Sunday, October 28, 2012

Judge Dredd Vs. Aliens: Incubus

(Reprints Judge Dredd stories from 2000 AD Prog 2003 and Progs 1322-1335)

We've got a special guest this week: the extraordinary Laura Hudson, former editor of Comics Alliance, current contributor to the L.A. Times, and star of every karaoke joint she's ever walked into. Before she leaves Portland for her awesome new gig, she agreed to talk about Judge Dredd Vs. Aliens: Incubus. We counterbalance each other's cultural gaps: Laura hasn't read much Dredd before, and I've managed, somehow, to never watch any of the Alien movies, but she's seen them all--and rewatched them all this past summer. Take it away, Laura!

LAURA: There's a nice bit of visual mimicry on the first page of Incubus where we see the power towers extracting energy, structures that just so happen to look an awful lot like Xenomorph mouths, frozen in that iconic moment of toothy, gaping glory, especially when you juxtapose them with the cover.

DOUGLAS: That's a great observation about the Xenomorph-ish power towers. (And beyond that, nearly every single image in the story seems to have teeth... and that shot of Harry Dean Stanton Block on the next-to-last page is very Xenomorphy too.) Henry Flint is absolutely on fire here. He'd drawn most of the best-looking parts of "The Hunting Party" five or six years earlier, but had mostly just done one- and two-part Dredd stories since then; this one, I think, is what cemented him as a first-rank artist for this series. (He's done some fantastic stuff on other 2000 AD series too--I think Zombo might be my favorite of all.) I particularly love the sequence with the alien plunging downward over four skinny vertical panels, then smashing a giant hole into the Undercity.

A couple of things I'd like to point out about Incubus as a whole before we get into specifics: As with the earlier Dredd/Batman crossovers, it's not just in continuity with the rest of the series but integrally in continuity. The Mr. Bones subplot resolves threads from "Out of the Undercity," which had run a few months earlier; the robots who show up at the end are, I believe, the last few survivors of the Mechanismo storyline from the mid-'90s (and I don't think we've seen Mechanismos since). Also, Sanchez, who's introduced here, later shows up again in "Origins."

There are a couple of bits of the story that are slightly recycled, on the other hand. Sanchez's arc--in which she doesn't know if she's cut out for the force, but then she does OK in a tight spot, and Dredd eventually approves of her--is pretty much the same role Judge Castillo had played in "Wilderlands." Castillo had been killed off in "Lawcon" in 2001, though, so perhaps it was time to start that cycle again. And, of course, there had been an Alien homage in Dredd in 1983, "The Starborn Thing," complete with a climax in which it impregnates Dredd. (M-preg ahoy!)

The story's co-written by John Wagner and Andy Diggle--at the time, it had been a good 15 years since Wagner had written collaboratively on a regular basis with anyone, I think, and I don't know if Diggle's ever done much other collaborative writing. I like the result; this has one remarkably complicated plot for what's essentially a chase-and-fight premise, and it's got a lot of sharp character moments.

LAURA: In that opening scene, where Dredd gets called in to disperse a demonstration against the power tower by the Earth Mothers, the Judges' "dispersal" tactics are pretty brutal. It's a bit funny to me that my immediate thought was "fascism," while my second thought was, "hey, is this really that different from many of the police responses to the Occupy movement?"

DOUGLAS: Yeah, the brutal tactics and fascist overtones are very deliberate; the scene where the Mechanismos are announcing "You creeps are breaking the law!... You've brought this on yourselves!" while blasting the bugs is pretty funny. One of the things I enjoy about Dredd as a series is that it's always messing with the reader's sympathies--whenever you find yourself admiring the Judges, it reminds you that they're actually kind of awful, and vice versa.

So here's a question for you: One thing that this story has to do as a crossover is introduce the premises of both of the series that go into it, as well as serve (and not talk down to) the readers familiar with one or both of them. This one's pretty good at presenting the Judges' milieu within the first few pages, I think. I also appreciate how it switches off between calling back to familiar aspects of the world and introducing new ones; I'm pretty sure the Verminators have never been seen before (or since).

But I don't know how it does in terms of presenting the Aliens world; is there more to the Xenomorphs than attack-kill-reproduce? To put it differently: how does "Incubus" act as an Aliens story--which of the Aliens tropes does it follow, which does it tweak, which does it miss? And how does it fit in with the movies thematically? I gather that the scene in the maternity ward, and Bones' "It's me--d-daddy!," have some resonances with the movies, but I couldn't tell you more than that.

LAURA: The more you deconstruct the Alien franchise in terms of its themes, the more you start to realize what a startling change it represents from the usual horror movie approach to gender. Rather than portraying women as helpless, scantily-clad victims who get penetrated by the knives of male attackers – with the obvious rape analogies that implies – females take center stage in Alien not as objects or victims but as agents that drive the action, while feminine themes like pregnancy and birth infuse both the heroism and the violence of its characters.

Which is to say: instead of a horror movie that is metaphorically based on male sexuality being inflicted on women (i.e. most horror movies), Alien is a film about female sexuality inflicted on men. This turnabout isn't totally equivalent to the way women are treated in horror movies – the men aren't sexualized per se – but it's still a really fascinating and refreshingly different take on the genre.

Horror movies typically link female sexuality with violence in a way that is intended to excite the audience or punishes women for being sexual, but in Alien female sexuality becomes something powerful, something that creates power and inspires fear rather than being exploited for titillation. The most iconic and terrifying image of the franchise is that of an alien fetus bursting from the body of a writhing, impregnated man.

Dan O'Bannon, the writer of the original Alien film, even called the movie “payback,” and spoke very frankly about how the movie was intended to play on male fears and superstitions about penetration, rape, pregnancy, and birth:

“One thing that people are all disturbed about is sex... I said 'That's how I'm going to attack the audience; I'm going to attack them sexually. And I'm not going to go after the women in the audience, I'm going to attack the men. I am going to put in every image I can think of to make the men in the audience cross their legs. Homosexual oral rape, birth. The thing lays its eggs down your throat, the whole number.”

Pro-choice advocates often like to imagine how differently abortion would be treated if men could get pregnant, and Alien is that very truism realized in the form of a horror movie. In a certain way, Alien is a a fuck you not just to to the horror movies that portray women as supersexy knife pincushions for angry men, but to the Todd Akins of the world who treat women and their bodies as, well, something alien.

One of the biggest departures from canon in Judge Dredd vs. Aliens is necessitated simply by the fact that Judge Dredd is a guy, which means that we've got a male protagonist rather than a female one, and the implications of that are even bigger than you might think. The most significant female figure in the book is Sanchez, a newly graduated female Judge that Dredd takes under his wing, although she's a figure of inexperience and self-doubt, and far more of a sidekick than a central character. The absence of a female lead negates so much of what the Alien movies are about, and while it's possible that the comic could find some interesting terrain to explore here with a testostorone-fueled character like Dredd -- well, it just doesn't.

After Dredd and company head back to the hospital to deal with the Xenomorph on the loose there, we get our first hint that we're going to be name-checking the birth themes of Alien in really ridiculous ways when the judges chase down a hallway marked “OB/GYN MATERNITY” and find a Xenomorph menacing a baby. Seriously: the comic just throws in a baby and has an alien loom over it with giant teeth.

Relationships between mothers and children played a big role in the movie sequel Aliens, particularly after Ripley learned that her real daughter died of old age while she was in cryosleep, and when she later took on a motherly role towards an orphan girl named Newt who of course was kidnapped by the aliens. This scene in Dredd may be going for something similar, but since Dredd has absolutely no relationship to the baby, it all just comes across as a rote “children in danger” cliché. In the Alien movies, the point wasn't simply that a child was being threatened; it was about the maternal instinct those threats awoke in Ripley, and similarly in the Alien Queen when her eggs were threatened. This, on the other hand, is just a random fucking baby.

The comic also subverts the most basic metaphor of the movies with its very subtitle: Incubus. It's the nickname given to the Xenomorphs by the people of Dredd's city, and it's based on a mythological demon that took male form and was said to rape and impregnate women in their sleep. Listen: the entire point of Alien was male terror of sexual violation and the transformation of pregnancy from something female to something male. By reframing the aliens in the context of an incubus, the comic takes the rape, violation and pregnancy represented by the Xenomorphs out of the uncomfortable realm of men and places them back in the default realm of women, fundamentally undermining the entire concept.

It's interesting; while I was reading about the Alien franchise, I came across a reference to “male rape,” and it got me thinking. While in a lot of contexts "male" is assumed to be normal or default while "female" is considered something irregular, when it comes to rape, it is too often considered inherently female and needs to be specially qualified as male. That's what the horror of the Alien movies is designed to address, and it's a little disappointing to see that crucial aspect of the films ignored and subverted in the comic in such shallow ways.

It all culminates in the most hamfisted and obvious dialogue ever when Sanchez and Dredd are both cocooned by aliens and implanted with embryos, and Dredd tells her (the primary female character in the book), “You're going to have a baby – only it's not going to be the human kind!” Thanks for 411, Dredd. I think it would have been a lot more interesting to see the comic deal with what it means for an ultra-masculine warrior like Dredd to be impregnated, especially since dealing with that tension is the motivating force for the horror in the franchise, but sure, let's just talk about how the lady judge is knocked up instead. And don't forget to tell her it's “too late for tears” afterwards!

The one hint we get about male paternity is the most superficial one possible, when the villainous Mr. Bones, who has been raising an army of Xenomorphs to unleash on the judges, refers to himself as their “daddy.” Of course this never gets developed beyond literally this one word, and Bones refers to the aliens earlier as nothing more than a “means to an end." Absent any sort of relationship or paternal tenderness, it's just a cheap throwaway line he shouts before he dies. The comic seems to want to play with the obvious tropes of the movie, but unfortunately it doesn't seem to understand them well enough to do anything besides make thematic check marks next to babies and stuff. Also, I truly wonder whether there was a conscious decision to realign the metaphors according to more traditional gender roles and thereby obliterate them, or whether it just happened by default because the writer didn't give it any thought.

Absent the compelling and iconoclastic themes of the films, the comic becomes just another space alien horrorshow, and not a particularly interesting one at that. When Dredd takes out the Queen and her eggs, it doesn't pack the same punch as when fellow mother-figure Ripley does it because there's no special thematic resonance; it's just another dude with a gun blowing up a monster.

In the end, when the teks surgically remove the embryos from both Dredd and Sanchez for scientific and/or bioterror applications – much as they did with Ripley in Alien: Resurrection – Dredd averts the entirety of that terrible, terrible movie by incinerating the offspring and saying a line that sums up the Judge Dredd vs. Aliens comic and its failings: “I'm not the motherly type.”

DOUGLAS: Whew! Fair enough--although I think there's a little more than reversion to stereotypes going on with the gender-role stuff than you argue there is (if not a lot). I imagine the difficulty of playing up the horror of an impregnated Dredd is that a) it would of necessity be another callback to "The Starborn Thing" (one of whose memorable moments is Dredd, dragged back to camp by his bike, gasping "I'm... going to have... a baby!"--see below) and b) it would mess with the running gag of his being the ultimate stoic ("I'm just not scratching").

But we do see Bones telling Dredd "you're hanging there for two now," Packer's "Come on, you alien freaks! Come to momma!" (and the gender dynamics of the Verminator team are at least a little outside-the-norm), Shook taking a pass on the mission because he's got a wife and kids, and--maybe best of all--Dredd announcing that they'd better get Sanchez back to HQ because she's been impregnated, to which Giant asks "You as well...?" "That's affirmative," Dredd snaps, and promptly changes the subject. Similarly, we do see Sanchez complaining "The thing inside me... I-I think I just felt it move!"--but earlier we saw Jimmy saying the same thing. The one thing that does make me roll my eyes is Sanchez having to shed her Judge uniform; I can see where it would make sense just for storytelling's sake not to have the two human characters dressed identically, but come on.

One other thing that might complicate some of what might seem to be possible angles for playing with pregnancy and parent-child stuff in this particular series: Judges are celibate, or rather supposed to be celibate. Although we do see Sanchez, about four years later (in "Origins"), saying "Not sure I agree with this whole monk thing anyway."

LAURA: Honestly, I think that everything you said only lends more weight to my criticisms. All of the parentally-themed exclamations you mention are just that: exclamations. The comic's approach to the themes of maternity/paternity don't go any deeper than Duke Nukem-style catch-phrases like "come to momma." Also, it's kinda hard to celebrate the gender diversity of the Verminator crew for including a woman after she gets fridged with alacrity in order to make her fellow Verminator boyfriend rageface at the Xenomorphs for the rest of the comic.

But I think my primary concern boils down to what you acknowledge as well: actually dealing with the notion of maternity and the male horror associated with both rape and pregnancy would "mess with the running gag of [Dredd] being the ultimate stoic." When you get down to it, Dredd is a really poor choice of character for a horror narrative in general, because being the ultimate badass means that he can't acknowledge fear, or viscerally experience horror in a way that connects with the audience.

The power of the aliens is derived significantly from the horror of emasculation -- of a man being treated as a woman, especially with regards to rape and impregnation -- and because the comic doesn't want to "debase" Ultimately Manly Man Dredd or take away his power, it can't really let that happen in a way that means something emotionally. So instead, it ends up gutting the most powerful and subversive female metaphor in horror films to protect his masculinity. Where the Alien movies laser-targeted male discomfort and used it to provoke horror, the comic itself actually becomes an expression of that male discomfort, and by avoiding rather than confronting those gendered fears, it turns the aliens into something far more banal and less frightening.


Thanks again to Laura! Next week: Debbie Chachra and I take on the first volume of Mega-City Undercover, featuring the earliest Low Life serials. 

Sunday, October 21, 2012

Cry of the Werewolf

(Reprints Judge Dredd stories from 2000 AD 322-328 and 1313-1316, and from Judge Dredd Megazine #4.05 and 293-294)

First things first: I didn't have time to mention this here before last week's post went up, but I'm deeply honored to have been presented with the Krill Tro Thargo at New York Comic-Con. Thank you so much, Tharg and minions.

Just how Simon & Schuster picks what's going into their 2000 AD reprint program continues to mystify me a little, but that's why they're book publishers and I'm not--and in any case I'm not going to complain about color reprints of largely long-out-of-print stories. This one's kind of a Halloween-themed Dredd/horror volume, anchored by the title story, from Progs 322-328. (Is it the first Dredd collection with a sound effect on the cover?) Rereading "Cry of the Werewolf" now, it really seems like it was written one episode at a time, without thinking much about what was going to happen next. Judge Prager shows up four pages before the end to resolve the plot, and he's an inspired character ("How's things down there anyway?" "Grim"), but that's the first we've seen of him. It's also fun to see Manhattan as "the Undercity" in full-on Escape from New York mode, although Times Square looks... pretty much like it did in 1983.

For all that, "Cry" is one of the smartest of the "Dredd vs. supernatural monster" stories that pop up from time to time. Dredd's favored method of thinking about problems is reducing them to the lowest common denominator, which is usually a bullet; he's not the Anderson type who prefers to work things out metaphysically. The virtue of this one is that it does let him treat lycanthropy as just another perp to be dispatched, and shows us the man-as-law turning bestial as he descends into the space that's both literally and figuratively below his customary realm of action.

Including Wagner and Carl Critchlow's "Out of the Undercity," from 2002, makes a lot of sense, since it's a direct sequel to "Cry of the Werewolf." (It's also Wagner writing in the mode of several decades earlier: the wreckage of "the old White House" is totally a pre-1985 move on his part.) The logical (but absent-from-this-volume) successor to that story, though, is the Judge Dredd Vs. Aliens serial "Incubus," which started a few weeks later, follows up the Mr. Bones plot thread from "Undercity," concerns a bunch of monsters doing horrifying things, and even ends with a moment of tension-breaking comedy, like "Cry of the Werewolf." I mean, it's understandable that it would be hard to sneak the Aliens creatures into a book with a werewolf on the cover, but still.

We also get Robbie Morrison and Leigh Gallagher's "Dog Soldiers," a "Tour of Duty"-era piece involving antagonists who look vaguely like werewolves but aren't. (I really like Gallagher's rendition of Dredd, who genuinely looks like he's in his late sixties and has been through a lot.) And finally--and out of chronological sequence--there's Gordon Rennie and Frazer Irving's "Asylum," which features a bad guy with big sharp fangs who isn't quite a werewolf either. Irving's got particular gifts for horror and for color design, both of which serve him well here: every artist's got a way of drawing Psi-Judge Karyn's hair, but Irving's rendering of it as a radiant glob of hot pink (see above) makes it look eerie rather than just gravity-defying. ("Wurdolak" is an unusual spelling of the monster here; it seems to be related to the Greek vrykolakas almost as much as the Russian vourdalak.)

We don't, however, get to see the sequel to "Asylum," Rennie and Boo Cook's "Descent," which brought the Karyn/Wurdolak plot down into the Undercity, and has a genuinely scary/creepy ending. (Without "Descent," "Asylum" doesn't have much of a conceptual link to "Out of the Undercity.") It's possible to imagine a more-perfect-universe version of this book that would have gone "Cry of the Werewolf"-"Asylum"-"Out of the Undercity"-"Incubus"-"Descent." As entertaining as all four of the stories actually in this volume are, that one would have had a clearer overall dramatic arc--about the Undercity as the ugly subconscious space of the city from which monsters sometimes escape and in which monsters sometimes settle comfortably, and about Judges trying and often failing to look out for one another.

Next week: Laura Hudson and I take on the aforementioned Judge Dredd/Aliens crossover, Incubus.

Sunday, October 14, 2012

The Restricted Files 04

(Reprints Judge Dredd stories from Judge Dredd Poster Prog #2-5, 2000 AD Sci-Fi Special 1994-1996, Judge Dredd Mega Special 1994-1996, 2000 AD Yearbook 1995, 2000 AD Winter Special 1994 and 2005, Judge Dredd Yearbook 1995, 2000 AD Free Comic Book Day Prog 2012, and Dice Man #1, plus extra material from early Judge Dredd Annuals)

This week we're going a little bit back in the original-publication-dates chronology for a volume that just came out a few weeks ago in the U.K. (and, obviously, even more recently in the U.S.): the fourth and presumably final volume of The Restricted Files, filling this year's third Dredd Case Files slot.

The material here--aside from John Wagner and Rufus Dayglo's throwaway four-pager from the most recent Free Comic Book Day one-shot, and two even more lightweight stories Wagner wrote as showcases for winners of a Stabilo drawing competition in 2005--mostly comes from the mid-'90s, when the Mega Specials and Yearbooks and so on were firmly in the category of "overflow." Before 2000 AD was in full color, the specials were an opportunity to print full-color stories; before the Megazine, they were an opportunity to print stories that wouldn't quite fit in six-page episodes. And once the Megazine was around, they were an opportunity to run material that didn't fit in either of the two regular periodicals. That seems to have fallen into a few major categories in the period covered by this volume:

*Stories that were tonally weird or "off-model" in one way or another. Mark Millar and Peter Doherty's "Mr. Bennet Joins the Judges" is a cute concept, although I'm betting it's based on some bit of kids' entertainment that everyone in the U.K. has grown up with and nobody in the U.S. has ever heard of. (Anyone care to enlighten me?) "Fat Bottom Boys" is really just an opportunity for John Hicklenton to go over the top in his Heavy Metal Dredd mode; I'm not sure who demanded a sequel to "Judge Planet" that wasn't written by Peter Milligan, but hey, there one is, and it's more Shaky Kane. Also, remember how I was going on about "Sin City" last week? I didn't realize that there had already been the not-as-funny-as-it-should-be parody "Sinned-In City" many years earlier, although it reminds me that I'd like to see more of the stories Adrian Salmon drew in his own style reprinted.

*Alternate-universe or out-of-continuity stories. Somehow, those don't work terribly well with Dredd, the cover image of "Dredd of Drokk Green" notwithstanding. It's interesting to see Paul Neary reaching for a new technique for his Dredd-vs.-Al-Capone story "The Incorruptibles," but in the process he seems to have abandoned everything he ever knew about storytelling. And as nicely as Pat Mills' update of "The Return of Rico" had worked, his script for the what-if-Rico-hadn't-had-Joe-around fantasy "Perchance to Dream" is vague and sloppy.

*Stories that were stuck in inventory. It's not too hard to imagine, for instance, that "Raptaur Returns" was meant to be a sequel to the original "Raptaur," and never got completed beyond its first episode--it does rather seem to end on a cliffhanger, and the fact that Tony Luke and Dean Ormston used pseudonyms for it when it ran is a little odd too. But there was a rule in those days that everything that got completed had to get published eventually... I believe the 1995 Dredd Yearbook also included Chris Halls' artwork for his abandoned stab at the first chapter of the Mean Machine serial "Son of Mean," for the same reason. (I'm grateful for that, though!)

*Stuff that was just plain substandard. Roberto Corona is one of the few artists not to get a bio in the back of this volume; his artwork on the Dredd/Missionary Man team-up "True Grit" is poor fake Quitely, and the story's not much to speak of either. (Gordon Rennie had some swell Dredd stories ahead of him, but his three stories from the '95 Dredd Yearbook are nonstop beginners' jitters; even "Through the Peephole," from a bit later, is sturdier.) "Confessions of a Vegetarian" makes no sense at all, its Bob Burden shout-out notwithstanding. "Black Day at Badrock" was one of Robbie Morrison's earliest Dredd stories, and you can see him trying to get a firmer hold on how to write the series, but setting it during "The Pit" just makes it look much weaker by comparison.

Despite all of that, this volume isn't a total wash. A couple of the Poster Prog stories are fun--Wagner and Carlos Ezquerra's "Could You Be Judge Dredd?" is a nice if obvious gag. I groused about "House of Death," from 1986's Dice Man #1, not showing up in the previous Restricted Files collections, and I'm happy to see it turn up here with its splendid Bryan Talbot images of the Dark Judges. The bonus material at the back of the book is entertaining, too; it seems to come from some of the first few Judge Dredd Annuals (the last few pages are post-Apocalypse War, and clearly drawn by Ian Gibson). Anybody want to identify which pages come from what, and maybe even who wrote them?

So what's left to collect in book form at this point? There's the rest of the Case Files, which will eventually cover a lot of long-lost material--well over 400 yet-unreprinted episodes from 2000 AD, a bunch more from the Megazine. (The longest unreprinted-as-books storylines include Mills and Hicklenton's "Blood of Satanus III," Wagner et al.'s "Dead Ringer," and John Smith and Paul Marshall's "Darkside"--although the last of those did show up as an Extreme Edition. And, although it ran under several titles, Rennie's extended sequence involving Giant, Guthrie, Rico and Vienna could really stand to be collected on its own.) It'd be amazing to see comprehensive reprints of the Daily Star strips, although I gather that there are some logistical problems there. There are also the two DC series and Lawman of the Future, but I imagine those are unlikely to see print again any time soon either.

Next week: another newly released book, the Halloween-themed Cry of the Werewolf

Sunday, October 7, 2012

Satan's Island

(Reprints Judge Dredd stories from 2000 AD Progs 1289-1299, 1303, 1317, 1336-1337)

The "most awesome overall progs of 2000 AD" question comes up from time to time. Besides a couple of earlier issues (503! 662!) and later ones (1633!), I'd have to nominate Prog 1289, which only included three stories, but what stories they were--the opening episodes of "My Name Is Death," "Thirteen" and "Sin City." (Okay, fine, I hadn't actually read "Thirteen" until last week. I don't know what took me so long. It's really good!)

Using the title "Sin City" in 2002 must have been a deliberate tweak at Frank Miller (although this collection got a different title, presumably to avoid confusion). Miller had been doing his own Sin City comics since 1991, and "The Babe Wore Red" had been reprinted in 1998's Judge Dredd Megazine #3.42-3.44. In 2000, as David Bishop noted, Andy Diggle commissioned the Miller cover that appears above for the tenth anniversary issue of the Megazine; it ended up not running. (See the link for the longer version of that story.)

What Kev Walker's artwork looks like here, though, has much less to do with Miller than with Hellboy-era Mike Mignola and Dave Stewart. See, for instance, the image of the New New Kremlin below: almost nobody but Stewart uses that particular palette that much! "Sin City" is an attractive story, consistent-looking, a reasonably suspenseful thriller with a big multiple-pronged payoff. John Wagner's clearly having some fun writing it (not least because it lets him write a bunch of scenes of people enjoying the opportunity to do horrible things: "For our entree, we will be serving slices of tender young boy. Those who do not wish to partake will be offered an alternative"). And it ties in with past and future storylines in a satisfying way--it's fun to see what Guthrie's up to at this point, for instance, and Dredd being insubordinate to Hershey is part of the long-simmering conflict that bubbled over in "Bullet to King Four" last week.

That first, double-length episode of "Sin City" is particularly sharp. I love Mr. Sin's song of greeting (any time there's a musical number in Dredd, it's a fine thing), El Muerte's companion announcing "El Muerte said a kind word once and cut out his own tongue to punish himself!," the idea of "de-Megification"... The "Dredd pretending to rough up the informants" scene in the following episode is pretty great too, although the presence of Sin City police does make me wonder what laws they're there to enforce. If it were all that good, it'd be one of the best Dredd serials, but as so often happened in this period, it starts wobbling partway through.

The plot against the Big Meg is wildly and unnecessarily convoluted: the Sovs get Orlok, for whom they know the Judges are on permanent alert, to deliver the plague to Ula Danser, who can in turn release it in Sin City, so that it can infect people in Mega-City One. Why not simply use an agent nobody's heard of to deliver the bug directly to the Big Meg? (Which, of course, is what happens some years later in "Day of Chaos.") "The Doomsday Scenario" had very strongly implied that Dredd destroyed the entire New Kremlin, but apparently they've somehow gotten a new version up and running. And El Muerte being a Judge gone bad, and Dredd's personal responsibility (in his mind), would be a bit more dramatically effective if we'd seen him before, which I don't think we had--please correct me if I'm wrong.

The three follow-ups are all smart and surprising, though, and densely packed in that uniquely Wagnerian way. "Case for the Defence" reopens the very good question of whether Dredd's genocide of East-Meg One was necessary, or even did any good for his cause. ("Day of Chaos" is a pretty convincing argument that it did vastly more harm than good even for a best-case scenario.) Setting up some sort of equivalency between Dredd's actions and Orlok's is a fair point, but "you did the same thing!" is hardly a defense. It finally establishes something like the long-missing motivation for why the Sovs would have launched a biological attack and land invasion of Mega-City One in 2104--they'd seen a (contingency?) plan for a first strike from MC1. But it sure didn't look like that at the time, and it's also not clear what either side would have stood to gain from attacking the other.

(The questions of proportionality and discrimination are also swept away from the discussion as soon as they're brought up. Looking at the end of "The Apocalypse War" now, everyone's actions are dramatic but borderline nonsensical. How, for instance, do you accept surrender from a state that you've literally bombed to a cinder? What does surrender even mean under those conditions?)

"Reprisal" is an odd duck: it picks up on a thread its artist Paul Marshall and writer Garth Ennis had established eight years earlier in the not-very-good spinoff "The Corps," concerning the Space Corps and its genetic infantry. (Which hints that Dredd is in the same universe as Rogue Trooper, an idea that's never struck me as particularly useful.) Has anything been seen since of Commander Kreig, who doesn't seem to be any relation to Harmony Krieg?

It's nice to see a Brian Bolland cover on the first half of "The Trial of Orlok"--his first in almost nine years--but the really extraordinary thing about that story is what doesn't happen in it. The formula for every "archvillain taken into custody" story ever is that the villain makes some kind of last-minute escape, or there's some legal technicality that forces the villain to be set free, or something along those lines. So when Orlok's escape attempt at the end of the story fails and is followed by an on-panel execution, it's a genuine shock: this never happens. It's not "realism," exactly--asking for realism in science fiction always seems like a dubious proposition--but a very smart snapping of genre conventions, and a reminder that the stakes in Judge Dredd stories tend to be pretty high.

Next week: Restricted Files Vol. 4, wrapping up the "stories that appeared in British comics that weren't 2000 AD or the Megazine" sequence.