Sunday, July 15, 2012

The Scorpion Dance Featuring Beyond the Call of Duty

(Reprints Judge Dredd stories from 2000 AD Progs 1101-1110 and 1125-1132)

We've got another special guest this week on Dredd Reckoning! Amy K. is a mysterious figure. She's an adult convert to comic books, and she reads a whole lot of superhero stuff but was new to this blog's terrain. I got to discuss an out-of-print collection I particularly like with her.

AMY: I've never read any Dredd before, and I haven't even seen the old movie with Stallone, so I hope I'm bringing fresh and unjaded eyes to the book you sent me, Douglas. On the other hand I am aware of the movie, so everything Dredd said, I read in Sly's voice. Sorry England.

The Scorpion Dance has a second story mentioned on the cover; it's called "Beyond the Call of Duty." It's interesting that "Duty" is listed as 'featuring' because it certainly does feature – it's the first and much longer of the two stories in the trade. While there are stories which introduce the characters and situations of "Duty" that aren't included in the trade, "Scorpion" would make little sense without "Duty."

DOUGLAS: The two of them clearly belong in the same volume; I suspect The Scorpion Dance gets top billing because it's the one that's easier to represent in an exciting cover shot. The big visual moment of "Beyond the Call" is the kiss--but that's also its thrilling twist, so giving it away on the cover might not have been a great idea.

"Beyond the Call of Duty" started in 2000 AD Prog 1101, in the summer of 1998--#1100 had actually been the first issue since #155 in which the Dredd feature didn't appear. (The issue was taken up by a full-length Sláine story.) By the way, I love that caption on Dermot Power's cover for #1107: "Not a dream! Not a hoax! Not an imaginary story!"--that was DC's old tag line for issues in which something significant appeared to happen... extra points for having the little dots in the upper corners that were briefly part of 2000 AD's trade dress replaced by tiny hearts.

AMY: "Beyond the Call of Duty" gives us Judge Galen DeMarco – a freckle-faced redhead female judge, newly appointed Chief of Sector 303 – an area described as well-ordered, so it's a surprise she'd bring in someone like Dredd. I'm not sure why she'd go from reporting to him in 301, as they tell us, to him reporting to her in 303, but there you have it. Through the course of the story we discover that one, there's a band of vigilantes sport-killing even low-level criminals, and two, DeMarco's open to having romantic relationships (which are a no-no for judges) and would love to have one with Dredd (absolutely verboten for judges to get it on together). By the end of "Duty," she's made her play for Dredd, only to be rebuffed – although not particularly forcefully. By the end of "Scorpion," we're forced to wonder what exactly she means to Dredd.

We also get Roffman for both books – a nosy parker nutjob with a moralistic streak carved in policy and set with cowardice.

DOUGLAS: Here's the thing I love about Roffman: he's a voyeuristic, cowardly, self-righteous creep--and, as the story keeps pointing out, that's what makes him a great Judge in some ways. (Particularly fun: the bit where Preen is dressing down Roffman for snooping on DeMarco and not trying to rescue her, and Dredd points out that Roffman did exactly the right thing under the circumstances.) Roffman's stuck around ever since this sequence, as one of the stars of the Public Surveillance Unit, Justice Dept.'s spying-on-the-public division; he does indeed have a knack for uncovering people's secrets. He's still a creep, too. And, of course, the law demands that Roffman be rewarded and DeMarco be punished: hooray for the law!

DeMarco had first appeared in "The Pit," a few years earlier--that's the storyline in which we see her getting in trouble for having an unjudicial liaison with one of her co-workers, and in which there are the first rumblings of the idea that other Judges incorrectly suspect she's got something going with Dredd. She'd subsequently tagged along for the first 2/3 of "The Hunting Party" until John Wagner apparently realized he didn't have much of a role for her there; I think she hadn't appeared for about a year when she turned up again here.

As for the question of who's reporting to whom, I get the sense that street Judges can command each other depending on how their specific duties shift. (See, for instance, the scene here in which Dredd instinctively takes command and his partner reminds him that he's technically the senior judge...) When Dredd was running 301, it was presented as an assignment rather than a promotion, as such.

AMY: I quite like DeMarco as a female character in a comic book. She's quite obviously pretty, and sexy in the way that anyone with a good body and face would be. But her body isn't really the center of focus here – her mind and heart are. There's no silly posturing while she thinks and acts. She's physical, and while she ends up being both mistaken and overpowered while in action... It's Dredd's book. Every character exists to catalyze him, so it's hard to get too upset.

I also enjoy DeMarco for representing normalcy. She needs affection and believes Judges would be better off able to express those needs to one another. Unfortunately for her, she's knowingly entered an order which won't let her practice her beliefs – not for herself, and not for the people who report to her. The two situations we're given end in loss of life and/or loss of career. I suppose that's supposed to illustrate the difference between a good person and a good judge. DeMarco makes the right choices for a good person. Dredd, for the most part, makes the right choices for a good judge. I don't think DeMarco particularly needed to be a woman, other than that Dredd appears to be straight.

Additionally I appreciated that Burns only went so far as to unzip her uniform - I assume to attach electrodes for the lie detector - for the interrogation. Most big two books would have had her down to her bra for that. Refreshing.

DOUGLAS: As regular readers may recall, I was mildly disgruntled about the "Demarco Unzipped!" cover that ran during "The Pit." So, when I was looking through my old progs recently, I was delighted to see Kevin Walker's cover for #1072...

The really beautiful bit of character work in this sequence is the suggestion that it's not that Dredd is totally sexless--it's that he's so deeply repressed that he doesn't have any idea what he's feeling, or why he might be inclined to go easy on DeMarco. I also love that we rarely see DeMarco being "sexy," but we almost always see her being hypercompetent; maybe that's what he likes. Wagner often suggests that there are lots of different ways to be a good Judge, and not only is Dredd's standard of "driven badass" only one of them, but he's open to other standards too. (As of a few years ago, we see him defending Beeny for handling a case completely differently than he would have, because she knows what she's doing.) 

DeMarco's "report it if you like, but don't forget" is a great line: she quietly craves soap-operatic drama, for which Dredd has no time at all. And her weakness--her capacity for love, and for strong feeling in general--isn't actually a character flaw by anyone's standards other than the Judges'...

Then there's DeMarco's real opposite number in this story: Judge Edgar, who had been introduced three years earlier as an occasional adversary for Dredd, and stuck around until 2008. Edgar and Roffman are similar in a lot of ways--they've got official duties that are, fortunately for them, aligned with their unsavory interests--and that may be why she cuts him a break, just as Dredd cut DeMarco a break. But knowledge, for Roffman, is itself a source of pleasure and a sense of superiority, and Edgar really only cares about information as a tool of control, especially controlling people who can be useful to her or might rise up against her. (Roffman wants to take DeMarco down because, in his world-view, he wins by demonstrating that somebody else has broken the rules; Edgar only takes DeMarco down to show Dredd that he'd better not mess with her.)

So here's my question for you: what do you think of Judge Edgar as a female character in a comic book?

AMY: Well, you virtually cannot tell she's a female character, visually.  She's controlling, powerful and ugly. She wouldn't even exist in the New 52, she'd be Wallered into sexiness so potent her Hoverround would be upholstered in studded red leather. So I think she's sort of awesome in that way. Her time on the panels is rather brief, and without seeing her buildup, she's a little bit two-dimensional in her pursuit of Dredd's downfall. For the brief space she's given though, she comes across as brilliantly nasty. I hope there are more female characters in the Dredd books overall who don't fall into 'romantic pitfall' or 'spiteful old hag' categories, though.

DOUGLAS: There definitely are a few--and, as I understand, when the series began in 1977 it was fairly rare that women characters appeared in any capacity in British "boys' comics." I think Exhibit A in Dredd has to be Hershey, who's been a semi-regular character since around 1980 (which means she's aged from her early twenties to her mid-fifties), and is roughly four parts "thoughtful, well-liked executive" to one part "sneaky boss." Judge Beeny has turned into maybe the series' most compelling supporting character (and seems, just in the last year or so, to have picked up a non-white skin tone, taking into account her Latina mother; works for me). McGruder's an interesting case--she started off as a "hardass boss" character, went offstage for a while, and came back as a spiteful old hag (with a goatee!), alternately horrible and sympathetic...

This is way out of the present book's scope, but I really like Judge Maitland, who first showed up just a couple of weeks ago: another POC woman Judge with a distinctive personality and a role we haven't seen before. I note, though, that her second appearance showed her in some cheesecake-y poses (that didn't seem to be called for by the story), with uniform unzipped to show cleavage--argh!

AMY: The art on both storylines is great, although quite different. "Duty" is done by Carlos Ezquerra in 'comicky' style, while "Dance" is the work of John Burns, and is more painterly. They both use a bright palette of colors, which is a pleasant change from the brown-purple-orange that DC's darker books and much of Vertigo stick to. 

DOUGLAS: Ezquerra's a caricaturist at heart--he's the source of a lot of the visual grotesquerie that makes the series so much fun to look at. But Burns' artwork, whether it's the painted style he mostly uses here or the more pen-and-ink-based version we've seen elsewhere, is much more illustrative: he gravitates toward believable details and reasonably realistic poses. (Burns' Roffman, I'm amused to see, barely looks like Ezquerra's, because Burns isn't about to attempt that peanut-shaped head.) That makes Burns great for the palace-intrigue stuff that drives "The Scorpion Dance," less thrilling for the supernatural/violent aspects of the story. 

Actually, I'm curious what you think of the vigilante plot in "Call" and the Vitus Dance plot in "Scorpion Dance"; to me, they seem a little bit awkwardly grafted on, just as a reminder that this is a sci-fi/action comic. Have there ever actually been people who thought "Judge Dredd" was too talky and character-driven?

AMY: I was all right with the vigilante plot in "Call"; it gave the characters a reason to be, things to do. As you know, Douglas, I have little patience or affection for romance in my action books. Stop kissing and go save people! Comics verge upon soap opera already, and I'm just not interested in love triangles and kids taking center stage. Having a coherent plotline which Dredd and DeMarco could intersect with worked for me. The Vitus plot in "Dance," on the other hand, was mostly annoying, and I wanted to flip past it to see what happened to DeMarco in interrogation. She got some good lines off - the one about sniffing the sheets is familiar, but I still laughed. 

I think the thing I come away from this most in love with is Dredd's mouth. Both artists portray it similarly, although Ezquerra definitely goes all in on this - his mouth is an intense scowl at almost all times - it's virtually an upside down U running to the very edges of his chin. I couldn't look at it and not think of Beeker on the Muppets. Since Judges' faces are as obscured as Batman's will ever be, but there are a lot of them in virtually identical oufits, it's crucial that Dredd be easy to pick out of a crowd. You'd never miss that mouth, and it's pretty representative of the man behind it.

I am curious - does Dredd ever sway? Has he fallen into bed/romance? Are Judges supposed to be celibate or just unfettered? Does he call anyone ELSE by their first name?

DOUGLAS: No, what you're seeing in "Beyond the Call of Duty" is, I believe, the one and only kiss Joe Dredd has ever experienced. (There might be another kiss in one of the "Love Story" episodes involving Bella Bagley--I don't remember clearly--but if so it wasn't his idea.) He very rarely calls other Judges by their first names: both Ricos, certainly, maybe Cassandra Anderson. He really only goes out of his way to be kind to his niece Vienna, and even so he's not very good at kindness, and he visibly doesn't quite understand why, say, she would want to have boyfriends. Judges are, I gather, supposed to be celibate, although there's a bit in The Pit about how certain undercover Judges (like Guthrie) are allowed to have liaisons to keep up appearances. But there are a lot who slip--not least Dredd's clone father, Fargo, the creator of the whole system!

And yes, I have to agree that Dredd's mouth is a splendid piece of design.


Thanks again to Amy! Next week: we switch back over to the Judge Anderson track for the recent American collection The Psychic Crime Files.

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