Sunday, July 3, 2011

The Restricted Files 01

(Reprints: Judge Dredd stories from 2000 AD Summer Special 1977, 2000 AD Annual 1978-1985, 2000 AD Sci-Fi Special 1978-1984, Dan Dare Annual 1979-1980, Judge Dredd Annual 1981-1985)

Part of the reason I picked this peculiar order for the Judge Dredd books--organized by earliest not-duplicated-by-the-Case-Files story in each volume--was to get the worst over with as early as possible. And this collection of Dredd stories that appeared outside 2000 AD proper during its first seven years is the worst of all the Dredd books I've read: it has its okay moments, but some of these pieces are just painfully embarrassing to look at. "Completism" means having to say you're sorry. I'm sorry.

Which is not to say that this volume isn't interesting for somebody as deeply engaged with this stuff as I am. The thing that makes the bad early stories terrible is the same thing that makes them fascinating, which is that the people assigned to churn them out didn't yet have any idea of what made "Judge Dredd" work, from the details of its satirical but meticulously consistent world-building to the basic tone and pace of good Dredd stories.

A lot of the artists on these early stories also hadn't worked out a visual approach that meshed with Dredd, to put it kindly. Exhibit A is the very first story in here, a six-pager called "The Judges' Graveyard," drawn by Kevin O'Neill and published in a 1977 2000 AD Summer Special, at a time when 2000 AD itself had only been around for a few months. It's fascinating as evidence that O'Neill didn't spring into existence as the brilliant artist of Nemesis and The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen and so on: there was a time when he was actually terrible. The fancy-looking gun Dredd shoots in this story is the only thing that really looks like the work of O'Neill as we know him; Dredd, on the other hand, doesn't even look like the character as we know him.

The rock-bottom piece, though, is Malcolm Shaw and Mike McMahon's "Videophones." McMahon apperas to have drawn most of it with his feet (there are a couple of panels that have a bizarre "psychedelic" effect, for no clear reason), the story's a dumb mess, and the machine lettering makes it look really awful. McMahon also draws "Whitey's Brother," written by Steve Moore, a.k.a. the guy who taught Alan Moore how to write comics; the point of historical interest here is that it's a sequel to "Judge Whitey," the first published Dredd story.

The first real signs of life come from "The Purple People Breeder," written by one "William Nilly" (cough) and drawn by Brendan McCarthy under the name "Subliminal Kid." It's still fairly far off tone-wise (Dredd doesn't tend to conclude cases with a left hook, as he does here), but McCarthy draws the weird android/alien character who's the villain of this piece with obvious relish. McCarthy and Brett Ewins don't acquit themselves quite as well in the following story, "Dr. Panic," and the anonymous writer doesn't really get it either--Dredd claims that "anti-caffeine laws forbid the use of synthi-caf." (In the next story, Dredd notes "I get by on soybeef and synthi-caf like the rest of the citizens.") There's also a line about a "sudden rush of dead finks," which has to be a Brian Eno joke...

"Ryan's Revenge"--O'Neill drawing again, writer unknown--is notable as the first full-color Dredd story (and it appeared in a Dan Dare Annual, of all places). There's a Mayor Amalfi in here; I'll be curious to see if he appears anywhere else. "The Billion Credit Caper" seems have been Alan Grant's first Dredd story (it came out in June, 1979, eight months or so before he started co-writing the regular Dredd feature with John Wagner), and he's trying a little too hard--Don Uggie returns, Max Normal shows up singing "Best Dressed Chicken In Town," and there's a Wagner-style parody of "Y.M.C.A."--but better to try too hard than too little.

Wait, did I say "Videophones" was the worst? No, that'd be "Mega-Miami," from the 1980 2000 AD Annual (therefore probably published in late 1979). David Jackson's art is marginally competent, but the uncredited story has some disastrous flaws among its many infelicities. One is the nasty-spirited gag involving "rustbacks," i.e. illegally imported Mexican robots (with wacky Mexican accents, no less): eww. Another is the plot thread that involves Walter being convinced to put knockout drops in Dredd's "soyacoffee" (that would be synthi-caf, wouldn't it?), then finding out that they were actually cyanide--except, as Dredd announces when he shows up alive, "you forgot about my built in 'poison probe,' Walter." Oh, yes, the "poison probe" that has never been mentioned before or since.

On top of that, the premise of the story is that Mega-City One extends all the way to "Mega-Miami." Wagner has noted in an interview that that was a headache to deal with, and that "Alan and I wrote the Apocalypse War to shrink it again." (I always think of the Big Meg extending an unspecified distance from New York--maybe as far as Philadelphia or even Washington, but certainly no more than that. Of course, there are some geographical oddities to Mega-City One in "The Day the Law Died" too, but we'll get to those next week.

"Christmas Party" is a total anomaly: it's a gag strip where Dredd meets Tharg and the rest of the cast of 2000 AD, published in a 1980 Dan Dare Annual and involving the casts of "Dan Dare" and "Strontium Dog," among others, but it's set during Dredd's tenure on the moon, meaning two years or so earlier. Was it just sitting around unpublished? What's the deal here?

"The Greatest Story Ever Told" is the first story here that feels like genuine Dredd, partly because it's the first one that looks good. It's drawn by Steve Dillon, and it's a bit of a sequel to "The Day the Law Died," prominently involving Fergee--although here he's called Fergie, so apparently someone wasn't paying close enough attention. It's written by Grant, like the story that follows it: "The Case of the Urban Gorillas," again featuring intelligent gangster apes, as well as the first named block of this book, Mickey Dolenz Block. (Another interesting thing: even during the period when they were writing "Judge Dredd" together in 2000 AD, Grant and Wagner wrote almost all of these additional stories separately.)

Then we get three stories in a row from the 1981 Judge Dredd Annual, all by Wagner with Mike McMahon, who'd either gotten a lot better in three years or got to take advantage of better deadlines and color (or both). "Compulsory Purchase" is the best of the lot, a variation on the "Dredd enters an innocent person's life and screws it up completely" formula that Wagner occasionally adopts. "The Fear That Made Milwaukee Famous" has a sly bit of worldbuilding: that the nuclear bomb that destroyed Milwaukee was actually an American bomb, thanks to "a crazy signal error."

Grant wrote "The Sweet Taste of Justice" under the name "Staccato"--a one-joke thing about Judges intercepting a shipment of "white powder" (i.e. sugar). "The Alien Zoo" (script credit to Wagner in the front of the book, "Howard/Tharg" in the story itself--was it heavily editorially rewritten?) might be the only full-color Dredd story Brian Bolland has drawn, but doesn't have a lot going for it otherwise.

Wagner and McMahon contributed three full-color stories to the 1982 Judge Dredd Annual, too, all of them nice-looking if formulaic one-offs, though I did crack up at Big Lard Ringner's name and "Citizen's arrests are illegal, citizen--you're under arrest!" McMahon draws a space vampire as a blob of white-out speckled with orange and blue, which is a good strategy for using color but not, it turns out, terribly useful for storytelling.

It's around this period, though, that Wagner and Grant start getting more interested in building on their earlier stories. "The Tower of Babbil" (drawn by Casanovas in an "inkwash" style that looks like color art half-toned to black and white) follows up on "Pirates of the Black Atlantic" and the running "munce" gag. Grant and Ian Gibson's "Law of the Jungle"--whose colors look a lot like the coloring on McMahon's stories, and whose linework seems to have been banged out in a hurry by Gibson--dispenses with Don Uggie and his gang for good (apparently).

Wagner and Carlos Ezquerra's "The Big Itch" is a very silly follow-up to "The Apocalypse War"; their "Behold the Beast" riffs on "The Day the Law Died" and lets us see Ezquerra's version of Rico. The third of their Judge Dredd Annual 1983 pieces, on the other hand, could've run at any time in the past 30 years; "It's Happening on Line 9" is your standard-issue psycho-killer-plus-glib-talk-show-host story.

And then we get one of the true oddities of the Dredd bibliography: "Block-Out at the Crater Bowl," a 1983 story drawn by John Byrne at the peak of his fame. I can't think of many other Dredd stories drawn by artists who'd already made their name in American comics but hadn't drawn British comics yet. It's a perfectly likeable showcase for Byrne--nothing special, but any time Wagner writes a sports announcer, he's in comfortable territory ("Let's hope we don't see a repetition of the violence that's marred the past eleven Crater Bowl games!"), and the conflation of quiz bowl and the Super Bowl is a pretty funny idea. Too bad Byrne, faced with having to draw a bunch of crowd scenes, solves the problem by drawing the people as a bunch of tiny little circles.

After that, most of the rest of this volume is decent, unspectacular Dredd stories--not particularly attached to the continuity of the weekly serial, largely in color (if I recall correctly, in 2000 A.D., only the first two pages of Dredd's stories were in color at this point), reliant on standard tropes for the series. We get Dredd vs. a monster that's menacing citizens (Grant and Robin Smith's "The Beast in 24B"), Dredd vs. a fatal game show (Wagner, Grant and Cliff Robinson's "The Booby Prize"), Dredd vs. mutated Cursed Earth creatures (Wagner and Ezquerra's "Tarantula"), Dredd vs. a bizarre sporting event (Wagner, Grant and Ezquerra's "The Eat of the Night"). "The Other Slab Tynan" makes reference to time travel being "perfected" at some point in the future; "The Big Bang Theory" uses the "there are more nukes hidden in the city" plot device that shows up again later in, I believe, "Total War."

In other words, the final third of the book is unobjectionable filler, written by the two people who best understood Dredd and his world. That's better than the objectionable filler of its first third. Even so, it's obvious that the sheer volume of Dredd product that Wagner and Grant were expected to come up with was more than they could comfortably handle at that point--you can just about sense them overheating.

There we go; it's all uphill from here! Next week, it's on to the Case Files vol. 2, with "The Cursed Earth" and "The Day the Law Died."

7 comments:

  1. The "Howard/Tharg" credit on "Alien Zoo"...

    This was the centre of a "Tharg and his droids" story in the weekly. For some reason script robot John Howard (a Wagner pseudonym) had to write a Judge Dredd strip at Wembley Stadium in front of a huge crowd,, which turned out to be "alien zoo" (with Bolland illustrations popping up on the replay screen), but "lost his nerve" and made such a hash of it that Tharg had to finish it. Howard quit as Judge Dredd writer and was replaced by script robot T. B. Grover (another Wagner pseudonym).

    Exactly what bit of 2000AD office politics this was an in-joke about I have no idea. Maybe Wagner did get upset about one of his scripts being rewritten editorially, or maybe Alan Grant was just taking the piss out his housemate and his pseudonyms.

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  2. Great blog - I look forward to reading more. Early Dredd is a bit of a quandary as you rightly point out. I started reading Dredd with prog 195 - "The Fink" and "A knock at the door". Going back as a collector and finding all these earlier stories with maria and walter was a bit disconcerting!

    You're right to say this collection features the worst of the early Dredds (though more forgivable than the lows of the 90s, where there was no excuse of "finding the character" for Millar et al. :)


    However, I think the McMahon/Ezquerra colour tales are real gems - "The Big Itch" may be silly, but that's its strength - "I've got them.I'm just not scratching"! McMahons colour work here is pretty much the pinnacle of Dredd art for me. "It's happening on line 9" is standard, but I'd argue it set the standard - its very grim reading for a kids comic, yet still sparkles with Wagners satire and silliness. Reading it as a kid was pretty shocking.

    I dont get the sense that Wagner is stretching himself here - if anything, he seems to have upped a gear for the annual tales in comparision to the weekly stuff that was concurrent - I always felt like these tales had been set aside especially to benefit from the annuals plusher production. Maybe I'm just a sucker for plush production!

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  3. oh boy, I'm going to have to disagree pretty strongly of your assessment of this one as "the worst Dredd". Sure you've got plenty ropey out-of-character filler pieces, but most of them are weird enough to make them interesting, certainly more interesting than say, some of the 90s dreck.

    And amongst them, the gems... Amongst early Dredds, some of these annual stories are the ones that stuck with me the most, and upon re-reading them they hold up pretty well - The Fear that Made Milwaukee Famous is creepy as hell, Compulsory Purchase is a great Mega City story, and the giant tarantula story is full on action adventure.

    I'd actually say Restricted Files 2 was a weaker volume - filler of a more even (and less weird)category, but lacking the gems that make this collection special.

    I do hate Walter the Robot though, but that's kind of his point.

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  4. The synthi-caf gaffe was explained later, very pleasingly.

    Synthi-caf was banned and replaced by Synthi-synthi-caf, which people still called synthi-caf.

    I think I remember that they stuck Titan around Jupiter, rather than the more traditional Saturn...

    Papering over these continuity cracks is quite a fun challenge.

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  5. Great stuff. Keep up the good work.

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