Sunday, May 27, 2012

The Pit

(Reprints Judge Dredd stories from 2000 AD Progs 970-999)

When it ended in mid-1996, The Pit was just shy of being the longest Judge Dredd storyline to date: 30 episodes to Necropolis-and-countdown's 31, heavily teased before its appearance (especially in the as-yet-unreprinted "Bad Frendz" sequence). It was a new approach for the series and for John Wagner, and a pretty terrific one; it was a down-to-earth antidote to the stumbles and overreaches of "Wilderlands." Even so, it doesn't quite seem to have the high reputation that earlier and later long storylines do. It has its admirers, but it's no Necropolis or Apocalypse War or The Day the Law Died or Total War or Tour of Duty, conventional wisdom has it.

Why is that? One possible explanation is that The Pit is the least visually appealing of all the Dredd epics. It starts out strongly, with Carlos Ezquerra in solid if not quite top form, but he drifts away fairly quickly, and only returns for three episodes in the middle and another three near the end. Colin MacNeil's episodes seem to have been turned around very quickly. Lee Sullivan had barely drawn Dredd before, Alex Ronald had only handled him in the G-rated Judge Dredd: Lawman of the Future series, and they really weren't ready for prime time yet. (See, for instance, Ronald's art on the second episode of "True Grot," in particular--it's almost nothing but shortcuts to avoid drawing anything tricky. He could do much better, and by the time of "Death Becomes Him" two years later he'd hit his stride, but in "The Pit" he's setting some kind of record for drawing characters' backs.)

"The Pit" also has a very different approach to what makes a "major Dredd story" from any other Wagner had written, although that's what I like so much about it. Once again, it's about the relationship between Dredd-as-the-law and the city, but this time it's focused on a particular detail of the city, and concerned with the general fallibility of person-as-law. There's not an individual bad apple to blame, like Cal or Kraken: nearly everyone in this story is corrupt to one degree or another, even Dredd. (When Warren complains that Dredd's got one law for DeMarco and another for him, he's basically right.) Everyone's acting fishy all the time, whether or not they're actually guilty. Dredd's the only one who believes that Lee's not lying about his gun having jammed--even DeMarco stands by Lee more out of solidarity than anything else.

DeMarco is Wagner's best invention in The Pit. She's a great character: a super-competent, stand-up cop who's convinced that her one vice is okay because it shouldn't be such a big deal. And she's right by the standards of everyone who's reading her story, and dead wrong by the standards of the subculture that's not just her subculture but the one she's chosen out of virtue when it would have been to her advantage to do otherwise. The Judge system's insistence on celibacy makes sex a bit like Bokononism in Kurt Vonnegut's Cat's Cradle: the thing that is utterly forbidden and that everyone does anyway. Think of the other Judges who've had liaisons of one kind or another: Fargo, Giant Senior... do people like Guthrie join the Wally Squad just so they can get laid without going to Titan?

The one image in The Pit that really rubs me the wrong way is the Mark Harrison cover, above, from Prog 987--not because it's cheesecake-y, but because that kind of cheesecake is off-register for the DeMarco we've seen, and because she seems to have gone up about five cup sizes all of a sudden. Compare it to Ezquerra's version of DeMarco in the early chapters, like the image below: she's buff like an athlete, not bombshell-curvy, and she's not conventionally pretty. 

The first time we see DeMarco with Warren and understand what her "little secret" is, it's a shock to see her as a sexual entity--and it's a genuine accomplishment to defer that as long as Wagner and Ezquerra did, given that she's a young woman character in a fairly conventional adventure comic book. Anderson has had a "check out my butt!" vibe, to one extent or another, from the beginning; even Castillo, a year before The Pit, had an obligatory sequence early on in which she realizes that she might have a crush on Dredd. (To be fair, I don't think Hershey's ever been particularly sexualized, aside from that one "undercover" image of her in "The Candidates," and that's supposed to come off as creepy.)

As in Wilderlands, Wagner's juggling a whole lot of subplots and individual character arcs, but he manages to catch most of them this time. The big story is the "gruff old cop goes in to clean out a dirty precinct" plot, but we also have threads devoted to DeMarco, Lee, Buell, Warren, Guthrie, Argew, Priest, Patel and his father, and the suspicious circumstances around Rohan's death, as well as a few I'm probably forgetting. Most of them do get to resolve somehow--it's a fine Wagnerian touch that Rohan turns out to have died as an accidental side effect of judicial corruption, rather than to have been set up. The Fonzo Bongo business, though, seems grafted on at the end to provide a big action finale and let the characters who need to get killed get themselves killed. That's where Wagner really cuts corners: faced with the problem of explaining how Bongo's going to start a riot, he resolves it with a sign that says "RIOT TONITE 2000 HOURS SHARP - GREAT LOOTING OPPORTUNITIES." Funny, but a transparent bit of hand-waving.

Some of the characters who are supposed to be transformed thanks to Dredd's presence are simply declared to have changed: the story doesn't have quite enough room to set up the details of Buell's ascent, for instance. The joke is clear--Dredd, as the brilliant coach who comes in from the outside, is able to see great potential for loserly Buell in SJS because Buell's a friendless sadist--but we don't really get a sense of how Buell's found his calling, either. (That would come later.)

For all its ambition and all its entertainment value, though, the other reason that The Pit isn't quite up in the top rank of Dredd stories is that it's one of the few long serials that's had almost no lasting repercussions. 301 gets cleaned up, Bongo gets dealt with, and then Dredd goes back to his routine. It's mostly notable for the introduction of a few recurring characters, particularly DeMarco, in whom Wagner clearly saw further potential. We'll be seeing a lot of her over the next few months, including the "Doomsday" period when she takes over Castillo's "P.O.V. character for Megazine strips during a crossover while Dredd is otherwise occupied" role. Once Wagner wrote her out, she even got her own short-lived strip in the Megazine.

There's also one particular moment of The Pit I'd like to single out for praise, below. Could it be? 

Yes indeed: it appears to be the sequence in which Judge Dredd, considered as a whole, after 19 years and 6000 or so pages, finally passes the Bechdel Test!

(Now, I could be a spoilsport and point out that the Bechdel Test, as it's usually interpreted, requires the women who talk to each other about something besides a man to be named characters, and that Judge Big Mohawked Blonde, even though she briefly appears in another episode too, never gets a name. But even so, The Pit squeaks through on the strength of a later sequence in which DeMarco and Castillo discuss how Castillo's doing after the fight and how DeMarco knows the jig is up since Castillo's appearance was a little too convenient, before the conversation turns back to the subject of Warren.) 

(EDIT: I stand corrected! Lots of entirely reasonable earlier examples in this thread.)

A trainspotting note: the Hamlyn edition, pictured up top, has the exact same contents as the current Rebellion version, but beats it hands down, just because it's bigger--and this was the period when, I believe, 2000 AD's page dimensions were as big as they've ever been. Hamlyn's version also has a cover (by the underused Jim Murray) that, as nondescript as it is, at least features Dredd prominently. The Colin MacNeil cover on the Rebellion edition, above--which originally ran on Prog 978, with the awful cover-line "Dark Justice!"--makes The Pit look like a Judge Giant-focused story, which it really isn't.

Next week: Mega-City Masters 01, an artist-focused collection of short Dredd stories that span several decades.

Sunday, May 20, 2012

Blind Justice

(Reprints Judge Dredd stories from 2000 AD Winter Special 1994, 2000 AD Progs 953, 959-963, 1031-1032 and 1053, and Judge Dredd Megazine #3.40)

Given the recent suggestion that IDW's going to be publishing a "complete Brian Bolland Judge Dredd" book--and it's hard for me to believe that's exactly accurate, especially since we're unlikely to see "Soul Food" in there--it's worth noting that Blind Justice is another one of the relatively rare Dredd collections devoted specifically to the work of a particular artist. This one collects the bulk of the episodes John Burns painted in the mid-'90s, which doesn't make it all that bulky. (Burns actually drew one other Megazine episode in the same period as "Sleaze," "Stone Killer" in #3.43, but it doesn't appear here, and isn't that good anyway.) The back pages' "Holiday Special," "Lonesome Dave" and "Horror House" seem somewhat filler-y in this context, too; they're all a kind of dry comedy for which Burns isn't the first Dredd artist who comes to mind.

These days, Burns is mostly associated with Nikolai Dante, for whose adventures he clearly has a special fondness. As for Dredd--well, Burns' 2004 Megazine interview included gems like "I don't like drawing all this space-age stuff" and "I hate drawing Judge Dredd, I really do!... It's just his outfit. If you were to wear something like that in real life, you wouldn't be able to move!"

And, although Burns' artwork is totally solid as always, that unfondness comes through a little. As beautiful as any given panel of this book can be, there often seems to be something missing from a page or a sequence. Burns gives us a lot of long establishing shots and extreme close-ups, without a lot of middle-distance imagery that would require more stuff that's tedious to draw. I believe he was the first to draw Jura Edgar, and she's a a splendid piece of design, although we never get a clear look at her hoverchair here; her facial expression is stuck in the "grim, resentful determination" range, and Dredd's is limited already by convention. (Burns drew the cover of the collection, but not any of the covers of the issues included here; that's why those issues' full-page images by Brett Ewins and Doug Braithwaite are providing the breathers for this week's copy.)

What "The Cal Files" and "Sleaze" really opened up was the panopticon of Dredd's world. State surveillance was just starting to be more obvious in Britain in the mid-'90s, although Wagner seems to have been paying it attention for a long time. But the Public Surveillance Unit--first mentioned in "Statue of Judgement," fleshed out in "The Cal Files" a few weeks later--is a particularly clever storytelling device. It rid Wagner and other Dredd writers of the need to set up coincidences to let Judges know things; unlike the lie detectors that Wagner occasionally bemoans, the PSU allows him to cut to the chase without damaging a story's drama. And it made Mega-City One an even fiercer caricature of our own world, especially given what we see of the Judges in charge of collecting information on citizens. Edgar is a sadistic control freak (even from beyond the grave); later on, it's evident that the reason Roffman is a brilliant PSU Judge is that he's a stalker-level voyeur.

This was also the period where Wagner started setting up long-term plots and consequences for the series. The appearance of "J. Edgar Hover" (possibly the worst pun the series had seen since 2T(FRU)T) was the first time Dredd had really been seen to have a rival within the power structure of Justice Dept., and the plotline involving Dredd possibly having a biological mother planted seeds that would sprout in Origins ten years later. Somewhat malformed seeds (there are hardcore Dredd fanatics who insist that there's a serious continuity glitch there, although if I can believe that the technology of Dredd's time allows for pregnant men, I can believe that it allows for pregnant sixty-year-old women), but seeds nonetheless. I haven't re-read Origins in a few years, so I'll tackle all that stuff when I get there.

I'll grant that "The Cal Files" seems like a slightly distracted realization of a good idea. Chass drinking Old Spleen and KK Calbraith--per Burns' art--or Galbraith--per the lettering--having Arden Polders' transplanted spleen are each amusing on their own, but in the same story they're too much. The same goes for the big revelation at the heart of the story: if Arden Polders' twin sons' DNA is identical to Dredd and Rico's, then she can't have been Fargo's sister. Either she's Dredd and Rico's mother after all, which is awfully unlikely considering that Dredd has no memories before the Academy of Law and that every other bit of canon we've got suggests that Dredd is in fact a clone, or she's the mother of Eustace and Ephram Fargo. The very well-preserved mother, that (terrific) image of her as a Jane Doe suggests.

Wagner is also gearing up for his next big storyline, "The Pit," in Dredd's conversation with Volt in the final episode of "The Cal Files." Rohan, who Volt says had been shot that morning, seems to have lingered a bit: she dies two hours before the beginning of "The Pit," seven issues later. (Hence, maybe, Dredd's comment that it's going to take him a few weeks to deal with his "current caseload"--the intervening issues included stories written by Alan Grant, Dan Abnett and Mark Millar.)

A further note on what we're skipping over: there are a lot of episodes from 1995 that haven't been reprinted in book form, including the nine-part, Wagner-written "The Exterminator." In July of that year, around the release of the Judge Dredd movie, 2000 AD raised its price (from 80p to a pound) and its page count (to 40 pages). From Prog 950 to 963, there were two episodes of Dredd in each issue, so there's even more unreprinted material from this period than you might guess, including two notable Pat Mills-written stories: "Flashback 2099: The Return of Rico" (a rewrite of the original "Return of Rico" which I've mentioned before as introducing a few mild continuity questions of its own) and "Hammerstein" (which connects Dredd's continuity to the ABC Warriors end of the Millsverse as a tie-in with the film).

Next week: The Pit, the 30-episode epic that ran for the first half of 1996.

Sunday, May 13, 2012

Judge Death: Death Lives!

(Reprints Judge Dredd stories from 2000 AD Progs 149-151, 224-228, 700-701, 901-902, and 1000-1006, and from Judge Dredd Megazine #3.02-3.07)

We've got another special guest this week. David Wolkin is not, in fact, me, although we are frequently mistaken for each other in print for understandable reasons. He's the Executive Director of the Jewish learning organization Limmud NY, proprietor of Wolkin's House of Chicken and Waffles (and Comics), and a Twitter personality. I had the pleasure of talking with David about Judge Death: Death Lives!, the first themed collection published as part of the current U.S. Simon & Schuster Dredd reprint series. 

DAVID: Approaching this book with the eyes of a relative novice from the Dreddian perspective has been an interesting exercise for me. I'll say upfront that I happen to be a fan of the critically and commercially disastrous 1995 film for two reasons:

1. The idea of a post-futuristic version of "Cop and a Half" with Sylvester Stallone and Rob Schneider in the title roles appeals to me. 

2. I am biologically compelled to watch and enjoy any movie starring Armand Assante. To prove this statement, I will share that on a recent vacation to Hawaii, I was preparing to go to the beach, but was delayed by 2 hours once I saw that Assante's "The Odyssey" was playing on Syfy. 

I am not kidding about either of these things even a little bit.

I feel that it's always essential to share my background (or lack thereof) when it comes to cultural commentary so that potential readers can have an honest understanding of where I'm coming from. I may lack the capacity to fully appreciate these stories in their broader context, and I may be more qualified to talk about the incredibly handsome Armand Assante than I am the exploits of one Joseph Dredd. BUT: we reside in a culture in which people excel at taking everything out of context, so none of you have the right to judge (Dredd) me. I'd hold that pun in the last sentence against me, though. 

As someone who has sort of fallen in love with British comics though reading collections of Charley's War, I want to address a larger question of form before I get into the meat of this.  I'm at a point in my comics reading career where I definitely don't care for the mainstream superhero stuff like I used to. I can spend 4 bucks, buy 22 pages of story, and proceed to read a comic in which it seems like next to nothing happens. But then I can read five pages of a Dredd story (or any 2000 AD prog, for that matter) and be utterly satisfied, no matter when it was created. There's something about this limitation that has trained the creators to truly pack everything they can into a story. Guess I'm a compression guy now. 

But let's get to the nonsense, son. 

I loved just about every part of this collection. I'm inclined to wonder if my lack of context affected my enjoyment in anyway, because it's interesting to learn what a big deal these characters are in Dredd mythology (or are they?). I read in that interview you sent me that the last time these Dark Judges appeared, it was in a story with Batman. So I'd say that the first strike against this collection is that Batman never showed up. Nor was there anything remotely resembling Armand Assante. Strike two. 


I dig Judges Death Fear, Fire, and Mortis. Like, I dig them, the way maybe Lenny Bruce used to ask his audience to dig things (I don't know what this means). But I was struck by the fact that they were simultaneously terrifying and just totally ridiculous, and even moreso by the way they evolved into caricatures of themselves over time, even though they started out as caricatures in the first place. I don't even know what to say about "The Three Amigos," but I know I loved it. Like, I think I need a tutor to explain Clinton Box to me. And I read grown up books!

On a deeper note, I'm somewhat struck by the metaphysical implications of these characters, and my mind kept being drawn back to the Rabbi Neal Gillman's groundbreaking theological work in "The Death of Death". If I remember correctly, that's a book about the broader eschatological claims implied by Biblical texts that suggest a time in which everyone will come back to life. 

That would be the perfect time for the Dark Judges to show up, come to think of it. 

What you got, Douglas?

DOUGLAS: Man, just wait until you see "Judgement Day," whose premise is that an evil magician brings everyone back to life... as zombies.

One thing that's interesting to me about the material collected in here is the tension between what the readers want--their favorite characters, over and over again--and what John Wagner's interested in giving them. I suspect that, given the chance, most mainstream comics publishers would bring back the Dark Judges every few months, like the Joker. Leaving them offstage for 13 years means that their return a couple of weeks ago really did have dramatic impact.

The most eyebrow-raising revelation in this recent John Wagner interview is that Wagner hadn't intended to use the Dark Judges in "Day of Chaos"--which means that "Day of Chaos" isn't the "Dark Judges return" story, which means I have even less of an idea of where it's headed, which is awesome. The takeaway other people seem to have gotten from the interview is "all four are going to be reunited"; I don't know if "if I can find a way to make it work..." quite counts as that. But it does mean that Wagner's mulling over post-"Day of Chaos" stories--that's excellent news!

Still, Wagner mentions another conflict that gets near the heart of both what's wonderful about his writing and what sometimes undermines it: that his impulse is always to go for black comedy. Even the first Judge Death story has undiluted moments of comedy in it; its plot-resolving MacGuffin calls back to "Palais de Boing," which is as silly an episode as Dredd has ever seen. What gives the Dark Judges their impact is that they're absolutely terrifying, both in conception and in design (that sheep skull!)--I dig them too. But they're so serious that Wagner often can't resist sticking banana peels in front of them, especially Death. When they turn up in the middle of "Necropolis," it's a freezing thrill; when they turn up in Batman/Judge Dredd: Die Laughing, it's a "here ya go! just the way you like it!" moment. David Brothers and I talked about The Life and Death of... here last year, and noted the way Death eventually becomes a burlesque of himself when Wagner can't raise the stakes of his appearances any longer.

Consider the publishing context of the post-Brian Bolland stories here. "The Three Amigos" is straight-up fan-service: Death and Mean Machine Angel were two of the Dredd nemeses that readers loved best, and their team-up was intended to lead off the first issue of the relaunched Judge Dredd Megazine in 1995, to tie in with the movie. (It ran so late in production that a couple of short fill-in episodes appeared in the first issue instead, and "The Three Amigos" began with the second issue.) Wagner had killed off the entire Angel Gang at the end of their initial appearance in "The Judge Child," then resurrected Mean Machine a bit later. The whole gang appeared in the movie, though, so Pa and Junior were brought back in this one (with some more explanation in Prog 958's "Awakening of Angels," published the same week as the fifth episode); Wagner later admitted that that was "a step too far." For the most part, in Judge Dredd stories, dead means dead (or at least "kinda dead").

"Dead Reckoning" (after which this blog wasn't deliberately named...) began in 2000 AD #1000, a year later. You can imagine Wagner realizing that he needs to write a big story for the big round number, scraping to work up a Judge Death plot he hadn't done already: maybe if Dredd went to his world... but wait, isn't everyone on it already dead? Well, if he goes to the past of that world... And then he figures out that he can put Death in a little-old-lady dress and wig, and that's amusing enough to get things in motion. Meanwhile, like "The Three Amigos" before it, it had to put Judge Death back in exactly the same box at the end, just to keep the continuity straight for the long, long, long-delayed Die Laughing. Since Wagner habitually leaves major characters in a significantly different place at the end of long stories, both of these seem more like treadmill exercises than they would otherwise. Very nice Greg Staples art on "Dead Reckoning," though. I see how the offer of some more might tempt Wagner to get the band back together.

"Theatre of Death" is really an epilogue to "Necropolis," and Ron Smith drawing it is one more callback to the first act of the series that "Necropolis" ended. It's a little curtain call after that grand finale, leaving open the question of whether the fall of Chief Judge Silver really happened that way at all (Garth Ennis later argued that it didn't). And "Judge Death: The True Story" revisits the territory of old age, infirmity and mortality that Wagner had been poking at since "Alzheimer's Block," and that was particularly a focus of his around this time (see also "Bury My Knee at Wounded Heart" and "Return of the Taxidermist")--that "oh well, they were just old people, NBD" conclusion is brutal.

And as for narrative compression: hell yes. That first Judge Death story is fifteen pages long, and more happens in it than in three issues of any mainstream book published right now except maybe Casanova. Even now, 2000 AD stories tend to be very densely packed, maybe because decompression was never an option for its format. It takes a lot of work to significantly advance a plot in a four-to-six-page episode of a story, especially if its art has room to be more than simply functional, but Wagner (and Pat Mills and Robbie Morrison and Al Ewing and John Smith and others) still pull it off week after week, bless them.

So here's a question for you: what do you think of the look of these stories? How does this stuff compare to American mainstream comics for you, visually?

DAVID: The art, Douglas? You're asking me about the art?

You know how there are those people who read comics and when you talk to them about the art, they say, "I'm not really much of an art guy, I'm really more of a story guy" but what they really mean is, "I lack the intellectual chops to say anything about art but I am ashamed" and you start to ask yourself how such a preference is even possible because you never met a music fan who said "I don't really pay attention to the guitar, I'm more of a bass guy" and that analogy, while imperfect, at the very least illustrates the fundamental ridiculousness of such a preference and I don't know if there should be a question mark at the end of this sentence because I'm like Gabriel Garcia Marquez writing The Autumn of the Patriarch

Are you editing this?

By and large, I enjoyed the art on this quite a bit. Brian Bolland's first couple of stories are just so clean and perfect to me, and as much as I enjoy the others, they doesn't compare quite as much in my mind. In that interview you referenced, I was struck by Wagner's mention of the fact that they haven't changed the Dark Judges' costumes since Bolland's original design. Everything he does is always so memorable for me. Greg Staples and Trevor Hairsine particularly reminded me of John McCrea and Carlos Ezquerra, but then again, those are guys who have worked plenty of Dredd stories too.

One thing I noticed: the relative colorful cartoonishness of the art seemed to line up with with the increasing silliness of the stories themselves. Anyways, I really enjoyed Greg Staples in particular... and as for your question about mainstream American stuff, it's hard for me to draw a comparison. Even in these ridiculous stories, I see a precision and care for the art that seems absent in the American books that I've since given up on reading. Which is not to suggest that all American books are bad, which they are not, but to say that the level of quality that I feel like I can get in most of the Dredd stuff I enjoy is that standard, while I have to pick out gems when I'm reading the American books these days. 

I also noticed that that most of the pages are pretty crowded. To my surprise, I actually enjoyed that quite a bit. 

Anyways, did you know that Armand Assante, Sr. is quite the artist?

DOUGLAS: See, I learn something every time I do one of these dialogues with somebody!

I'm with you on the gloriousness of Bolland's stuff. I still have difficulty understanding the fact that he's drawn more pages of Camelot 3000 than of Judge Dredd

One of the factors that affect "precision and care," to put it bluntly, is page rates. I don't have a clear sense of 2000 AD's and the Megazine's have risen and fallen over the years, but I've seen very different sorts of work by the same artists. I also gather that a lot of Vol. 3 of the Megazine was produced on an incredibly tight austerity budget--hence the reprints of "Necropolis" and Preacher et al. eventually taking over the better part of each issue. Also, there was a period where the publisher required both magazines to print everything that had been commissioned and completed, good, bad, indifferent or redundant. (One of the few welcome consequences of that policy, as I discovered this week, is the appearance in the Judge Dredd Yearbook 1995 of the two episodes of "Son of Mean Machine" that Chris Halls painted before abandoning the project. And I have no idea how Shaky Kane ended up drawing the Star Scan below, but I'm not complaining.)

I wonder if the "let's get the story that's attached to the promotional push right" effect might have worked to the advantage of the stories in the back half of this volume--"The True Story" appeared around #900, when there were effectively three relaunch issues in five weeks; "The Three Amigos" coincided with the movie; "Dead Reckoning" began in #1000, another big relaunch issue. (It had been preceded by "The Pit," which I'll be covering in a couple of weeks, but the short version is that it reads as if precision and care eventually took a back seat to getting the damn thing out the door before the presses had to roll.)

You're also right that the goofier stories tend to go more to the artists who lean toward comedy, although I don't think Trevor Hairsine had quite found his feet with the funny stuff yet at the time he drew "The Three Amigos." Still, nice job on designing Clinton Box. They do take silliness seriously in British comics.

Thanks again to David! Next week: Blind Justice, collecting John Wagner and John Burns' 1993-1997 collaborations.  

Sunday, May 6, 2012


(Reprints Judge Dredd stories from 2000 AD Progs 891-894 and 904-918, and from Judge Dredd Megazine #2.57-2.67)

"Wilderlands" was an unusually ambitious story, halfway done in by its reach exceeding its grasp, and kneecapped by a still-mysterious internal continuity disaster. In 1994, with the Judge Dredd movie a year away, John Wagner returned to writing the strip in 2000 AD on a regular basis, and was convinced to come up with a second crossover between the Prog and the Megazine. This one had a lot of formal restrictions imposed on it from the outset, though. It had to be smaller in scale, so it wouldn't repeat the eschatological scope of "Necropolis" and "Judgement Day"--but it also had to be big enough that it would Change Everything Forever OMG. It also had to make sense to readers who were only following 2000 AD, or only following the Megazine, without repeating itself too much for those who were reading both.

So the story's schedule played a peculiar hopscotch game. After a two-part reunion of the Wagner/Carlos Ezquerra team, "Time Machine" (which has still never been reprinted), the introductory "Conspiracy of Silence" sequence ran in 2000 AD in June: a primer on the Mechanismo plot and the Dredd/McGruder conflict that Wagner had been building in the Megazine for a year or so. Its final chapter leads directly into "Prologue," in the Megazine, which came out the same week. (Artist Peter Doherty doesn't seem to have noticed that McGruder had shaved off her goatee a while back--and after Mark Harrison drew her in "Conspiracy of Silence" with a can of "Whisk-Away," too!) While "Prologue" and "The Tenth Planet" were running in the biweekly Megazine, 2000 AD was marking time with some episodes written by Dan Abnett and Chris Standley, as well as the final Wagner/Ron Smith collaboration in Prog 899, the Dredd/Rogue Trooper team-up that occupied all of Prog 900, and the evergreen "Judge Death: The True Story" (which we'll be getting to next week).

The "Tenth Planet" sequence is the high point of this book: prime Wagner/Ezquerra, fast, dark and twisty, with a lot of spectacular imagery and a sensory-overload "land sharks inside the cage" sequence. It also includes one of my favorite Dredd character moments, in which he pulls off the neat trick of simultaneously demanding Castillo's respect, refusing it, attacking her and letting her know he's looking out for her: 

And how awesome is it that even though Dredd is officially off the force, he's still going everywhere in not only his helmet but his complete uniform, just no badge?

Ezquerra's new toy shows up partway through "The Tenth Planet": the digital coloring tools that were probably intended to save him time but ended up dating his artwork here badly. I'm sure the particular Photoshop filters he used for the surface of Hestia and various backgrounds would be easy for someone who was using that program in '94 to name. (There are some backgrounds and city shots that are clearly assembled by software rather than drawn by hand, too, and they're a little jarring.) Having easy access to a range of computer hues also meant that Ezquerra all but abandoned the single-color-dominated images that had been such a striking part of his work in the early '90s.

The ending of "The Tenth Planet" segues directly into "Wilderlands" proper, which began in 2000 AD the same week and galumphed along in both titles simultaneously, this time with Ezquerra drawing the 2000 AD sections and Trevor Hairsine drawing the Megazine sections. I can see what Wagner seems to have had in mind: a very densely packed story whose plot threads would include Dredd trying to keep the Hestia expedition alive in hostile territory while they're picked off one by one (à la "Helltrekkers") and while both the convicts and other Judges are conspiring against him, McGruder being convinced that she was wrong about Dredd, the dark secret of Mechanismo being revealed, Castillo redeeming herself from her earlier failure of nerve with the aid of Phoenix the kindly willowy native Hestian, and ultimately a massive shift in the balance of power within Justice Department. This would all have a grand, open pace that would allow for readers of just one series or just the other or both to follow it, and--oh, right: "very densely packed" and "grand, open pace" don't fit so well together.

That trips up "Wilderlands" pretty badly: a lot of stuff is clearly supposed to happen, and not a lot happens. The device of having the weekly episodes focus on Dredd's experience and the Megazine episodes narrated by Castillo kinda-sorta works, until Castillo takes off on her mission--for which Wagner ticks off a few plot beats and otherwise has to pad two nine-page episodes with "huh, guess we're walking across a desert here" moments. The Megazine sequence's slackness is partly down to the fact that it's so bumpy visually. Hairsine was a very new artist at that point--he'd never drawn color comics before, and was still working out the kinks in his storytelling. (There's a figure in his first chapter of "Wilderlands" that's pretty blatantly swiped from something by Neal Adams; can anyone identify its source?)

David Bishop's history of the Megazine suggests that one point of reference for "Wilderlands" was "Darkie's Mob" (file under: really regrettable titles), a grim, violent WWII strip that Wagner had written for Battle in 1976-77, about a mysterious tough guy leading a squadron in the Burmese jungle. That was another super-densely packed series, though (it was reprinted about ten years ago in the Megazine), with much more plot than the pace of "Wilderlands" could handle. Dredd's "leadership" in this story pretty much consists of beating the robot, sending out a search party, shooting Hine through the heart (after "disconnecting the grip sensors"--oh, is that all you have to do to modify a Lawgiver so it won't pull a Kraken on you?) and then being surprised when he dies, and not eating much of the hallucinogenic food. One smart and relatively subtle point of the "Wilderlands" sequence where everyone hallucinates, though: their visions are the Mirror of Erised. It's clear that what each of them is seeing is what that person most longs to see at that moment... and what Dredd sees is McGruder's picked-over corpse.

Then there's that continuity disaster. I don't know if this was addressed at the time, but it's fairly obvious that there's at least part of an episode of "Wilderlands" that never got published. Chapter 13--which appeared in Prog 912, the only episode in 2000 AD drawn by Mick Austin rather than Carlos Ezquerra--picks up from a cliffhanger we never actually see, in which Dredd is being attacked by a robot. (Mind you, the robot appeared on the cover of #911, although not in the story inside...) Right before the end of chapter 11, Beasty bashes Tefler's head in, just as Tefler fires his gun, which Dredd and O'Hare both hear. When we get back to that scene in chapter 13, Dredd fires at the robot, which Tefler hears... right before Tefler and Moynihan are ambushed by Beasty and Conehead. (Conehead then shoots Tefler with his own Lawgiver, which also doesn't explode.) 

Austin mentioned in a recent Megazine interview that he had been frustrated by being 2000 AD's go-to guy for last-minute artwork, and both that episode and his half of "The Candidates" do look pretty rushed. Maybe Austin got sent the wrong draft of a script; maybe Ezquerra fell behind schedule more quickly than expected and the only completed episode on hand at deadline time was that one. Anyone happen to know what happened? Actually, Ezquerra's artwork on the second half of "The Candidates" and "Voting Day" looks very rushed too, as if he didn't have time to ink it in more than a cursory way.

By the end of the book, McGruder has turned her opinion of Dredd and Mechanismo around in a matter of a few panels, Castillo has been successful in her assignment rather than actually overcoming anything in particular, Justice Department isn't too different in any way other than the previously unseen Hadrian Volt replacing McGruder, and Mechanismo's dark secret remains opaque (as I think it still does). Even the Wilderlands collection cuts off abruptly: there was an epilogue in the Megazine, "Farewell to the Chief," that didn't get reprinted in the collection. It's not great, but it does give Castillo's arc a bit more closure.

Next week: special guest David Wolkin and I make a timely visit to Dark Judges territory for Death Lives!