Sunday, December 30, 2012

Tour of Duty: The Backlash

(Reprints Judge Dredd stories from 2000 AD Progs 1520, 1536, 1542-1548, Prog 2008, 1569-1575, 1577-1581, 1589-1595, 1600-1603, 1611-1612 and 1628-1633)

As we careen toward the end of this blog (and hit the really good stuff from the past few years), we're going to have a few more special guests; this week I'm delighted to be joined by Jamaal Thomas, one of the geniuses behind Funnybook Babylon. (He also Twitters here and Tumblrs here.) He was kind enough to send over his own bio: "Lifelong reader. Loved comics as a child, fell out of love as a teenager. Started reading again in my twenties. Day job: lawyer and planner (fundraising and program planning/evaluation) for a NY nonprofit. Other: lawyer for small businesses, (occasional) writer/podcaster at Funnybook Babylon."

JAMAAL: Thanks for inviting me to discuss Tour of Duty: The Backlash. It's amazing to see how much the franchise has changed in the years since I read Dredd on a regular basis in the mid-1990s. When I first started reading Dredd books, the tensile permanence of the status quo in Mega-City One made me slightly uncomfortable. The books were filled with military attacks, massacres and riots, but the essential features of Mega-City One - the massive city blocks, brutal justice and absurdly long prison sentences - seemed eternal. Mega-City One felt almost as static as Batman's Gotham City, but far more terrifying. Even as my discomfort waned, the impression stuck with me over the years. 

DOUGLAS: One of the things that's interesting to me about this series, actually, is that the status quo isn't so permanent: every blow the city suffers is one from which it takes a long time to recover; characters age; things slowly crumble. But I think that the Dredd most American readers have encountered is one where everything's pretty much the same: the Grant-Wagner period's stories have been reprinted over and over, but the later material like this has been pretty hard to come by in the States. This is a long-game volume for sure--"The Edgar Case," in particular, is the final piece of a subplot that had been simmering for more than ten years, with dying Judge Edgar taking her friends and herself down just to get one last knife-twist in on Dredd. (The still-unreprinted sequence "The Cal Legacy" is part of the setup there...)

JAMAAL: Even though I knew that time was continuing to pass in this world, there was still a small piece of me that was surprised to read a Dredd story that shows us a MC1 in decline, and an aging Dredd grappling with his legacy and struggling to define himself in a changing world. It’s particularly noticeable in the stories illustrated by Patrick Goddard ("Fifty-Year Man," "The Edgar Case"). I'm so used to reading adventure comics that take place in an eternal present that Goddard's depiction of a slowly aging Dredd was slightly jarring. Goddard’s Dredd is still a powerful figure, but the decades of battles had taken their toll. It felt like we were watching the beginning of the end of Dredd’s story. I loved MacNeil, Fraser and Dyer’s contributions to The Backlash, but Goddard’s was the one that haunted me the most. I don’t think I’ve ever seen Dredd as tormented as he was in "Fifty-Year Man" or "The Edgar Case."

DOUGLAS: I love the title of "Fifty-Year Man," in particular, because it's easy to read as "Fifty-Year-Old Man"--and Dredd hadn't even been that for a while. This particular story was, as I understand, planned to appear in the 30th anniversary issue of 2000 AD (it was pushed back a bit because of the delays in "Origins"), and the point is that when Dredd first appeared he'd already been on the force for 20 years--so he's now been on the streets for fifty years. Goddard actually strikes me as the most "American-style" of the significant British Dredd artists; I can imagine his artwork in an issue of, say, Amazing Spider-Man much more easily than Nick Dyer's or Rufus Dayglo's, for instance.

But yes, the tormented Dredd is a relatively recent phenomenon. (I think John Wagner had occasionally written omniscient-but-basically-from-Dredd's-POV captions before, but he's been doing it in earnest from "Fifty-Year Man" onward.) When Wagner and Alan Grant tried it with the "A Case for Treatment" sequence in the early '80s, it didn't quite work--it seemed to run in opposition to some of what readers understood about the character. This time, it's right on the money, especially since "Fifty-Year Man" ran immediately after "Origins." ("The Streets of Dan Francisco" actually ran during "Origins," as a fill-in.) Dredd's just had everything he knows about the world upended, and he's shaken--but he's not willing to let on. Maybe the most effective "no, seriously, time has passed" gesture in that story is Mean Machine's cameo appearance: one of Dredd's classic adversaries, now old and decrepit and harmless. In any other series, Dredd would be right that Mean's putting on an act and planning to go right back to his Yosemite Sam act the moment he gets out. In this one, that's it--Mean's been shuffled off for good, it appears.

JAMAAL: There was something genuinely tragic about that scene with Mean Machine. In some sense, was Wagner showing us who Mean Machine always was - an unstable disabled man with a malfunctioning implant? I couldn't help but wonder if Mean's "rehabilitation" can be attributed to his advanced age or the repair of his implant (and removal of his claw arm). I'm sure that it's some mix of both, but it changes our view of Mean Machine.

Wagner also presents a far more complicated Dredd than the one who lives in my memory. He’s more measured and pensive and far less assured. He seems to recognize the human impact of his actions and is even questioning his legacy. At the same time, Wagner doesn't let the reader forget that Dredd's motives aren't entirely pure. "Origins" did open his eyes to the possibility that the system was broken (the most heartbreaking moment in the story was when the dying Fargo told him that the system wasn’t meant to last forever), but there's something meaningful about the fact that Dredd only developed a commitment to justice after being personally affected by the laws. He only recognized the humanity of the mutants when he found out that some of his relatives were mutants too - it offsets some of the sympathy the reader develops for Dredd, but makes him seem more fully human.

He's slowly evolving. Early on, we see Dredd behave sympathetically toward the parents of a mutant baby. He gets involved in the world of Mega-City One politics. Wagner shows us a Dredd chafing against his external and internal limitations (he does a particularly brilliant job of this in "The Edgar Case"). But he can only go so far. Although he's a tactical genius, his strategy frequently comes up short - not only does he underestimate the potential backlash to mutant law reform, he seriously misreads sentiment within the judicial forces. The street violence and petty corruption are just distractions, and even when Dredd is aware of that, he is unable to avoid them. He has to be focused on the small picture, it’s just fundamental to his nature (I guess that this is one of the reasons he never ran for Chief Judge). Wagner does a great job of subtly forcing Dredd out of his comfort zone. The stakes aren't just different, they feel elevated.  Dredd may be a hyper-competent judge, but he's still a naif in the world of politics.

DOUGLAS: Absolutely. Dredd's never really been written as a fully sympathetic character, and I particularly like the sympathy switcheroo Wagner pulls off here: he pretty much spells it out that discrimination against the mutants is totally wrong, then gets Dredd to do the right thing for the wrong reasons, and sets it up so that "doing the right thing" is incredibly problematic and not easy to defend (and brings down Hershey, too). Same thing with Dan Francisco: he's a cheesy glory-hound, and the familiar action-comics formula has gigantic neon signs saying "this guy is actually a corrupt, incompetent bastard" with arrows pointing at him. But Francisco turns out to be a reasonably competent cop himself, with a talent for playing to the cameras; he's an ideologue, but he genuinely has the convictions he claims.

And yes, of course Dredd can't see the forest for the trees; in a lot of ways, neither can the Judges as a group. This volume makes it even clearer that they can deal with immediate threats of violence, but not with systemic corruption. (Even the bit about the crime boss who had his larynx replaced with a robotic voice to evade lie detectors--which I think had also shown up in "Mandroid" a few years earlier--suggests that they can't do much about certain major crime problems they know exist.)

JAMAAL: After "The Streets of Dan Francisco," I expected that Francisco would turn out to be corrupt or have feet of clay. I even suspected that he would be the antagonist for this arc. I wonder if we're meant to see Francisco as an updated version of Dredd (as iconic street judge) for an era in which public perception and media savvy have become more important. I’m also fascinated by Wagner’s emphasis on Mega-City One’s internal politics (although there’s plenty of traditional crime-busting action). It’s interesting to see how the will of the citizens is expressed in an explicitly authoritarian society.

I may be reading too much into this book, but it felt a lot like a passion-play of post-Civil War America. There was something eerily familiar about the way that citizens define themselves against the "other," and their willingness to use terrorist tactics to enforce a tyranny of the majority against a discrete and insular minority. The violence that pervades "Mutie Block" and "Backlash" were reminders that the Judge-monopoly on the use of force and violence was tenuous (you even see this in Al Ewing and Simon Fraser’s hilarious "Mutopia," when Dredd states that almost half the citizens of Mega-City One are capable military tacticians). The end of the book is a sad reminder that domestic terror is an effective way to subvert official policy.

DOUGLAS: Oh, there's all kinds of political commentary going on in this one--I don't think it's possible to read "The Facility" and "The Secret of Mutant Camp 5" without thinking of Guantanamo Bay (or, for that matter, of Potemkin villages, various sorts of American internment camps, and so forth).

JAMAAL: Agreed. I think Wagner did a great job of balancing commentary relevant to our current state of affairs with universal political themes. The mutant drama seemed to be an  allegory for post-Civil War America, but could easily be applied to any aggrieved minority striving for equality' story. I don't know anything about Wagner's personal politics, but I'm also struck by the ambivalence of the political messages in this volume. The mutant story can be read as a critique of the violence that surrounds the expansion of political rights or as a cautionary tale about an overbearing government imposing change from above before the people were ready. The camp sequences evoked our tradition of detaining suspect groups (and deception around the detention), but also suggested that they just needed better regulation and oversight. I wonder if this reflects Wagner's political philosophy or if he's aiming for political ambiguity to keep things timeless.

I fear that I’m making this book sound like a bit of a downer. It’s also a ton of fun. While Wagner tells his big political story, the individual episodes and arcs constantly shift in genre and tone, which complemented the style of the individual artists. Colin MacNeil's clean style and clear storytelling aligns perfectly with the frontier justice meets the Silver Age style of the mutant-camp sections of the book as well as the more modern feel of "The Life and Crimes of PJ Maybe." Nick Dyer's more cartoony style matches the lighter tone of the Fargo visit. When Wagner switches to a more noirish style, Goddard is there to meet him in the darkness. And, of course, Kev Walker captures the dark humor of Dredd in his unique fashion. When the backlash finally hits, Carl Critchlow's loose style leads us through the chaos.

DOUGLAS: The stories reprinted here are from another one of Wagner's periods of stepping his game up--in this case, integrating the satirical and dramatic and violent sides of the series more tightly than ever. The funniest piece in the book is probably Ewing and Fraser's X-Men parody "Mutopia"--can't have a book about human-mutant relations without having a one-eyed mutant named Scott, a manipulative professor, and so on. But there's something amusing (or at least grimly amusing) in almost every story here: the subtle mock-documentary format of "Mutieblock," the "Tree Ham" ("suitable for vegetarians"), Quilp good-naturedly agreeing to kill his co-workers, Dredd automatically giving his niece's friend the third degree...

JAMAAL: Don't forget about the Fargo clan! I expected the grim humor, but was pleasantly surprised by the lighter, funnier stuff in this volume. It's a great contrast to the darker elements of the book. I was also pretty impressed by Wagner's balance of episodic and long-form storytelling. I imagine that it must be difficult to satisfy monthly readers (especially when the story is part of an ongoing anthology) while telling an epic narrative.

I've got to say, this volume is surprisingly dense... and that's not even touching on the terrific procedurals littered throughout the story. I feel like I'm barely scratching the surface of this - there are all the parallels between Dredd, Francisco and Beeny, the mystery of PJ Maybe (I suspected that he was going to play a greater role in the story) and the surveillance motif that runs through the story.

DOUGLAS: The surveillance motif has been an ongoing one--although it was a big part of the Judge Edgar sequence, in particular. But the rest of what you mention has a lot to do with the fact that this is really the first of a two-volume story: "Tour of Duty" proper, the sequence that ran in 2000 AD #1650-1693, is collected in Tour of Duty: Mega-City Justice (which this blog will be getting to in a few weeks), and this one is really pretty much the immediate set-up for it. In particular, yeah, the PJ Maybe business doesn't pay off in this volume; that happens much more in the next. It would have been useful to see "The Gingerbread Man"--in which PJ-as-Ambrose is elected mayor--in this volume, although it turned up in The Henry Flint Collection. And Beeny's history and significance aren't really clear unless you've read "Fading of the Light" and "Cadet," but she's an absolutely terrific character, and I've been glad to see Wagner continuing to use her.

JAMAAL: Ah, that explains a lot. I've got to read the second volume of the story (and "The Gingerberad Man"). Yeah, Wagner's depiction of Beeny was a real highlight of this volume. It's fascinating to see how other judges solve mysteries, particularly less experienced ones. That may also explain why Maybe-Ambrose wasn't killing more people and seemed like a reasonably competent mayor. I know, I know, he killed his biographer and planned on killing a young killer inspired by his legacy, but I was surprised that he wasn't secretly massacring dozens of people. Some quick final thoughts: 

*I haven’t seen Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln yet, but after reading the PJ Maybe arc, I suspect that the political procedural may have benefited from a murder mystery/thriller plot.

*Wagner should have showed us more interrogation/torture scenes. We should see the price of "justice" in Mega City One.

*Am I the only one who wants to read a Nick Dyer-drawn Wildy (Fargo Clan member who solved the Larssen kidnapping with his unusually powerful sense of smell)/Judge Beeny adventure?

*Is Judge Francisco Judge Dredd 2.0? Is he the ideal/iconic judge for the modern Mega City One?

*Did you read this story as it was being released? I imagine that this reads very differently in serial format.

DOUGLAS: Good questions! I think there've been a lot of terrific/scary interrogation scenes in the series over the years--maybe to the point where it's almost a cliché--but Wagner rarely pulls a Zero Dark Thirty: the torture in "Total War" yields nothing of value, Dredd and De Gaulle get nothing but corrosive enmity out of their respective humiliating grillings of each other in "The Executioner" and "The Interrogation," etc.

Is there a Dredd 2.0? That's been a big question for a long time, too--Kraken was obviously one candidate, Rico II is another, and I really like Ewing's suggestion in an interview a few weeks ago that as far as he's concerned it's Giant Jr. Francisco, though, seems like another kind of character altogether; as we can see from the way Dredd treats the media in "Fifty-Year Man" and "Mutieblock," neither of them really has any patience for the way the other does things.

I actually didn't read any of this volume as it was being serialized (with the exception of "The Spirit of Christmas"). I read 2000 AD weekly--or as often as I could find copies, which rarely showed up weekly at whatever American comic book store I was frequenting at the time--from Prog 253 or so (smack in the middle of "The Apocalypse War") until around Prog 1350, at which point I moved across the country and the weekly issues' spotty availability became non-availability. I think the only issues I was able to pick up over the next few years were actually the ones almost immediately after this volume: #1637-1639, with Gordon Rennie and Paul J. Holden's "It Came from Bea Arthur Block" (because Bea Arthur, that's why). ...And then when Wagner was announced as writing a long storyline that started with #1740, right around the time I started this blog, I got back on board, and have been following it ever since. Boy was that ever a good idea.


A quick bibliographical note: This volume collects 42 episodes from about a two-year span. The as-yet-unreprinted material that ran during this time includes the Gordon Rennie-written serials "Judgement" and "Road Stop," the conclusion of Ian Edginton and D'Israeli's time-travel trilogy, a bunch of Robbie Morrison-written one-offs, and the Wagner/Paul Marshall ten-parter "The Ecstasy," which is one of those "sometimes Homer nods" situations.

Thanks again to Jamaal! Next week: back to the Low Life, with Mega-City Undercover 2.


  1. "As we careen toward the end of this blog"

    Please say it isn't so.

    Dredd Alert: A daily dose of Dredd-verse comics

  2. It was a darn good book and the follow up is even stronger. Do you know if there are any plans for collecting later stories? As far as I can tell Tour of Duty Backlash is the most recent material collected.

  3. Dave: I've only got a couple of books left! (And as much as I'm enjoying doing the blog, I _do_ have some other projects in mind.) But there's your very promising new blog to look forward to...

  4. Kid Kyoto: "Tour of Duty: Mega-City Justice" is indeed the most recent material that's been collected, but "Day of Chaos: The Fourth Faction" comes out mid-February in the U.K.

  5. I've heard good things about Day of Chaos, I may have to break down and order from the UK.