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.


  1. When discussing PJ's name near the beginning of this I think you have missed that the most likely inspiration for the name was PJ Proby - a Rock'n'Roller who I think had much more success in the UK in the 60's than he ever had in his native US.

  2. Is this "comic" P.J. anything to do with the real one & only amazing character & singer P.J.PROBY ?