Sunday, July 8, 2012

The Complete Case Files 19

(Reprints Judge Dredd stories from 2000 AD Progs 830-855 and Judge Dredd Megazine #2.27-2.43)

Before we get started, a special announcement: if you're attending this year's Comic-Con International San Diego, come to the Judge Dredd 35th Anniversary panel, this Friday, July 13 from 12:30 to 1:30 PM in Room 8! I'll be moderating it, and the other panelists will include Chris Ryall of IDW, Matt Smith and Ben Smith of 2000 AD, Jock, and "some very special guests." Trust me when I say you will want to be there.

And speaking of very special guests, we've got another one visiting Dredd Reckoning this week! Dr. Marc Singer is an assistant professor at Howard University, the author of Grant Morrison: Combining the Worlds of Contemporary Comics(University Press of Mississippi), and the former-and-still-occasional proprietor of the excellent comics blog I Am NOT the Beastmaster. I had the pleasure of discussing Case Files 19 with him.

DOUGLAS: Marc, I should apologize a bit to you first for sticking you with this particular volume. On the one hand, it's got "Inferno," the only Judge Dredd story proper that Grant Morrison has written on his own (and there's a bit of a caveat to that--see below), and you're about the most hardcore Morrison expert there is, so I'm very curious what you have to say about it. On the other hand, as far as I'm concerned, it's one of the worst stories Morrison's ever published, and a lot of the rest of the material in this volume is pretty shaky too.

A little background on what we've got here: In 1993, Judge Dredd as a feature was floundering for various reasons. Garth Ennis had pretty clearly burned out on it, and shifted to working on his American comics projects, although a few stories (like "Goodnight Kiss") continued to trickle out over the following year or so. Mark Millar, another 23-year-old (he, Ennis and I were born within a few weeks of each other!), was doing warmup exercises in the wings, getting ready to take over. John Wagner had left the feature in 2000 AD; he was still writing Dredd in the Megazine, but not all the time, and during this period John Smith handled some fill-ins for him (including "The Jigsaw Murders" and "LaDonna Fever"). Each magazine's Dredd writers were apparently ignoring the stories in the other magazine. Everything needed a shakeup, and for the weekly, it came in the form of the "Summer Offensive."

That was an eight-week period--Progs 842 to 849--when 2000 AD was taken over by new strips written by Morrison and Millar, plus Smith and Paul Peart's ridiculous "Slaughterbowl." Most of those strips haven't aged terribly well (although Morrison and Rian Hughes' "Really and Truly" is at least pretty), but it was indeed a break with the familiar. The centerpiece, though, was the first 2/3 of Morrison and Carlos Ezquerra's slam-bang Dredd serial "Inferno"--although he'd clearly come up with the idea in collaboration with Millar, since it was directly preceded by an eight-episode lead-in, "Purgatory," by Millar and Ezquerra. (I'll be getting to that in more detail with the standalone Inferno volume in a month or so.)

I'd also be willing to bet that the role filled by Psi-Judge Judy Janus was originally written as a supporting part for Judge Anderson, but since Anderson was offworld at the time, Janus was, like, wholly whipped up as a substitute, just as Karyn had been a year or two earlier (and as Kit Agee had been, in her way, a year or two before that). Janus ended up appearing in her own Morrison-written stories, most of which I haven't read, on and off for a few years thereafter; I'd be curious to see those reprinted sometime... 

As for the rest: I covered "Mechanismo - Body Count" a while back in the context of the Mechanismo collection, but it's mostly notable as Wagner trying to get the continuity of the Megazine jumpstarted again, and starting to build toward the Wilderlands sequence that began about a year later. His other stories here are generally one- or two-part comedy pieces, although it's worth noting that "Slick Dickens - Dressed to Kill" concerns a character he returns to every decade or so, and that he seems to find the central gag of "Hottie House Siege"--the Branch Moronians' combination of ideological-fanatic violence and X-Treem stupidity--funny enough to have dipped into that well kind of a lot, too. (Okay, fine, I will again admit that I also think it's hilarious.)

Beyond that, we've got Garth Ennis grinding it out. "The Chieftain" is the leading example of an Ennis story that groans "I really don't want to do this any more": a gruesome revenger's tragedy with an anthropomorphic, weaponized set of bagpipes incongruously plunked in the middle of it. We've got Millar flailing--his one-offs are radically, like Branch Moronian-level, dumbed down from what readers had come to expect, and "War Games" is a setup for some kind of massive Yellow Peril terror-from-the-East scenario that, thankfully, never arrived. And we've got John Smith uneasily balancing Wagnerisms and his own interests as a writer--"LaDonna Fever" is a run-of-the-mill "funny" one-off (mocking Madonna mania in 1993? Seriously?), but "The Jigsaw Murders" is basically Smith using Dredd as a vehicle for his favorite subject: body horror! When a writer with one arm comes up with a story whose MacGuffin is a missing arm, you kind of have to wonder what else is encoded in that story.

So yes, the specter of Wagner and his absence looms over this volume even more than usual. And what particularly alarms me about "Inferno" is that Morrison--as strong and distinctive an action-comics writer as I can think of--loses almost everything that I think of as being interestingly Morrisonian in trying to imitate, or maybe parody, the tone of Wagner's Dredd. Next time I'll get a bit more into what exactly I dislike about the story; for now, I'll just say that I see only two brief passages in "Inferno" that make me think "ah, yes, that's Morrison, all right"... and I'm not going to tell you what they are yet, because I'm very interested in where you think "Inferno" fits into the overall shape of Morrison's work!

MARC: Where do I think "Inferno" fits into the overall shape of Morrison's work? That's probably best answered by observing that I just wrote a book on him and it doesn't mention "Inferno" once. As a matter of fact, it barely mentions the Summer Offensive at all--I took out a casual reference to "Really & Truly" because I decided explaining it would be more trouble than it was worth. So in a way I'm grateful that you've given me a chance to talk about the Summer Offensive, even if I find "Inferno" to be Morrison's least interesting contribution.

The Summer Offensive as a whole is hard to place in Morrison's larger career because it falls into a kind of dead space. By 1993 Morrison had wrapped up his revolutionary work on Animal Man and Doom Patrol, but it would be a few more years before he returned to superheroes with Flex Mentallo, Aztek, and JLA; he'd helped launch Vertigo with the Sebastian O miniseries, but it would be another year before he began his longest and most ambitious work in The Invisibles. Morrison was living off the money he made from Arkham Asylum, taking a breather from long-form comics, and transitioning between two modes, the radical experimentation of his early years and the epic storytelling of the late nineties.

The Summer Offensive also came after he'd largely given up on the British comics industry and 2000 AD in particular, having been enticed by the greener and far more lucrative pastures of American superhero comics. The year before, Morrison had gotten bored while writing Phase IV of Zenith (a story I adore, as it happens) and he'd long since stopped writing for the more independent or adult-oriented British comics. Returning to 2000 AD at this time, particularly in such a juvenile fashion, feels like a step backwards; the Summer Offensive reads like a blind alley, or maybe a bad hangover. I guess it's most notable for featuring his earliest collaborations with Mark Millar on "Big Dave" and in the "Purgatory"/"Inferno" two-fer, but nobody is covering themselves in glory here.

As for Judge Janus, I'm not so sure that she was a last-minute replacement for Anderson. David Bishop quotes Morrison as saying that Janus was "a rave-era character, the kind I was meeting, so she felt more relevant to me than Judge Anderson, who had this kind of dated Debbie Harry vibe." His interviews should always be taken with a grain of salt but since "Inferno" ran concurrently with "Really & Truly," which Morrison boasts was written in a single day while he was high on ecstasy, I'm inclined to believe him about the rave inspiration. Unfortunately, none of that inspiration comes through on the page. Other than a couple of references to karma and Tibetan healing balls she doesn't come across as particularly counter-cultural, and her most distinguishing features (bald head, psychic powers) are about as relevant as Persis Khambatta.

Janus also has the problem that there's no real reason for her to be in the story. All of her psychic insights are duplicated if not trumped by Judge Bhaji (oh dear) and the role of saving Dredd's life is given to his old comedy sidekick Walter the Wobot. Judge Hershey plays the tough-as-nails lady judge, and Janus's only contribution is to note that when a big statue crashes through the city walls, that's a way into the city! Morrison was apparently fond enough of Janus to revisit the character later, but I still can't tell you why. If being offworld was the only thing that kept her out of this story, Judge Anderson should consider herself very lucky indeed.

DOUGLAS: Ouch! That's the first Persis Khambatta reference I've seen in about thirty years, which I guess proves your point. Yes, this does seem like an anomalous Morrison story: I can't think offhand of many other established franchises he's written without at least attempting to come up with some ingenious twist on or deep reading of how that series had previously worked. (Steed and Mrs. Peel? Doctor Who? Zoids?) As you say, he'd just come off of both Animal Man and Doom Patrol, both of which had reached into relatively shallow concepts and found something fascinating within them. It's odd that his three stabs at Dredd (this and the Mark Millar co-writes "Book of the Dead" and "Crusade") don't bother to find a fresh angle on the series at all. That's 181 pages! That's Seaguy + Seaguy II length!

Instead, there's so much horribly clumsy writing here. Morrison asks us to believe that Grice's small team of disgraced, hobbled ex-Judges could drive all the current Judges out of the city (off-panel); that the Grand Hall of Justice is built directly on top of iso-cubes; that Dredd would unblinkingly slaughter a building's worth of prisoners rather than allow them to potentially be freed (although "it was only a parking offence!" strikes me as a very Morrisonian joke--that's one of the two idiomatic moments I mentioned, the other being Janus' Tibetan healing balls); that the Titan escapees would be packed on board a "pre-programmed robot ship" (cough) so Dredd could blow it up; that the Statue of Judgement is perched adjacent to the Cursed Earth, i.e. on the western border of Mega-City One (hint: it's directly adjacent to the Statue of Liberty, which is on the eastern edge of North America); that the Judges would have an oh-well attitude to germ warfare decimating the population of MC1 ("fewer citizens means less crime"--er, that's Judge Death's position); that, after killing a bad guy in a career-record gruesome way, Dredd would go for a James Bond-style one-liner; that hand-to-hand combat between Dredd and Grice could settle the entire problem...

Wagner seems to have ignored "Inferno" altogether, if he even read it. He brought Walter back himself barely six months later in the Megazine's "Giant," in a form that's completely inconsistent with this story, and you'd think his many references circa "Wilderlands" to McGruder's questionable programs might have include a mention of the virus that killed a huge chunk of citizens, but no. So it's interesting that "Day of Chaos," the massive Wagner-written storyline that just concluded after running for most of a year in 2000 AD, is, in some ways, a vastly improved variation on a lot of the plot devices of "Inferno." (It involves psychic premonitions of doom, germ warfare, turncoat Judges, the Statue of Judgment and Hall of Justice attacked...) The key difference, I think, is that Morrison's story is Badass Vs. Bad Guys, and Wagner's focuses on how painfully vulnerable the badasses' system is: in "Day of Chaos," there's nobody for Dredd to shoot to solve the larger problem, and so the story becomes about the Judges struggling to cut their losses.

So what is there to like about "Inferno"? Well... there's Carlos Ezquerra. This was the last major storyline on which he used his classic watercolor technique, and that era's version of his color sense and lighting and those wonderful Mega-City landscapes always makes me happy to see. I love his character work, too--Hershey here genuinely looks a bit older than she had a few years earlier--although his Grice has about as many facial expressions as your typical Fletcher Hanks character.

As far out of control as the writing lineup was getting, this was actually a pretty solid era for Dredd art-wise. For whatever reason, both 2000 AD and the Megazine could afford to commission painted artwork a lot of the time (it's nice to see some Mick Austin artwork that didn't have to be banged out overnight, like the cover below, featuring the aforementioned anthropomorphic bagpipes). The line-art episodes are mostly really attractive too, especially the two drawn by Brett Ewins. Actually, the fancy painted technique sometimes strikes me as overdoing it on the gag episodes from the Megazine; I can only imagine what Ron Smith could've done with "Hottie House Siege." The exception is the Slick Dickens sequence, for which Xuasus' overwrought, marbled pulp-cover style is right on the money (and the switch to David Millgate's art on the final page is a nice touch).

I'm curious: did any of the non-"Inferno" episodes here make a particular impression on you one way or the other?

MARC: Morrison never really wanted to find a fresh angle on Dredd. To go back to David Bishop once again (all of these quotes come from Thrill-Power Overlaod, his history of 2000 AD), Morrison said he took a “filmic” (read: Michael Bay) approach to the character because he couldn’t see anything else to do with him. As he said, “at least Batman also has Bruce Wayne, giving him all of two dimensions. Dredd is just Dredd.” I suspect the Grant Morrison of today would scoff at that description of Batman, but I also suspect the John Wagner of 1993 would scoff at that description of Dredd.

Morrison also compared Dredd to one of his least favorite comic book heroes when he said “the character is now as relevant to the new century as Dan Dare was to the 1970s,” when 2000 AD famously tried and failed to modernize him. Of course, Morrison had written his own profoundly contemptuous revamp a few years earlier in Dare, but at least that book had a point of view. “Inferno” doesn’t even hate Dredd enough to develop a serious critique. Nor does it show any particular affection for him, any desire to revamp him, any effort at making him or his world seem real even on their own ridiculous terms.

And as you note, he usually makes more of an effort even when he’s working on somebody else’s characters. Steed and Mrs. Peel is more or less an Avengers episode in comics form, but it does sneak in a couple of sly digs at the class privileges of Steed’s character and it’s buoyed by Morrison’s obvious fondness for the series. Zoids was a toy tie-in comic, but Morrison not only threw himself into the miserable premise with gusto, he turned it into his first stab at the metafiction that’s come to define his career. “Inferno” just isn’t trying.

I like the parking offense joke, which struck me as a pretty funny parody of a certain popular image of Dredd, but from what you say it sounds like more of a misconception. I guess that’s part of the problem – this is a story written for and by people who don’t read a lot of Judge Dredd. Morrison is ticking off all the established elements (Grice, Hershey, Walter, Cursed Earth, Lawmaster, and one punch that I’m pretty sure is a mirror-image restaging of “Gaze into the fist of Dredd!”), but even a novice like me can tell he isn’t using them with any particular verve. He lets his palpable revulsion at the character override any desire to do something interesting with him.

I enjoy Ezquerra’s art as well – even the dismal “Purgatory” was enlivened by some great caricatures in the riot scenes, and I can’t fault him for the faces when the script saddles all the fugitives with those ridiculous nose thingys (which, as near as I can tell, serve absolutely no purpose in the plot). That said, I think he’s one of the few artists in this volume who’s able to pull off the painted look. With most of his peers, there’s an odd tension between the art’s ambitions (okay, pretensions) to maturity and the scripts’ proclivities for juvenile humor and mindless action – or worse, the art tries to get in on the joke with Bisley-style exaggeration. Ezquerra works because he’s invested in the reality, the internal consistency of Dredd and his world in a way that Morrison never is.

As to the non-“Inferno” episodes, I’d have to share your dire assessment of most of them, but I will confess to liking Slick Dickens. I loved the point you made in your earlier review that this is a character who could only exist in that narrow window after writers decided it was okay, even desirable to include queer characters but before they realized that maybe they shouldn’t make them all flamboyant stereotypes. (For what it’s worth I put Danny the Street in that same window, but at least Danny wasn’t also a serial killer.) Still, there’s something very engaging about the story – the way Dickens’s broadly drawn caricature starts to trickle into the other characters (“What a showman!”), the clever reveal at the end and the accompanying art switch, the deliriously overheated script in general. At least this one is having some fun.

Other stories? The Megazine pieces certainly fare better than their contemporaries in 2000 AD. Whether they’re going for comedy like Slick Dickens or more serious material like the Jigsaw Killer or Mechanismo – well, those aren’t great, but they have the good sense to commit to a direction and take their own premises seriously.

I don’t know, that’s a pretty sorry review, isn’t it? “This collection occasionally achieves mediocrity, and there’s one funny story about a horribly transphobic stereotype. Zarjaz!”


Thanks again to Marc! Next week: the mysterious Amy K. joins me to discuss Galen DeMarco's return to the spotlight in The Scorpion Dance/Beyond the Call of Duty.


  1. I look forward to your panel at SDCC this week! and as someone who has read little Dredd from '93 to the present (when fleetway stopped printing it) I look forward to some good casefiles. When does it get good again?

  2. Not sure exactly how it breaks down, but vol. 20 should have "Bury My Knee at Wounded Heart," "Giant" and the mighty McMahon-drawn "Howler" on the Megazine side, and then 21 covers the "Wilderlands" era and we're off to the races. Of course, this may all be academic, since nothing beyond vol. 19 has actually been announced so far.

  3. A little confused by the reference to Dare as a "profoundly contemptuous revamp." Profoundly contemptuous of Thatcherism, yes; but did you mean profoundly contemptuous of Dan Dare? I think not.

  4. hmm. if they don't follow through with ALL of the books 20 and up to the present, well, that would just be wrong, especially for us american sods that missed out on all of 2 decades of Dredd.

  5. Richard: I mean Dare. This was the comic that turned Dan into a drug-addicted war criminal, a political pawn, and an unwitting but voluntary accomplice to mass murder, rape, and cannibalism--in other words, pretty much the apex (or nadir) of late 80s/early 90s grim and gritty revisionism. In an interview with Speakeasy at the time, Morrison boasted about knowing next to nothing about the Dan Dare mythology and said he had nothing but disrespect for the strip's style and its origins. Morrison had no love for Dare, although he still managed to invest him with more honor and his story with more of a purpose than I can see in "Inferno."

  6. "In an interview with Speakeasy at the time, Morrison boasted about knowing next to nothing about the Dan Dare mythology and said he had nothing but disrespect for the strip's style and its origins"

    In that same interview, he also said "there is a core of (Dare) which is quite worthy and quite honourable, and we also want to show that as well, and to show how easily that can be perverted"

    I think it was the cultural resonance of Dare for a generation of British males, and their refusal to let go of the things they valued from their own childhoods that Morrison held in contempt.

    "this is a story written for and by people who don’t read a lot of Judge Dredd. Morrison is ticking off all the established elements ... but even a novice like me can tell he isn’t using them with any particular verve"

    Best summary of what's wrong with Morrison and Millar's take on the character I've ever read. In an odd parallel of their attitude to Dredd, I don't even rate their stories as important enough to hate or say anything about.

  7. The great tragedy of that M & M era is that Ezquerra had to commit the Herculean effort of carrying those two passengers, all the while producing some of his greatest art on stories that didn't deserve him.

    I'd have been happy with just more Garth Ennis stories while Wagner was on his retreat.

  8. Marc Singer: absolutely agree with your view of Dare as the zenith/nadir of revisionism.

    Douglas Wolk: John Smith only has one arm?

    1. It was tiresomely revisionist but it's well crafted and still affecting all the same.