Sunday, June 24, 2012

When Judges Go Bad

(Reprints Judge Dredd stories from 2000 AD Progs 615-618, 623-625, 872, 968-969, 1306-1307 and 2006, and Judge Dredd Megazine #4.04 and 230)

It's hard for me to believe, but as of this week I've been doing Dredd Reckoning for a year. (For the benefit of the curious: it looks like there's going to be enough material to take us up through mid-January.) Cake for everyone!

There haven't been a lot of thematically organized Judge Dredd collections, and as far as I can tell there isn't a compelling marketing reason for this one; "crooked future cops" isn't particularly a plot point in the forthcoming movie. But there are also only so many rubrics for reprinting nice-looking stories by artists who don't have big chunks of the series to their name, so why not? The only previously-reprinted-in-book-form material here is "Crazy Barry, Little Mo"/"Banana City," one of the first memorable bad-cop stories of the full-color era, and that one was split across Case Files 12 and 13 anyway.

The pair of typically lightweight Mark Millar stories that follow it are a bit of a comedown. "Crime Prevention" seems like two half-stories grafted together, and the second half has a particularly Millar-y premise--that the Judges will lock you right up if they think there's a good chance you're going to commit your first crime sometime in the future. It's also a premise that falls to pieces if you think about it for three seconds. (Other writers have taken a stab at the same general idea, but it always seems pretty untenable.)

"The Man Who Broke the Law," one of Millar's final published Dredd stories, ran in 1995, while he was still collaborating frequently with Grant Morrison. I have to wonder if it's at least partly a parody of the club-hopping Morrison of that era, with its rave-y smiley face and flower graffiti, and its gag about a message projected on the moon (a trope that Morrison has pulled out a few times), as well as "Voodoo Jim," who looks a whole lot like Papa Ghede by way of The Invisibles' Jim Crow. (Papa Ghede, incidentally, is supposed to carry an apple in his left hand; for a second I conflated that with the "stolen apple" bit from "Crime Prevention.") It may be just be that I associate Steve Yeowell's artwork with Morrison after their collaborations on Zenith and The Invisibles and Sebastian O. Who knows.

The rest of the volume is much more solidly written. I like the look of Greg Staples' line art on "Class of '79" a lot, too, although the "Judge Staples" that I assume is a self-portrait is slightly too cute a gesture, and Kimble looks like he's in his mid-20s--if he made full eagle in the class of 2079, he'd be about 66 years old at the time of this episode. And "Judging Ralphy" has some really nice, post-Moebius-ish art from Dave Taylor. There's a page of Taylor's original art reproduced below, from his site. He's only drawn a handful of Dredd stories, but I like the look of them a lot. It's great to see his work again in the new Megazine; he'd spent the past few years working on that Batman graphic novel Death By Design that came out a couple of weeks ago.

It's a bit frustrating, though, that this collection is so brief--another signature or two would have made it possible to flesh it out with more contextualizing material. "Judging Ralphy," for instance, is a direct sequel to Progs 119 and 121's "A Tale from Walter's Scwapbook." That's a terrible story, but it's not long, and including it would have made it possible to show John Wagner rectifying one of his early missteps. "A Tale" claimed that Dredd visits Ralphy every week (stifling giggles here) and treats him "just like a real son." If that's the case, then the conclusion of "Judging Ralphy," in which Ralphy spells it out that Dredd gave up on him at exactly the moment he needed help most, and Dredd blows his head off and dismisses it as suicide by cop, is even more bitter than it seems. Dredd's only got room for protective feelings about one surrogate child, apparently, and that's Vienna. (Who, as it happens, first showed up three weeks earlier than Ralphy.)

Likewise, it's good to see both "Bad Manners" and "Rotten Manners" in here, but that's not all of the Judge Manners storyline--the reprint that appeared in Megazine #286 a few years ago included the middle sequence, "Flippers," which makes it more than a set-up/knock-down scenario. And this is yet another missed opportunity to reprint "Flashback 2099: The Return of Rico"--the color remake of the original Judge-gone-bad story.

Next week: one of the odder inter-franchise team-ups the series has been involved with, Predator Vs. Judge Dredd.  

Thursday, June 21, 2012

Where to Start Reading Judge Dredd

I get asked "where do I start with Judge Dredd?" rather a lot. My short answer: Of the books that are currently in print in the U.S., you're going to want to start with Judge Dredd: Complete Case Files 05. That's right: volume 5. It's a very solid introduction; you won't need any information from the earlier volumes that it won't give you, and you can always go back and read those volumes later if you want. It's a big fat black-and-white paperback with a year's worth of weekly stories, circa 1981-1982, including (among others) three very fondly remembered serials: "Judge Death Lives" (drawn by Brian Bolland), "Block Mania" and "The Apocalypse War" (drawn by Dredd's co-creator Carlos Ezquerra).

The best introduction to Judge Dredd is probably America, a collection of three stories by John Wagner and Colin MacNeil (from 1990, 1996 and 2006) that made the series much more interestingly complicated. It's finally back in print--in the U.K., not the U.S.--but there's a Kindle edition of it that's available in the U.S., too. (There's also an argument that a lot of the drama of America comes from its reversal of what had come before it; I still think it's a terrific place to start.)

The most recent material that's been collected is Judge Dredd: Tour of Duty - Mega-City Justice , which collects a pretty terrific 2009-2010 serial. It's a British book, though, and effectively the second half of a long storyline (the first half has been collected as Judge Dredd: Tour of Duty - The Backlash). (UPDATE: As of this writing, the most recent U.K. material to be collected is the terrific Judge Dredd: Trifecta.)

The most recent long storyline in the weekly 2000 AD comics was "Day of Chaos," an excellent, very densely packed thriller that ran for an entire year, from 2000 AD #1740 to 1789. It hasn't yet been collected, and it's the payoff for several years' worth of buildup. You can, however, buy the whole thing issue-by-issue, in physical or digital form, from 2000 AD's site. (UPDATE: It's now available in two volumes:  Judge Dredd Day Of Chaos: The Fourth Faction and Judge Dredd Day Of Chaos: Endgame.)

Is there a story from which Dredd-the-movie was adapted? No, there isn't. (From what I can tell, the movie effectively takes place a little while before the beginning of the comics series.) However, Olivia Thirlby's character Cassandra Anderson makes one of her memorable early appearances in "Judge Death Lives," in the aforementioned Complete Case Files 05. (UPDATE: There is, however, a one-shot comic book sequel to the movie that's also available in digital form: Dredd: Underbelly.)

If you want to read everything in order, there's always the blog you're looking at right now: I'm writing about all the non-redundant collections of Dredd comics in the publication order of the first story they include that hasn't already been covered (with a few exceptions). There are a lot of them--counting spinoffs with the same setting, there are currently about 75 volumes' worth of material, and that's not counting the hundreds of episodes that haven't yet been reprinted. 

And the best books? The general favorites among fans are everything named above, as well as the British collection Complete Case Files 14, which collects the "Necropolis" storyline (and serves as the payoff to another few years' worth of stories). My personal faves also include Brothers of the Blood and the spinoffs Chopper: Surf's Up, Mega-City Undercover Vol. 02: Living the Low Life, The Taxidermist and Devlin Waugh: Red Tide.)

(Note that if you click through on any of these links and end up buying the book from Amazon, I get a little cut of the price; I hope this guide is helpful to you! And if anyone wants, I can set up links to Powell's, too.)

If you have other opinions, feel free to leave them in the comments!

Sunday, June 17, 2012

The Henry Flint Collection

(Reprints Judge Dredd stories from 2000 AD Progs 1063-1065 and 1207-1208, and from Judge Dredd Megazine #3.63, 214, 237, 258-259 and 261-263)

A short entry this week, for a book that probably deserves a longer look.

If I had to pick a latter-day Judge Dredd artist whose otherwise unreprinted work it would be a bright idea to collect in a showcase volume to reach potential readers who might recognize the artist's name from other work, it might not be Henry Flint. (Might be John Higgins, actually: between "Monkey on My Back" and "Served Cold," there'd be the backbone of a very solid book.) If I had to pick an underrecognized MVP of the past decade or two of Dredd, though, Flint would be right up there. I suspect that the only reasons he's not better known in American mainstream comics are that he's done most of his best work for 2000 AD, and that the American comics he has drawn have been very low-profile. The Omega Men? The Haunted Tank? Come on!

Flint is one of the relatively few regular Dredd artists who's adept at both serious and funny (and seriocomic) stories--a real asset, given the way John Wagner likes to switch back and forth between grimness and hilarity. I tend to think of Flint as working in more of a dramatic mode these days, but that's mostly because he's been drawing the bulk of "Day of Chaos," which is as dark a Dredd story as there's ever been. (Even that has its funny moments: Flint's drawing of Ribena Hardly-Lucidberry in her grape costume in the first chapter of "Eve of Destruction" still makes me giggle every time.) It's a bit of a surprise, though, that the first two-thirds of The Henry Flint Collection are all more or less straightforward comedies: only "Street Fighting Man," which we covered a while back, doesn't have punch lines everywhere.

Stories that combine both modes, actually, are Flint's specialty (see also Zombo). "The Gingerbread Man" is the strongest-looking story here, really gruesome and really funny, with lots of textural gestures that Flint didn't try much early on. (The image of P.J. and Inga in their airship is closer to Frank Miller's Moebius/Kojima hybrid in Ronin than anything else I've seen.) Flint isn't a showy artist, or one who generally produces eye candy (although a lot of his covers in the past few years have been really attention-grabbing); he's a stylist of a kind who'd rather make a character look ugly in a striking way than attractive, and he'd rather move a story along than pause the reader's eye for an image that's particularly beautiful or striking. He's particularly good, though, at squeezing a lot of content into a single page: there's a page of "The Gingerbread Man" that has eleven (word-heavy) panels on it, and it doesn't seem especially cramped.

There's one department in which Flint has been drastically underused, though, and that's covers showing Dredd himself--especially for issues in which he's drawn stories. (In fact, he drew the covers of none of the issues reprinted in this volume.) If BARNEY is to be believed, he's drawn only three Dredd covers for 2000 AD, including the not-so-great piece that serves as the cover for The Henry Flint Collection. He did, however, draw Dredd covers for a bunch of the early-2000s 2000 AD audio dramas--one of them appears above--and a few issues of the Megazine, including the dead-on Ezquerra homage seen a few paragraphs higher.

The peculiar thing about this volume is that it probably relies on absent context more than any other Dredd collection. The prime example of that phenomenon is "J.D. Megson," a story that I bet makes no sense at all unless you understand that it's a very thinly encoded story about the decline and unlikely survival of Judge Dredd Megazine. (It ran in Megazine #3.63, whose Greg Staples cover appears below. At that point, the Meg was in rocky waters, with one new Dredd story each issue supplemented by reprints of Preacher and whatever else happened to be around; the next issue was the first of the redesigned incarnation that featured more new material.) Something about "J.D. Megson" makes me wonder if it was originally written to run in a final issue--especially the outright admission that the Meg used to be a lot better: "Money was no object back then... Bennett Beeny himself appeared here." I assume there are a lot of other editorial in-jokes I don't even get--the character names (Skuff, Jube, Pettyman) might well signify something...

Also in the absent context dept.: a handful of these stories really seem to belong in other volumes. "The Gingerbread Man" isn't a standalone story at all: it's a bridge between The Complete P.J. Maybe and the "Talented Mayor Ambrose" sequence in Tour of Duty. The payoff of "Flood's Thirteen"--which I think may be the longest single-episode Dredd story that's not one of the DC team-ups--is set up by the earlier installments of the Hottie House/Branch Moronians sequence. And the two stories involving Mrs. Gunderson that open the book are thoroughly baffling without the setup of her earlier appearances and her connection to Judge Death. (For the benefit of American readers: the title of the second, "Turned Out Quite Nice Again," is a reference to British singer/comedian George Formby's catchphrase.)

Next week: this blog celebrates a year of weekly posts (!), and we leap backwards in chronology for a book that won't actually come out until Tuesday--the thematically organized American collection When Judges Go Bad

Sunday, June 10, 2012

The Hunting Party

(Reprints Judge Dredd stories from 2000 AD Progs 1014-1016, 1033-1049)

Dredd and a ragtag band (including an angry weirdo who seems to have bad intentions) bike across the Cursed Earth in search of a plot device, encountering one parody of American excess after another, as well as a flashback to the beginning of the war that made Dredd's world the way it is: where have we seen this story before? The Hunting Party was evidently planned as a return visit to "The Cursed Earth," fifteen years or so later, with John Wagner at the wheel rather than Pat Mills, and it's not the only new take on an old Dredd template Wagner has written: 2000's "Dead Ringer" is a deliberate variation on "The Judge Child Quest."

The Hunting Party recalls the first few years' worth of Dredd stories more generally, as well as the tone of the comics that surrounded them: how are the dune sharks supposed to act in the story, if not to call back to Hook Jaw by way of Flesh? And the extremely broad riffs on staples of Americana--Main Street USA-type patriotic peacocking as literal cannibalism, summer camp as paramilitary brainwashing, fetishizing virginity as disgusting human sacrifice--often seem like the sort of thing that would have been assigned to Ron Smith to draw in the Wagner/Grant era. Smith actually did get to draw "The Black Plague," an arachno-fest on the order of this volume's "Dance of the Spider Queen."

(What The Hunting Party's treatment of the Cursed Earth premise reminds me of most, actually, is Alan Moore's "American Gothic" arc in Swamp Thing, itself a rewrite of Len Wein and Berni Wrightson's first ten issues of Swamp Thing. The Wein/Wrightson material involved Swamp Thing encountering most of the classic horror tropes while traveling across the country; "American Gothic" does the same thing, excep that each of the horror tropes is mapped onto some aspect of American culture.)

The Hunting Party also seems to have had some difficulty getting off the ground. The bulk of it is pretty clearly supposed to follow on immediately from "The Pack," but the final episode of that introductory story as published suggests that maybe Dredd and company will figure out where the deadly land sharks are coming from when they get around to it. Instead, it was followed by the 12-episode "Darkside"--which I believe was repurposed from a 6-part serial John Smith had written for the Megazine--as well as a Mark Millar-written two-parter that seems to have been sitting around forever and the evergreen "Lonesome Dave," before it got back on track with its single Sean Phillips-drawn episode. 

The episodic form of the story allowed six different artists, half of them new to Dredd in the weekly, to draw different parts of it without the jarring effect that had had in, for instance, The Pit. Despite its generally superior craft, though, The Hunting Party isn't nearly as much fun as The Cursed Earth, mostly because Wagner visibly loses interest partway through it. It's set up to be another ensemble adventure of the Wilderlands sort, with Dredd commanding the crew of Renga (who needs a brain and a heart), Bodine (who needs courage), Washington and Stark (both of whom need personalities), as well as DeMarco, who'd been such a lively presence in The Pit. But the supporting cast adds so little to the proceedings that Dredd dumps most of them off 2/3 of the way through the story so Wagner can get through the final few segments without having to account for them all.

The most jolting bump in this volume is the "Fog on the Eerie" sequence. It's where Wagner blooded one of those artistic cadets, Calum Alexander Watt, who'd drawn a story in the 1995 Winter Special and only stuck around for one later story (the unreprinted "Spooks," in Progs 1058-1061). Watt has a nice way with photo-based figure rendering, but doesn't make anything look the slightest bit larger than life--the final episode has what may be the most unconvincing representation of a crowd being hit by a nuclear explosion that I can imagine. He also makes the world of 2070 look exactly like the world of 1997. "The Cursed Earth" established that the Judge system was well in place by the time of the Atomic War, helmets and all (Dredd, remember, got his full eagle in 2079), but the Judges of Erie's past just look like contemporary cops, and their cars pose precisely the "contemporary vehicles in a future context" problem that Wagner has mentioned as his one remaining quibble with the new Dredd movie. Also, that panel with the Erie Echo's advertising placard showing the headline "Nukes to Fly Today"? That's not just 1997, that's what newspaper publicity looked like in 1997 in the U.K.--American papers don't advertise like that.

It's interesting, and a little jarring, to return to the image of President Booth sending off his nukes (for what the story implies are frivolous reasons) now that we've seen Dredd give orders to atomize half of what's left of the planet. Back in "The Cursed Earth," we Dredd gave his big speech about how "a man like President Booth who causes the blood of millions to be spilt--he's a vampire who puts even Count Dracula in the shade!" This time he calls Booth a "madman," but he's pretty inured to blood-spilling, even slaughtering the 2070 Judges for the sake of expediency. "Fog" appeared only a couple of years after the previous "Dredd visits the past" story: "The Exterminator," serialized 1994-1995, a variation on The Terminator (of course) in which he travels to the New York City of October, 2001 (!!) and is essentially a serial killer.

After "Fog," though, The Hunting Party never quite recovers. The "Shark Country" sequence suffers from inappropriate art by David Bircham, a funny caricaturist and very weak storyteller whose episodes kind of look like a MAD magazine parody of Judge Dredd. Jason Brashill's art on "Camp Demento" plays it a little straighter with most of the Judges, although he lets his carefully modeled coloring substitute for showing what's actually supposed to be seen on-panel. (The sequence where the previously timid Bodine snaps, counterattacks and kills Demento is meant to be a big payoff, but Brashill renders it all as extreme close-ups, sound effects and distant silhouettes; I had to read it a few times to figure out what was happening.) And the final sequence has an air of "let's just get this over with" about it: the answers to "what are dune sharks doing on Earth?" and "why did they attack Mega-City One?" turn out to be "we don't know" and "probably something to do with McGruder--you ask too many questions."

So what The Hunting Party is most notable for, in the context of the whole series, is the arrival of artist Henry Flint, who's since become one of the mainstays of Judge Dredd, especially in Day of Chaos. There are hints of great Dredd artists of the past about his early work--Dr. Bolt, in particular, has a real Ian Gibson look about him--and he's even got a little bit of a learning curve on his episodes here (Dredd has two facial expressions, "mouth closed" and "mouth open"). Still, Flint starts out better than many artists ever get, and immediately distinguishes himself with very solid character acting, as well as a willingness to come up with compositions that include insane amounts of detail if it'll communicate necessary plot points or a sense of spectacle.

Next week, we'll be seeing a lot more of his work, with The Henry Flint Collection.

Sunday, June 3, 2012

Mega-City Masters 01

(Reprints Judge Dredd stories from 2000 AD Progs 130, 205, 342, 374-375, 435, 456, 472-475, 577, 585, 640, 1012-1013, 1194, 1214, 1240, 1320 and 1600-1603, Judge Dredd Megazine #1.14, 1.18 and 280-281, 2000 AD Annual 1982 and 1989, and 2000 AD Sci-Fi Special 1983)

The first Mega-City Masters collection was one of the inaugural volumes of the Simon & Schuster-published 2000 AD line, presented as a potential starting point for Judge Dredd for American readers. One approach to an introduction, obviously, would have been to start at the beginning (and, as I recall, the U.S. edition of Complete Case Files 1 came out around the same time). But Dredd isn't one of those projects like Y: The Last Man or The Walking Dead where everything's lined up and ready to go on page one. It takes a while to get up to speed, and the curve is even steeper for someone unused to the particular rhythms of British comics from the '70s.

Another way of introducing a long-running series to a new audience is to showcase a particular star creator, which is effectively what the DC reprint line a few years earlier tried to do with Dredd Vs. Death (which collected a bunch of Brian Bolland-drawn episodes) and Judgement Day (as far as Americans were concerned, Garth Ennis was the next biggest marquee name who'd contributed a lot to the catalogue). The "let's ease 'em in with Bolland" technique, actually, has also been adopted by Eagle Comics (back in the early '80s) and by IDW's forthcoming collection.

A third approach might have been to assemble some kind of greatest-hits collection, with some of the best-loved episodes; that worked decently for The Spirit a few years ago. (Prion Books even put together a volume called The Best of Judge Dredd some time back, although it's very strangely weighted: a ton of material from the first four years, then the first two P.J. Maybe stories, "America," a long leap forward for "Mrs. Gunderson's Little Adventure," and finally four episodes of "Origins.") The obvious difficulty with that idea is that a lot of the best Dredd stories are either really long or context-heavy or both. Even if you're not going to shoehorn all of "Necropolis" into an anthology, you can't just drop "Letter from a Democrat" or "Leaving Rowdy" or "Tea for Two" on a new reader and leave it at that.

The solution arrived at here is a combination of angles two and three. Mega-City Masters 01 is an overview of about thirty years' worth of short stories, all but one of them one or two episodes long, drawn by artists who mostly have some degree of American name recognition. So, beneath a cover by Tim Bradstreet that looks exactly like his Punisher covers (couldn't he have at least tried to come up with a background that looked more like Mega-City One's architecture than like a 20th-century bridge?), we get stories drawn by the guy who drew Watchmen, the guy who drew Preacher, the guy who drew The Killing Joke, the guy who drew X-Men, the guy who drew The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, the guy who colored Watchmen, etc.

And some of them are really nice-looking! You could do a lot worse than "The Alien Zoo" (the only full-color Bolland story) or "Suspect" or "Bat-Mugger" to get a sense of the visual side of Dredd. I don't know that I'd have picked "The Amazing Ant-Man" as a representative Carlos Ezquerra episode, but it's certainly from one of Ezquerra's most interesting periods. On the other hand, it's strange to see both "Joe Dredd's Blues" and "A Mega-City Primer" (a.k.a. "Heavy Metal Hero") reprinted in the same volume, considering that not only do they have the same premise, but parts of them have exactly the same script. (As I suggested back when I covered Heavy Metal Dredd, the latter strip was indeed re-reprinted in a supplement included with 2000 AD #1068, with--as it turns out--only the captions on its first two pages rewritten as a mock-primer before it shifts back to the song format. Weird.)

As for the episodes we haven't covered before (we're up to Prog 1012 now, believe it or not): John Wagner and Trevor Hairsine's "The Rise & Fall of Chair Man Dilbert" is a cute satire of the mid-'90s art scene, and the scene with Bishop Desmond Snodgrass at the beginning is a nice little follow-up to his "outing" in Prog 964's "Dead Simple." (Dilbert Bowels would be higher on the list of ridiculous Wagner character names if he hadn't already given us a Dilbert DiMaggio in Prog 949.) The single-episode gag strips here (and the single-episode tragedy "The Runner") don't do a lot for me; Jock's art on the one-joke "Crossing Ken Dodd" is the work of a very good artist who hasn't quite found his voice yet, and I suspect that the American reader who'd know who Ken Dodd was without looking him up would be rare indeed.

The treats in this volume for my purposes, though, are its final two stories. "Mutieblock" is a terrific example of recent-vintage Wagner doing what he does best. He doesn't overdo it with the "documentary" storytelling device, but that allows him to get a lot of characters' perspective on the events of the story (and Kevin Walker handles it exceptionally well, too; it's dense with characters and explosions, and Walker gives them all lots of breathing room). Dredd never actually talks to the "camera," even when it's pointed at him--as this year's Free Comic Book Day story makes clear, he doesn't have a lot of time for that stuff--but a lot of the narration is clearly from his POV, although it can shift to, for instance, the mob members' POV just as easily. And then there are the other splendid Wagnerian touches: character names ("Impatience Johnson" indeed), the immigration clerk who has no idea what a bigot he is, "I've never had kneepads before," a pair of Elton John jokes for no particular reason, Endell Wenn's comeuppance (and of course he would be from Wat(t) Tyler block), the inevitable "on my way" in the final panel...

I really like Al Ewing and Colin Wilson's ludicrously violent "Magic Bullets," too, and I'm psyched that Ewing's apparently going to be writing a batch of Dredd stories post-"Day of Chaos." The main plot is a variation on the familiar "rich guys kill for thrills" story ("The Hunters Club," etc.), but the subplots and callbacks ("la placa!") feel like they're getting a boost from the strip's history without just hauling out favorites again. It's really funny, too, and the best joke--Dredd failing to offer Bennett the consolation of the same thing having happened to him once upon a time--strengthens the real core of the story, the relationship between the two of them: Dredd's not testing his rookie any more, he's giving his protégé a hand, praising him for his good calls and nudging him when he needs it.

Next week, we head back into the Cursed Earth for The Hunting Party.