(Reprints Judge Dredd stories from 2000 AD Progs 1392-1399 and 1408-1422)
We've got another special guest this week! Josie Campbell is a Comic Book Resources writer, sketch comedian, and freelance writer, who joined me to talk about the 2004 Judge Dredd sequence of this book's title story and its bookends "Terror" and "After the Bombs."
JOSIE: First off, Douglas, I’m very glad to be a part of the discussion -- I’m a fairly recent convert to the Dredd-verse, and "Total War" typifies both what I love and what troubles me about Judge Dredd: that you’re never wholly on the Judges’ side.
I should say upfront that the vast majority of my Dredd knowledge comes from the much sillier early days, when Dredd would strand criminals on highway medians and openly hate Walter the Wobot (to be fair, it was very easy to openly hate Walter). There was a weirdly refreshing quality to how out of proportion Dredd’s actions came across and how insanely over the top Dredd’s punishments were--to my mind, more like "Axe Cop" or "Stardust The Super Wizard" than the gritty American comics emerging during the same period. The rest of what I know about Dredd comes from a handful of other stories from the period we're looking at here, as well as the kick-ass new movie (which also did a good job of me not wholly thinking the Judges are a good thing).
In "Total War," you want Dredd to break down the terrorist cell and catch the bad guys, you really do. But then when he does get his hands on them, the Judges are so awful you start to rethink whether you want them around -- but then a city block goes up in ash and you’re back on Dredd’s side again. It’s a morality carousel, going round and round with no sign of stopping.
On the Judges' side, you have the fact that a terrorist group is nuking the city. This is, obviously, bad. But on Total War’s side, the Judges run a fascist police state, and Mega-City One probably should get rid of them, or at least take their governing powers away since, frankly, they’re bad at it. From a practical standpoint (and one from which I, as the daughter of government workers and a kid who grew up in D.C., can’t disengage my brain), their draconian policies are a total failure. Violent crime runs rampant in Mega-City One. The Judges spend so much time enforcing the letter of the law that they squander their resources on sending regular citizens to iso-blocks when there’s a Mega-City Al-Qaeda planting nukes right under their noses--not to mention that their overzealous torture techniques kill Oddie, their connection to the terrorist cell, without procuring any usable information.
But at the same time, what grabs me about "Total War" is the fact that it’s a dystopia told from the position of power. That’s not something you see in most science fiction. Dystopias are things to rebel against ("Hunger Games," "Star Wars") or escape ("Logan’s Run," "Fahrenheit 451") or tragically perish from ("1984," "Brave New World"). In these worlds, there are no terrorists, only revolutionaries. So it’s fascinating to see Dredd take the opposite track. The audience knows the Judges are morally bankrupt by our standards, but the Judges and Dredd see themselves as the last bastion of justice and hope for the Mega-Cities.
DOUGLAS: Right--and one thing that keeps the which-side-are-you-on question interesting is that Dredd's writers often suggest that the Judges are the least of the available evils, and even that the people of MC1 are fine with them more often than not. Given the option (back in "The Devil You Know"), the city appeared to reject democracy--although Garth Ennis was a little bit cagey about whether the results were a fix or not--and "Terror," the first story in the Total War collection, opens in a bar where patrons can watch videos of the Judges beating up democratic protesters.
On the other hand, "Terror" is pretty clearly a thematic sequel to John Wagner and Colin MacNeil's first two "America" stories, which were as absolute a condemnation of the Judges' rule as the series has ever seen: Zondra Smith even lives in Bennett Beeny Block. (This is exactly the kind of character-focused story at which MacNeil excels--although, oddly, he never really sells Sonny as being a decade or so younger than Zondra.)
We know that Zondra and Sonny are doomed from the get-go--that's just the kind of story this is--but what we don't know is how they're going to go. Zondra's death is just a case of the cavalry not getting there in time; Sonny's is a product of John Wagner's particular gift for realizing where a story could use some extra chaos. Having him killing his contact and then be killed by Dredd is the natural conclusion of the story--but having him kill his contact by beheading him with a mechanical dinosaur is a total Wagnerism. (So is the scene where the Judges concur on Sonny's fate to reassure themselves: "He asked for it." "He wanted it." Sure.)
See also "After the Bombs," in which the amusingly named Gaia Innocenti, we know, is going to have to pay for her crimes somehow, despite the fact that she no longer remembers them and is effectively no longer capable of recidivism. It was a good idea to have this one drawn by Jason Brashill, too: his work is far removed from Henry Flint's in "Total War," but its soft curves and rubbery textures are entirely appropriate for a story about a character losing her grip on identity and reality. The closer Gaia is to innocence, the more likely she is to suffer a fate worse than death--and that's what she gets at the end of the story. It's fair to say that she is, or used to be, a terrible person, and also fair to say that she gets the raw end of the deal.
JOSIE: We’re seeing "Total War" from the Judges' perspective, so we end up rooting for them, and if you put all the actions on a scale in this particular instance, the Judges are less wrong then the Total War members--so you basically keep rooting for them throughout. The only things I can think of that come close to this bleakness in American literature are the later "Dune" books or Robert Heinlein’s early novels or Orson Scott Card’s work -- but in those cases there’s a real-world conservative ideology being purposefully pushed forward that I don’t think exists in the Dredd-verse. "Total War" isn’t a primer on how the Judges are right (as they would be penned by any of those aforementioned authors). It's turned on its head by the fact that you’re constantly reassessing whose side you’re on.
This is made a little harder by the fact that "Total War" is exactly the type of terrorist plot that only ever happens in fiction. A city is taken hostage, there’s a race against time, and in the end the terrorists, who had some sympathetic goals, turn out to be run by bad guys. Rich bad guys!
But this is where the art kicked in and made the story interesting again for me. Henry Flint’s depictions of the sheer carnage the bombs caused are disturbingly compelling. You can almost feel the heat from the explosions--I spent half an hour poring over the part of "Total War" where the bomb wipes out the thousands of evacuees on the bridges. I don’t know if I’d like this story half as much if it wasn’t for the art; there’s a sad poignancy to it. Flint understands that, in this story, no one is the winner.
Speaking of which: poor Nimrod! Still being fairly new to Dredd, this story was the first time I found out that Dredd was a clone or that he had a niece. But this knowledge parlays into my ultimate takeaway from the story. "Total War" isn’t really about a political attack -- it’s a mediation on waste. Total War is wasting the lives of innocents to kick out the Judges, who don’t really leave, and the rich idiots in charge never really intended for there to be any compromise. The Judges waste the individual members of the organization, and the cell’s middlemen, like Cliff Richard or Jericho, disagree with their leader’s bombing plans, which makes their involvement in Total War a waste, and both throw away their lives. Cliff literally wasting away in his apartment, Jericho ready to waste away in Iso. In this light, Nimrod is the last level of the story’s waste, literal human waste in his case.
In fact, the only time Dredd overcomes the waste is when he goes to rescue Vienna, refusing to waste any time to get to her. It’s then no accident that Nimrod saves Vienna, a mistake rising from the ashes, coated with the literal and figurative waste of the city. His is the only death in "Total War" I wouldn’t classify as a waste -- it’s an act of mercy and a reward.
Thus, when Dredd tries to resign, it’s not really about going soft or a dereliction of duty. He goes against the thematic basis of the Judges -- he did something that wasn’t a total waste, in order to help his family, what little he has. I don’t think you can really say the Judges saved the city (that’s a lot of burned buildings and irradiated people for a "win") but Dredd does save Nimrod, and indirectly saves Vienna. And if Chief Judge Hershey can recognize the importance of those two acts, maybe there’s hope for the Judges.
DOUGLAS: Interestingly, the one part of "Total War" that doesn't work at all for me is the Nimrod subplot. Having him show up for the first time in the same story in which he's trotted off means that his death (and, likewise, the "we have to find somebody to sign the euthanasia order" routine) doesn't have the dramatic force it seems like it ought to, and the "creature who just happens to have super-senses" business makes his Frankenstein's-monster rescue of Vienna way too convenient. (I note, though, that his "I seem to have forgot my maracas" scene seems to prefigure the look and tone of Flint's Zombo.)
I see how it should be a compelling idea to have a personal-level conflict for Dredd to ground the big kaboom of a story like "Total War," and I always like seeing Vienna turn up (although having her perpetually in peril stretches credulity a little). As Ben Saunders and I discussed a few months ago, Vienna's the one person who really matters to Dredd, since she's the only survivor of his greatest personal failure. So, structurally, this is almost there. "Total War" is effectively a story about a grand-scale failure of the Judges, and not the first of its kind: the "nukes hidden across the city" plot had turned up in different guises a few times in the first couple of years of the series, and Wagner occasionally likes to show a race against time to defuse a bomb that ends with the bomb going off. (The most reliably competent Judge in this story is the loathsome Roffman, as usual.)
In the light of "The Return of Rico" and "Necropolis," though, Dredd mercy-whacking Nimrod is maybe one "Dredd kills his corrupted other self" scene too many. And as dramatic as Dredd trying to turn in his badge on the final page is, that's also a card he's played a few times over the limit (and, by the end of "Day of Chaos," he seems to have taught Beeny to do the same thing). I practically cheered at "Bullet to King Four" a few weeks ago, when Hershey lets Dredd have it for his eagerness to "barge into my office at regular intervals to blackmail me with a badge you'll never hand in." Dredd's fear of personal failure--the specter of Rico that hovers over the story whenever Vienna turns up--doesn't quite work as a parallel to the systemic failure of the Judges at large; the Nimrod plot seems out of place, or maybe at the wrong scale, in the context of the nukes-going-off plot.
JOSIE: I do think that in terms of emotional impact both "Terror" and "After The Bombs" work much, much better. Like I said, while I enjoyed "Total War" overall and felt I got the thematic impact of Nimrod and the plot, boil it down and it is a pretty standard "terrorists take a city hostage/monster turns savior!" plot. With "Terror" we basically get a noir story (albeit one with, as you pointed out, a very Wagnerian dino-decapitation) and "After The Bombs" is Gaia running from the Judges and her past when there's no way to escape either.
Interestingly, I think "After The Bombs" also brings us back to the fact that the Judges are bad at their jobs. Psi Division is underperforming, there are mentions of unmet quotas, and in the end it seems Gaia’s punishment is not in response to her actions so much as it is about internal politics. Psi missed out on the bomb "glory" (and what an interesting choice of words), so they’ve now got their own bomb-predicting brain. Whether this will actually help them or become just one more justification for extreme action remains to be seen -- but to judge from "Terror" and "Total War," I doubt that trapping Gaia in bureaucratic hell will do anything but mark another skirmish in the ongoing war for the city.
DOUGLAS: One other thing I appreciate about this whole sequence: Wagner, unlike nearly every American mainstream comics writer, understands the distinctions between terrorism, politically motivated violence, and people blowing stuff up just to blow it up. Total War are genuinely terrorists. They actually have a goal in mind (get the Judges out and replace them with... uh, they'll cross that bridge when they get there), and their violence is meant to be coercive violence: they want to force the Judges to do what they say. They are also really stupid and counterproductive in terms of directing violence at the people they'd like to be their allies, but that's another matter. (See also Rage Against the Megs, more recently.) Borisenko's faction in "Day of Chaos," conversely, aren't terrorists as such, just revenge-seekers, because there's nothing in particular they want Mega-City One to do except die. The cover of Prog 1770 calls them "The Sov Terrorists," but as I recall the Judges never call them that--at least to each other--and Dredd later mentions Borisenko's "negotiations with terrorists." Points for precision.
Thanks again to Josie! Next week, it's back to (timely) spinoff territory, as Tim Callahan joins me to discuss The Simping Detective.