(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.