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.


  1. I think Brother in Blood is probably my favourite of the individual Rebellion trades. Rico provides an interesting slant on Dredd: they're the same but different. (Notably recently it's Rico who's armoured and protected Vienna's appartment) The book itself is nicely structured with Dredd minding the rookie Rico at the start while Rico is minding Dolman at the end. Yeah the Vienna story doesn't do it for me but that's mainly down to a dislike of supernatural tales.

  2. I would suggest to Ben the TOTAL WAR collection, which includes the "Terror" storyline (which Wagner wrote shortly after "Brothers of the Blood"), as well as the "Total War" saga (with art by the aforementioned Henry Flint) and even the "After the Bombs" aftermath.

    Basically, it's the return of the Total War movement (the ones who want to restore Democracy to Meg City One... at any cost) from the "America" story.
    Great little TPB.

    1. Just read Total War today and agree it's really great! The first part, Terror, has quite a few similarities to America but is less mawkish and the main Total War story is even better. It's Judges vs Terrorists and it's hard to decide which side is nastier or more cynical. It's got Dredd at his scariest and most relentless interspersed with touching little moments when he's trying to help Vienna out and Wagner doesn't waste a word

  3. Less mawkish than AMERICA, Tam?! AMERICA's absolutely the very first place anyone investigating Dredd after 1990 should begin, and TOTAL WAR follows naturally on from it. THE PIT' (as Douglas points out) serves as a natural companion piece to SECTOR HOUSE; and yes, no-one could possibly go wrong by investing in both books of TOUR OF DUTY.

    TOUR OF DUTY's pretty much the culmination of all the character work, the building upon Dredd's disquiet concerning 'the big lie', and honing of his writing that Wagner had done since (in his own words) "putting more thought into (his work)" following the split in his writing partnership with Alan Grant. The first major fruit of that labour, NECROPOLIS, is the place that journey started and really can't be bettered as an example of what the mature Dredd strip can achieve when Wagner's effortless mastery of his craft is combined with an incredible artist on the form of his life.

    Thanks so much, Ben and Douglas, for such a wonderful blog entry this week. The themes under discussion here go to the very heart of my continuing interest in Wagner's work, and it's a pleasure to read a discussion of his writing that treats both it and its readers with the respect and intelligence they deserve. This is officially my new favourite entry in this brilliant blog (displacing APOCALYPSE WAR and NECROPOLIS).

    1. 2009's TOUR OF DUTY is great, but you kinda need to read ORIGINS (not to mention a boat load of stories from 2007 and 2008, like "Mutants in Mega-City One", "The Secret of Mutant Camp 5", "Regrets", "Mutie Block" and, above all, "Backlash") to understand what's going on, don't you?

      Also, it's a shame Colin MacNeil couldn't do the whole thing, although it's perfectly understandable, of course. At least, Ezquerra was there at the end.

    2. "Mutants in Mega-City One", "The Secret of Mutant Camp 5", "Regrets", "Mutie Block" and, above all, "Backlash" are all in Tour of Duty book 1

  4. This comment has been removed by the author.

  5. When it comes to the relative merits of the Case Files we will have to agree to disagree. I had the "misfortune" of getting into Judge Dredd at a time when the strip was going through a duff patch (1991-1993) and as a result drifted away without much regret. The hype surrounding DREDD 3D brought me back into the fold and the Case Files (volumes 1-15) have been invaluable to me. Also, they have been a springboard into the more "recent" Judge Dredd collections like Mandroid, Brothers Of The Blood and Tour Of Duty