Sunday, August 26, 2012

Doomsday for Dredd

(Reprints Judge Dredd stories from 2000 AD Prog 1141-1164)

Last week, I went off a bit about the structural problems that bedeviled The Doomsday Scenario. Let me add another one to the list here: the structure of the crossover, in which Dredd solves the problem overseas and then comes back home and solves the problem we thought DeMarco might take care of, suggests that he's not just a particularly tough member of a police force, but such a badass that everyone and everything in his orbit is helpless without him. As it stands, he's the person who more or less singlehandedly resolved the Apocalypse War, Necropolis, and half a dozen other citywide or global catastrophes. The way Doomsday is set up, MC1 falls to Narcos's robots in a matter of hours (John Wagner pretty much admits via caption that it's not really a robot war, more of a robots-do-their-thing-for-a-little-while), effectively because Dredd's briefly not around. Then Dredd leads the expedition that pulls off the decisive "oh hey let's reprogram the robots" move, and boom, as soon as he comes back to the city, his team wins. That seems like overdoing it, somehow.

Doomsday for Dredd also suffers from multiple-artist syndrome even more than... most long Dredd storylines that aren't anchored by Carlos Ezquerra. Cam Kennedy's opening sequence (published as "Return of the Assassin") looks fantastic, of course. But then we shift to the trial sequence, drawn by Simon Davis with a post-Barron-Storey scratch-and-splatter technique unlike anything the series had seen before (aside from some of John Hicklenton's work, maybe): it's a plot-heavy set of episodes, and Davis's habit of throwing in a few vague pen lines behind his characters and calling it a background means they lose a lot of the force they could have had. I do like that Davis draws one member of the Direktorate to look just like Wagner, though.

The shift from Kennedy to Davis is slightly awkward; the shift from Davis to Neil Googe for "Trial of Strength" (in which Dredd and Orlok attempt to resolve their massive, high-stakes philosophical argument in a fistfight, and the art style shifts down to "minor generic superhero series") is really awkward; the "War Games" sequence's six artists in seven episodes are pretty much disastrous, although Charlie Adlard does a decent impression of Mike McMahon's late-'90s style in an attempt to provide some continuity. (It's always good to see McMahon's work, and it's also nice to see Stark from The Hunting Party among the Brit-Cit crew, even though McMahon seems to have thought blue stars on the chin were a popular fashion there.)

By then, though, the story's gone off the rails. I appreciate the idea that Dredd's annihilation of East-Meg One would have long-term consequences (an idea that Wagner would do much more and much better with later on)--although it's odd that the survivors would have waited fifteen years to put a price on his head. But the trial sequence at the core of Doomsday for Dredd is based on a ridiculous bit of handwaving.

For one thing, it's never been explained what the Sovs hoped to gain by invading and bombing MC1 back in "The Apocalypse War"--and this would be a particularly good time for it, since Narcos is basically doing the same thing. For another, it's in no way evident that Dredd had to wipe East-Meg One off the map: even if he hadn't killed the city's leaders and destroyed its offensive capabilities, nuking the entire city always seemed more like revenge, or even just pique, than anything resembling justice. Putting him on trial for war crimes actually seems entirely reasonable; note that Anderson's key question to Orlok--"From your knowledge of the situation, was there any other way the East-Meg invasion could have been repelled?"--begins with a touch of weaseling.

One virtue of "The Apocalypse War" as a story is that Wagner and Alan Grant kept cranking its stakes and tension higher and higher. But from the moment Dredd and Anderson escape the New Kremlin--which Dredd apparently destroys altogether by blowing up a couple of propane tanks, since otherwise there'd still be a bounty on his head--the air slowly leaks out of Doomsday. Rutherford's plan a few chapters later is entirely sound, and nothing interferes with it, which means that we spend the "War Games" sequence just watching it play out, with the only drama supplied by a couple of previously unknown-to-us Judges getting iced.

And once we move back to MC1, with the reprogrammed robots cleaning up the mess, the plot goes flat altogether. Narcos, Wagner tells us, hasn't really figured out what he's going to do with the city once he's conquered it; hell of a time to let on to that. The last 30 pages of the story are just Narcos losing, progressively, with a lot of explosions thrown in. I wonder if Hershey's top-billed appearance on the cover of Prog 1160 (in a Greg Staples-painted cover, below, for which she seems to have gotten temporary implants) means that she was originally supposed to have a bigger role in "Endgame"--the role she actually has is one panel in that issue, with four words of dialogue.

Most of "Endgame" is trumped-up story beats that reverse themselves as quickly as they appear. Edgar's in terrible trouble!--oh no, wait, Edgar's fine. Narcos has come out to face his fate!--And his fate arrives in the form of Dredd, showing up to save the day again (why does Dredd have to go to meet him? couldn't the other Judges on the scene just go ahead and shoot him?). But Narcos might have sent a decoy!--oh, actually he didn't. Okay. Pow. Story's over now.

That's a shame, because in its initial sequences, "Doomsday" has a lot of promise. I really love the opening scene, with Orlok biding his time and working with the sweet little aliens who don't quite understand the import of what's going on. "You could be salving your lips with them right now" is a terrific line. Dredd doing a crime swoop to calm his nerves, Orlok and the sleeper agent, Brit-Cit making a big show of not helping MC1 and then immediately turning around and offering assistance: all good stuff. In its outline, the 2000 AD part of "Doomsday" seems like a great idea--a crimelord making his move for control of the city, the Judges brought low by their own technology, Dredd on trial for his role in the Apocalypse War and being defended by Orlok. It's not clear, though, that Wagner figured how to get the story past those exceptional situations before there was no option left but to brute-force its way out of them.

Next week: the amazing Mr. Lev Grossman joins me to discuss Devlin Waugh: Red Tide!

Sunday, August 19, 2012

Doomsday for Mega-City One

(Reprints Judge Dredd stories from Judge Dredd Megazine #3.52-59 and 2000 AD Prog 1167)

The 32-episode "Doomsday Scenario" sequence was the last time John Wagner (or anybody else) has tried to execute a large-scale crossover between 2000 AD and the Megazine. (There was later one very-small-scale crossover: Gordon Rennie and Carl Critchlow's two-episode "Burned Out.") The logistical difficulties, by this point, were even greater than they had been at the time of "Judgement Day" and "Wilderlands": since early 1996, the Megazine had gone monthly. So that meant 4 or 5 weekly six-page episodes had to run in parallel with each monthly 15-page episode, and on top of that, a vocal group of readers insisted that they had to be able to follow either series' thread plot without reading the other one. (Well, I'm guessing they mostly insisted they had to be able to follow the weekly without the monthly: I suspect the part of the Venn diagram that's Megazine readers who don't read 2000 AD has always been fairly small.)

Also, plot developments in either title couldn't spoil upcoming developments in the other. That's how "Doomsday" ended up split into two collections: this one, with the Megazine stories plus "Volt Face," from Prog 1167, which happens immediately after the final Megazine episode but was separated from the weekly serial by the two-part "Revenge of Trapper Hag"; and Doomsday for Dredd, with the main body of the 2000 AD serial. It'd have been nice to get lead-ins like "Gun Play" or "Worst of Frendz" or "The Contract" in there somewhere, but no such luck. At least the book spares us the fluorescent-orange fifth-color covers. But I won't!

Wagner's solution to the twin-serial problem was pretty smart in theory. "The Doomsday Scenario" concerns a two-front conflict: Nero Narcos has launched his long-planned robot attack on Justice Dept. to take over the city, and Dredd can't help because he's been spirited away by Orlok to stand trial for genocide. We follow him overseas in 2000 AD; we see what's going on in Mega-City One through the eyes of Galen DeMarco, who was the most interesting supporting character available at the time. The Megazine story runs eight issues, i.e. just over seven months, and gets a head start on the 24 weekly episodes in the Prog.

The terminal flaw in Wagner's plan is that the two storylines don't quite join up together with matching, interlacing climaxes (that was a problem with the split narrative of "Wilderlands," too). Up to the point where Orlok takes off with Dredd while DeMarco's unconscious, the stories mesh just fine. But Dredd has to deal with Orlok and the trial, and then come back and deal with Narcos, as I'll discuss more next week. All DeMarco has the power to do vis-a-vis Narcos is spend several months' worth of episodes getting to safety, and Wagner makes her do that as slowly as possible, but eventually he simply runs out of plot for her.

The last two episodes of the Megazine "Doomsday" are blatantly just marking time--you can almost see Wagner sighing as he gives us a silly but gory Citi-Def scene, devotes a couple of sequences to Oola Blint and her husband (another recurring routine he seems to have thought was particularly funny), shifts to Bishop Desmond Snodgrass for a page, recycles the "DeMarco has a fantasy about Dredd" bit from the story's first episode (it gets an amusingly salacious Greg Staples cover, below, the second time), reprises a bunch of material from the end of the 2000 AD story, spends a full page on Dredd showing up at the Judges' secret bonus hideout... and finally hits the last two beats of the story: Dredd's final rejection of DeMarco (at that point, I believe, the Meg could use the word "shit" and the weekly couldn't, which I guess is why it's part of the punch line of two of these eight episodes), and Volt's suicide. Wagner really only needed two pages to do that, and he had 30.

So the parts I enjoy most in D4MC1 are mostly details, like the follow-up to the death of Herriman in Batman/Judge Dredd: Die Laughing: a proposed memorial to him in "the new Mitty complex." (Which is, of course, rejected.) The same scene's single, unreliable Cassandra-as-in-Agamemnon predicting the robot war, though, is a routine we've seen before, and in fact there's something very similar at the beginning of "Day of Chaos"; we also got something similar the previous time there was an episode called "War Games," the Mark Millar-written "oh no look out for Sino-Cit" one. (See also the "War Games" on that "Banzai Battalion" cover I included last week...)

What's really unsatisfying about the material in this volume is that DeMarco is our protagonist, but she doesn't really get to do anything in the back half of the story. What the setup demands is for her to solve a crucial piece of the problem in a way that she can but that Dredd can't, or that she can as a civilian in a way that she couldn't have as a Judge. But she doesn't: she's part of a group that gets to a miraculously functional safe spot, and then literally sleeps through most of the rest of the story.

Nobody else rises up to take over the "what's going on back in MC1" story from her, either. As promising and menacing a figure as Guthrie is in The Pit, when he shows up here he just stomps around for a few pages, then vanishes again. Even Roffman isn't nearly as much fun here as he is in most of his other appearances. In Dredd's narrative, Roffman sometimes gets to be a complicated character--the interesting thing about him is that his cowardice and voyeurism have been channeled in ways that make him a terrific cop. In DeMarco's narrative, he can only be a cowardly voyeur.

One thing here bothered me at first, but then didn't: DeMarco is much more consistently "sexy-looking" in the opening scenes than she's ever been drawn before--even the slight awkwardness that was still present on her "unzipped" cover is gone, and now she's just wearing peekaboo outfits all the time. What salvages that for me is that she's got a huge erotic print hanging over her bed: having given up the life she wanted most because of the pleasures of the flesh, she's apparently decided that's she's totally going to go for the pleasures of the flesh, dammit. She's also much less guarded about it when she's got nothing to lose; she's happy to make jokes about wanting "Joey" to manhandle her, in a way that she hasn't been before.

I like thinking about how the various Dredd epics fit into the "relationship between the man-as-law and the city" scheme, so here's an idea about this one: "Necropolis" and "The Day the Law Died" were both, in one way or another, about what happens when the man-as-law is corrupt. What Wagner suggests at the beginning of Doomsday for Mega-City One (and then doesn't follow up on in its second half) is that it's about what it would mean for the person-as-law to be sort of corrupt. Look at DeMarco's dialogue in the first couple of chapters: "I only wanted to corrupt you a little!" "You're corrupting me already." When DeMarco's around, rules get bent ("You start getting into intent--and you know how complicated that is"). She actually punches a Judge (in full view of a few others), and gets away with it; for once, common sense wins out in the face of the law.

But that also means that she's susceptible to rules getting bent in ways she's not crazy about, and at the end of "Volt Face," she's shrugging and going along with a Justice Dept. cover-up that she acknowledges is genuinely gross. "Volt Face" is a very sharp piece of writing, more than nearly any other part of this volume; the first page's bit with the Narcos curfew being lifted, followed instantly by the Justice Dept. curfew being imposed, is the kind of easy gag Wagner sometimes delights in, but it's no less smart for its easiness. The conclusion of "Doomsday" proper answers the story's initial question ("what happens if the legal authority is sort of corrupt?") in one way that's just pat--Dredd rejects DeMarco cruelly, telling her that she's unwell but treatable--and one way that's irrelevant--Volt's suicide, which is in response to errors he imagines (starting a few dozen pages earlier) that he's made, rather than to anything having to do with corruption. "Volt Face," though, provides a much smarter and darker answer: "what do you mean, if the legal authority is sort of corrupt?"

Next week: the other half of this dyad, Doomsday for Dredd

Sunday, August 12, 2012

Banzai Battalion

(Reprints Judge Dredd stories from 2000 AD Progs 1135-1137 and 1183-1185, and Banzai Battalion stories from 2000 AD Progs 1257-1262 and Prog 2003)

John Wagner is really good at deliberate self-parody--he doesn't do it very often, but when he does, he goes all-out. He also occasionally gets it into his head that some idea of his that seems slightly dodgy on the face of it is just unutterably funny, and returns to it over and over; sometimes he's right. (See: the Taxidermist, the Branch Moronians.)

Banzai Battalion is a fine example of both. It's a Dredd spinoff with a very limited premise, and it somehow outran a few that seemed more likely--Juliet November, say. But it also is a genuinely funny idea that improves slightly by being repeated a few times (not a lot of times): a parody of the kind of "over the top, boys!" war comics that Wagner used to write, with the twist being that the warriors are tiny, virtually helpless, incapable of being more than a mild nuisance to anything genuinely dangerous, and so blinkered by their orders that they can't do much good under ordinary circumstances anyway. (The title suggests that the concept might have started out as a Japanese-microtechnology joke--you didn't see a lot of British war-comic heroes yelling "banzai!"--but in any case writing them as stiff-upper-lip-by-jingo tommies is a much funnier idea.)

The limitations of the idea, though, are pretty obvious, starting with the fact that Captain Bug Stomper et al. can't really do anything outside of a garden setting. As of "The Fitz," when Wagner realizes that he's actually got a perfectly good garden in Mega-City One and a human supporting cast to go along with it, moving the Battalion over there seems like a good idea, but it's actually no less limiting. "The Fitz" and "Save the Fitz" have effectively the same plot: kindly old Mrs. Fitzenheimer's trust is betrayed; the Battalion expose the schemers and save the garden, in the latter case with the help of a cassette tape. A cassette tape. For someone as good at imagining future tech as Wagner usually is, that's not too impressive.

A lot of the jokes here get over on the strength of the artwork, though. Wagner and Gibson are a reliable comedy team (speaking of which, isn't it about time somebody reprinted "I Was a Teenage Tax Consultant"?), and although Gibson's drawing in more of his high-speed mode here, he does funny robots like nobody's business. Henry Flint and Cam Kennedy's sequences are pretty amusing, too, and even Cliff Robinson gets in on the action: the cover of the issue with the final chapter of "No Man's Land" has a standard "la placa rifa" image behind three of the Battalion--and the badge isn't there symbolically, but at actual scale.

There are echoes of a few other familiar stories in "The Fitz," in particular--the opening sequence reminds me pretty strongly of the beginning of Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely's We3 (which came out several years later) and the supply-store scene is rather Toy Story 2-ish (which came out several years earlier), although I suspect that it's likely to be a coincidence in both cases. But there are also a handful of wonderful Wagnerian touches in this volume: I love the no-nonsense sleaziness of Bug Stomper and Flambo's relationship, the Gilbert Shelton nod of "Fat Freddy" Skatt, the bloodthirsty bagpipe-playing robot (too bad Wagner didn't come up with that joke for Cam Kennedy to draw...), and especially the black comedy of the kindly old couple from the first story turning up again as desiccated corpses in "No Man's Land."

The implication is that they'd been killed during the "second Robot War" 30 weeks or so earlier--although Wagner might not have meant for quite that much time to pass. Having written Dredd in 2000 AD  every week from #1031 to #1169 (aside from the Dredd-free #1100 and #1138), he turned it over to his old co-writer Alan Grant for all but three of the episodes from #1170 to #1182. Incidentally, it's not listed in BARNEY, but a letter column indicates that Grant had actually co-written one last Dredd story with Wagner: "In the Year 2120," the issue-length story in Prog 1077, wrapping up plot threads from the Judge Child sequence that had begun their collaboration.

Speaking of the the war in question: there's actually one more six-episode Banzai Battalion serial, "Robot Wars," from Progs 1501-1506, which effectively put an end to the series, and isn't quite as much fun as the stories collected here. Can it have escaped Wagner's notice that he'd used the title "Robot Wars" already in the earliest days of Judge Dredd? Or did he figure that since a TV series had used the name too, it was fair game for another go-round?

In fact, next week we'll see Wagner's version of the "second Robot War" itself--sort of--as we head back into epicville with the first volume collecting the 2000 AD/Megazine crossover "The Doomsday Scenario," Doomsday for Mega-City One.

Sunday, August 5, 2012

Mega-City Masters 03

(Reprints Judge Dredd stories from 2000 AD Progs 305-307, 492, 503, 595, 600, 658, 1112-1113, 1206, 1273, 1437-1439 and 1476; 2000 AD Prog 2001; Judge Dredd Megazine #2.61, 3.39, 3.61, 211-212, 214 and 296; Judge Dredd Annual 1981; and 2000 AD Annual 1987)

The third and last (to date) Mega-City Masters collection is once again focused on artists rather than writers, and mostly on artists who have some kind of name recognition in the States. Which makes some sense, I guess--if you've got a Guy Davis piece in the archives, might as well use it, especially when it's as harsh and grotesquerie-oriented a character sketch as "Out Law." There are some exceptionally nice-looking stories in here, too--I can't argue with "Varks" for Kevin O'Neill (what an incredible cover, too!) or "The Island" for Frazer Irving (which I believe is one of his only two Dredd stories), and I don't know that Trevor Hairsine's ever drawn another Dredd story that looks as graceful as the one-joke "No More Jimmy Deans."

Still, these aren't necessarily the best or most visually striking examples of a lot of these artists' work. Mike McMahon's a terrific artist, but "Compulsory Purchase" is third-tier McMahon at best (I can see where "Howler" might be a difficult choice, but... "Voices Off"? "Shaggy's Big Shoot"?). And for all the spectacular Carlos Ezquerra-drawn Dredd stories there are, "Sturm und Dang" is a very strange choice, especially since it's in The Carlos Ezquerra Collection too. It's arguably an extra-Ezquerra-y story, since Koburn is a variation on his old Major Eazy, but it's also not the master at his best. (It's also strange to see Cam Kennedy represented by a pair of stories that are both in The Art of Kenny Who?)

"Dreams of Glory" is a sort of prequel to Batman/Judge Dredd: Die Laughing, which was also drawn by Jim Murray; I'm wondering at what point, exactly, John Wagner wrote it. It sets up that book's appearance of unlucky Deputy Chief Judge Paul Herriman, and it's nicely tailored for Murray's sense of caricature--the center of it is Herriman's Walter Mitty-ish fantasies of being heroic rather than competent. (The insignia of the Fems' Guild on the last page is a little much, though.)

As for the other new-to-this-survey material here: "Lobsang Rampage"--another Lobsang Rampa joke!--isn't great, but it's the only Andy Clarke-drawn episode that's not part of a longer arc (although it calls on the Nero Narcos stuff for context) and hadn't already been reprinted in Death Lives! "Safe Hands" is a nice-looking Jock piece with an "out-of-control robots" plot that we've seen too many times already. "Radstock" reads like a leftover Heavy Metal Dredd script by way of "The Hyper-Historic Headbang," and Karl Richardson's art just reminds me that I really like Gray Area. And then there's "PF"--well, it's unusual to see Arthur Ranson drawing a comedy piece, and maybe there are reasons for that.

More generally--since from here on out "Dredd Reckoning" is almost entirely epics and spinoffs--it surprises me that Judge Dredd as a feature is still so heavily focused on six-page-or-so one-offs (the "Day of Chaos" year notwithstanding). That makes a lot of sense from a scheduling point of view, of course: when there have to be sixty-three new episodes a year without fail, and the timing has to work out for periodic relaunches, it's probably smart to have a lot of completed episodes that can be placed and rearranged with little difficulty. But there aren't even any other 2000 AD features that have anywhere near that many self-contained six-pagers--the only other comics feature I can think of that has a comparable hunger for short stories is Batman, and that only because of the weekly "Legends of the Dark Knight" digital-only feature (whose most recent sequence, incidentally, is drawn by none other than Trevor Hairsine). Wagner makes no secret of having burned out on them; not counting the four-pager from this year's Free Comic Book Day special, I don't think we've gotten an old-fashioned six-pages-and-out story from him since "Fat Fathers," just over two years ago.

Next week: the collection of Banzai Battalion, the peculiar tiny-gardening-robots series that spun out of Dredd.