Sunday, January 29, 2012

Heavy Metal Dredd

(Reprints Heavy Metal Dredd stories from Judge Dredd Megazine #1.14, 1.16-1.19, 2.13, 2.19, 2.21-2.25, 2.34-2.36, 2.61-2.62, 3.15, 3.17, 3.33)

The short-lived pan-European heavy metal magazine Rock Power launched in June, 1991; the first issue's cover featured Skid Row, and also billed interior appearances by the likes of LA Guns, Faith No More, Metallica and... Judge Dredd. For some reason, they commissioned a series of six-page Dredd stories by John Wagner, Alan Grant and Simon Bisley (at least at first), which mostly had something to do with hard rock in one way or another, and were subsequently reprinted in random issues of Judge Dredd Megazine whenever it needed some extra content. Then, as I understand, there were more similar stories commissioned for the Meg when the Rock Power ones ran out; they were followed, then and in this collection, by early pieces that had initially seemed not quite tasteful enough for Dredd's own title, or something.

(Speaking of the Megazine: with this week's installment, we officially move into the period where David Bishop was editing it. It's a fairly well-documented period, thanks to the warts-and-all history that appeared in the Meg itself, written by one David Bishop, who curiously refers to himself in the third person throughout. As he does in Thrill-Power Overload, for that matter. What I gather is that the creative budget for the Megazine was trimmed around the time he came on--it was rather extravagant for its time and place, hence the fancy painted artwork in a lot of its strips--and Bishop started reprinting the Heavy Metal Dredd stuff as a cost-saving measure.)

(There are also a handful of unreprinted-in-book-form Dredd-universe strips from the final issues of the Megazine Vol. 1. John Wagner and Steve Sampson's "Brit-Cit Babes" has one great selling point--a Brian Bolland cover on the first issue in which it appeared--but it's distinctly lesser Wagner, and in fact he apparently gave up on it midway through its final episode, leaving it to Bishop to finish off. The Dave Stone-written, Brit-Cit-set "Armitage" has continued to appear intermittently right up to the present. And Bishop and the wonderful Roger Langridge collaborated on a comedy strip I've never seen, called "The Straitjacket Fits"; given that they're both from New Zealand, that has to be a reference to the Dunedin band of the same name.)

But right: Heavy Metal Dredd. That's heavy metal as in rock, but also Heavy Metal as in
Fluide Glacial-but-crasser: visual spectacle trumps plot at every turn, what plot there is tends to be pretty dumb, and the way-over-the-top hyperviolence seems to be more about assuring their readers that this isn't namby-pamby kid stuff than anything else. (It was apparently debated at length in the Megazine letters section.) Eight of these stories are by the Wagner/Grant/Bisley team, and none of them are as thrilling as any six-page cross-section of Judgment on Gotham. The polite John Major-as-Batman type who gets his head bitten off in "Chicken Run" is a nice touch, though.

Curiously, the Bisley episodes that work best are the ones where he doesn't try to do a hastier version of his Judgment full-painting style: "The Great Arsoli" has a spluttering Ralph Steadman-ish approach that's rarely been attempted in action comics, and "Bimba" strips Bisley's technique down to very little more than gestural doodles. (A lot of its its final page appears to have been produced by Bisley deciding "fuck it" and seeing what he could do with two Magic Markers in forty seconds. Don't try that at home.)

Commissioning editor Steve McManus asserted that HMD was out of continuity, "a separate and aggressive Dredd world"; not much implies otherwise, and even the version of Judge Karyn that appears in "Graceland" doesn't look much like the familiar one. That might have something to do with the other featured artist here, the late John Hicklenton, whose eight episodes might be the closest Dredd has ever come to "outsider art" (put that in as many sets of quotation marks as you like). They're more Throbbing Gristle than L.A. Guns, really. Hicklenton, per his interview in the Megazine in 2003, drew one episode while on acid in his tent at the Glastonbury music festival; it says something that I can't tell which one.

Grant and Wagner weren't a particularly apt match for Hicklenton--their scripts for him follow the "when all else fails, stupid = funny" formula. Hicklenton was much more focused on grotesquerie than on stupidity, so John Smith's scripts for a handful of these episodes were right up his alley. (I believe these were the first published Dredd stories proper by Smith, a very interesting if frequently frustrating writer whose early Devlin Waugh stories Graeme McMillan and I will be discussing at some length here in a couple of weeks.) I mean, Dredd unzipping and emerging from a female-bodied fat suit? I can't think of any earlier artist on the series who'd even have attempted to get away with that. Hicklenton didn't truck much with subtlety, though, as you can see below.

As for the three other artists who drew an episode apiece during the Grant/Wagner period here: I do like Brendan McCarthy's work on "The Ballad of Toad McFarlane," which gives him the opportunity to draw psychedelic effects again, and even letterer Tom Frame gets to have a little fun in that episode, returning to the eagle-shaped caption borders of "Oz." But how many Rock Power readers in 1992 would have gotten the joke of the title?

Here's a question that's less rhetorical: I gather that Bisley's very first Heavy Metal Dredd strip was reprinted in a poster magazine included with 2000 AD #1068, but with entirely rewritten captions and dialogue. Anybody able to confirm or deny that, and/or (if it's the case) explain how it happened?

Next week, the mighty Joe McCulloch joins me to discuss The Complete Case Files 17, featuring "Judgment Day," Garth Ennis's sole stab at a mega-epic. 

Sunday, January 22, 2012

The Batman/Judge Dredd Files

(Reprints: Batman/Judge Dredd: Judgment on Gotham, The Ultimate Riddle and Die Laughing)

We've got another special guest this week. Brenna Zedan is the biggest Judge Dredd fan I know here in Portland, Oregon. She does highly unusual things with fingernail art; she blogs about fashion; she does a Tumblr; she's been serializing her story "The Audacity Gambit" online. I always enjoy talking to her, and this week we got to discuss some of the highest-profile Dredd comics ever.

DOUGLAS: Before we get into talking about the Batman/Dredd comics themselves, I'd like to sketch out a bit of their history, as far as I've been able to piece it together--and anyone who knows better should please correct me in the comments (or email me).

The first Batman/Judge Dredd team-up had been in the works for a long, long time--long enough that "Bat-Mugger" in Prog 585, back in 1988, had been Alan Davis's "warm-up" for the project back when he was slated to draw it. Even before that, Alan Grant suggests, a Batman/Dredd project had initially been "proposed by Nick Landau, to be written by Alan Moore and drawn by Brian Bolland," which Grant and John Wagner weren't at all happy about. (Bolland has mentioned something similar as having happened around 1986.)

Wagner and Grant's Dredd work (and their work with Cam Kennedy on Outcasts) had impressed DC enough that they were brought on as Batman's co-writers in Detective Comics beginning in late 1987. The Grant/Wagner partnership largely dissolved in early 1988, at least as an ongoing concern, and Grant effectively got custody of Batman; Wagner stopped working on the Detective scripts after five issues or so, but his name stayed on the masthead for seven more. Grant continued to write Batman stories regularly, first in Detective and later in Batman and Shadow of the Bat, for close to a decade.

Still, it made a lot of sense to capitalize on the fact that a well-coordinated team had extensive experience writing both one of the most popular American characters and one of the most popular British characters of the time. Wagner and Grant eventually came up with the script to Judgment on Gotham, and then Simon Bisley took his sweet time drawing it. According to Thrill-Power Overload, the book was nearly delayed even longer: there had been a corporate decree that there were to be no Batman crossovers published in 1992, the year of the Batman Returns movie. Finally, it got down to the last possible day that Bisley's finished art for the final few pages could arrive to get the book published in 1991; there are legends of a friend of Bisley's keeping him awake around the clock so he could finish the job. The pages arrived by courier from England, Judgment on Gotham went to press, it was a huge hit, and a sequel, Die Laughing, was promptly commissioned. They'd have a whole year to work on it!

Die Laughing was a two-parter, and Glenn Fabry, who'd done such an impressive job on a bunch of Slaine sequences, was assigned to render it in the same sort of painted-art style. And then, at some point, it became clear that it was not going to be done very soon, and everybody was waiting for something. So Vendetta in Gotham was commissioned as a stopgap quickie: a one-shot in which Dredd and Batman have an extended fight, alongside a plot involving the Grant/Wagner-created Batman villain the Ventriloquist. (They'd actually created him for some 2000 AD project, according to this interview, probably "The Mean Arena," but used him in their first Detective story instead.) Grant and Wagner's longtime collaborator Cam Kennedy drew it; even if painted art wasn't his thing, he could be counted on to turn work around in a hurry. Vendetta appeared in late 1993, with a pretty sweet Mike Mignola cover (above). On its final page, Dredd announces "one of our Psis had a premonition. It seems Mega-City One is going to be needing you!" The concluding caption reads "Judgment 3: Die Laughing will be out next year!"

Well... no. In May, 1994, Judge Dredd Megazine #2.60 concluded Judge Anderson's "Postcards from the Edge" sequence with a story in which Anderson has a vision of an eagle, a bat and a vulture (see below), and realizes she needs to get back from outer space to the Big Meg--another lead-in to Die Laughing. (As Grant put it: "I had to abandon the sci-fi and get [Anderson] back to Earth for a story that didn't actually appear till about 5 years later.") But Glenn Fabry was taking a very, very long time to get it done--he "turned an 8-month job into a 5 year slog," in Grant's words--so there was another fill-in slotted in to keep the project alive: The Ultimate Riddle, with painted art again, initially by Carl Critchlow, with Dermot Power taking over for its final 15 pages. That came out in mid-1995, in time to capitalize on the Judge Dredd movie. 

And still there was no Die Laughing. After Fabry drifted away from the project, Jim Murray and Jason Brashill finished off the artwork on part 1, and Murray painted the second issue himself. It finally turned up in late 1998. Weirdly, the Batman/Judge Dredd Files collection (from 2004) omits Vendetta, maybe because it's the only episode that's not painted--but that story is referred to in Die Laughing.

So that's the backstory. Brenna, how did you first encounter this stuff, and what did you make of it at the time?

BRENNA: Oh man, I had no idea that Judgment on Gotham had such an involved history, or that there were more Dredd and Batman books. Why I haven't looked this sort of thing up is beyond me, though it could be because my access to Dredd has always been through luck and chance and if I start finding new things I'm going to want all of them.

Dredd in general I stumbled on in an antique store, I was probably looking for Batman, but I picked up a six-issue 2000 AD monthly Eagle reprint buried between dead end Image first issues and 1990s X-Men. A couple months later I'd re-read them a dozen times. I spent about a half hour at that antique store, sorting through all the comics, putting the Eagle Dredd reprints in one box (with a bunch of filler), then offering a flat price for the it. That was—wow, somewhere in 2006, according to my broken image internet memory.

I'm not certain which came first, a poster of the cover art of Judgment on Gotham, which a friend found while dumpster diving, or my partner buying me the book for the holidays. I'd been a Batman fan since I was in kindergarten, though I didn't get a subscription to the main series until I was in high school. I think it just seemed obvious to others that I'd appreciate a pairing of two of the grumpiest vigilantes (one sanctioned, one not), both of which I was a little obsessed over.

I hadn't really encountered painted comics until Judgment on Gotham, and Bisley's work captivated me. I had the poster framed, and it's been in a prominent place in most of the apartments I've lived in. There's something that, to my untrained eyes, that has something appealingly comics-with-an-"x" or old Heavy Metal-Euro about it. Bisley's perspective combined with the distance of time was terribly refreshing to someone getting steadily tired of what I was seeing in American print comics.

How he can take the characters from an airbrushed Coles Phillips to cartoony and creepy is perfect for larger than life, self-important weirdos like Dredd and the Bat. Really, they're a perfect team up, since they both walk the line of seriousness. And then you throw Judge Death in there, who really is a Batman kind of villain.

As for Die Laughing, Fabry, Murray and Brashill have a very photo-referenced style that is unsettling. Caricatured faces pasted onto Vallejo bodies is never going to work for me. I suppose I have Murray to thank for giving me the visual of a shirtless Joker, though his work is less off-putting than Fabry's.

I adore Judge Death, who just seems to have more fun than the other dark judges, so the first and the last books of this sort-of-series are going to be my favourites. The relationship of Batman and Dredd is, of course, the heart of the series, even if the real driving point was keeping them in the sphere of the other long enough for Die Laughing to come out.

These two are sweet together. Which is maybe weird to say. I did just take a minute to see if I could find any Dredd/Batman fanfic, but if it's out there then it didn't float to the top in a quick search. Oh, slash world, you are missing out.

They're each the kind of non-cop that the other despises. One is the totality of law, with all the use of brute force that implies. The other supplements the law as he sees fit. Dredd is disgusted by the Bat's vigilante aspect and that he's beholden to no one, Batman finds Dredd's casual manhandling and harsh sentencing of prisoners loathsome. For all the faux-'merica world that the Judge's world is set in, it's a very British world.

This is just based on what I've seen in the two arenas of fiction (mostly post-apocalyptic and sf), but British worlds tend to be much harsher. Folks getting killed off is just a part of how things have to be done. Dredd is the product of that kind of mindset. Batman's insistence on not killing and this constant, futile, application of hope for mankind learning or improving is very American.

DOUGLAS: A few more brief notes on the writing here. I noticed on a repeat reading of Judgment on Gotham that Wagner and Grant did a very clever thing. They could assume that everyone knew who Batman was, but knew that some of their readers wouldn't know Dredd, so everything from his world is given an introductory gesture: Anderson picking up the phone before it rings, Dredd explaining his authority, Mean Machine giving his standard spiel about his dial. It's also worth mentioning that all of the Batman/Dredd crossovers are firmly in Dredd continuity. "Die Laughing" kills off Deputy Chief Judge Herriman, and the whereabouts of the Dark Judges at various points in Dredd's series were directly affected by what happens here (there's some later Dredd story where he refers obliquely to that weird guy from Gotham). The Joker can escape from Arkham any number of times, but we always know where Judge Death is. Actually, does anybody happen to know if Alan Grant's Batman stories ever referred, however obliquely, to the Dredd teamups?

Yeah, let's talk a bit more about the artwork here. I agree that Bisley's art on Judgment is the most interesting of any of this series--there are just so many little flourishes on every page, from the sliver of Death's mask at the bottom of the opening page to the crazy-quilt compression of the page where Anderson is picking up Batman's history. (Notably, Bisley's credited above Grant and Wagner on some versions of the original front cover.) You've mentioned to me that the original British edition was physically much bigger, and I'd love to see that--Graeme McMillan was talking about that today too. I believe that the era of Judgment was the period where 2000 AD's trim size was the biggest it's ever been, and painted art was the high end of its house styles. There's still occasionally painted art as part of the 2000 AD mix, as with John Burns' work on "Angel Zero" recently, but you don't see it very often.

Bisley, more than anyone else, was the guy who was responsible for making the painted look work in British comics, thanks to his work on "SlaĆ­ne." It's not often that you see someone who's so invested in grotesquely distorting everything but also in composition, storytelling, keeping visual rhythms clean and varied, and so on. His Mean Machine is crazily asymmetrical--his robot arm's as big as the rest of his body--and we only see more than a fraction of him on panel a few times. His Batman's an amazing compositional device, with a cape taking up whatever space needs to be occupied, and a costume skintight to the point where we can see individual bulging veins; his Dredd is all armor and gear, an immutable shape. Interestingly, one image from this story--the second panel on story page 30, I'm guessing-- showed Dredd's face in Bisley's original pencils. That got nixed.

I love how much texture there is to Bisley's artwork: not just the shiny modeled surfaces that dominate Jim Murray's half of Die Laughing or the "painterly" Frazetta-isms of Critchlow's two-thirds of The Ultimate Riddle, but rickety contour sketches spattered with color spray, the Jack Davis impression he does when he's drawing Living Death, the psychedelic ripples of Anderson's hair, the fluffy softness of the Scarecrow's nightmare (and that gag still makes me grin every time I see it). I see why the editors who commissioned the follow-ups wanted to approximate the look of Bisley; it's too bad they couldn't. (Cam Kennedy's linework couldn't look much less like Bisley's multimedia jobs, but he could choreograph an action scene--which is what Vendetta in Gotham mostly is, Dredd and Batman getting to duke it out the way they barely had in Judgment--and he could meet a damn deadline.)

I don't have a lot of love for The Ultimate Riddle, mostly because it's not just filler but puffed-up, gilded filler: the "alien kidnaps the heroes and makes them fight each other in the ARENA" plot was very, very old when I first saw it in a reprint of a Giant-Size Defenders in some British Marvel comic. (A little of my own background: back when I was just getting into comics in the early '80s, Mile High had a special that for, I think, two or five dollars you could get a stack of ten miscellaneous British comic books. I took advantage of that deal a few times, and ended up with various Mighty World of Marvel sorts of reprints, as well as some early-Bolland-Dredd issues of 2000 AD. And thus my brain was warped.)

It might be more fun if The Ultimate Riddle looked quick and dirty like Vendetta, but the solemnity of the painted art (would it kill them to use a few more bright tones for contrast? look how well Bisley did it!) makes it seem more serious: if you read it after Judgment, you spend your time looking for the density and play of Bisley's art, and it's not there. It's also a problem that it happens outside both Gotham and Mega-City One--in both characters' series, the setting is a big part of the fun, and a random stone dungeon is a lot less interesting to look at. Quicker to draw, though, and by that point that has to have been a major concern. ("Let's just call it four years" at the end of The Ultimate Riddle has to be a reference to how long the follow-up had already taken.) Also, it's odd that one of the bad guys is named "Xero"; wonder if that overlapped at all with the development of the Xer0 series DC published in 1997-1998?

Glenn Fabry's art on the first half of Die Laughing is an improvement, and so's the premise, although this is unequivocally a Dredd story that just happens to have Batman and the Joker in it. (The "Seventh Day Hedonists" routine is not just pure Dredd, it's the sort of thing that would never, ever appear in a Batman story.) Fabry's much less an all-purpose action artist than he is a caricaturist--his characters' face-acting is almost always the star attraction, here as in the Preacher covers he was drawing around that time. But at least in the Batman/Judge Dredd Files book, Fabry's work reproduces very dark, which obscures a lot of the action. That page of the Joker juggling the heads of the Dark Judges should be a killer, but his facial expression is the only part of it that really connects.

I don't know if Jim Murray used any CGI or direct photo manipulation for his half of Die Laughing; '97 seems a bit early for that, but it sure looks like it in places (see, for instance, Anderson's face in the final few panels). You're right about "caricatured faces pasted onto Vallejo bodies": the distance between the uncanny-valley shape modeling and the super-goony faces makes nearly every character seem a little off, although the Joker looks okay. (The Joker looks okay no matter how he's drawn.) A lot of the layouts come off as intensely cluttered, too, especially at this small size; it's often unclear how the eye is supposed to travel on the page, which makes it tough going. It's supposed to be showing scenes of chaos, but that doesn't mean the reader's experience has to be chaotic.

Brenna, you've got a real eye for clothing and other visual details; tell me more about what you're seeing here!

BRENNA: Poor Dredd--I wish he had as big a cultural literacy base as Batman. I didn't know (but assumed, since 2000 AD seems to have themselves pretty together) that the continuity of the crossovers was so solid within the Dredd universe. That makes me super happy.

I just got my replacement copy of Judgment on Gotham, since I can't find my original, despite tearing the house apart for it. I was startled at how small it is, just normal US comic size. The original British edition feels almost tabloid-size, too big to properly curl up with, but perfect for diving right into Bisley's work. I think the large format and that they still use painted art are the reasons I pick up 2000 AD floppies when I can. It's luxurious.

Hmm, clothing? One of the things I love about older comics is how they hit and miss the clothing and cultural styles of an era. British comics seem to have more fun with it—a part of the whole Dredd universe is skewering that sort of thing, after all—and the crowd attending the 'Living Death' concert in Judgment is almost straight-up Guns n' Roses fans (and my partner points out that, in the late 80s and early 90s, it was pretty common for a band to have a harder name than they lived up to—which makes Judge Death crashing the stage even more beautiful, when you're expecting something a little more Axl).

Vendetta and The Ultimate Riddle are both set in such limited arenas, with a minimum of extras, that you don't get any good fashion voyeurism, but Die Laughing is full of it. Oh, except for the wino on page 39 of Vendetta, who looks more like he belongs in Mega-City One instead of boozing on the streets of Gotham.

I think that because Die Laughing is set in Dredd's world we get those wonderful visual extras that make these comics for me. Crowd scenes dress any warm body filling the frame with the care of a film costumer, giving the reader details on the world they're plunged into. However I feel about the art in these books, they've got that down. The fade and the toothed earring on the extra in the foreground of page 28 of the first half of Die Laughing is great, but there are some guys in the back wearing perfectly stupid hats that settle the population more steadily into Mega-City One. Overall everyone is sporting that vaguely 1980s-influenced, useless detail (knee pads, that sort of thing) clothing that I think you still see in current issues. But any scantily clad female screams the mid-to-late '90s, like the lady in blue on Die Laughing's first two page spread of carnage in the Pleasure Dome.

But whatever fun detail I get out of the later issues, I keep going back to Bisley's layouts in Judgment. Judge Anderson's mocking imitation of Judge Death (complete with spooky zombie hands), Death's disgusted posture at his pieced-together uniform and how his ghost tail coils up when Scarecrow startles him. Other than the sort of weird outline choice for Death's speech bubbles, his is also one of the better applications of sound effects and lettering of the four books (though I keep leaving Vendetta out of my accounting--it's way more solid than I'm giving it credit for, it's a perfect action piece, it just isn't Bisley). I'd guess that has to be a hard balance with painted art, but Mean Machine's “BOK BOK BOK” is only as jarring as the noise itself would be.

Are there any other awesome facts about these books? I'm still sort of stunned over their timeline and now also curious about if the Bat ever referenced his fascist cop buddy from another world.

DOUGLAS: If there are other awesome facts, I don't know them! Although, if you're looking for more Dredd commentary on early-'90s hard rock and the visual style that goes with it (as well as a bit more Bisley art), look no further than the book I'm covering next week...

There really aren't a lot of other crossovers I can think of that are a significant part of anybody's continuity--that WildC.A.T.s/Aliens one-shot Warren Ellis wrote in the late '90s is the only other big exception I can think of. I'll be getting to two of the other non-2000 AD Dredd crossovers, with Predator and Aliens, later this year; if I recall correctly, Aliens ties in with some ongoing subplots, and Predator is basically one big inconsequential fight scene. There's one other one--a Dredd/Lobo one-shot written by Grant and Wagner--that's never been collected, and you're not missing anything if you haven't seen it. Grant was the writer most closely associated with Lobo for many years, and worked with Bisley on a Lobo miniseries in 1990; "bastich," Lobo's euphemism of choice, ended up in a handful of Grant's Dredd stories, too.

But as long as we're talking about Grant-and-Wagner DC/2000 AD crossovers, I might as well mention two others. Bob, the Galactic Bum was a 1995 DC miniseries by Wagner, Grant and Carlos Ezquerra, in which Lobo played a prominent supporting role. Wagner, Grant and Ezquerra owned it, though, so when they reprinted it in Judge Dredd Megazine 13 years later, Lobo was rewritten and redrawn into a woman named Asbo. (Other DC Universe references were similarly retrofitted: the Khunds, for instance, became the Gunts, sigh.)

And, although the mid-'90s DC Judge Dredd and Judge Dredd: Legends of the Law series are not quite within the scope of this blog (unless they get reprinted sometime), it's worth mentioning that Grant and Wagner wrote the first four issues of Legends of the Law, and they're a lot of fun. The DC series are officially outside British Dredd continuity, but the Wagner/Grant storyline--a version of how Dredd and Anderson first met--doesn't contradict anything Wagner's established elsewhere. It also involves multiple musical numbers, and a villain who looks like a Don Martin drawing! Beat that.

Thanks again to Brenna! Next week, I'm looking at another project involving the principals of Judgment on Gotham, Wagner, Grant and Bisley: the very odd Heavy Metal Dredd.

Sunday, January 15, 2012

The Complete Case Files 16

(Reprints: Judge Dredd stories from 2000 AD Progs 736-775 and Judge Dredd Megazine #1.11-1.20)

Yes, it's been a while since this blog has dealt with one of the Complete Case Files books--1990-1991 was an unusually active era for new Dredd-related stories. This volume, though, covers the mother of all transitional periods: John Wagner's initial farewell to Dredd, at least in the weekly series.

By the point where this volume starts, Garth Ennis had effectively passed his audition to take over Dredd, and 2000 AD had mostly burned off its stockpile of Wagner-written one-offs--the only one that appears here is "Watchdogs," a six-pager that could have appeared at nearly any time in the strip's history. Unusually for this period, it's drawn by Cliff Robinson, whose specialty at the time was doing generic Dredd illustrations, like the one below, that could appear on the cover of 2000 AD in lieu of an image that had to do with one of the specific stories inside.

Week-to-week continuity wasn't one of the series' strengths at this point--there were a whole lot of artists drawing Dredd, and a lot of the early episodes here have the sense that they're marking time. Both of the first two stories in this volume have "mutants come over the west wall of the city and Dredd kills them" plots, as did "The Gipper's Big Night" in Megazine #1.10, which came out the same month. Simon Coleby is the most prominent artist on the weekly strip at this point, and he really hadn't hit his stride yet (I like his later Low Life material much better): at a time when a lot of Dredd's other artists were doing fancy painted work, his more American-style, light-comedy approach is something of a comedown. And, given what was coming, it'd have been nice to see a bit more buildup to the "democracy referendum happens at Dredd's request" plot.

After three months' worth of throwaways, parodies (the Twin Peaks riff is particularly weak) and Ennis showing off his record collection, we finally get to this volume's centerpiece, "The Devil You Know"/"Twilight's Last Gleaming," a continuous story with its first half written by Wagner and its second by Ennis. I'd love to know how it came together, actually: I can't think of any other examples of a writer closely associated with an ongoing comics serial deliberately setting up loose ends for his or her successor to resolve. If "Necropolis" was Wagner wrapping up the greater arc of his run, "The Devil You Know" is effectively him giving Ennis his blessing--leaving on a cliffhanger, and letting Ennis decide which way the premise of the entire series would go.

Where Ennis took it, curiously, was straight back to Wagnerland. "Twilight's Last Gleaming" is Ennis demonstrating that he knows and loves the Dredd canon, and that he takes it very seriously--as far as impressing Dreddheads like me goes, he couldn't have picked a better character to bring back (on the story's second page!) than Degaulle--one of the greatest bit players in the strip's history--or a better way to handle her appearance than establishing what had happened off-panel since we last saw her to make her even angrier and more bitter. 

But then he actually starts repeating some of Wagner and Grant's beats: the "God help me, I love it" speech from "Return to Mega-City" (shouldn't that be "Grud"?), the slobby family watching the election results from "Letter from a Democrat" and "Revolution." Ennis's "Dredd is so awesome!!" streak comes through here, too--less in the scene where Blondel Dupre finally buckles to Dredd than in the icky-rather-than-heartbreaking one that follows it, in which she explains that "it takes someone special to rule this city, not us..." Wagner's version of Dredd is a useful monster; Ennis's is tough enough to do hard things. In general, Ennis has always valued toughness more than pretty much any other comics writer I know of.

Right after "Twilight's Last Gleaming," Ennis's run starts flailing a bit. (His strength, then and now, is the extended, character-based drama, not the six-page action-comedy, and his idea of a gag is very often a gross-out.) By that point, he'd also taken over another old Grant/Wagner series, Strontium Dog, and assumed control of Hellblazer from Jamie Delano; unlike Dredd or Strontium Dog, he promptly made Hellblazer his own. ("Dangerous Habits," his first John Constantine story, beats any 2000 AD serial he wrote.) The six-part Dredd-on-a-spaceship piece "Justice One" is more his speed than the wacky one-offs--he's got actual characters to work with and a plot to develop--but Peter Doherty, fresh off his Judge Death serial, doesn't quite have the chops for grim suspense, and ends up coming off as a slightly diluted variation on John Burns' theme.

(Incidentally, Burns, I think, is the unsung hero of this era of the series: there's something very old-school about his figures and faces and painting technique--see the Degaulle scene above--that suggests that the rapidly shifting tone and style of the writing is just a brief spot of turbulence, a look that suggests that he was raised on Eagle and American SF pulp covers. Of course, looking up information on him just now, I find that he drew Modesty Blaise for a while and has no particular interest in science fiction, so I'm pretty wrong.)

Since the Megazine material reprinted in this volume didn't have credits on the story pages themselves (and the book isn't much help), I've turned to BARNEY to see who was responsible, and it turns out this era was the Alan Grant show. He wrote all ten episodes from the Meg here, as well as the curious side-trip "The Art of Geomancy" in 2000 AD (his first Dredd story there in two years, and last for another four years)--the sentence "The land was a living thing" on that story's first page is an unmistakable tipoff that Grant's at the wheel.

So's the presence of the spunky psychic Judge who shows up to push the plot of "Raptaur" forward at appropriate moments. When I encountered this story in here, I briefly wondered why Judge Karyn was occupying the role usually reserved for Anderson, and then realized that it's because "Raptaur" began in mid-1991, between the first and second halves of "Engram," i.e. while Anderson was institutionalized. (The second half of "Engram" ran just in time for her to get out and appear in "Judgment on Gotham" a few weeks later.) Karyn seems to have only appeared in one subsequent Grant-written story ("Raptaur Returns," naturally), but she had her own, never-reprinted series in the Meg in 1994, and Gordon Rennie wrote a few stories involving her in the mid-2000s.

It's also worth noting that the artwork on Dredd stories in this era of the Megazine sometimes went way further out than in the weekly (the peak of that impulse, perhaps, being Mike McMahon's triple-fortissimo "Howler" a few years later). "Raptaur" is a very straightforward Dredd-vs.-monster story in a lot of ways (and an exceptionally lengthy one for how minor it is--time-wise, it ran as long as "Oz"), but Dean Ormston's artwork for it has a wild, thrashing line that goes nicely with the Alien-via-Carnage creature he designed for it. (Come to think of it, Carnage didn't appear in Spider-Man until a year later.) Ormston obscures a couple of story beats, and steps on a few gags--right, that's Lois Lane and Clark Kent kissing on top of a building, but having him wear a giant shirt that says CLARK KENT is overdoing it. But the thing that drives this story is a creature that can take you to pieces before you even register its presence, so keeping the viewer's perspective blurred or misdirected isn't a bad idea.

Sam Kieth's lunatic, blobby colored-marker (?) work on "I Was a Teenage Mutant Ninja Priest Killer!"--the third Turtles parody in Dredd, following "Eldster Vigilante Mud-Wrestling Ninjas" and "The Juve Mutated Kung Fu Kleggs"--is even further outside the look of Dredd established by 2000 AD, to the point of looking like a parody of the way the character's usually drawn. It's also a very odd story, with its direct reference to Turtles co-creator Kevin Eastman and its non-sequitur "do you get it? huh? do you?" ending. Grant would have been written it right around the time the British branch of Eastman's publishing company, Tundra UK, opened in London in 1991; was there some kind of weird situation involving Eastman, Grant, Kieth, and/or priests that anyone can explain?

Next week, we move on to some of the highest-profile Dredd stories of the '90s: The Batman/Judge Dredd Files, with special guest Brenna Zedan!

Sunday, January 8, 2012

Judge Death: Young Death - Boyhood of a Superfiend

(Reprints Judge Death stories from Judge Dredd Megazine #1.01-1.12 and Judge Dredd Mega Special 1991)

Yes, we've covered this book before--mostly. "Young Death" was indeed reprinted in Judge Death: The Life and Death Of..., which David Brothers and I discussed in November. But the British edition of Young Death includes one bonus story: "Masque of the Judge, Death," a ten-page black-and-white number by Si Spencer and John McCrea (set during "Necropolis") that first appeared in the Judge Dredd Mega Special 1991, published roughly at the same time as 2000 AD Prog 733. (It was also reprinted in 1999's Best of Judge Dredd Special Edition, an odds-and-ends collection of mostly mid-'90s material.)

As its title suggests, its plot is lifted fairly directly from Edgar Allan Poe's "Masque of the Red Death," and so is a lot of its language, although substituting pop-culture and Dredd-continuity references for Poe's descriptions doesn't help them much. "The prince had provided all the appliances of pleasure. There were buffoons, there were improvisatori, there were ballet-dancers, there were musicians, there was Beauty, there was wine," goes the original; Spencer turns that into "There was tobacco, there was Umpty Candy, there was sugar..." For the benefit of younger folks reading this blog, the "you're bending my cantaloupe" bit is a reference to this 1990 Happy Mondays hit, a cover of this John Kongos song from 1971.

The notable thing about "Masque" is John McCrea's super-high-contrast black-and-white artwork--some of the most heavily stylized art that had yet been seen in any Dredd-related story, and also a real outlier in McCrea's published work, at least the parts of it I've seen. (It doesn't even look much like the "Chopper" serial he'd published a bit earlier.) That particular Mega Special had a lot of visuals that pushed at the edges of what was permissible for the franchise: it also included Glynn Dillon's curious "Cult of the Thugee" and Shaky Kane's "Judge Planet." Dean Ormston, who's credited with the idea for "Masque," drew the image of Judge Death on its cover. Why does it say "Skreemer," the title of a Peter Milligan/Brett Ewins/Steve Dillon miniseries DC had published a couple of years earlier? Beats me!

"Masque," though, looks unusual even in that context. Dredd had never had much in the way of freehand panel borders (aside from the very different way Carlos Ezquerra used them), but McCrea's slabs of black nearly look like they're cut out of construction paper with an unruled X-Acto blade. I love the way he uses light and space throughout the story, and wish (a little) that he'd continued to do more art in this vein, as opposed to the more streamlined, straight-ahead style he developed for The Demon and Hitman a few years later. See, for instance, on the page below, the way Prospero's scroll in panel 3 does the old "sticking out of the panel border" trick via negative space, or the feathering on "Tweak"'s costume--an effect to be seen nowhere else on the page or in the story--whose shift to straighter contours just below its head makes it clear that it's a person in a Tweak outfit.

It's hard to imagine a story that looked like "Masque" having run in 2000 AD, or any of its spinoffs, even a couple of years before this. The late Fleetway/Maxwell period of the series seems to have been even more open to stylistic experimentation than usual: see also Steve Sampson's work on "Brit-Cit Babes" and Roger Langridge's "The Straitjacket Fits." And McCrea's work here would have probably looked "off-model" if it had been an actual Judge Dredd story, but for a piece like this that's more about mood than continuity, it's wonderful.

Next week, it's back to the Complete Case Files (after seven weeks away!) with Vol. 16, in which John Wagner puts in a couple of brief appearances before leaving the weekly series in Garth Ennis's hands, and over in the Megazine Alan Grant introduces Raptaur and Psi-Judge Karyn. 

Sunday, January 1, 2012

Mean Machine: Real Mean

(Reprints: Mean Machine stories from 2000 AD Progs 730-736 and Judge Dredd Megazine #2.47, 2.63-2.72, 3.69, 3.74 and 218-220, plus Judge Dredd story from 2000 AD Prog 450)

Mean Machine is the one-notiest of one-note characters, and a lot of the stories involving him have a nearly identical arc: 1) Can he be reformed? 2) Nope. (Bok!) So a lot of this volume is rather samey, if entertaining; I can't imagine there was a broad outcry for a Mean retrospective, but as someone who's immersed in this stuff I'm happy to see it.

"Travels With Muh Shrink" (the title has to be a play on Graham Greene's Travels With My Aunt) appeared beginning in May, 1991; it was the first that had been seen of the character since "A Merry Tale of the Christmas Angel," more than five years earlier. Who knows why John Wagner decided to turn his attention back to Mean? Maybe this serial was meant as a way of getting him back on stage before the long-in-the-works "Judgement on Gotham"; maybe it was planned as a feature for the Megazine at some point; maybe it was Wagner keeping his hand in the Dredd universe while Garth Ennis was ramping up to speed. It's not one of Wagner's more successful comedies, because it doesn't build like those do--it's more or less just one gag after another. Which reminds me: is the bit about the Reliant Robin and the Snoopy sweatshirts a jab at a particular person, or just a type?

The real curiosity here is artist Richard Dolan, who only ever drew this series and a few covers for 2000 AD; he's both a real talent and a significant mismatch to the material. Both Carlos Ezquerra and Ron Smith got the comedic possibilities of Mean--a half-man, half-robot who talks like Yosemite Sam, headbutts everything, and just barely operates on the same plane as everyone else around him. What Dolan's got to offer is the kind of painterly, look-at-my-brush-textures realism that was very popular in that era, in the post-Frazetta mode of Simon Bisley and Glenn Fabry; his characters are clearly modeled, for the most part, on photos.

That approach is fine for certain kinds of action comics, but it doesn't work terribly well for funny stuff. So Dolan models a bunch of his characters on photos of the Three Stooges--which might have been funnier if Brian Bolland hadn't already used the same trick way back in "The Face-Change Crimes." It also means that Prof. Dingbert always looks like Curly Howard, which yanks me straight out of the story every time. More subtly, he's always occupying a different physical space from Mean--even when they're on panel together, they don't quite belong in the same place. And the larger-than-life slapstick bits ("Butted him clean through to th' next page!") don't get over on cartoon logic like they're supposed to, because Dolan's art keeps trying to ground everything in real-world physics.

There's also the problem of muddy reproduction, which curses a lot of the painted comics of this era of 2000 AD, especially when they're shrunk down to modern paperback size. (That's one thing I love about the original comics: they're big, which often makes them more readable.) Carl Critchlow's painted art on "Son of Mean" reproduces a lot better--it's still a little fuzzy around the edges, and murky in places, but he tends to set his characters against brightly colored or white backgrounds, or at least give a lot of panels some breathing room and visual contrasts. (And why does Greg Staples get cover-billed for his 9 pages rather than Critchlow for his 60?)

"Son of Mean" is a much funnier story than "Travels," mostly because it does build up to Junior's transformation, but the painted/every-wrinkle-indicated technique is odd here too: this is effectively a cross between several Looney Tunes staples, a Sylvester-and-Sylvester-Jr. cartoon with the elder cat replaced by Yosemite Sam (and the business with Junior and his doll is a little like the "and I will name him George" bit from "Hoppy Go Lucky"). The "let's run through all the possible crimes alphabetically" routine is straight Chuck Jones territory. (I laughed at the "arsin' about" joke, although it's a rare example of a Britishism in the mouth of this very American character.) Critchlow recognizes that Mean is a caricature, and so's his (never named!) son; the gag on the second page with Mean holding exactly the same scowl for seven straight panels wouldn't be funny if he looked more ordinarily ill-tempered the way he does in Dolan's artwork.

Critchlow's design for the kid is over-the-top moppetry, with neotenic features and that little sprig of hair. It's effective as comedy, although it's a stretch to fit into the "real timeline" feature of the Dredd universe: Mean's son is clearly written and drawn as being about seven or eight years old. One bit of dialogue says he's roughly 13, which is the youngest he could possibly be, given that he was conceived before "The Judge Child" and this story ran in 1994. (Seven-Pound Sadie and the shotgun wedding appeared in Alan Grant and Robin Smith's Mean Machine story in the Judge Dredd Annual of 1983; Grant and Smith had also done a Mean Machine piece in the previous year's Annual. Wouldn't it have been fun to see those here instead of another reprint of "Merry Tale of the Christmas Angel"?) Mean Jr. does turn up again in a panel or two of "Fifty-Year Man" in 2007, clearly an adult but too far in the background to estimate his age clearly.

I don't quite know what to make of the two black-and-white Gordon Rennie stories in here, especially "The Geek" (cover pictured above, with a caption that puns on Wagner and Arthur Ranson's "Button Man" series)--Harke & Burr appeared in a bunch of mid-'90s Judge Dredd Megazine stories I haven't read--but I'll note that it's a little odd to see Mean saying "bastich" in the first of them. Doesn't that word belong to Lobo? (On reflection, I think Alan Grant used it in a Dredd story at some point, too.)

"Angel Heart," though: that's a tougher one, just because Wagner starts out setting it up as the standard Mean Machine comedy--1) Can he be reformed by the power of love? 2) Nope. (Bok!)--and ultimately tugs it toward tragedy. Porsha Wuss's name suggests that she's a parody of some celebrity or other (anyone know who it might be?), and the setup of the story indicates that we're supposed to think she's a patsy for thinking of Mean as a tragic figure, corrupted by his father and a slave to violence. But that's what he is, it turns out, and this story was effectively Wagner's farewell to Mean. (I believe the only time he's written him since is a very brief coda in 2007's "Fifty-Year Man," in which Mean is playing the Lennie role to Mean Jr.'s George.)

David Millgate's interpretation of Mean seems a little off, and not just because he's got the "1" on his dial at the 9:00 position rather than the 6:00 position where everyone else draws it. Most of "Angel Heart" is a very broad comedy (is Cyberfreak supposed to be a parody of generic early Image Comics cyborgs?), and Millgate plays it in a kind of post-Tank Girl style, with sharply angled chunky lines and little fourth-wall-breaking sight gags all over. The visual problem is sort of the opposite of "Travels With Muh Shrink": Millgate's artwork here isn't nearly grounded enough in a recognizable world--the wackiness of Mean's outsize gestures and presence don't contrast with anything, it's all pitched up all the way--and when the comedy peels away in the final chapter, it struggles to get the tonal shift across.

Bibliographic notes: believe it or not, this isn't anywhere near the whole Mean Machine solo canon. Besides the aforementioned Alan Grant/Robin Smith stories in the early Judge Dredd Annuals, there are other Wagner-written stories in a Poster Prog (with some nice Cliff Robinson art) and Megazine 2.82, and Gordon Rennie-written stories in 2000 AD Sci-Fi Special 1995 and 1996, Judge Dredd Mega Special 1996, and four other issues of the Megazine.

Next week, we turn our attention briefly to Young Death: Portrait of a Superfiend. But wait--didn't we cover that already a few weeks ago as part of Judge Death: The Life and Death of...? Well, almost. You'll see.