Sunday, July 31, 2011

The Complete Case Files 05

(Reprints: Judge Dredd stories from 2000 AD Prog 208-267, 269-270)

This week, I've got the honor to be joined by the mighty Tucker Stone of The Factual Opinion fame!

WOLK: Ah, here we go--the volume where "Judge Dredd" really started to live up to its potential (halfway through, anyway). Also the volume where our action hero commits genocide.

Looking at this volume as a whole, the structure of '81-'82-era Dredd becomes a lot clearer: John Wagner and Alan Grant had a couple of big stories in mind, they wanted them to be drawn by a single artist, and they had to get them done way in advance so that there'd be time to get them drawn. "Judge Death Lives" is the longest complete Dredd story Brian Bolland ever drew, at 32 pages. But Bolland was very slow, and they had to buy him some time; hence the series of "Mega Rackets" two-parters. I can imagine Wagner and Grant trying to brainstorm cop-show clichés that they could riff on for twelve pages: "Numbers games!" "Hit men!" "The Mafia!" "Stookie glanders!" "'Stookie glanders'?" "I don't know, you tell me. I just made that up." (That's the only really inspired story in that sequence; I love the way Ian Gibson draws the meek little stookies.)

And then Carlos Ezquerra's return to Dredd for a 25-part story had to be given some serious lead time, so we got the "Block Mania" sequence that looks like it's going to hit its peak and subside, and instead keeps building until it tears open into "The Apocalypse War." (As it turns out, Ezquerra didn't quite make it all the way through--#268 had a reprint, and the last couple of episodes ran in black and white instead of beginning with a two-page color center-spread--but he also drew the two episodes following "The Apocalypse War," and 31 more over the following year. Note also that he stops drawing Dredd covers for this sequence after #256.) Ezquerra seems now like the classic early Dredd artist alongside Bolland and maybe McMahon, and he created the look of the character, but his only published Dredd stories before "The Apocalypse War" were way back in Progs #5 and 10.

Ezquerra totally nails this story, though--cranking up the tension and the scale of its frantically escalating acts of violence from episode to episode, pulling off crazy storytelling tricks without breaking stride. (The no-filled-in-black-areas trick he adopts for the flashbacks is blunt, simple and effective.) He doesn't do pretty, the way Bolland and Steve Dillon and a few of the other artists here do; his lines look like they're cut into the paper with a knife dripping mud.

Grant and Wagner start twisting their own knife as soon as this story starts, too. British boys' comics had a tradition of the brave warriors defending their land against the Hun or its Russian equivalent, but every venal thing the Sov-Blok does turns out to be something Dredd's perfectly capable of doing too. That's signaled from the very first episode, where the one-eyed Russian general sneers "The people? What have they got to do with it?"--and on the next page, Dredd snaps "The citizens? What makes you think they'd be interested?" Plus, it's a story about genocide with comedy relief interludes--the Walter-and-Maria slapstick routines, the Country Joe-type folksinger getting splattered by a missile.

More broadly, I love the way "The Apocalypse War" operates within the overall run of the series: the end of the war is presented as "well, that's over, we don't have to worry about that again, let's start rebuilding." Like you can just nuke Moscow and that ends that problem. "We begin bombing in five minutes," and so on. And then it keeps coming back to bite Dredd and Mega-City One in the ass, over and over--notably in "The Doomsday Scenario," and now again in "Day of Chaos." Contrast the end of it with the resolution of "Judge Death Lives," too: the spirits of millions of victims crying out for vengeance ("we didn't deserve to die!")... and, of course, Dredd has now effectively done exactly the same thing as the Dark Judges.

Anyway: almost 700 words and I haven't even gotten to "gaze into the fist of Dredd" yet. Take the mic, Tucker!

STONE: I've been fascinated by what I'd heard about the mega arcs of Dredd before, but I went into reading this the first time with no real idea how they were set up or played out, and so had no idea that the conclusion of Block Mania was going to initiate the beginnings of The Apocalypse War. I have to wonder--is this what the Batman editors were trying to achieve years ago when Cataclysm gave way to No Man's Land? It's always seemed to me that No Man's Land was an attempt to incorporate post-apocalyptic survival and a Mega City One style immediate brand of justice, but to see how Wagner and Grant (and if I'm understanding the history of this stuff correctly, the omnipresent editorial scythe of Pat Mills) expertly managed to deliver a conclusion that drastically changes tone and plot direction while still seeming totally organic to the story they've been telling (doesn't it seem like our Russian spy's plan places a lot of faith in the natural tendency of Meg City's citizenry to behave like selfish nihilists? Isn't that faith completely justified?)--it's utterly brilliant storytelling, and it makes the gigantic, absurd ex machina's that those Batman stories rested on seem like training wheels.

Let me back up for a second though, because while Apocalypse may be what sucked me in the most, I would like to single out a couple of things, the first being Colin Wilson's work on Diary of a Mad Citizen (outside of the core Dredd guys, Wilson is a great go-to for the perfect Dredd jaw, and the look on that robot secretary's face in the final panel is priceless) and the second is the Hotdog Run, which is one of my favorite iterations of the Dredd-schools-the-newbies story that seems to come up so often. I don't know how much of the recent Dredd stuff you've read, but the Cursed Earth portions that I've checked out in the recent UK collections published under the Tour of Duty banner have been absurdly entertaining, and a real testament to how Dredd's absolutism works when he's outside the immediate back-up forces he can call upon in Mega City One. When he decides to hold the line in a Cursed Earth stand-off, it has a Butch Cassidy/Wild Bunch quality that's quite appealing, and I might even extrapolate it further--it's all under the same umbrella of faith-in-strength, faith-in-my-righteousness that sees Dredd through in the Judge Caligula story or the Apocalypse War. (And that comes up later, in that story where everybody gets infected by fatal mushrooms.) It's what Wagner seems to be playing with in the current Tour of Duty stuff--Dredd doesn't care that he has cancer, but he is bothered that his holy justice does such a disservice to his distant, mutated cousins. It's a level of emotional complexity that I think Wagner has grafted onto the character in recent years, but there is a retroactive precedent to be argued for in these early stories: here's Dredd at the heart of his successes, the apex of his brand of justice. He does always survive these fights, he does make the right, horrible calls when he has to, and that's because he hasn't become an old man yet. When you compare the moment where he puts millions to death here (or when he exterminates traitors in a shallow grave) to the moment where he puts billions to death in Judgment Day, there's a genuine sense that you're watching a different person's behavior--he did what he had to do in Apocalypse War, and he was proud to do it not because it involved killing people or being right or even winning, but because doing what one has to do (whatever the circumstances dictate that being) is what Judge Dredd is born, trained and ready to do. Nowadays, there is a sense of burden to his choices--the burden of being alive, of knowing that no one else could bear up underneath it all. 

I've gotten a bit off track here, haven't I? Talk to me Douglas: am I still in the stadium? Should I consider different avenues of employment? Would your Dredd and my Dredd get along?

WOLK: Your Dredd and mine would totally make out.

I've read a bunch (not all) of Tour of Duty, and I really like it. But I suspect there's always a backhandedness to any time Wagner and Grant show us Dredd as a hero who triumphs because of his absolutism--the big picture of Tour of Duty is that it's about Dredd getting assigned to oversee a forced relocation camp for genetic inferiors. Even his softening on civil rights, excuse me, mutant rights issues isn't because of any realization of what's right: he changes his perspective only when it affects him personally, when he discovers he's got mutant relatives. (And it's kind of great that he is an old man now. His body's starting to fall apart on him, he's making some questionable calls and grumbling about his co-workers' ideas, his seniority has gotten him appointed to a position of authority that doesn't suit him at all, etc.)

Great call on "Cataclysm" --> "No Man's Land" echoing the structure of "Block Mania" --> "The Apocalypse War": I think this was the period when Dredd really clicked into being one big serial that could keep moving forward, however incrementally and episodically, instead of being a franchise that always had to revert to its classic formula eventually. The death of Judge Giant Sr. in "Block Mania" underscores that: it's not presented as a big dramatic turning point, it's just bang, his number's up, and that's what happens when you're a Judge.

You're right on about Orlok, too. Whatever it is he's got in that magic block-mania serum, it seems to work--the scene where finally Dredd loses his shit and announces that he's fighting for Rowdy Yates Block nicely inverts the usual "he's no ordinary man and nothing can break his resolve" formula. (Rowdy Yates--I had to look it up--was the character Clint Eastwood played on Rawhide.) Although "Judge Death Lives" gives us the classic "he's no ordinary man" moment: the "gaze into the fist of Dredd!" sequence. What a brilliant scene: metaphysics vs. brute force, and brute force wins.

I think there's a distinction between Dredd's mass slaughter in Judgement Day and here, though, and it's different from the one you're suggesting. I haven't read Judgement Day in a while, but as I remember the "unleash the nukes" moment is framed as desperate defense of humanity, and it's suggested that those cities were probably lost already anyway. What Dredd does in The Apocalypse War is straight-up political violence--no sense of proportionality or discrimination, just kill-'em-all. (Consider how the story ends if he doesn't nuke East Meg One, or doesn't nuke all of it: pretty much the same way. All he really has to do is destroy their supply base and get rid of the commanders, and MC1 wins.) I think that's why this is the moment that keeps resonating for the rest of the series, the one that turns Dredd into, arguably, a war criminal. (EDITED TO ADD: Duncan Falconer, over on Twitter, points out Garth Ennis's essay on Dredd's genocide.)

I'm pretty sure Pat Mills wasn't involved with the editorial side of 2000 AD at this point; Tharg, during the 1978-1987 period, was Steve MacManus, who deserves some kind of prize for talent-spotting. The second half of "The Apocalypse War" was the period where I first started picking up 2000 AD in earnest (having seen a couple of issues from a few years earlier)--I was in London, went to Forbidden Planet, and bought every issue they still had on the new racks. There was no other British "boy's comic" that was anywhere near this level in those days--Barry Mitchell's art on "The Synthetti Men" looks much more like everything else that was around at the time. (That's a Bolland cover, not Mitchell, a few lines below this, by the way.) That era of 2000 AD, though, had Alan Moore writing a ton of Future Shocks (huh, I thought, I'd better keep a lookout for this guy's stuff), Mills and Jesus Redondo doing Nemesis, Bryan Talbot developing very quickly, Ian Gibson and Massimo Belardinelli at the top of their game... and also The Mean Arena, but you can't win 'em all.

Gas face to whoever assembled this version of the material in this volume, though--there's some really bad reproduction, especially on the last chapter of "Block Mania," where some of the lettering is barely readable (and a lot of Brian Bolland's final Dredd story to date gets smeared, too).

So let me ask you this: a lot of what you've singled out about this period of Dredd has to do with its dramatic force and escalation. How do you feel about the slapstick and broad satire that keep turning up, even in the super-gritty parts of the story? To paraphrase Adorno, can there be comedy after East Meg One?

STONE: I helped set up a 2000AD focus group a few months ago, one that existed so that they (2000AD) could get a chance to speak with a bunch of American comics readers who weren't aware of 2000AD's output. It was an enlightening experience--validating some personal theories, shining a light on own presumptions, like that upcoming movie The Help, but more about Future Shocks--but the one specific instance that sticks out was a minor one, and that was one of the participants claimed to be uninterested in Dredd, saying "honestly, I just don't want to read about some supercop." And to a certain extent, I can understand what that guy was talking about--as long as you're not using that description to talk about Judge Dredd comics. For me, the undercurrent dynamic of Dredd that makes it so evergreen, the thing that keeps me invested even when those lessor artists or non-Wagnerian scribes come aboard is that sense of humor that you've brought up. It's the neverending pokes at America, or the way Dredd's world constantly animates that final, extreme conclusion of so many of this countries fantasies and ideals. You want to worship General Patton? East Meg One is where that worship reaches its fruition. You want to dress your kids in branded clothing and fast food advertisements while they slurp up 96 ounces of sugary shit? Hey man, the proles in Margaret Thatcher Block gotta come from somewhere.

And here's the thing, Douglas, here's why I keep coming back to this stuff: none of these gags and jokes and satire are totally fresh to Dredd, and a lot of them--specifically the ones where they're going after game shows, entertainment and pop culture--are that hard to come up with. What is hard to do, and what these stories keep pulling off, is being able to do it with seeming like an irritating teenager who just read Naomi Klein's No Logo. It's making stories that make fun of America without sounding like Adbusters, and that's hard as hell to do. Accomplishing all of that while blatantly embracing the absolute thrill (and it is Absolutely Thrilling!) of witnessing Dredd as he punches his fist through the heads of the same death worshipping fascists who stole my Danny away from me--that, for my money, is why these comics are such an incredibly huge success and have been one for so long. There's a near impossible alchemical mix of humor and pulse pounding action that's apparent in Dredd's best stories, and the Apocalypse War is a definitive blueprint of a "best Dredd story."

WOLK: It's true: one of the things I think is sort of amazing about Dredd is that it's a satire of American culture, by and for British people, and it's never short of material. I think one way to read "The Apocalypse War" is as a very darkly satirical riff on American militarism and paranoia--as the kind of heroic narrative of unprovoked attack from outside and righteous retaliation that Americans imagine. (But that's also the sort of narrative 2000 AD had been feeding its readers with a straight face a couple of years earlier, with "Invasion.")

Maybe the weirdest angle on that is the version of "The Apocalypse War" that Ron Smith drew. At the time, Judge Dredd was appearing in a weekly gag strip by Wagner, Grant and Smith in the Daily Star; three months after the war sequence ended in 2000 AD, they published a ten-panel version of it as a newspaper strip. Here's how it ends:

That's Reagan (etc.)-era America right there: "next time, we get our retaliation in first." An apocalypse with a punch line. Which brings us to next week, when I'll tackle the Daily Star Mega Collection, which assembles most of the first few hundred newspaper strips.

Sunday, July 24, 2011

The Complete Case Files 04

(Reprints Judge Dredd stories from 2000 AD Prog 156-207)

Yes, there's a gap between the third Case Files and this one, but not really. Judge Dredd didn't appear in 2000 AD #155, one of, I believe, only four issues he's missed. (The others were #1, #1100 and #1138; #268 included a reprint rather than a new story. Any others? EDITED TO ADD: Commenter Douglas, who is not me, points out that #351-352 were reprints too.) But there's a more significant break between volumes three and four. Somewhere in the middle of the "Judge Child" storyline, which began in #156 (dated March 15, 1980), John Wagner was joined by his housemate Alan Grant as co-writer of the Dredd feature; they'd write it (and a lot of other series--Strontium Dog, Robo-Hunter, ­Ace Trucking Co.) together for the next eight years.

(This interview with Grant, incidentally, is the most illuminating thing I've seen about how the Grant/Wagner writing partnership worked: "All dialog was acted out, each of us taking different parts. The entire
 script was handwritten, usually by whoever would be typing it up that night. We have never written a single script where one of us did the scenario and the other the dialog.")

Their first major collaboration, though, "The Judge Child," is by far the most uneven of the long Dredd storylines--a singleminded premise pursued through an increasingly baroque series of complications, with some episodes that push the plot forward and others that kick it out of the way as a nuisance. It's hard to discuss it in any way other than "and then this happens, and then this happens": it's not just episodic, it's a bunch of almost entirely unrelated stories with a Find the Person premise threaded through them.

It starts simply enough: Dredd is trying to find Owen Krysler, a precognitive mutant--or something--who's supposed to be very important to the future for handwaving psychic reasons but has inconveniently been kidnapped by Cursed Earth slavers. He thinks he's found Krysler in Faro's compound, but ends up getting the "Thank you Dredd! But our Judge Child is in another castle!" treatment.

So Dredd pursues an evil monk (EVIL MONK!), who's taken Krysler, to Texas City, where the Angel Gang kidnaps the kid again, having somehow upped their IQs enough to figure out that he's feeding Bunsen the answers to questions about the future. And then we get a middle-of-last-page caption--"that night the Angel Gang escaped from Earth on a hijacked space craft"--and "The Judge Child" abruptly turns into space opera, a form to which "Judge Dredd" is less than wholly suited.

There's a bit more handwaving at this point, but the gist is that Krysler is... somewhere out there in space, and Dredd is fully determined to get his man, even if he has to comb the universe. So an episode is devoted to Dredd meeting his spaceship's crew--including Judge Hershey, seen here for the first time. That episode is drawn by Brian Bolland, and so distant in look, tone and setting from the previous chapter of this serial that Bolland had drawn (the first one) that I can't help but wonder if they initially belonged to two entirely separate stories.  That leads to the Mike McMahon-drawn chapter with the alien cavemen, mostly told in rhyme, on which Dredd only appears on the final page. (Cover caption: "Dredd draws another blank in his search for the Judge Child," which is essentially advertising that the story doesn't actually move forward.)

The "Planet of the Body-Brokers" section is notable for using the "biochip" idea over a year before Rogue Trooper first appeared, but also introduces another concept-too-many, "oracle spice." ("The spice is said to give important knowledge to those who take it. With it we could find the boy," Dredd announces in a particularly awkward bit of expository dialogue. Or, you know, you could ask those precognitive Psi-Division types who got you into this mess?) "The Hungry Planet" is yet another Mike McMahon-drawn holding pattern; could it be that these chapters were being farmed out to a bunch of artists, designed to be run in whatever order they got turned in?

The "Battlefield 8"/Planet Agros sequence is one of those writing tricks that Wagner defaults to from time to time: applying a glib, TV-derived tone (specifically sports announcing and commercials) to something formally inappropriate (in this case ground war). And, after three weeks' worth of it, we get the "Thank you Judge Dredd! But the oracle spice with which you can allegedly find our Judge Child is in another castle!" treatment.

So on we go to the business with Murd the Necromancer and Sagbelly the sacred giant toad, and by this point Dredd really seems to have wandered into the wrong series: slightly parodic dark fantasy is not at all his métier. He finally gets his hands on some of the oracle spice, which just underscores the fact that he's spent a month and a half looking for the thing that he hopes will help him find the Judge Child rather than the Child himself. (Note that the oracle spice basically leads to another "another castle" pointer.)

By the time Bolland comes back for a couple of really nice-looking episodes (Lopez's spice vision of the giant toad with the moustache is creepy and hilarious, and so are the Ditkovian disembodied mouths of Prosser), Wagner and Grant seem to have given up on getting the plot to make any sense. The final act of the story comes down to a Western "showdown with the gang" scenario. The last episode, in particular, is a mess: the big action moment on the opening spread (Dredd throwing Junior Angel into the lava pit) has already been seen as the previous week's conclusion--for that matter, Dredd's passing sentence despite the fact that he's way outside his jurisdiction--and the final twist, in which Dredd decides that Krysler's evil from looking at him, and walks away after 150 pages of McGuffins and digressions, totally doesn't make sense. (Wouldn't he want to at least bring him back home instead of leaving him running around the galaxy?)

And so Grant and Wagner--with Bolland again--hang a lantern on the problem in "Block War," a six-pager that beats all of "The Judge Child" as far as I'm concerned. It's a very simple story, but it makes a great deal of what comes after it snap into focus: we see the Council of Five (at this time Quimby, Ecks, Pepper, McGruder--making her first appearance--and Griffin) discussing Dredd's role, and questioning his decisions. Dredd, we understand, is a leader in combat situations, but he's not an administrator; he's a street judge. And, in counterpoint to their conversation, we see the kind of block war that will eventually scale up into block mania, a year or so later; naming the blocks after Ernest Borgnine and Rita Tushingham gives a sense of just how many blocks there have to be for the naming conventions to get down to that level, too.

Thereafter, things return briefly to the scattershot format of brief stories about nutty things in Mega-City One. There are a couple of oddities among the lot: two one-offs with a writer credit to "Alvin Gaunt" (a.k.a. Alan Grant with Kelvin Gosnell), and "Knock on the Door," drawn by Ian Gibson under his "Emberton" pseudonym in what looks like a hell of a hurry (compare it to the much more fully rendered piece "The Nightmare Gun," a few episodes earlier). As it turns out, "Knock on the Door" was a last-minute substitution for an episode of "The Mean Arena" in #195, the same issue as Part 3 of "The Fink"--I think that was the first time there were two Dredd episodes in the same issue.

The longer stories, though, are the ones where the Wagner/Grant team start to click. "Otto Sump's Ugly Clinic" is a dumb idea pushed so far that it becomes kind of sublime--the punch line ("only the rich could afford to be ugly") is a coup de grâce. (That's a daring cover, too, for its time: note that Dredd isn't actually on it.) "The Fink" salvages an idea that got lost in the mayhem of "The Judge Child," and the artwork is Mike McMahon in top form: the looser and more rickety his line gets, the more fun it is to see his stuff. Also, it's the story that introduces Resyk, the facility in which dead citizens' bodies are broken down for useful chemicals. Clearly somebody cracked up over the line "we use everything but the soul."

"Pirates of the Black Atlantic," though--that's a really peculiar one. Is it: a) a grand pirate adventure with Dredd fighting a giant squid? Or b) a brutal, dark antinuclear screed (it is, of course, not an accident that the nuked block is named after Bob Oppenheimer)? I'm sorry, that was a trick question: the correct answer is c) a prequel to "The Apocalypse War." Although it does seem to be weirdly out of touch with realpolitik: the conclusion, in which the Sovs respond to the discovery that they'd struck at Mega-City One (through one of their agents disguised as a terrorist) by nuking part of their own city--basically to say they're sorry--is entirely unlike anything any military power has ever done, as far as I know. Whatever happened to fighting wars with five-man teams? That actually seems more believable.

Finally, we get "Unamerican Graffiti," the unprepossessing two-parter that introduced Marlon "Chopper" Shakespeare. (The conclusion was echoed by "Decade Later" from Brian Wood's series DMZ, but maybe it's inevitable for the conclusion of a "graffiti writer is finally caught by the law but gets his revenge after the fact" story.) Chopper turned out to be an unexpectedly durable character--he's survived at least twice when his writers intended to kill him off--and a great foil for Dredd.

The Angel Gang are lawless psychopaths, the Dark Judges upend the "protecting citizens from crime" argument, P.J. Maybe is a criminal mastermind; they all play against Dredd's essence one way or another. But the absolute core of Dredd's character is paternalistic authority: "I am the law." Chopper recognizes no authority of any kind; he's somewhere on the anarchistic end of libertarianism. All he wants to do is be free to ride his machine without being hassled by the Man, as The Wild Angels put it. He himself is no physical threat at all to Dredd, or really to anyone else--all he can do is make Dredd lose face, but that's what makes him dangerous to what Dredd represents.

Next time: if all goes well, Tucker Stone will join me for a conversation about The Complete Case Files 05, featuring "Block Mania" and "The Apocalypse War"!

Sunday, July 17, 2011

The Complete Case Files 03

(Reprints: Judge Dredd stories from 2000 AD Prog 116-154)

After the two long arcs of Volume 2, "Judge Dredd" reverses course again: most of this volume is very short stories, and nothing's longer than four episodes. The tone seems to be dumbed down a bit at first, too, and softened. Instead of the hilariously badass Dredd of "The Cursed Earth" and "The Day the Law Died," we get a gentle-hearted action hero with a tough-but-fair attitude: the star of Lawman of the Future, in other words. Five of the first six stories in here respectively end with Dredd cuddling an adorable moppet and deciding "she's suffered enough because of me," thinking about the cityblock escapee as one of "the sad cases, the ones that should never come before me," concluding that "sometimes even a Judge can be merciful," forgiving Walter and taking him back in, and having Walter declare that Dredd visits a little boy who failed out of the Academy every week and treats him just like a real son. That last one is just wrong.

Still, there's some enormously entertaining stuff in here. John Wagner was firing wildly at this point: some of the episodes this time are funny or thrilling or both, and expand Dredd's world considerably, while others are forgettable at best and risible at worst. (See, for instance, the one that starts with a talking cat getting Dredd's attention while he's on patrol and ends "Two days later a new law was passed--'the Dredd Act'--banning forever the use of animals for experimentation.") Occasionally, he was trying out ideas he'd refine later on: "New Year Is Cancelled" is another instance of Wagner's "we've hidden bombs all over Mega-City, can you find them all in time?" plot that would show up later in "The Big Bang Theory" and "Total War," and its evil megalomaniac child Albert Sherman is a much less funny rough draft of P.J. Maybe.

"Vienna," which opens this volume, is one of the cornerstones of Dredd's own backstory, or alternately one of its stumbling blocks: John Wagner, in an interview a few years ago, mentioned "Dredd's impossible niece" as one of the continuity problems he'd set for himself. Right: not only do Judges not tend to have family lives, but Rico was on Titan for twenty years, and Vienna looks to be about three or four. I vaguely remember that that gets explained eventually, but it's still a head-scratcher.

It's the next episode, "Cityblock 1," that turned out to be an endless wellspring of story material: the idea of 60,000-person apartment buildings named after 20th-century celebrities has turned up in nearly every Dredd story since then. (It's hard to believe that "Judge Dredd" had run for more than two years before Wagner got around to mentioning that, or inventing it.) There's a howler on the first page, when the narration mentions that people could spend their whole lives in their block, "from birth in the cityblock hospital to death in the cityblock crematorium"--when did this feature turn into Logan's Run? But Ron Smith promptly makes up for it with his precisely imagined shot of the block lobby, featuring a cinema showing "Fergee: The True Story." Now that's a quickie exploitation movie!

Smith's really the star of this volume, as far as art goes: he nails the design of both Otto Sump and Johnny Teardrop in "Sob Story," pulls off the sweep of "The Black Atlantic" (the first time Wagner really has some fun with the fascism inherent in Dredd, with its opening "crime blitz" scene of Judges showing up at random citizens' homes to see what laws they happen to be breaking), and totally sells the scope of the spider invasion in "The Black Plague." Either Smith specifically told Wagner that he wanted to spend a month or so drawing a zillion giant spiders, or he was a really, really good sport. Every time I see a story like that where an artist has to draw a single creature hundreds of times in every panel, I think of Carl Barks' story of nearly losing his mind drawing "The Lemming with the Locket."

Smith half-flubs the ending of "Father Earth" by burying its sight gag in another complicated layout that has no empty space to guide the eyes, but give him credit: he had to finish yet another story started by Brian Bolland, probably in a hurry. And he manages to cram a whole lot of plot into every page of this volume's single Pat Mills-written sequence, "The Blood of Satanus," which was perhaps an attempt to remedy the dangerously low people-getting-eaten-by-dinosaurs quotient in the middle of 2000 AD's second hundred issues. (It also features Dredd settling a conflict with his left fist, while yelling "Suck my kid glove, punk!" That's much more a Bill Savage line than a Joe Dredd line.)

We get to see Wagner consciously world-building here, setting up threads he'd play with later on, calling back to earlier throwaways, and inventing the culture of the Judges and Mega-City One. I'm pretty sure we hadn't seen any women judges before this volume--there's an unnamed one in "The Great Muldoon," another unnamed one in one panel of "The Invisible Man," and then the unlucky Harkness in "Death of a Judge," but after they appear it's not a surprise when Judge Anderson (not yet "Cassandra") strolls into the second episode of "Judge Death." "Jack Caldwell's Old-Fashion Umpty Candy" is mentioned in "The Invisible Man," several months before "Uncle Ump's Umpty Candy." (The "particle analyser" gag in the latter is the best joke in this volume; that's actually one of the first Dredd episodes I can imagine being published now.) And "Judge Minty," which inspired the fan film for which this is the impressive trailer, introduced the concept of the Long Walk.

Finally, right near the end of the book, we get its jewel, "Judge Death." It's the first multi-part Dredd story that Brian Bolland drew all of (the second and last was "Judge Death Lives," in fact). And it's got just about everything that this era of Dredd did well: a hilariously over-the-top concept played straight ("life itself was made illegal"), wild comedy in the context of serious adventure, casual but nonstop world-building (the "highly-strung" Psi-Judges!), excellent character design (aside from Death and Anderson, that DJ with the bugging-out-eyes glasses is fantastic; was he modeled on Buggles-era Trevor Horn, or did he prefigure him?), and a concluding twist that calls back to an earlier episode, and not a likely one: "Palais de Boing." Who'd have thought that one was going to turn out to be important later?

A brief word from our sponsor here: if you happen to be at Comic-Con this week, come to my panels! I've got "Page One" (on great first pages of comics, with Jen Van Meter, Greg Rucka and Carla Speed McNeil) Friday from 11 to 12 in room 32AB, "Is the Comic Book Doomed?" (with Mark Waid, Laura Hudson, Vijaya Iyer and Amanda Emmert) Saturday from 1:30 to 2:30 in room 24ABC, and "Watchmen: 25 Years Later" (with Len Wein, "Letter from a Democrat" artist John Higgins and "Lips Lazarus" artist Dave Gibbons) Sunday from 11 to 12 in room 7AB.

And, assuming I survive Comic-Con, I'll be back next week with the fourth volume of Complete Case Files, in which Alan Grant arrives as co-writer and we get "The Judge Child" and the first appearance of Marlon "Chopper" Shakespeare.

Sunday, July 10, 2011

The Complete Case Files 02

(Reprints: Judge Dredd stories from 2000 AD Prog 61-70, 73-76, 79-115)

It's fascinating how abruptly Dredd shifted from the "mostly short stories" format of the first half of vol. 1 to the "extended storylines" format. I don't know if somebody decided that the "fighting crime in Mega-City One" premise wasn't working, but just a couple of weeks after he gets back from the moon, he's sent off to the Cursed Earth for the first half of this volume, and as soon as he gets back the Judge Cal/"The Day the Law Died" storyline kicks off.

"The Cursed Earth" is a strange piece of work. For one thing, it's Pat Mills' single longest contribution to Dredd as a writer (although John Wagner pops up in the middle of it for a couple of episodes), and his most sustained piece of worldbuilding in the series--although it probably didn't add as much to the series overall as the six pages of "The Return of Rico." (The business with the final U.S. President, Robert L. Booth, being held in suspended animation does turn out to be mighty significant later, though. "Booth" is a nicely pointed last name for an American President, too.) It's got a whole lot of Action The Way Kids Like It; it's amazing how Mills is capable of shoehorning images of dinosaurs eating people into pretty much any context, even now. But give him credit: his story about a national park filled with cloned dinosaurs came out a solid 12 years before Michael Crichton's Jurassic Park. Even if they're cloned from, er, "DNA cells." 

We've gotten some requests for more pictures, so here you go, sport:

Mills' Dredd never really feels like Wagner's, though. In some ways, more power to him--nearly every other writer's Dredd feels like a watered-down imitation of Wagner's, and Mills definitely has his own voice. (Even Garth Ennis, Mark Millar and Grant Morrison, when they wrote Dredd, often seemed to be doing Wagner lite, and they're not writers you can ordinarily accuse of not having strong voices.) But a tiny thing that illustrates the difference is that Mills' Dredd exclaims "By Stomm!" all the time. Wagner's Dredd is more likely to say "Stomm!"--a curse, but not an oath sworn in the name of some sort of greater entity.

This is also the volume where "the complete case files" suddenly turn incomplete--the stories from progs 71, 72, 77 and 78, in which Dredd first encounters a war between McDonald's and Burger King partisans and then meets a bunch of mutated corporate mascots, are unreprintable, thanks to legal problems. Thank goodness we have the Internet. Honestly, they're not the best parts of the story, although it's pretty hilarious to see Brian Bolland's super-serious Mr. Peanut and Michelin Man. 

(And speaking of completeness: it'd have been nice to see the final few Walter the Wobot strips in this volume.)

The first big problem with "The Cursed Earth," though, is that it's built on a premise that falls apart if you think about it for eight seconds. Dredd, who has just come back from the moon, is assigned to transport a Blatant Plot Device--excuse me, the vaccine for the "2T(FRU)T" virus, whose name seems to have been devised in an "oh the hell with it, the kids won't care" moment--across the country. They can't send it by air, because all the airports are held by the "plague men." So of course they can't fly to, you know, five miles outside Mega-City Two's borders, or even get a head start on the distance by flying to Texas City, or any of that. They have to go overland all the way. This makes no sense.

Neither does their route, really. Somebody seems to have figured out that you wouldn't see Mount Rushmore the moment you crossed the Appalachians, and added an explanatory caption to Brian Bolland's hilarious image of the augmented Rushmore to the effect that it had been "moved to just outside Mega-City One"--talk about public works projects! Likewise, in "The Day the Law Died," it's explained that the Big Smelly is "the old Ohio River... it got so foul and polluted they had to concrete it over." Which would be a pretty funny idea if, say, Cincinnati were anywhere near close enough to New York to be part of Mega-City One. (And the joke would've worked just fine in the '70s if it were the East River!)

That brings up the big lost opportunity in "The Cursed Earth." Judge Dredd, as I tend to tell people I'm trying to describe it to, is (among other things) a smart, vicious satire of American culture by British people. So the "road trip across the country" format should yield lots of opportunities for satirizing bits of America that the feature can't get to when it's got a (mega-)urban setting. There's a hint of that in some chapters--the moment we get out of the Meg, we're instantly in a town called Deliverance, McMahon's image for "General Blood 'n' Nuts" is fantastic, and Wagner's lost "Burger Wars" sequence gets at Americans' ridiculous obsession with brand identities a little bit. But those possibilities mostly get lost: the Tweak sequence is as hamhanded a commentary on the U.S.'s legacy of slavery as anyone could devise, and at some point Mills seems to have decided "screw it, I haven't written about dinosaurs eating people in weeks." (To be fair: this stuff was written for eleven-year-old British boys, not aging American aesthetes.)

The figure that really fixes "The Cursed Earth" as a 1978 story is Dredd's guide, Spikes Harvey Rotten, the requisite slightly-behind-the-times punk rock caricature, with a name that nicely evokes both Lee Harvey Oswald and Johnny Rotten. Just for perspective's sake, note that the Sex Pistols played their final show (in Mega-City Two or thereabouts) three months before Spikes first showed up. And in case anybody missed the joke the first few times, four weeks into the story, Spikes gets himself a hand-grenade earring: "D'you think I look cute... like one of dem twentieth century punk rockers?" OKAY YES WE GET IT. See also "Punks Rule," at the end of the volume, in which punk fashion is again a sign of genuine sinister intent.

More grousing: Brian Bolland's amazing, of course, and Mike McMahon's stuff has its own rugged charm--though I like his later stuff much better than the early stuff--but having them alternate chapters in "The Cursed Earth" produces serious stylistic whiplash. That said, I also really like the look of the chapters Bolland and Dave Gibbons collaborated on; as I recall, they'd collaborated in some capacity before 2000 AD, and I wish they'd gotten to work together on Dredd more.

"The Cursed Earth" feels like it was largely structured ahead of time: "let's spend six months sending Dredd across the country, now let's see, what can he meet each week?" When Wagner takes over full-time again for "The Day the Law Died," though, the strip gets a much more seat-of-the-pants vibe, as if each episode were constructed leading up to a cliffhanger with no particular thought as to what was going to happen next. The opening premise there--"Dredd gets back home, but Caligula has taken over the city, frames him for murder and sends him into exile"--sets it up for more of a so-what-happens-next? thing. (Incidentally, he's "Judge Caligula" in the next-issue box at the end of "The Cursed Earth," and "Judge Cal" thereafter; wonder what happened there?)

So there are some bumpy transitions between episodes--the second one ends with Cal revealing to Judge Quincy that he's captured Dredd and has him in a crate, the third begins with a splash-page image of Dredd fighting Dredd ("It's a fight I can't win! How can I kill myself?"--yes, that's just the kind of Silver Age-ism Brendan McCarthy has to have loved drawing), then cuts to the manhunt for Dredd, and eventually gets around to showing us that Cal's got a Dredd robot, without actually explaining that that was the one in the crate. The pacing of the overall story seems strange, too: the "Dredd gets sentenced to Titan" thread has promise (I gather that Wagner went back to that well shortly before "Wilderlands," 15 years or so later), and gives Bolland a chance to recapitulate McMahon's indelible image of Rico's altered face, but Wagner doubles back from that possibility very quickly. And Cal announcing that he's sentencing the entire city to death seems like the climax of his madness, but it happens midway through the story and gets dispensed with fairly quickly.

For all its rickety construction and inconsistency, though, there's a mischievousness to "The Day the Law Died" that I love. Judge Pepper's selective credit-taking, Cal's revenge on Slocum, Judge Schmaltz's protracted death scene: there's a lot of stuff here that might fly over the heads of its intended audience, or gets at the ultraviolent tropes of boys' comics from really weird angles. Not to mention, you know, Caligula. I'm guessing that the Klegg and Fergee have to be jokes about cultural figures that I would've known about as an adult in England in 1978; if anybody can explain them, please fill me in. It's also neat to see the first significant chunk of Dredd artwork by Ron Smith, maybe the most underrated early Dredd artist; it doesn't yet have the relaxed clarity he'd develop a couple of years later (his fancy layouts get in the way of storytelling), and his characters still look a little too posed, but his character work is already dead-on.

Finally, after Cal is dispatched and the personality-less Judge Griffin is installed as Chief Judge, things return to non-epic "normalcy." After three extended storylines, though, the final six episodes this time--the one-off, Bolland-drawn "Punks Rule," the two-part "The Exo-Men" and the three-part "The DNA Man"--seem almost truncated. "The Exo-Men," in particular, reads like a leftover from the pre-Luna era, and its routine about a gullible, bleeding-heart "Citizens' Committee for Compassion for Criminals" being taken advantage of by hardened bad guys is about as subtle as a latter-day Steve Ditko comic. Also, Brett Ewins' artwork really doesn't work for Dredd--he plays it as a comedy, which it sort of is, but it's the kind of comedy that depends on underselling the joke.

Next time: the third volume of the Case Files brings us the first appearance of Judge Death, as well as more of Pat Mills' dinosaurs eating people!

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."