Sunday, September 30, 2012

The Carlos Ezquerra Collection

(Reprints Judge Dredd stories from Judge Dredd Megazine #2.10-2.11, 4.15, 201 and 211-212 and 2000 AD Prog 1250-1261, and Cursed Earth Koburn stories from Judge Dredd Megazine #221-223, 228, 239 and 241-244)

I'm very glad to see people waving the flag for Carlos Ezquerra's artwork. He's the guy who created the look of both Dredd and Mega-City One, of course, even though he only drew two of the first 250 or so episodes of the series--and if you haven't been reading Pat Mills' reminiscences of the early days of 2000 AD over on his blog, you owe it to yourself to have a look. I was delighted to see him nominated for the Eisner Hall of Fame this year, and I'm looking forward to IDW's big black-and-white collection (or collections?) of his early Dredd stories. (Incidentally, since Chris Ryall tweeted it a few days ago, I'll mention here that I'm going to be writing some kind of Dredd-history piece as backmatter in each issue of IDW's new Judge Dredd series!)

This volume's got some interesting stuff in it, but it's not really the peak of Ezquerra's work on Dredd. It's mostly devoted to two projects he worked on, neither of which is quite enough to justify a volume of its own of the length Rebellion tends to publish: "Helter Skelter" and the Cursed Earth Koburn material, and otherwise mops up his otherwise uncollected Dredd episodes from the Megazine.

A bit of history, involving a notable piece of Ezquerra's work that hasn't been reprinted, is relevant to "Helter Skelter." 1988 saw the first issue of Crisis--or, as the cover had it, 2000 AD Presents Crisis--the "more mature" companion magazine that ran for 63 issues over the next three years. Pat Mills' "Third World War" was its anchor series for its first few dozen issues, and Ezquerra drew 15 of the early episodes. (I'd love to see a collection of that, too, although I can't imagine it's too likely.)

After John Smith and Jim Baikie (et al.)'s "New Statesmen" serial ended, one of the series that started in Crisis #15 was "Troubled Souls," by Garth Ennis and John McCrea. Ennis has no particular love for that series, I gather--he was 19 years old when it started--but it's where he introduced a couple of supporting characters named Dougie and Ivor. Ennis and McCrea brought them back in "For a Few Troubles More," a bit later, and then in Dicks, a project they've been doing on and off since 1997. But--whoops--Fleetway still owned the rights to "Troubled Souls," and hence to Dougie and Ivor, from what I gather.

So, according to David Bishop's Thrill-Power Overload, in 2001, Rebellion, Fleetway and Ennis worked out a deal, whereby Ennis would write a 12-episode Judge Dredd serial in exchange for the rights to the "Troubled Souls" characters. The result was "Helter Skelter," which was mostly drawn by Ezquerra--although he was distracted by problems with a home renovation going on at that time (and, apparently, by drawing the Ennis-written Adventures in the Rifle Brigade at the same time), and Henry Flint ended up jumping in to take care of a couple of episodes. (The three Dredd covers that ran during "Helter Skelter" were by other artists too, curiously, including the Glenn Fabry one a few paragraphs up and the Frazer Irving one below.)

It's not Ennis's final Dredd story (that would be "Monkey on My Back," a couple of years later--and Ennis was also mentioned as working on the prematurely announced American Dredd series from Dynamite in 2008). It is, however, his undisguised love letter to the 2000 AD of his youth: a chance to bring back all the Dredd characters he loved, and throw in cameos and quotes from Rogue Trooper and Halo Jones and Ace Trucking Co. and The V.C.'s and so on, on the pretext that they're all in nearby alternate universes, of which there are "at least two thousand," ha ha. And it lets him write Dredd the Total Badass to End All Badasses one more time, when he doesn't stoop to killing Rico with his gun but kills him by throwing his badge at him so hard it embeds itself in his skull, then makes a misguided young democracy-loving engineer see the error of her ways.

The thing that bugs me about "Helter Skelter" is that it's just the nostalgic kind of reference: "do you remember when Judge Cal took over the city? Wasn't that an awesome story? How about Don Uggie Apelino! Wasn't he cool? And oh man, how about that D.R. and Quinch? How we laughed!" A lot of the last few years' worth of Judge Dredd episodes have been about the weight of history--the way things that happened long ago can bear on the present--in a way that doesn't bug me at all. (See, for instance, the new issue's "Bullet to King Four," which not only pulls up dangling plot threads from "Gulag" and "The Family Man" but reaches all the way back to "right after that nasty business with that awful man and his fish," i.e. right after "The Day the Law Died," and no, I have no idea who the "little glowing friend" is.)

The crucial difference is "Helter Skelter"'s implication that the lost paradise for readers is the past. Ennis mentioned in his interview with David Bishop that he thought the last genuinely great issue of 2000 AD was "the last one printed on bogroll"--that the spell was broken after it went full color. That's an excuse to not try to push it forward.

The back half of The Carlos Ezquerra Collection is all the Gordon Rennie/Ezquerra Cursed Earth Koburn stories published up to that point (there was another one serialized in the Megazine last year. The point of Koburn would have been entirely lost on me without an explanation: between 1976 and 1978, Ezquerra drew "Major Eazy," a well-loved series in Battle Picture Weekly, whose protagonist was a laid-back British officer with no interest in anyone's rules but his own, and modeled on James Coburn's character from The Magnificent Seven. This Alan Barnes interview suggests that Ezquerra mentioned to Rennie that "he'd love to do a desert rat story," and Rennie came up with the idea of transplanting a thinly disguised Major Eazy to the Cursed Earth.

Ezquerra clearly enjoys drawing this stuff, even though the stories here don't give him a lot of leeway to come up with particularly impressive visuals. The design of Eazy/Koburn presents a couple of the same challenges to an artist that the design of Dredd does: we can't see their eyes, and they have one facial expression almost all the time. Dredd, though, has a certain amount of body language to communicate with, and Koburn mostly just slumps. There's some solid writing here--I especially like the scene where Koburn's getting shrapnel picked out of his body and gets through it with booze rather than painkillers--but the Cursed Earth setting (guess what: it's full of hicks!) is much flatter than Mega-City One.

As for the other, shorter stories here (besides "The Taking of Sector 123," which Jog and I dealt with a while back, and which is probably my favorite piece of Ezquerra's work in this volume), there's not a lot to say. "The Girlfriend" is effectively the same idea as Inga from the P.J. Maybe stories, and probably more effective as a background joke than as the focus of a plot. And for the launch of what was effectively the fifth volume of the Megazine--the renumbering and reformatting that began with #201 in 2003--Wagner and Ezquerra couldn't do any better than "Phartz!," a 20-page fart joke?

A bibliographic note: at this point, there are only 11 episodes' worth of unreprinted, Ezquerra-drawn Dredd from 2000 AD--although that includes the two-part "Time Machine" and the five-part "Bad Frendz," both of which could use a new look. ("The Adjudicators" from Megazine #323-324 isn't included here either, but it's not fair to expect this volume to have a time machine of its own.)

Next week: Satan's Island, in which Orlok's fate is revealed.

Sunday, September 23, 2012

The Chief Judge's Man

(Reprints Judge Dredd stories from 2000 AD Progs 1244-1247, 1263-1266 and 1342-1349)

The Chief Judge's Man is a near-miss of a Dredd sequence: a long-form story that's pretty good, and very nicely executed in some ways, but doesn't quite live up to its promise, mainly because its structure keeps promising a twist that never arrives. The premise that the first episode sets up--a lone lunatic killing the enemies of Justice Dept. may actually be being controlled by Chief Judge Hershey--is a solid one, and what we've come to expect from John Wagner is that Hershey's involvement is probably not what it seems but might be something even more surprising.

That's not what happens here, though. DeKlerk (who shares his last name with a former South African president) is introduced midway through the first serial, in a scene that signals "newly introduced character is sinister," which indeed he turns out to be barely more than a dozen pages later. So the plot shifts from "is Hershey the secret force behind Armon Gill?" to "when will Dredd figure out that DeKlerk is the secret force behind Armon Gill?"--it becomes a detective story whose readers know more of the solution than the protagonist. By the time the plot makes its second shift, to "...well, now Dredd's figured out that DeKlerk is" etc., the story's run out of steam: having Gill try to kill Hershey isn't especially suspenseful, becuase Hershey doesn't actually get to do anything except shrug "always knew Chief Judges didn't last long."

That highlights a surprising thing about Judge Hershey, which is that she's still pretty much a black box--we don't really know anything much about what drives her, or what she's like other than "very competent." And this is after several decades of intermittent appearances in Dredd, not to mention 25 or so episodes of her own series (mostly unreprinted) and a Neil Gaiman-written short story (recently reprinted in Sweet Justice, if Kindle counts as print). Is she capable of skullduggery along the lines of manipulating Gill? Well, maybe, as subsequent stories have suggested--but at this point in the series she was effectively the character we see in Colin MacNeil's image on the first page of "On the Chief Judge's Service" (below), a glyph with perfectly shiny hair, in perfect profile. I don't tend to play the casting game with comics, but I always imagine her being played by Anjelica Huston.

Colin MacNeil's painted artwork in "On the Chief Judge's Service" is fantastic--this was the period when MacNeil was giving every scene a dominant color, and for a story as full of flashbacks and scene-shifts as this one, it works really well. I can't say quite as much for "The Chief Judge's Man" proper, the only time Will Simpson has drawn Dredd in 2000 AD since "Tale of the Dead Man" a decade or so earlier. The fragility of Simpson's watercolor style worked nicely in a few of his older sequences, especially "Curse of the Spider Woman," but his pen-and-ink work here just looks uncomfortable. (Compare Simpson's artwork in the first episode to Wagner's script in the back: he's drawing what Wagner's asking for, but not always in the most convincing way. "His grim, helmeted visage bleeds into a pic of Hershey's head taking shape on his Holo-com" gets interpreted as the sort of divided-down-the-middle face Steve Ditko used to do with Spider-Man and Peter Parker, which doesn't parse visually.)

Splitting the story into two acts separated by a couple of years, though, was a great idea, and another example of Wagner playing the long game--it's easier to imagine the devoted servant Gill flipping out and revolting after being incarcerated for ages. So was splitting the first act into halves (separated by 15 weeks' worth of stories, including Garth Ennis's "Helter Skelter," which we'll get into next week): it makes "On the Chief Judge's Service" more suspenseful if he's been at large for a while.

(This reminds me: has anybody put together a list of dangling plot threads in Judge Dredd, along the lines of this remarkable X-Men list? It occurred to me a few days ago that there are a couple of significant unresolved bits of "Day of Chaos"--especially what Haldane and "Garf" were up to, and why Rowdy Baker killed the guy he killed.)

As for "Revenge of the Chief Judge's Man": it's good to see John Burns back for a story involving Judge Edgar, and it's a pity she doesn't get much time on panel. (When he gets to draw action or nature scenes, he's in his element. I particularly love his Texas Ranger and the scene with the vultures and the mesa that follows it, because it's obvious how much fun he had painting them.) The "prisoner freaks out and tries to go over the wall" routine is the kind of cliché I'd have expected would have vanished from 2000 AD around the time of "Harry Twenty on the High Rock," although on reflection it echoes the "Dear John letter" theme of Gill's experience. Once Dredd works out the mystery, though, the final few dozen pages of the story are a foregone conclusion, which is bad news for a thriller. The Gill thread and the DeKlerk thread resolve at the same time rather than together. There's some smart writing in the final scenes--I grinned at "a sixteen-lane speedway all the way to the Hab Zone without the crime problems of the overland route"--but after all of the story's intimations that the readers don't actually know everything there is to know about this situation yet, it's a letdown when it turns out that we do.

As a side note, I get that it'd have been hard to feature Armon Gill on the cover of 2000 AD, since he keeps changing his appearance, but the relevant covers for this sequence are nearly all evergreen shots of Dredd. Only the cover of Prog 1246, above, makes any reference to the story itself--and that only in its background text.

Next week: The Carlos Ezquerra Collection, a.k.a. "Helter Skelter," a bunch of Cursed Earth Koburn stories, and change.

Sunday, September 16, 2012

The Complete P.J. Maybe

(Reprints Judge Dredd stories from 2000 AD Progs 534, 592-594, 599, 632-634, 707-709, 820-822, 1204, 1210 and 1211, and Judge Dredd Megazine #221-222 and 231-234)

This week's guest is Mairead Case, a fiction writer, critic, editor, and bon vivant who lives in Chicago and is very interested in youth and art-making. I was delighted that we got to discuss The Complete P.J. Maybe, the collection of the slippery killer's first 18 years' worth of appearances.

MAIREAD: Like Alyssa Rosenberg, I came to Judge Dredd pretty much cold---I definitely follow the blog, but as a fiction writer who wants to see how all these characters fit together. What their clock is, when you add another storyline. I'd never actually held any of the comics in my hands, so reading The Complete P.J. Maybe was a treat, maybe like finally getting to hear music I'd only ever read about.

One thing I hadn't realized, while fretting over what Dredd's map is, is how there are so many funny parts too. "Funny" like gross-out summer camp funny, for example the sexy cheapo face changer ads ("Flo Blo / Face Jobs"), the goofball murder weapons (copper foil surf pants!), and Floris, whose eyes look like butterfly wings (all yellow and irisless, then blue all the way to her eyebrows). And the nimbly clever names, like Lili Solo or Diego Urchison (head of Universal Armpit). Like Willy Wonker (ehrmagehrd!).

I liked how P.J. Maybe's name works, too---as you know his birth name was "Philip Janet," Janet because his parents wanted a girl (which feels Important because we don't really learn anything else they ever want---they are a little zombielike. Chatty and up but not really active, like parents behind scrim). "P.J." also works as a mashup of "Psycho Juve," which is yelped about him during a spree. And it really works as a "good old boy" kinda nickname, all the P.J.s I know are either sweet little brothers or sons and heirs. In that light the look on his face on the cover is apt, he looks guilty but like he knows he'll get away with it.

At first the surname "Maybe" seemed too cutesy, too easy for a man who brings in only "meh" ideas to work (Pants that turn poison when wet? Great! But what if it rains before you need to self-destruct?) but later I liked how it turned sinister, flipped into a taunt or power play. "Is this the end, Maybe?" "Maybe."

DOUGLAS: Dredd-as-comedy: yes indeed! I lose sight of that a lot too, but it is a satire most of the time (sometimes grimmer than others), and sometimes it tips over into full-on comedy. I love that the "primitive tribesmen" are the residents of Cal-Hab (i.e. what's left of Scotland, from which John Wagner himself hails), and I especially grinned at the wicked double backhand of Baranquilla growing "500 million tonnes of clean, exportable treemeat every year... some say, with such abundance, why not feed it to our own people? But that would only make them greedy and lazy. Far better to sell it to you, for the benefit of all--no?"

And sometimes I find I'm taking Wagner's gags for granted--Chopper's real name, for instance, is Marlon Shakespeare, which made me giggle the first three or four times before I got used to it. He does that trick a lot, as with Judge Stalin (!) in the final sequence here. There are certain jokes he returns to again and again, but they're generally pretty good ones, like the people to whom P.J.'s administered his brainwashing drug genially agreeing to complete insanity ("just taking a little shortcut through Pavarotti"). 

MAIREAD: So we picked this storyline when you asked me what I was working on right now, and I said "a novel about teenagers and death," and then you said "P.J. Maybe!" And so I want to talk about how he fits in here as a protagonist. One thing is really cool, and that thing was especially clear to me as a Dredd newb---P.J. makes Dredd seem like a straight up good guy, so much so that the cat and mouse game feels not as dramatic as it could. P.J. is bad because he kills people, Dredd is good because he's trying to stop P.J. from killing people. And so on.

DOUGLAS: (What's funny about that is that Dredd spends so much of his time in this volume shaking his fist in an I'll-get-you-yet way! That's pretty uncharacteristic, really.)

MAIREAD: That said, one thing I found sort of terrible was how P.J.'s youth was fetishized, kept a prop not a force for change in the narrative. This series takes such a rich look at good guys vs. bad guys, blood vs. no blood, etc., that I expected it to treat youth vs. adults similarly. But no!

P.J.'s motives and backstory are fairly uncomplicated---while I guess there is a whiff of protecting the family name, in the beginning, once P.J. realizes there's more money for him elsewhere he has no qualms switching not just his name, but his face too. And after that it's the simple "money gets you forever comfort, money gets you forever love" kinda equation. The only way we really know he's a kid are the "what I did on my summer vacation" titles, and several pages in crayon. Immature visions of girlfriends aside, really the only way we know P.J.'s a kid is that he misspells words sometimes. If my students wrote this story I'd tell them grammar and spelling don't make voice, they're a choice you make about how people hear your voice.

We know some kids in a play about fairies were once mean to P.J., but beyond that we don't really know anything unique about his history (plus he was mean to them too). To me this makes his story straight horror, which I feel was irresponsible for such talented writers (and maybe just in general as well---I'm not sure but this came out before, during, and after Columbine right?). The patterns seems to be morph, kill, chase; morph, kill, chase, and since P.J. doesn't have sidekicks or pop loves or an endpoint, since we have nothing to blame when his patterns change (meaning when the murders get messier, when they incorporate dentist offices and Christmas tree ornaments), we're left thinking he's just crazy---or worse, just young. I feel like that's as grave an underwriting as saying his girlfriends are just blow-up dolls---but, is that a fair reading? What did you think?

DOUGLAS: Columbine was 1999, and the "Bug"-to-"Mock-Choc" sequence appeared between 1987 and 1993 (PJM turns 18 on the final page of the latter)--by the time he appeared again post-Columbine, he was already 25 years old or so. The most significant source of the character, I suspect, is Adrian Mole, the protagonist of a series of novels by Sue Townsend, which were popular enough in Britain in the '80s that they were adapted into TV series, a stage musical and a couple of computer games; P.J. is effectively Adrian Mole as a serial killer.

I should also note that The Complete P.J. Maybe was complete when it was published (in 2006), but is no longer. A previous comprehensive P.J. collection appeared in 2004 (as 2000 AD Extreme Edition 2, with a new cover by Cliff Robinson, above), and was promptly made obsolete by "Six" and then "Monsterus Mashinashuns"; a year after this book appeared, P.J. returned in a couple of Megazine stories, which led into "Emphatically Evil" and his significant roles in both "Tour of Duty" and "Day of Chaos." He's probably been a more significant player in the period after this book than he has been at any time since the late '80s. And his later appearances make him more complicated as a character: P.J., as Byron Ambrose, eventually manages to get himself elected mayor, and as I recall he's a pretty good one.

The other funny thing about P.J. is that he's kind of a stand-in for the reader. In his earliest appearances, he was roughly the age of the target audience for 2000 AD; as the joke goes, Dredd's most devoted readers in 1977 were seven-year-old boys, and now they're 42-year-old men. P.J. has grown up along with them, which is why it's a little bit of a shock to see him balding and fat at the beginning of "All New Adventures" (at which point it'd been seven years since readers had seen him last); have the cubes really done that to him? Well, no; it's not really him! But we get a bit of a fake-out too.

MAIREAD: Oh man I love that, PJ as reader-mirror. That's so rad.

So does Columbine resonate here at all or was that microminded of me? To be fair Dredd's hardly required to share My Grand Vision of Politically Responsible Storytelling, and uh also to be fair, I get a little watchdog around stories boiling down to "crazy lonely teenager, coldblooded killer." Which might not really be what's happening here, especially given the latter appearances you mention---I'm going to sleuth those out!

Adrian Mole!! When I compare PJ to Adrian---also helpful because Adrian's story unfolds serially too, with sidetracks and a real sense of time---PJ's still frustratingly flat. Adrian can be a whiner and a child, Pandora a priss and a child, but they were still affected by their world, they wanted approval from it and in it. We don't always know where Adrian is going to end up (or if we should root for him to get there), but PJ's world is fixed. We do always see Future PJ by a pool with a droid Fleshlight and a grin. (Or hmmm, maybe not---I should track down the Ambrose.)

Townsend wrote teenage anxiety really well I think---the sincerity of it and how it makes you smell gross and break out sometimes, how it can be sweet or cruel on a dime (and not always intentionally!). If Townsend wrote PJ (which of course is different than PJ being Adrian as a serial killer), he'd have a wider emotional spectrum, say, also his cockiness would have a nervous edge to it and we'd find ouselves identifying with him at least an eensy sliver of the time. I wish PJ had a Rosie, or better a Robert Stainforth.

DOUGLAS: Yeah, I don't quite feel the Columbine thing at all. P.J.'s not an alienated kid, not snapping under unbearable pressure: he's just a gifted psychopath. The clue to the model of what he's like as an adult (and was always kind of like as a kid) is in the title of "The Talented Mayor Ambrose": he's shifted from being an Adrian Mole to being Patricia Highsmith's Tom Ripley.

As for P.J.'s youth--my take on it is that he's aged, but he's never grown up emotionally in any way. He's the kid who always demands what he wants, except instead of pitching a fit if he doesn't get it, he kills anyone who stands in the way of that particular moment's happiness. He can be charming when he needs to be; he even likes the idea of being a humanitarian, when it suits his purposes (as Don Pedro and, later, Byron Ambrose). But his closest bond is still with his will-less sexbot, and his immediate gratification, no matter how small, takes precedence over everybody else's lives. When you're a 13-year-old boy, the dream of having a Liana (or, in Adrian Mole's case, a Pandora) in your life can seem to take precedence over everything else. When you're a 25-year-old man, if all you want is an Inga, there's a problem. (Although he's not always seeking out pure luxury--by the end of "Day of Chaos," though, he's managed to connive himself into a position that's kind of comfortable but very powerful, with a companion who's not especially Inga-like.)

MAIREAD: Though I tripped up a couple times on it too (did people's mannerisms morph as well, or is everyone just that far into the story?), I loved the idea of Face Changer as Game Changer. The brutal visceralness of it (do those machines burn? slice? chew? rearrange otherwise somehow?) kept it from being too cute. It stayed sci-fi, straight pure power---not theory, not Joseph Campbell's mask or Jay Gatsby's wealth. I really loved the shrug "no copyright on a face."

DOUGLAS: The face-changers were established pretty early on as technology that's, you know, around. (There's a scene in "Day of Chaos" where a face-change machine operator is examining P.J.'s face and noting that it seems like he's had a lot of work done.)

MAIREAD: The book I read was dedicated to Tom Frame, can we talk a bit about him? He did the majority of lettering for Judge Dredd up until this point, yes?

DOUGLAS: For all that I've talked about the enormous stylistic variety of Dredd stories, their one unifying visual element was Frame's lettering. (I associate the series' first three decades with his hand the way I associate the classic X-Men era with Tom Orzechowski, Sandman with Todd Klein, Walt Simonson's Thor with John Workman...) There are a few episodes lettered by other people, and they just look a little off somehow. I believe Annie Parkhouse took over as the series' letterer after Frame died, and she's been doing it ever since. I do wish he'd consistently corrected "Cuidad Baranquilla" (sic), though.

MAIREAD: Ah right, me too! This is probably a "duh Mairead" kind of moment but I'd never thought about the tone and focus consistent lettering can give a story, especially in one like this where there's all kinds of things whizzing past everyone's nose all the time. Maybe too that's why I was feeling the misspellings in PJ's dialogue more than the passages in crayon---the crayon felt cutesy, a Dad joke. The misspellings snuck up, which is much creepier.

The art I loved the most---dress in the window catches your eye-style---was Anthony Williams', especially the sour candy colors in the section where Junior's cruelly offed. And the eyebrows, how people touch their chins when they're thinking. The tufts of hair like prairie dogs popping up from holes, the smirky angle of the pink straw in P.J.'s mouth, when the judge is DANGGGG!ing on the door---it's perfect.

I also liked the sexy androgyny Williams gifts certain characters, especially P.J.'s mom. (Admittedly she is near death in this scene, but that's less creepy than it sounds!) Her green wristbands and low blue pumps were a nice contrast to the boring centerfoldy balloon buns we see elsewhere.

Though I did love the cherry pop pink mohawk she has when we meet, P.J.'s first girlfriend, Liana, is wet and in a bikini more often than not! On the one hand (and like Laura Hudson said better), come on already. So I would not give this to my little sister but on the other hand, Judge Dredd is not required to cater to my vision of a dream woman. It's more helpful, for the sake of this conversation, to talk about how that look works in this story---and well, pretty well.

P.J. is a certain kind of horny fourteen-year-old boy, and so if you extend that gaze to his girlfriends, it makes sense, how they're really just shapes and hair in heels. And on that note I was really impressed with how Inge, his favorite girlfriend (not coincidentally, literally also a robot-girlfriend!)---how her eyes are drawn so blank. Her body's a centerfold but her shoulders are never square, she's only half-there. She's an automaton, and creepy-weirdest of all P.J.'s not chagrined by this. He's proud. Everyone knows he's getting laid by a beautiful woman who never talks back.

DOUGLAS: Liana never gets to be anything but a fourteen-year-old's wish-fulfillment pin-up. Inga is a much sharper bit of writing: P.J. actually loves her because she has no will of her own. (A great one-two pair of sentences: "I do'nt think I could ever find a better companion than Inga. She was custom bilt by Per Lunquest, the virtuoso of the Swedish love droid.")

MAIREAD: Inga is, and a sharper bit of drawing too I think. Vacant eyes work on a droid, and I loved the moment when her hair changes in the car on the way to the abandoned dentist's office. But my beef with the wish-fulfillment pin-up schtick isn't so much the perky-perky-perkiness, which is annoying of course! But that's not unique to Dredd. Here it's more that Wagner's missing an opportunity to tell a more colorful story---characters want things, and what PJ wants can't change or respond to him. When Liana's bikini chilling, does she miss her pals at the Juve Club? When Inge's not murdering anyone, does she live in the closet on a hanger? If nothing else, blurry spots like these keep PJ's character underdeveloped as well.

For example, I loved the scene where Stalin picks Inge up and the two get to chat without PJ hovercrafting. She puts her hand on his Iron Ron, Stalin acts surprised, and we get to chuckle. Best, now we know Inge functions without PJ around or a murder weapon in her hand, so any scene where those two are in public together feels brighter, richer---even if she never says another word.

One page I'd like to talk about is the second in "Wot I Did During Necropolis"---maybe I'm being a doof but maybe it's my absolute favorite, spooky alchemy-wise. It's when P.J. is breaking out of the cubes, and facing a lean, spiderleg-haired guy with a bloody axe. I think P.J. scares the guy off with an invisible---imaginary---buzzsaw, then actually slices a guard's head with that buzzsaw. At this point my mother is horrified that her daughter has such a gory favorite, but... did P.J. just manifest a buzzsaw, and did other people see it, and then did it change the storyline?

DOUGLAS: I really like your reading of the mysterious invisible chainsaw, although I confess it wouldn't have occurred to me. The weird thing about "Necropolis" proper, to which that story's a tiny coda, is that we never actually got to see much of the havoc the Dark Judges (and Phobia and Nausea) were wreaking on panel; I gather that when all hell was breaking loose, P.J. just strolled through it and made the most of it. ("Wot I Did During Necropolis" started a little tradition of following up catastrophes with stories showing him turning lemons into lemonade, most recently "Wot I Did During the Worst Dissaster in Mega-City History.")

MAIREAD: Admittedly an invisible chainsaw would be uh, a huge inconsistency in the text. And I suppose Looey Dewey [sic] could have dropped his axe, then PJ could'ove used it to scalp the warden and get the keys. Maybe.

DOUGLAS: So here's a question for you. The world-building here--what do you make of it? How much of a sense of a political and economic and social world do you get from what you see here? Dredd had a period of super-intense world-building that went up through, I'd say, its first dozen years, and has tapered off since: just opening the book randomly to the Floris scene, the belliwheels and mock chocs and professional eaters, and the robot and pod designs, were all established relatively early on. How much of it holds up for you as someone coming in at this point?

MAIREAD: I definitely didn't always get the specifics---to me Floris was just a lady with cool eyes and a terrible weight problem, and so I guess I wondered why PJ was picking on her in particular. That said, we know he's nuts so I didn't stall there too long---it's very clearly established that this is a set other world with fixed rules, fashions, limits, etc., which was a help. I never expected magic to happen or a curtain to lift. If anything, I was confused by how class functions in this world, how power works. It obviously has a presence, Dredd's obviously a force to be reckoned with and PJ's parents' marriage was politically complicated. So why does PJ's world never risk being shattered? In the beginning I kept wondering when he'd fall on his nose, but nope it seems like as long as he has his brains and a face changer and keeps moving, he's all set.

DOUGLAS: The basic rule is that all power proceeds from the Judges; it's a police state in the most literal sense. To the extent that anyone else has political power, it's power that the Judges allow them to have, usually to offload things it's inconvenient for them to control. P.J.'s world never risks being shattered because he lives a charmed life.

Another question: life is very, very cheap in this series--even beyond P.J. killing 20,000 people to get at one, slaughter routinely happens to provide a punch line or punctuation. We don't see much of the Justice Dept. supporting cast in this particular volume, but even when Stalin kills himself (to become "Chief Justice in Heaven"!), Dredd brushes it aside: "The end of a career--it happened so often that way." Can there really be much in the way of dramatic tension under those circumstances? Do you find yourself caring about what happens, or just drifting along with the mayhem?

MAIREAD: On the one hand, I drifted along okay. You're right, dramatic tension isn't much of a hook here so after a point it felt like watching Saturday morning cartoons, and I liked those laughs---Orin Scrivelloesque squirming in the dentist office, Lili who is "burst" by a compressed oxy capsule in her breakfast. Fingers in sugarplum cake. On the other, the woman suspended "like a Christmas fairy" was six o'clock news, she frightened me for real. We don't know who she is, right? And why, when most of the other murders happened behind closed doors, did PJ need to show her to the city? Who does he need to scare? I read this scene at a bar in my neighborhood and felt cold walking home. It felt like a scene from our world not Dredd's.

DOUGLAS: Ah--yeah, Wagner doesn't quite spell that out until near the end of the story. The victims in "Six" were the kids who appeared in the holiday pageant with P.J. when he was a six-year-old; he'd sabotaged their hoverjets, they figured out it was him and got mad at him, and several decades later he's getting his revenge ("It was me who doctored their hoverwings. They'd just no right to say so, that's all"), in each case in a way thematically appropriate to the fairy they played in the pageant. Miasma Fung (the one impaled on top of the building) played the Christmas Fairy, Floris McDonald was the Mock-Choc Fairy, etc.

One more question: What do you make of PJM as a foil for Dredd? As Ben Saunders and I were discussing last week, he's one of the very few long-term recurring antagonists Dredd has had, since most people can't go up against him for too long without taking a bullet to the head (or a missile to the territory). Chopper's effectively retired, Mean Machine Angel has aged out; the Dark Judges are still around, since "you cannot kill what doesssss not live" etc., but P.J.'s been around for the long haul, since his whole deal is being slippery. How does that work dramatically (or not) for you as a reader? 

MAIREAD: Potentially he works brilliantly---youth and wealth and clever-as-a-foxness are great for tension. But---in this collection, at least---I felt like the writing relied too heavily on face changers and different environments. This was really sweet as far as the look was concerned (I loved the Gypsy Rita scene, and the segue from Godfrey Stiggis's body and PJ's heart to Pedro Julio Montez!), but weak, I felt, as far as plot and character development go. At times it felt like PJ starts as a teen just for time, just so the artists could draw a maximum amount of scenes and faces---and don't get me wrong, I loved that! I just wish the writers could've used all the colors they had too. Each section builds up to a shake-fist and a smirk, then off we go again, verse-chorus-verse.


Thanks again to Mairead! Next week: thriller time, as I take on The Chief Judge's Man.

Sunday, September 9, 2012

Brothers of the Blood

(Reprints Judge Dredd stories from 2000 AD Progs 1186-1188, 1215-1222, 1280, 1281, 1300, 1301, 1350-1356 and 1378-1381)

We've got another remarkable guest this week. Ben Saunders is a Professor of English at the University of Oregon, where he's the founder of a new undergraduate minor in Comics and Comics Studies, and author of Do The Gods Wear Capes?: Spirituality, Fantasy, and Superheroes. He's also an old-school Squaxx, and joined me to discuss this collection of stories from the early '00s in which we see more of Dredd's extended family.

BEN: First of all, Douglas, I have to thank you for providing me with an excuse to read Dredd again, for the first time in many years.

I was an impressionable nine-year-old, living in Cardiff, Wales, in 1977 when 2000 AD initially launched -- back when that title actually evoked the future, in other words -- and the folks at IPC had me hooked from my very first Prog (#4, the first one with no free gift attached). I quickly became obsessed by all things Zarjaz and Scrotnig. Of course, I already adored the handful of SF themed TV shows that were broadcast on British TV in the 1970s -- Dr. Who and The Tomorrow People and Gerry Anderson’s stuff, occasionally supplemented by reruns of Star Trek -- and since many stories in 2000 AD borrowed elements from these various shows, I was predisposed to like the comic. But the creators at 2000 AD were also able to present these borrowed elements in much more compellingly nasty ways than I was used to, and could get away with things that would not have been allowed on television.

Take M.A.C.H. 1, for example. Superficially, this story was just a straight-up rip-off of The Six Million Dollar Man, with British agent John Probe standing in for American Steve Austin. But even the earliest episodes contained scenes of vivid cruelty that would never have made it to the small screen; for example, I can still recall the opening page of an early story wherein an evil sultan forces a screaming man to drink molten gold through a funnel. (I’m pretty sure this horrible example of “orientalist” stereotyping was drawn by the great Massimo Belardinelli, one of the most admired of Tharg’s “art-robots” during these seminal years). What’s more, while Steve Austin never seemed to have any doubts about the decency of his US government superiors (represented as they were by the avuncular Oscar), John Probe’s boss, Sir Denis Sharpe, was a monster of mendacity. Sharpe regarded Probe as little more than piece of military hardware, exploited his vulnerabilities, and lied to him about his origins. This was the Six Million Dollar Man as it might have been reconceived by John Le Carre and Philip K. Dick, and then repackaged for the consumption of schoolboys growing up in soon-to-be-Thatcherite Britain: a paranoid vision of heroism without glamour, without honor, and ultimately without hope.

Importantly, then, the first 2000 AD stories -- M.A.C.H. 1, Flesh, The Harlem Heroes, and the re-vamped Dan Dare -- were not just spectacularly and sadistically violent, to a degree that you would rarely find even in more overtly “adult” British entertainments of the period (although they certainly were that). These stories were also fabulously, subversively, and perhaps refreshingly cynical. Looking back now, it strikes me that in all of these serials, the dominant structures of power -- the British Secret Service in M.A.C.H. 1, the corporate masters in Flesh, the sports/entertainment industry in The Harlem Heroes, and the Space Federation in Dan Dare -- are represented as fundamentally corrupt. In fact, one of the most repeated suggestions across this otherwise quite thematically disparate group of genre tales is that while there may indeed be heroes in the world, they are almost never in positions of authority. The good guys are not in control. On the contrary, and more often than not, those who strive to be good guys will themselves fall victim to institutions that prize ideological purity and the profit motive over individual human lives. (The possible exception here was the ghastly Invasion, the most unimaginative and simplistic strip in the comic in those early days, with its straightforwardly racist opposition of “good” British subjects and “evil” foreigners. But even this generally worthless story placed an essentially anti-authoritarian hero at its center; although almost never rising above the stereotypes of English working-class machismo, resistance fighter Bill Savage is protrayed as regarding the discipline and traditional hierarchy of the British Army with disdain.)

I think it is significant that this message regarding the corruption of institutional authority -- with its attendant negative implications for the heroic project more generally -- should be so pervasive throughout the comic that would eventually bring Judge Dredd to the world.

Because at first blush Dredd would appear to express the very opposite idea. He’s not an outsider battling a corrupt system, but is instead the ultimate authoritarian -- the hardnosed lawman of the future, both a tool and a figurehead for the institutions of power and control in Mega-City One. But of course, it turns out that the issue of how we should respond to Dredd’s authoritarianism has become one of the key questions -- perhaps THE key question -- in our critical discussions of the character. Are we intended to admire him or not? Is he a hero or a monster? Or is he a more complex satirical figure? And if so, what is he satirizing? Do his stories constitute a parodic assault upon the myth of the loner-hero, primarily associated with US cultural values, as handed down in countless westerns and cop-dramas? Or are the real targets of the strip closer to their British home? Were Dredd’s creators motivated by their opposition to Thatcherism? Or were the skewering the xenophobic island-dweller-mentality? Or were they in fact critiquing the democratic-socialist nanny-state?

Confusingly, I think the answer to all of these questions might be “yes” -- at different times in the history of the series. And because Judge Dredd can (and has) operated within a different variety of hermeneutic horizons over the years, the strip can be difficult to summarize or even generalize about ¾ as well as difficult to introduce to first time readers, or to sell to audiences outside of the United Kingdom. Even long time fans of the strip will have conflicting ideas about which incarnations of the character represent the most successful or essentially “Dredd-like” versions of Dredd.

Nevertheless, it appears (from looking at some of your earlier columns, Douglas) that during my time away from the strip, Dredd’s more problematic dimensions have been increasingly emphasized in stories like America and Judgement Day. But the potential for Judges to abuse their powers has been an overt theme of the series from very early on. Thus, looking back, the first story to feature Dredd’s clone-brother Rico can easily be read as a classic projection of Dredd’s own capacity for evil and corruption onto a conveniently Jungian doppelganger or shadow-figure.

And at the same time, a lot of the grim humor in the strip during its first few years -- a lot of what I liked about it as a child and a young teenager, in other words -- emerged from the representation of Dredd not as straightforwardly admirable figure, but rather from the relatively undisguised hints of malice that would shine through at key moments. I’m thinking now of the cold, almost James Bond-style one-liners that Dredd would casually dispense in the course of his duties (telling a grotesquely overweight crook he has a “fat chance” of getting time off for good behavior, for example); or of more sadistic moments, such as the early story in which Dredd has an arson suspect’s skin removed so that he can analyze the results for minute traces of fire-raising chemicals.

The (slightly tricky and perhaps too readily misunderstood) point that I’m trying to make here is that Dredd’s malicious, bullying, abusive side was (at least originally) part of the appeal of the character from the very beginning, at least for me (and I think for others, too, or I wouldn’t admit to it). Moreover, this dark side to the character was not merely a side-effect or unacknowledged consequence of the fascistic tendencies of the “supercop” genre, and not just an implicit element of the character that later stories would draw out more critically and explicitly. On the contrary, even from Case Files Volume One, Dredd quickly emerges as a bit of a dick -- and we like him for it. Well, you may or may not like him for it, I supposed; but the point is that, tonally, in these stories, we are not asked to judge Dredd, as it were, for his malicious tendencies, but are instead invited to take amused pleasure in them. Indeed, I think it was Dredd’s dickishness, at least as much as any Clint Eastwood-style display of implacable determination and unstoppable lethal force, that really made his character distinctive and appealing in the Britain of the late 1970s and early 1980s.

And yes, Dredd’s dickishness may subsequently have been harnessed for satirical purposes, and explored further in relatively self-conscious psychological tales examining the authoritarian mindset, and even held up for criticism in stories that also function as political allegories. But initially, I think, it was the humorous tensions that emerged from his contradictory status as an “admirable asshole” that made Dredd such a compellingly original figure, at least within British comics, and which significantly contributed to his ultimate ascension to the position of 2000 AD's best-loved character.

Which brings me, finally, to what I liked about Brothers of the Blood. With this collection, John Wagner and his various collaborators seems to have found a way to get back to the feel of those earliest Dredd strips -- despite the weight of established continuity, and the various and at times ideologically contradictory uses to which Dredd has been put, in the intervening years. Wagner pulls off this trick by sidelining Dredd, to a large degree, and focusing on a newer younger judge-in-training -- who just happens to be a clone of Dredd himself. Resisting the temptation to produce a predictably Oedipal tale of rivalry and conflict, Wagner instead takes the opportunity to revisit the experiences that make Dredd Dredd -- his education and training, and his first encounters with the bizarre and grotesque “crimes of the future” that are his brief as a Mega-City One Lawman. By presenting the younger character following in the footstep of the older, Wagner inevitably invites us to take a more reflexive stance on the processes that combined to turn Dredd into the rigid, inflexible, hyperbolically hard-assed figure that he is. We see the loneliness of the younger Dredd clone (who takes the resonant name of Rico) as he attempts to fit in with his first sector house, only to find himself policing the other judges for signs of imperfection and weakness. And thus, a character that it might have become harder to like over the years becomes sympathetic again -- even as he continues to behave like the dick he has to be.

DOUGLAS: You've touched on one of the things I think is fascinating about 2000 AD in general, which is that its most enthusiastic readers at this point seem to be almost entirely men who are just about our age--people who discovered it as boys (you were lucky enough to get in a few years earlier than I did), and with whom it's grown up. Judge Dredd, in particular, has aged along with its audience; we've gotten to see 35 years' worth of the character and the society around him changing, as Dredd has gradually transformed from an "admirable asshole" charging in to save the day to a living symbol of how violence propagates more violence and ultimately brings down disaster.

(As a side note: have you read the Pat Mills-written Savage series from the last few years? It's a very smart, very clever riff on what 30-years-older readers of Invasion! would see differently: it begins five years after the Volgan invasion, in occupied England, where Bill Savage is a sociopathic resistance fighter who's pretty much as fatal to be allied with as to be plotting against. Oh, and the Volgans turn out to have invaded England for its oil reserves...)

A lot of Brothers of the Blood is directly about Dredd's history coming back to haunt him--specifically, some of the actions he took in the period when you were reading. (I'm curious: when did you get off the bus, exactly? Sometime around "Necropolis"?) Rico II turns out to be one of the clones Dredd rescued in "Dredd Angel"; "The End of the Affair" is a sequel to the two earlier Bella Bagley stories on which John Wagner and Ian Gibson had collaborated (in Prog 444 and Judge Dredd Mega-Special 1991), now that Dredd mistakenly thinks he understands a little bit more about love (post-DeMarco).

"Sector House" is a return visit to the territory of "The Pit," which had run about five years earlier: the extended, partly Ezquerra-drawn storyline in which Dredd gets assigned to clean up a dirty precinct and has to deal with the consequences of a pair of his co-workers having an affair. In "The Pit," Dredd manages to handle a lot of things--not everything--more or less diplomatically; Rico II makes a mess of the same challenges in "Sector House" because he doesn't have his older clone-brother's experience. And bringing in Roffman to come up with a clever surveillance technique is twisting the knife, since Roffman played a big role in making things difficult for Dredd in the fallout from "The Pit."

"Leaving Rowdy" (which appeared in the 25th anniversary issue of 2000 AD) has callbacks to most of the earlier stories set in Dredd's apartment in Rowdy Yates Block, but its first emotional zinger is Dredd's memory of having selected Lopez to die in "The Judge Child," and its darker one is a reference likely to be lost on anyone who wasn't paying close attention during "Necropolis": Dredd gives Rico II his copy of his Comportment with his handwritten notes. That's the same copy Kraken was reading during his breakdown, when he saw Dredd's note in the margin: "What about the big lie?"--which I think is one of the key moments in the entire series, the moment at which we discover that even Dredd understands that the Judges' authority isn't legitimate. (He's already sort of warned Rico II about that with his speech at the end of "Sector House" about having to believe a lie.)

And then there's "Blood and Duty," which seems to have had its origin in Wagner wrangling with the problem of what he'd called "Dredd's impossible niece" in 2000, a couple of years before he wrote it. Vienna had first appeared in Prog 116, as the four-year-old-or-so daughter of Dredd's late clone-brother Rico. But Rico had died in Prog 33, having just returned from serving a 20-year sentence on Titan; there's no way he'd have been able to conceive a child five years before that... and so Vienna stayed off-panel until Wagner figured out a solution in time for her to reappear close to twenty years later.

The great thing about Vienna is that she's not just the only genuine family Dredd has (and we've seen him grow gradually more urgent desires to feel some kind of familial connection, although as with his attachment to DeMarco he simply doesn't understand that that's what he's feeling), she's the living symbol of his worst failure and fear. Dredd killing Rico was the first real turning point of the series, and Mike McMahon's close-up of Rico's face, surgically mangled and twisted with fury, is maybe the image we've seen redrawn or referred to most often in the course of Dredd's past 35 years. (The guy Rico shoots on the page where Simon Fraser draws it again in "Blood Cadets" is wearing a T-shirt that says "McMahon Copiers Ltd.") The point of "Blood Cadets" is that Rico was Dredd's "other self"--the part that was susceptible to corruption--and that killing him was how Dredd symbolically destroyed his own weakness, and also destroyed the only family he had. (And it's generally the case that the over-the-top maliciousness and sadism Dredd shows in those earliest stories evaporates quickly, if not completely, after "The Return of Rico.")

So then, a year and a half after Rico's death, Vienna turns up, and--as Wagner explains 25 years after the fact--Dredd has no idea what to do about her. She represents what he's cut off from himself, so he cuts her off too. I complained about the stories that immediately follow "Vienna" in Case Files 03 when I wrote about it, but they make a lot more sense in the light of Wagner's later stories. Having pushed Vienna out of his life, he tries to be more merciful (in "City Block" and the one where he forgives Walter), and he tries to make Ralph Bryce his surrogate child--although that totally fails to take, as we see much later in "Judging Ralphy." (Even the wretched "The Guinea Pig That Changed the Law" makes sense if you read it as part of Dredd's attempt to be a little less cruel, and even though I figured we'd never again see a reference to the "Dredd Act" that outlawed animal experimentation, there's a lovely throwaway bit about it in a "Lenny Zero" episode that appeared a few weeks ago.)

But Dredd turns out to be incredibly protective of Vienna, in his generally inept but sometimes very useful way. (See the great line in "The Satanist," which otherwise is a pretty wobbly story: "the trouble was, he didn't know what young people were like.") There's that story where he's standing around glaring at her boyfriend--Gordon Rennie's "Blood Trails," maybe? And, more recently, in "Tea for Two," the episode with her near the end of "Day of Chaos," we see Dredd peeling himself away from one of the most urgent (if hopeless) jobs he's ever done to make sure Vienna's okay. He threatens to arrest her if she doesn't agree to come with him to safety; "Oh, come on! You sound just like yourself!," she says. She knows he wants more than anything to preserve her (at arm's length), which is why she genuinely doesn't fear him.

Finally, there's "Brothers of the Blood" itself, which has snuck up on me over time. The opening sequence, with Dolman putting on his trainee's helmet and getting ready to meet his superiors, echoes the beginning of "By Lethal Injection," the prologue to "Necropolis" in which Kraken goes to meet what he believes is his doom. This is something I love about Wagner's long-term control of the series--he's great at showing us history sort of repeating itself, but turning out differently. Of the Fargo clones we've met, Dredd and Rico II took one path; Rico I and Kraken took another. But Dolman's role is to suggest that that's a false dichotomy: he rejects the game altogether. That's why I'm disappointed that Dolman turned up in the recent storyline "Debris," flouting the rules but essentially doing his thing for the Judges like it's no big deal. I prefer the idea of him leading the life Dredd might have had if it had ever occurred to him to choose it.

One thing I'm curious about: can you tell me a bit more about how your experience of reading these stories compares to the earlier experience of reading Dredd stories--some of them by the same people!--back when you were a kid? I generally think that Wagner seems to step his game up pretty impressively every five years or so: his dialogue and pacing and ability to juggle plot threads are miles beyond what they were in the early years. There's that great transition in "Sector House" where we see Levine and Rico assigned to work together, and then boom, it's a few hours later and everything's gone horribly wrong--I can't see Wagner having pulled off something like that even a few years earlier.

BEN: I haven’t seen Mills’ Savage, but it’s a neat idea. I seem to remember reading that the original strip was Mills’ conception, but most of the scripts were written by Gerry Finley-Day -- whose career at 2000 AD seems largely to have involved taking generic war stories and giving them a bit of a futuristic patina. Not the strongest talent they had, in other words, though serviceable when paired with a strong artist.

I’m not sure exactly when I stopped reading Dredd, y’know. My old Progs are still in the attic of my parents’ house in Wales. “Necropolis” sounds about right -- I think I can remember reading the start of that one, but I’m not sure I ever finished it. So I am intrigued by your reference to “the big lie,” because I don’t know what it is. The foundational illegitimacy of the Judges’ authority isn’t a part of my sense of the backstory (although the tendency towards over-reaching has obviously been part of the strip from the earliest days, as I noted already).

On the subject of Dredd over-reaching or abusing authority -- one of the first stories I can recall making this a theme in a fairly obvious and satirical way was "The Art of Kenny Who?" I remember talking with school friends about this story at the time, because -- for perhaps the first time, and at least for us as early-teenage readers -- that story made it almost impossible to identify with Dredd. It was clearly about something else: art and freedom of expression versus the drive to conformism. Now, bear in mind, I haven’t read that story in about twenty-five years, so I’m reluctant to say more in case I have the details wrong. But I’d like to think it’s a compliment to Wagner and Kennedy that I can still recall it pretty distinctly, and felt it as something of a challenge to the audience -- or at least, the admittedly rather small sample of the audience constituted by me and my friends at the time!

Picking up on one of your many insightful observations about the stories in Brothers of the Blood -- yes, I too was struck by Dredd’s recollection, in the Rowdy Yates story, of his decision to make Lopez sample the oracle spice (from which he died), back during the “Judge Child” saga (still probably my personal favorite early Dredd epic, although “Judge Cal” and the “Cursed Earth” storylines were pretty amazing to read week-by-week, too).

Is that the first time (as far as you know) that Wagner has evoked this moment? I seem to recall Hershey accusing Dredd of victimizing Lopez -- and of course there were the repeated jokes about Lopez’s facial hair, which Dredd did not like. But Dredd himself never reveals any doubt about his decision in the original story, does he? So this would be an interesting acknowledgement from Dredd himself about his own shadow-side, in that case. It might become even more interesting when you consider that the original Judge Child saga is yet another shadow-projection story -- in which the boy who is supposed to represent the salvation of Justice but who turns out to be evil serves as yet another blind for the possibility of evil in Dredd himself.

In this context of the “shadow of Justice” -- in an essentially Jungian sense -- your remark that “Mike McMahon's close-up of Rico's face, surgically mangled and twisted with fury, is maybe the image we've seen redrawn or referred to most often in the course of Dredd's past 35 years” really caught my attention.

First, I should thank you for that observation -- I had no idea. But now that you point it out, I’m inclined to see it as related to the “problem” of Dredd’s authoritarianism that I take to be the most recurrent critical issue in discussions of the character. Rico is the first clear example of a Jungian shadow or doppelganger to appear in the series: Dredd’s own brother, and not just a brother, but a twin, and not just a twin but a clone -- a mirror image who is also Dredd’s opposite, evil to Dredd’s good, chaos to his "law."

As Otto Rank suggested years ago in his famous Jungian study of doppelgangers in literature and early cinema, such shadows or doubles are almost always a projection of some denied or repressed or otherwise unbearable knowledge concerning the protagonist.

Now, in Dredd’s case, the denied or repressed knowledge at issue is the knowledge of Dredd’s own capacity for evil. In the earlier, more ethically naïve or straightforward strips, Dredd’s shadow or dark side is obviously projected onto villains such as Judge Rico, or Judge Cal, or the Judge Child, or Judge Death (and I’m now noticing for the first time just how strongly these great Dredd villains are associated with the institution of Justice that Dredd is supposed to uphold -- they are all symbolic doubles for Dredd in some crucial way).

And perhaps it was the reader as much as Dredd himself who was being “protected” from the knowledge of Dredd’s own shadow side by these classic devices of projection and containment.

But over the years, the shadow of Justice has moved from outside Dredd to inside him, in stories that hint at or actively play up that dark side. Dredd’s “new” memory of his own hostility to Lopez way back during the Judge Child saga -- his new willingness to acknowledge his own shadow -- is a sign of just how far this process had advanced by 2000 or so when Wagner wrote the story.

And this would at least partly explain why writers and artists on the strip keeping coming back to Rico’s distorted face. He’s Dredd’s original double, so to speak. His story therefore represents the first significant moment that the possibility of Dredd’s own evil erupted into the narrative, in the form of a classic “shadow” figure -- although at the time it was not consciously acknowledged as such, perhaps not even by the creators, and certainly not by most readers. As Dredd’s first encounter with his Shadow, it is therefore a foundational trauma within the series, and it makes perfect sense that as writers of the character have become more self-conscious about Dredd’s dark side they would repeatedly (even compulsively) return to that initial encounter.

One last thing: you asked about you how my experience of reading these stories compares to the earlier experience of reading Dredd stories back when I was a kid, and point out that Wagner seems only to have improved over the years.

At one level, I think you are absolutely right -- Wagner has clearly continued to raise his always considerable game. His sense of the emotional beats of a story seems stronger than ever. I’m not sure if this is just a matter of experience, or if it has to do with how much the audience for genre comics of the kind that 2000 AD represents has transformed since 1977.

But in some ways Wagner just seems less afraid of the accusation of sentiment, when he goes for a moment of pathos -- and I think this is entirely a good thing. There was always a winking referentiality to early 2000 AD, but sometimes it would wink at exactly the wrong time, in a way that could radically undercut the writers' own intentions. Witness the “he ain’t heavy –- he’s my brother” line in Pat Mills' original “death of Rico” story. It bugged me even as a kid when reading that story that at the emotional peak of the script I was suddenly hearing The Hollies in my head. Nowadays, I don’t think Wagner would be quite so likely to undercut the drama with such an incongruous piece of citation.

Having said that, the real difference when I read Dredd now, and think about how I responded to Dredd back then, has less to do with any elements of the writing. I liked the stories in Brothers of the Blood, and will probably seek out some more recent Dredd collections. But what seemed comparatively lacking when I compare those stories to the ones I read as a child was the quality of the art. As a young reader I had an intuitive sense that these comics were as inventively drawn as they were written, and I just don’t get that feeling anymore.

Carlos Ezquerra is as great as ever, of course. (I was instrumental in having him nominated for the Eisner Hall of Fame this year, and admire the hell out of his work.) But when it comes to the other artists in the collection, I prefer Gibson’s earlier work to his current style -- and artists like Fraser and MacNeil, while solid, just don’t hold a candle, IMO, to folks like Bolland and McMahon at their peak.

As kids, it was the art that we pored over, copied, and discussed in detail when we talked about and shared these comics. I don’t recall us ever worrying about who wrote the best Dredd, but the debate over who drew the best version of the character -- well, in my immediate cohort, that was a live one. In particular, I used to have long conversations about this issue with a friend named Chris Bowden (who ultimately went on to get a PhD in astrophysics -- proof that comics make people smarter!). We studied the styles of the chief Dredd artists together, and attempted to reproduce them in blue ball-point on the covers of our exercise books in school. (Yeah, we were big nerds.) I have clear memories of Chris explaining the key differences between Dredd’s chin as rendered by Ron Smith versus Dredd’s chin by Bolland. I can recall us both puzzling over Carlos’s tendency to put those black bumpy lines around the outlines of his figures, and wondering if that was just an effect of his preferred tools or a deliberate stylistic choice.

Perhaps most revealing was the way in which our attitude towards Mike McMahon’s work changed as we aged. We did not like his work at all when we were very young (pre-teen) children, and basically wished the hyper-detailed Bolland could draw the strip all the time. But at some point we came to re-evaluate McMahon, and there were days when -- with a sense of disbelief at the transformation of our own taste -- we might even name him as the greatest Dredd artist of all.

I know my conversion was at least partly inspired by the conversations I was then starting to have with an unusually perceptive and open-minded art-teacher at my high school -- about the differences between “realism” (and which I would now be more inclined to think of as a kind of conventional representationalism) and other art-styles. Ms. Lace loved expressionist art, and gave me a vocabulary to begin to understand more abstract and distorted drawing styles -- and one day it just clicked for me that I was imposing rather dull representational standards on McMahon, when he was clearly engaged by a completely different kind of artistic project.

In fact, nowadays, if I could own any original art from the Dredd strip, I think I’d want a piece by McMahon, ahead of anyone else, including Bolland. I think his earliest work was produced under the editorial mandate of “look as much like Carlos as you can.” But around the time of the “Cursed Earth” stories his unique style really began to emerge. I think the color stories he did in those early Dredd annuals ’81 and ’82 are just outstanding. In fact, I think McMahon may have produced some of the best art in the history of British comics, at least in so far as the genre of the action-adventure comic is concerned -- in part because his work is so entirely unlike that of any other British adventure comics-artist (where the masters tend to work the edge of the hyper-real, like Hampson and Bellamy and Burns).

McMahon, on the other hand, reminds me more of an American master of the form like Kurtzman, if only in his embrace of cartoony expressionism and his astonishing command of storytelling (although I confess I have no idea who McMahon himself would cite as an early comics influence -- and Kurtzman is probably not someone he would have likely encountered?).

I also love the way McMahon kept on developing over the years. When he moved from Dredd to Slaine, he seemed to take yet another step forward into the realm of pure abstraction, at the level of rendering, even as his storytelling became even more controlled.

I suppose I might be accused of nostalgia, but I don’t think my evaluation of Bolland and McMahon’s importance is based entirely on such feelings. I see those two (very different) artists as the great originators of the strip. Building on Carlos’s initial designs, I think they contributed more than any other creators (with the possible exceptions of writers Mills and Wagner) to Dredd’s initial popularity with his target audience. Those who followed them are therefore in my mind like the host of artists who have followed Ditko and Romita on Spider-Man, or Kirby and his many inkers on the FF. No matter how accomplished subsequent artists like Andru or Kane or Buscema or Byrne might have been, they are in the end working within parameters that were already established by even more visionary forebears. I think the same is true for artists like Fraser or MacNeil working in the wake of Bolland and McMahon.

Still, like I said, I enjoyed this collection quite a bit, and I’d be curious to read some more mid-and late-period Dredd. What would you recommend?

Please bear in mind that I generally can’t stand the Case Files collections because I think they look like absolute shit. I just hate the way the Case Files and related 2000 AD collections reproduce the art at an even more reduced size, and (presumably) shot from old comics or fiches without any serious effort at clean-up or detail-restoration -- and with no color for the center spreads and covers! If the stories in question are available in some other format, that would be preferable to me.

I mean, we are talking about some of the most important British comics material of the last fifty years, at least. So why can’t someone do a limited series of quality reprints, at the right size, with colored center spreads and covers? (I find the standard reprint collections are even more inadequate when it comes to other classic strips like the ABC Warriors. There was a period around Prog 110 or so when we were getting gorgeous color spreads on that strip by artists like Brendan McCarthy and Kevin O’Neill. It’s just a crime to reproduce those at a reduced scale and in black and white.)

Surely there’s a market for more archival reprints of such great material, in both Britain and the USA. Maybe IDW will see the wisdom of such a line of reprints now they are doing new Dredd stuff?

DOUGLAS: Yes, I'm pretty sure "Leaving Rowdy" was the first time Lopez had even been mentioned since "The Judge Child." (Wagner seems to have re-read it at some point a few years earlier--around the same time as "In the Year 2120" appeared, he'd written a Megazine serial called "Dead Ringer," which was essentially "The Judge Child" replayed as a farce.)

Excellent point that most of Dredd's great antagonists are his shadow-self or double ("Judge" somebody-or-other)--the chief exceptions being, I'd say, Chopper, who simply disregards the law instead of redefining it, and P.J. Maybe, who gets to keep coming back because his whole raison d'être is wriggling away from both suspicion and punishment (as we'll see next week). There's never really been a first-rate recurring master criminal in Dredd, a Moriarty or Joker or Lex Luthor, not least because Dredd tends to solve problems with his Lawgiver, but also because Dredd is himself something of an antagonist to the more sympathetic characters in his series! The closest to a crimelord-type recurring bad guy we've ever gotten was Nero Narcos, and (as we saw over the past couple of weeks) that fizzled fairly quickly.

As for Dredd's clones--Kraken is definitely a kind of shadow-self. Rico II, though; is he something Dredd has repressed? Dolman definitely isn't. Eustace Fargo is still another variation on that setup: arguably, Dredd is his shadow-self, the terrible possibility that he denied until too late. ("It was never meant to be forever, Joe"!)

On Wagner's ongoing ramping up of his skill: I agree that he's defter with the emotional beats of his plots, and much better at stepping around or understating potential moments of bathos. I also love how tight his writing has gotten--nearly every bit of dialogue tells us a lot more than its literal meaning, and he rarely devotes pages to shoehorned-in action scenes the way he sometimes did in the '90s. (A handful of people have mentioned that throwaway "Good people" line near the end of "Day of Chaos" as a particularly great bit of understatement, and I have to agree.) And one other thing makes his more recent stuff valuable to me is its moral complexity, and its understanding that everyone's in the right according to their own convictions, and wrong according to someone else's. The Sovs of "The Apocalypse War" are cackling villains; in the more recent stories, they're out for what they perceive as justice.

On the art of Dredd: I agree that there's nobody in the current rotation of artists who's as instantly striking as Bolland or McMahon, although there are a lot of artists I like a lot (especially Henry Flint, who gets to cut loose much more when he's working on, say, Zombo). I think it's significant, though, that Dredd's most important early artists--those two, Ezquerra and Ron Smith, in particular--were so different from each other. Anyone who's drawn Fantastic Four in the past 40 years is, as you note, working in the shadow of Jack Kirby. But the Bolland/McMahon contrast alone opened up Dredd to many, many more visual styles, and almost nobody feels obligated to maintain the look-and-feel of any previous artist. (I don't see Fraser or MacNeil, for instance, as working in a particularly post-Bolland mode, and even less in a post-McMahon mode; if Dave Taylor, who just drew a really nice three-parter in the Megazine, owes a stylistic debt to anyone, it's Moebius...) The most recent prog's Laurence Campbell-drawn episode begins with a three-panel flashback to "The Apocalypse War," and all Campbell has to do to evoke that era is emulate Ezquerra's jagged, curved-cornered panel borders and throw in a super-thick contour on Dredd's helmet; it's also one of the very few examples I can recall of one Dredd artist channeling another's work, other than all those callbacks to the revelation of Rico's face!

(I also suspect that, for several reasons, it's just not possible for any one artist to crank out as many pages a week in a contemporary style as Ron Smith and Ezquerra used to. There was a discussion at some point of the longest consecutive number of weeks a serial by a single writer/artist team had appeared in 2000 AD. I believe the winner was the 50 episodes of Alan Hebden and Massimo Belardinelli's "Meltdown Man," followed by 31 weeks' worth of Wagner and Ezquerra's "Countdown/Necropolis" and 25 weeks of the John Smith/Steve Yeowell "Devlin Waugh" serial we covered last week. The only thing that's come close in the past decade is 18 weeks of Smith and Paul Marshall's "Leatherjack.")

As for mid- and late-period Dredd recommendations--I'm going to turn that over to this blog's readers! I'll wave the flag for Tour of Duty and Day of Chaos, but there are a lot of the books I'll be covering over the next four or five months that I either haven't read or have read only once, quickly, a while ago. Looking forward to 'em.

And I'd agree that it'd be great to see some more handsome, oversized reproductions of some of the particularly gorgeous 2000 AD material--and that some of the newsprint era's art, in particular, hasn't been especially well-served by the Case Files reprints. (When Dredd goes full-color, though, so do the reprints.) I'm very curious to see what IDW's plans are for reprints beyond the Bolland hardcover--which apparently will be the third book this year to use his cover from Prog 848!

Thanks again to Ben. Next week, Mairead Case joins me to discuss The Complete PJ Maybe.