version, with scans of paisley patterns or inksplots or whatever being used seemingly randomly, but somehow working with the story and the art in ways that you wouldn't have expected, heightening the unreality of what was happening - who really would've expected Morrissey to have a cameo in a historical series about Hitler's early days? - but allowing Yeowell's line-art to shine nonetheless.)

That said, I suspect that Yeowell would've been less successful for the second series than Nigel Dobbyn was. For all Dobbyn's faults, and he has many, he's a more dynamic artist than Yeowell, whose work can occasionally be too... I want to say static or fragile, but neither of those are exactly right; his art doesn't flow from the Kirby school of BANG DYNAMISM ON THE PAGE AND WOW, though, and trends away from spectacle in the sense that Millar was clearly looking for in that second series. Dobbyn's art is generic and bland, yes, but he's more of the school that Millar was clearly looking for in his odd, inflatable-John-Byrne-face action sequences. If Yeowell had handled it, I suspect the flaws in the writing would've been even more obvious, somehow.

...I'm kind of stunned that Red Razors was the first "Dredd Universe, but no Dredd characters" series to have seen print (there were others that were mooted before, of course, like Wagner and Grant's original Bad Company)--if only because... Well, do you think there was some point where they looked at what it was like and thought, "No, this will never work"? I think the problem with Razors is that it just fails to get what makes Dredd work, in a way that the other series do.  There's a smartness to Dredd (and the Dreddverse, I guess), a self-awareness and humor about itself (even in the most serious strips, there's some level of humor, even if it is remarkably grim, and deeply hidden, or, alternatively, a silly joke name or whatever when you least expect it. What was the name of America's friend? Benny Beeny?) that allows it to be read on multiple levels in a way that Red Razors just can't be. Dredd stories, at their best, are things that can read and appreciated by people who have no interest in science fiction as a genre, because they're really something else in disguise: Comedy, tragedy, political satire or commentary. You can take the SF out of a good Dredd story and you'd still have something entirely enjoyable and worth reading, something that has "a point." But if you take the SF out of Red Razors, all you have left is a purposefully dumb collection of pop culture references and catchphrases.

DOUGLAS: Actually I might be wrong: Helltrekkers was, I suspect, the first spinoff that didn't involve any characters we'd seen before, although I think by that point Grant and Wagner had established the idea that there were desperate types who left the city to settle in the Cursed Earth. The Dredd spinoffs that work, though, generally seem to be the ones that have a protagonist with an unusual relationship to the fascist surveillance state. Anderson is a surveiller who can read people's minds, but she's obsessively troubled by the idea that the elect should impose their will on the masses by force, even as she's doing it. Chopper recognizes no authority at all. Low Life clicked when it shifted its focus to Dirty Frank, whose role within the Judges' world of regimented order is to be an agent of chaos, to the point where he's lost himself. I just read Dan Abnett and Colin MacNeil's Insurrection (which I'll be getting around to here sometime late next year!), and thought Marshal Luther was a terrific lead character: a rebel against the Judges who believes in their law to his core, which makes his loyalties irreconcilably divided. (I won't spoil it if you haven't read it, but the way the ending dramatizes that is brilliant.)

Judge Hershey, on the other hand, was never much of a series, as far as I can tell, even though it ran several dozen episodes: she's a tough, competent cop, and that's not enough. And Red Razors hitches a ride on Dredd's worldbuilding rather than expanding it (having it set a few decades after the era of the main strip not only means its additions to the setting aren't available to other writers, it seals off the possibility that Sov Block Two could someday get the "Apocalypse War"/"Judgement Day" treatment). Razors is a one-note killing machine, with no depth or motivation or agenda or relationship to anything in particular. I see where the series was trying to have a satirical point, at least the first time around--a joke about what happened to Russia once its ideological framework fell apart--but Millar simply wasn't up to taking it anywhere new or interesting after the first few pages.

Thanks again to Graeme for joining me. Next week, Dredd Reckoning rings in the new year with Mean Machine: Real Mean.  

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Judge Anderson Psi-Division: Shamballa

(Reprints: Judge Anderson stories from 2000 AD Progs 700-711 and 1263-1272, and from Judge Dredd Megazine #2.10, 2.14, 2.22-2.24, 3.01-3.07 and 3.14)

Where a lot of the early Judge Anderson stories seemed like extensions of Judge Dredd with a different protagonist, by the period covered here--1990-1996 (plus an additional story from 2001)--the series had turned into Alan Grant's vehicle for exploring spiritual matters. The minutely observed, heavily photo-referenced artwork of Arthur Ranson might have made a peculiar match for the vagueness that's native to a series about a psychic's dealings with religious matters, but Grant and Ranson clicked right away with "Triad," and collaborated on Anderson on and off until 2006.

As Ranson put it in this interview, "Alan's stories are soft edged, suggestive of things outside themselves, making overt or implied connections to other stories, times and places, other ways of viewing existence and are often open-ended." That's true, and that means they provide a springboard for an artist like Ranson to cut loose, and use ultrarealist technique in the service of things that have never been seen by human eyes. The Grant/Ranson collaboration on Anderson is full of moments where Grant pulls back so that Ranson can deliver some kind of spectacular "soft-edged" visual, like Anderson's entry into the Buddha-mind in "Shamballa," or or the bit in "The Protest" where we see the Big Meg from above as a cell-scape of watercolor blobs beneath a pen drawing of Anderson, or that delicious image of an even-more-Debbie-Harry-than-usual Anderson as the Silver Surfer to Satan's Galactus. (Speaking of "soft-edged": is it me, or is every Anderson story required to include at least one blatant ass shot? That gets a little old.)

I can't get quite as enthusiastic about most of the writing here, for the most part. I admire the way Grant basically uses Anderson's psychic sensitivity as a device for grappling with religious doubt and the problem of evil and so on in the context of an action-adventure series; that sort of philosophical engagement hasn't happened too often in English-language serial comics outside of, say, the Dennis O'Neil/Denys Cowan run on The Question or the better periods of Master of Kung Fu. The problem is that Grant tends to mention deep stuff, and let that pass for depth; his take on it doesn't tend to go very far. "The Jesus Syndrome," in particular, is about as theologically subtle as a ninth-grade production of Jesus Christ Superstar. ("We can't have the citizens believing this Jesus is greater than us...") And, reading it almost exactly a year after Mohamed Bouazizi's suicide (and in the light of the genuinely world-changing protests about specific things, and the momentum of subsequent protests that are about broader systems, that have followed it), the punch line of "The Protest"--that even dissenters who value principle above their lives can be dissuaded from sacrifice, and from dissent itself, by the most trivial conciliatory gesture--comes off as insulting in any number of ways.

Subtlety is not the selling point of Dredd and its spinoffs, of course, but that's where the Grant/Ranson team hits a snag: Ranson's artwork is so much about serious tone and careful observation that the broad gestures and jokes that still came naturally to Grant are jarring in the context of these stories. "Satan" is a particular offender on that front: Satan's narration fluctuates between a Biblical tone and extreme casualness ("Yay! Let that fury flow! Awake the rage that threatened Heaven!") in a way that's completely jarring in the context of Ranson's grim visuals. And listing the atrocities of human history over the course of three pages, then letting slip that the Apocalypse War dwarfed them all, undercuts the argument badly. For a story that was the climax of two and a half years' worth of Anderson serials, "Satan" also goes from eschatology to apocrypha very quickly: Satan himself arrives on Earth, and Anderson dispatches him by confusing him until he talks like a Steve Ditko villain ("He made me! I'm not responsible!") and vanishes in a puff of illogic, leaving Cass with only a moment of psychic nosebleed Zen.

The problem may be that Grant is playing in John Wagner's upside-down, morally dubious world, without the advantage of Wagner's morally dubious protagonist. Anderson is sensitive, and Grant stacks the deck in favor of sensitive special people who shouldn't have to do ugly things. Compare, say, Anderson's relationship with her nemesis Judge Goon--a violent jerk with no redeeming qualities and a name that gives the game away--to Dredd's relationship with Judge Edgar, which is much more a battle between two terrible creatures with incompatible ideologies. And the supporting characters in these stories are often nothing but types, like the Sov professor who exclaims "Pah!" twice in three panels.

Still, I like the way Grant's writing on this period of Anderson is so often drastically different from the tone of his Dredd--his language, his pacing, even the narrative devices. On Dredd, he was mostly just staying out of Wagner's way by the '90s. (It seems like they weren't even reading each other's stories, actually. Shamballa suggests that Judge Corey's suicide in "Leviathan's Farewell" affected Anderson even more strongly than everything that happened with her father; I don't think Wagner has ever referred to it. "Necropolis" made a big deal of Anderson's despair at having a hand in the death of Kit Agee; I don't think Grant has ever referred to it.) These stories breathe. There are lots of silent reaction shots, and lots of moments when things are happening very slowly. There are name-checks of whatever Grant's been reading lately (as with the Fay Weldon Bad Girls). It's not quite a shot glass of rocket fuel, but it's good to have something else to drink occasionally.

"Shamballa"--which actually ran before "Engram," the final long story in The Psi Files vol. 1, although it's not reprinted there--was arguably the first time the Anderson series felt entirely like a thing of its own. The first episode, which ran in Prog 700, was (I believe) the first time a full-on map of Dredd's world had been published. (Have we seen Solomon City, Friendly City, Antarctic City or New Pacific City since?) Interestingly, it's distinctly a pre-"Necropolis" story, since Silver's the Chief Judge. It's got some very nicely turned sequences, like Anderson and Amisov's first in-the-flesh meeting, which Ranson breaks down into a series of tiny panels that underscore the intensity of their flirtation. It's peculiar and slightly off-putting to see Anderson as a romantic protagonist--a role that Dredd only ever plays as a bitter parody--and the weird mix of metaphysical and superphysical combat at the end of "Shamballa" doesn't quite work, but it includes so many extravagantly gorgeous moments that I can see why Grant and Ranson built on its look and feel for their subsequent Anderson serials.

I love the idea that Mega-City's residents' idea of theology is very different from the present-day version (and wish that it had been worked out more fully: Christianity being an obscure splinter sect by 100 years in the future is hard to swallow). "Grud" being substituted for "God" is a vestige of 2000 AD's origins as a comic book for young boys, but that as a conceptual shift is fascinating. (The prohibition on naming "God" can't have lasted long: "Goddam oxygen board!" exclaims one of the suffocating perps in prog 57.) I'm also amused that "Satan" has a brief sequence involving one Lobsang Gump. That first name has shown up a few times over the years in Dredd-universe stories (including one of the Branch Moronians, and the more recent "Lobsang Rampage"); it has to be a reference to the dubious British mysticist Lobsang Rampa.

A few bibliographic notes: there have been a couple of Anderson books called Shamballa, the earlier one of which (the Fleetway edition) only includes the story of the same title--I'm talking about the Rebellion edition here. (You know that clicking on the image of the book at the top of each post on this site takes you to a buy link for it, right? Right!) 

Also, I'd say that the problem with focusing on the Ranson material in Shamballa is that it leaves out a couple of significant pieces of the story. "Satan," in fact, picks up from the cliffhanger at the end of "Something Wicked," which isn't reprinted here; if I read BARNEY correctly, there was actually a second episode of "Reasons to be Cheerful," drawn by Siku, which ran after the episode reprinted here. (There was no "Reasons to be Cheerful, Part 3," though.) I gather that Shamballa is going to be superseded by forthcoming volumes of The Psi Files; the cover art for the second one, due out in February or so, lists Steve Sampson as one of its artists, which means that it'll be going at least up to "Postcards from the Edge," i.e. Meg 2.60, as well as Ian Gibson, which suggests that it will include some of the stories from Annuals that the first volume skipped.

Next week, Graeme McMillan joins me to look at Mark Millar, Steve Yeowell and Nigel Dobbyn's Red Razors

Sunday, December 11, 2011

The Art of Kenny Who?: The Cam Kennedy Collection

(Reprints: Judge Dredd stories from 2000 AD Progs 477-479, 1200-1202, 1234-1236, 1241, 2002, 1282-1284, 1387 and 1400-1404, as well as Judge Dredd Megazine 4.01-4.03, 228-229 and 238-239, and Beyond Our Kenny from Judge Dredd Megazine 1.01-1.03)

There have only been a few Judge Dredd collections focused on a single artist's work rather than thematically related, or unrelated, material: Dredd Vs. Death (which compiles a lot of Brian Bolland's work), the more recent Henry Flint and Carlos Ezquerra collections, the 1993 one-shot Dredd by Bisley (collecting Simon Bisley's Heavy Metal Dredd material), and this one. The Art of Kenny Who? doesn't quite cover all of Cam Kennedy's otherwise unreprinted stories, but it's the bulk of them.

When I first encountered Kennedy's work on Dredd, as a callow youth, I thought it was perfectly OK but nothing spectacular: I gravitated toward Ezquerra's grit, Ron Smith's goofiness, Brendan McCarthy's psychedelic flashiness. As an even callower adult, I've warmed to Kennedy's art--I like that crinkly, shaggy line of his, and the way his images shove at their panel borders just enough to give the sense that the action is rattling the page without interfering with its clarity.

Still, I usually prefer Kennedy's dramatic/suspenseful stuff to his comedy, which sometimes seems too broad to me. (My favorite work of his generally treads the line between them, like "The Taxidermist.") In his early Dredd episodes, he mostly got to draw John Wagner and Alan Grant's more straight-faced stories ("The Midnight Surfer," etc.), with a few detours into funny stuff--most promisingly "The Art of Kenny Who?," in which Wagner and Grant translated his maddening experiences breaking into American comics into a Mega-City One story. Then he took most of the '90s off from Dredd; in his intermittent appearances since 2000, he's mostly been a comedy-relief guy.

The original Kenny Who? story gets reprinted here, along with its sequels, "Beyond Our Kenny" and "Who? Dares Wins"; "Bodies of Evidence" is another goof on Scottish culture, although I'm betting that as an American I'm ony getting about a quarter of its jokes. (Does somebody want to explain Ilova Freebie and Murdo McLearance to me?) Really, what's amazing is that there hadn't been much in the way of Scottish content in Judge Dredd before "The Art of Kenny Who?"--as one commenter pointed out last week, John Wagner grew up in Scotland, as did Alan Grant. (And when Garth Ennis arrived on Dredd, he wasted no time getting to "Emerald Isle.")

"Beyond Our Kenny" was the one undiluted comedy feature in the initial incarnation of the Megazine, and if Wagner and Kennedy had been indignant about the state of the comics business at the time of the first Kenny Who? story, they were apparently outright furious by the time they did this one. Wagner was writing three of the five strips in the Megazine at first, and he and Alan Grant were listed as "consulting editors" in the indicia--but he didn't get a cut of his most successful co-creation, and he had creative control of Dredd on the page de facto rather than de jure (and none beyond that). Hence, I'm guessing, the sequence in the first episode here where the plot stops dead for a page and a half so we can get this:

Right. Ow. It's worth noting that the movement toward comics creators' rights was a relatively new thing in 1990--here's the "Bill of Rights for Comics Creators" that was drafted in 1988 and published in The Comics Journal in 1990. But another thing that's worth noting about this is the fantastic color scheme of Kennedy's work throughout "Beyond Our Kenny": he's working with a limited and very odd palette, and mostly substituting dark shades for solid blacks. The closest thing I've seen to it, in some ways, is Frazer Irving's recent color work; not even Kennedy himself has gone back to this technique, as far as I know, and it's really nice-looking.

As for "Who? Dares Wins"--well, it's pretty funny, but its premise depends on the idea that Mega-City One has appeals courts, which doesn't seem terribly likely. Have we seen any before or since?

The one story here where Kennedy gets to play it completely straight is "SABs" (which started in 2000's Prog 1200, the first issue edited by Andy Diggle). It's got a very tight, smart, angry Wagner script: it's about resistance to the rise of the surveillance state, and it was published just as the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act was going through Parliament. I'm a sucker for stories about exactly how sick the Judge system is (and how close it is to our current culture), and this one nails it, flipping between brave-but-doomed acts of civil disobedience and police-procedural stuff that's driven by exactly the same technology the SABs are more than a century too late to fight for real. All they can do is make a show of fighting back, and it gets them nowhere.

(A quick note on that cover: it's by Trevor Hairsine rather than Kennedy, for some reason, and it introduced one of the rare 2000 AD redesigns that really, really didn't work. Prog 1234, pictured below--and containing the first chapter of "Bodies of Evidence," so it's relevant, see!--reverted to the late-'80s design, and had a cover by John Higgins, patterned on his own cover for the issue that had introduced that logo in the first place.)

After "SABs," the silly stuff is mostly disappointing, particularly when Wagner (and Gordon Rennie, in one instance) aim at very slow-moving targets. Fat people: hilarious, right? (It's a little hard to believe that Wagner launched Volume 4 of the Megazine with "The Bazooka," a much weaker retread of territory he and Kennedy had already covered with "The Magnificent Obsession.") The royals and other celebrities: amusing, yes? Incredibly stupid people: funny, huh? Obscene gestures: a laugh riot, check? And so on. (Okay, fine: I laughed at the Branch Moronians story a few times. Although I wish I'd gotten to read the earlier episodes with them first.)

The one other little gem here is "Big Deal at Drekk City," a neatly turned variation on the old "Hotdog Run" formula. It's not going to make anybody's list of all-time classics, but it's a good example of Wagner doing sharp character work in the context of an ultraviolent adventure story, as well as worldbuilding like crazy (having Dredd quiz the cadets on their knowledge shoehorns in a bunch of exposition painlessly).  And I cracked up at the "playing cards as lawbook" routine, which is actually a parody of an obscure bit of American culture: "Deck of Cards," a #2 country hit for T. Texas Tyler in 1948 (above) that returned in a Top Ten pop version by Wink Martindale in 1959. ("When I look at the ace, it reminds me that there is but one God," etc.--the premise of the card deck as prayer book dates back to the eighteenth century, but it's clearly the recorded version that Wagner is riffing on here.)

Incidentally, you may have noticed a certain paucity of Kennedy-drawn covers in this week's post. That's because, bizarrely, Kennedy has drawn exactly two covers for 2000 AD or the Megazine since the Kenny Who? cover of the issue that opens this book: 2000 AD #718 ("La Placa Rifa"), and the Hoolie image from Megazine #229 that was recycled for this volume's cover. He also drew the Judge Child cover below for the U.S. reprint series, a few years earlier:

Next week: we shift over to Judge Anderson briefly for Shamballa, a collection of a cluster of stories by Alan Grant and Arthur Ranson.

Sunday, December 4, 2011


(Reprints: America stories from Judge Dredd Megazine 1.01-1.07 and 3.20-3.25, plus Judge Dredd stories from Judge Dredd Megazine #250-252)

This week, I'm honored to have the brilliant Alyssa Rosenberg of Think Progress with me to discuss America.

DOUGLAS: Alyssa, I know you haven't read much of this series before, so here's a bit of background. The original "America" serial appeared in the first seven issues of the monthly Judge Dredd Megazine, beginning in 1990. At that point, Dredd had been a weekly feature in 2000 AD since 1977, and was also a daily comic strip in the Daily Star--this was a very high-profile British comic book, in other words. There are a handful of references to earlier stories in "America," most notably to a pro-democracy uprising that happened a couple of years earlier; as Ami suspects, it turned into a violent disaster because of Justice Dept. saboteurs who'd infiltrated the movement. (The full backstory of how the Judges took over what was left of the country wasn't revealed for another 15 years after this story was published.) "America" itself is one of the most reprinted of all Judge Dredd stories, although it technically isn't a Judge Dredd story.

And, as the way I tend to describe "America" goes, the climax of what may be the best-loved storyline of the most popular British comic book ever involves the fascist cop protagonist having a defenseless pro-democracy immigrant named America shot to death while she's carrying a tattered U.S. flag up the steps of the Statue of Liberty, which is itself in the shadow of a much bigger "Statue of Justice." I mean, this is not subtle. What I'm curious about is why a story about the murder of the American dream would be made by British creators for a British audience and resonate so strongly with them; is the cultural hegemony of the U.S. really so enormous that American national symbols have that kind of weight elsewhere? See also the question I was asking here a few weeks ago about a throwaway joke about Benedict Arnold, and wondering if many readers in the U.K. would get that reference.

(One note on America's name: her last name is Jara, and in the context of a story involving a singer-songwriter and a leftist activist who's killed by right-wingers, that has to be a reference to Victor Jara, right?)

Anyway, I haven't even gotten to the cunning mechanics of John Wagner's story (or Colin MacNeil's art!), or the ways that "Fading of the Light" twists the meaning of the first story and "Cadet" gives both stories a counter-twist. But before we get into that, I'm curious what you made of it as someone who's coming into the series cold.

ALYSSA: It's interesting, because after your initial description of America, I expected that it would leave me outraged, or at the very least het up. Instead, I finished it feeling surprisingly tender—and gratified. In its way, I like it more than anything I've read in quite some time.

Normally, I write less about aesthetics than about ideas. But I was struck powerfully by the completeness of Mega-City One—the consistency of the architecture, the continuity of bureaucratic language from street signs to spoken language, touches of the weather (something a lot of comics don't seem to think about unless it's directly relevant to the plot, or Rorschach's monologues). And I have to say, as a feminist comics reader, I particularly appreciate the way Colin MacNeil draws women's bodies. When America lounges in bed and moves around Beeny's room after the one night they spend together, she looks lean but realistic. The way she shrugs a shirt off her shoulder feels like actual human physical language. When we see America Beeny in her Judge uniform, her epaulets widen her shoulders to the point of ridiculousness, but her body isn't exaggerated to match: it's a measure of her strength that she can stand up under the weight of her office and its meaning.

But in terms of the arc's politics, I agree that the imagery of the death of the American dream is striking. But doesn't the arc of the story and its sequels reflect a conviction not that the American dream is doomed, but that it's reformable? And doesn't that suggest an even deeper engagement with the American idea than a narrative about American downfall would? A story where America validates the worst ideas about its own hypocrisy, where Judge Dredd orders America's execution, and where that decision is never questioned again, would confirm all the worst stereotypes about American police brutality and approach to dissent. A story where an order to stand down isn't obeyed in the heat of the moment, where an avatar of toughness finds himself compelled by the competence of an internal reformer, is much more helpful. I can understand why American readers would resonate to an argument that our cultural and political tendency towards law and order can be redeemed, and isn't so broken as to require violent overthrow. But I am curious about why British readers would gravitate to this interpretation. 

Thoughts? Is my tendency to be Little Mary Sunshine, even in a fascist police state, showing here?

DOUGLAS: Ha! It's absolutely true that the implications of the three "America" stories taken together are pretty heartening. But I think that's only really true after the third one--which was published sixteen years after the first one. For the first eight or nine years of Judge Dredd, it was a series whose hero was a tough supercop; it hinted occasionally at the idea that his politics were pretty questionable, but that was more subtext, a gentle nudge for the older readers. From 1986's "Letter from a Democrat" onward, though, we got to see more of the perspective of characters to whom the Judges are genuinely an oppressive force.

And throughout "America," Dredd's a monster. We don't see much of him early on--he's got his monologue on the first couple of pages, and again a bit later, and otherwise he doesn't turn up for nearly thirty pages. By then, we've already seen Judges being cruel and terrifying, but when Dredd finally shows up, the language he's using is the language of police procedurals, and he is after all trying to take down a bunch of terrorist cop-killers, and so on, so we drift back into thinking that he's in the right... and then he has America killed and makes sure that Bennett is watching, and delivers his speech about how "America is dead. This is the real world." Which is where the story sat for five years or so.

"Fading of the Light" is even crueler; everything about the spark of hope that was left at the end of "America" is corrupted and perverted. If you read it as straight-up allegory, it's unbelievably dark: America is basically dead, but her body is still moving around, possessed (and knocked up) by a rich clown who bought it for his own enjoyment--and even that is falling apart. (The scene at the euthanasium is the kind of black comedy Wagner does beautifully: "death with dignity" deprived of its dignity, with an unctuous nurse who uses "nice" three times in two sentences.) And what happens to the little girl who's all that's left of the real America? What's the worst possible thing that could happen to her? She gets signed over to Team Fascist, to complete the sellout. The bright, happy girl with the lizard from early in the story has become a heartbroken, shaved-headed cadet standing in military formation with all the other five-year-old child soldiers. And that's where the story sat for another ten years, until "Cadet" appeared in 2006.

That's one of the things I love most about Wagner's Dredd, though: he plots in the long term. (We see fallout from events that happened in the strip five or ten or thirty years ago all the time.) "Cadet" has one more little twist of the knife to add--that inspirational letter at the end of "Fading of the Light" couldn't possibly have been written by Bennett--but otherwise you're right: Cadet Beeny believes in fixing the system from the inside, and it's not impossible that she's going to make some progress at it. It's sometimes heartening to think that we're not totally doomed, you know? Still, that hopefulness doesn't seem to have been intended from the beginning. Wagner notes in his introduction to this volume that he hadn't planned for "Fading of the Light" to lead to "Cadet"--"The characters took over, you see, and took me where they would. And now a whole new range of possibilities has opened up."

(The idea of "political reform" in the context of this series is tricky, though. There's a running bit of business in the last few years dealing with Dredd's evolving position on mutant rights, which here as in X-Men stand in for any kind of civil-rights issue you like; Dredd pushes to reform the laws--but he's in the right for dubious reasons, the reforms don't work out, and things turn out badly for everyone.)

I agree that Mega-City One is beautifully realized as a setting, both in the way it looks and in the way its culture holds together. The initial design of its cityscape, I believe, was by Dredd's co-creator Carlos Ezquerra, although Judge Dredd has basically been one big game of "yes, and..."--a whole lot of artists (and a few writers) building on each other's additions. (The "Statue of Liberty reduced to its torch" business that we see briefly in "Fading of the Light" is, as I understand, fallout from a story that Grant Morrison, of all people, wrote during one of Wagner's periodic absences from the series.)

It's interesting that you bring up the way women are drawn in this story (and I agree that MacNeil's really good with character acting, although I prefer the more richly rendered look of "America"--and, for that matter, "Chopper: Song of the Surfer"--to the line-art of the other two sequences in here). Women's presence on panel is a curious aspect of the history of this series. When 2000 AD began, as I understand, there was a distinct line between British "boys' comics" and "girls' comics"; the former didn't even generally have women as supporting characters. (I just found my copy of 2000 AD Prog 60, from April 1978. There is one female character in the entire issue; she doesn't speak.)

I don't think we saw any women Judges at all until well over a hundred episodes in, and I suspect the Judge Anderson spinoff may have been the first series in a British boys' comic starring a woman character. As soon as it was clear that the readership of 2000 AD was old enough that the male readers no longer considered girls icky, Wagner and Alan Grant made a lot of the regular supporting cast women--I'd wager that McGruder, Anderson and Hershey have appeared on panel more than any character other than Dredd himself--although I'd also bet that you can count the number of episodes that pass the Bechdel test on the fingers of both hands.

But yes--to get back to your final point, America does make it pretty clear that its setting is a fascist police state, and that the protagonist embodies that as its enforcer. "Cadet"'s hopefulness does suggest a deep engagement, but I'd also argue that it suggests that the big battle's already lost. Cadet Beeny blames the culture of the Judges for what happened to her mother, but she doesn't blame the broader culture that gave the Judges unlimited power, and neither does "Cadet" as a story, as opposed to "America" and "Fading of the Light." The resistance to the Judges has been smashed in most places and appeased in the rest; this time around, Dredd and company are unequivocally in the right, and the bad guys are cleaver-wielding bastards. Did you feel your sympathies being toyed with or moved around over the course of the volume? Where were they by the end?

ALYSSA: I didn't know about the time lapse between the stories, which certainly alters my thinking about this a bit. I've essentially come to the conclusion that the America trilogy is manipulative, but it's a skillful bit of manipulation.

As a former student activist, I have a somewhat complicated relationship to America, the Democrats, and even to Total War. I should be clear that most of my activism was working through the democratic process—registering voters, agitating down at City Hall, asking questions in forums—though I did get arrested for occupying the admissions office at my college as part of an action to push the university towards more progressive financial aid reform. (Pro tip: singing the same folk song as a round for three hours will speed up the rate at which the university decides to arrest you, which can be useful when you've been sitting in the same hallway all day.) And so part of what strikes me about America and her cohort is that they're kind of terrible activists. The march is a good idea—but the Democrats don't plan for there to be instigators in the crowds, or to document their work. There doesn't appear to be much of an organizing program. The terrorist campaign waged by Total War is fairly stupid as propaganda: yes, killing Judges demonstrates their vulnerability, but it's guaranteed to bring down reprisals. And their plan to kill celebrities during an awards show without any plan for a communiqué is a huge wasted opportunity to reach the masses. I'm frustrated with them because I'd like them to be better.

And of course, that's sort of the point of the book. We see the Democrats and Total War from the perspective of a very weak sympathizer. And we see the Judges from the perspective of their most articulate representative, who gets space to break down ideas about why democracy isn't particularly representative. Nobody gets a fair chance for a rebuttal. The comic works for the same reason the Judges maintain an effective hold on government—they control the narrative. 

The one place where I think our basic sentiments and all parts of the narrative are working in concert, though, is on the subject of gender. America's narrative of how the Judges forced her to have an abortion, claiming (I assume falsely) that her fetus had genetic abnormalities is horrifying. But so is Beeny's story about impregnating the comatose woman he loved so something of her would live on. Nobody here has very much respect for women's reproductive choice, and that's consistently portrayed as a dreadful, warping thing. Similarly, Judge Dredd may be somewhat more sympathetic to Beeny after he has his mind implanted in America's body than Victor Portnoy is, but they—and even Beeny—are fairly united on the fact that it's a deeply unsettling appropriation. There's a difference between youthful love and desire that becomes so overpowering that the person feeling it has the urge to possess the other person, to be deep inside them enough to deprive them of independent thought, of death on their own terms. What happens to America both before and after her death is very difficult to read through, but these awful events seem, to me, to have strikingly feminist aims.

And I think that works in concert with your thoughts about the long-arc story planning at work here. I really appreciate being able to see these characters evolve. Of course it makes sense that confronted with people who play into all of his preconceptions, Judge Dredd would be resistant to reform, but that watching America Beeny make strategically impressive calls informed by her reformist instincts, he'd be persuaded to change his mind. Of course it makes sense that America would be radicalized by her imprisonment, by her forced abortion. And it makes sense that Beeny's death is much of a surrender as the rest of his life. He's unable to move beyond his love for America, unable to move beyond his instinct to disapprove of the system but to collaborate with it. If you can't grow, whether physically or intellectually, you die. Having America's body reject his brain is both a perfect metaphor for their intellectual and political incompatibility, and for Beeny's inability to either buy into the system or to actively resist it.

DOUGLAS: Thanks again, Alyssa! Everyone, go read Alyssa Rosenberg at ThinkProgress and The Atlantic and Twitter.

A little bibliographic note: after its initial Megazine run, "America" appeared as the standalone volume America in 1991, then as a two-issue U.S. miniseries in 1993, in the first issue of Classic 2000 AD in 1995, in The Complete America in 2003 (along with "Fading of the Light"), in this version, once again just called America (with "Fading of the Light" and "Cadet"), in 2008, and in Prion Books' The Best of Judge Dredd omnibus in 2009. Strangely, the "America"/"Fading"/"Cadet" edition of the book seems to be out of print now--copies go for ridiculous prices on Amazon. I hope every new edition from now on throws in another story; maybe the next one could include "Judgement Call" from Megazine #300, too.

Next week: into a much sillier arena with The Art of Kenny Who?, a.k.a. The Cam Kennedy Collection.