Sunday, November 25, 2012

Hondo City Law

(Reprints Judge Dredd stories from 2000 AD Progs 608-611, Shimura stories from Judge Dredd Megazine #2.37-2.39, 224-226 and 228-230, Judge Inspector Inaba story from Judge Dredd Megazine #3.21, and Hondo City Justice stories from Judge Dredd Megazine #300-303)

Another anomaly within the Dredd-verse reprint catalogue: the only volume devoted to a place, specifically Hondo City. The core of it, as with the earlier Shimura, is the four brief episodes written by Robbie Morrison and drawn by Frank Quitely, published in 1993 and 1996--Quitely's cover from "Babes with Big Bazookas" is reused as the cover here. This one, though, opens with "Our Man in Hondo," the 1989 Dredd sequence that introduced the city. (It's got a clever John Wagner plot and some nice design work from Colin MacNeil--and also featured the splendid Brendan McCarthy cover below--but captions like "Judge Dredd succeed in destroying Mega-City agent robot who killing Nip-Cit bigwigs. But honourable Judge Inspector Sadu, he far from satisfied..." make it tough to read in 2012.)

Designing a futuristic Japan for comics has to be a challenge, because so much of Japan is at the edge of the possibilities of design already. (Legion of Super-Heroes, for instance, always seems to look like the Tokyo of 20 years after any given issue's publication date... and it's set 1000 years in the future!) So I occasionally think that the idea that post-nuclear Hondo has kinda-sorta gone back to the model of feudal Japan is a bit of a cop-out. The best example of extrapolated futurism in these Shimura/Inaba stories' art is Quitely's mall in "Babes with Big Bazookas" (and even that looks a little bit contemporary, 16 years after its publication)--but I always find myself wanting to know more about the relationship between the culture of Hondo City and the present culture of Japan.

After the Quitely episodes, this volume leapfrogs past the rest of the material reprinted in Shimura to the 2004-vintage "Executioner" and "Deus X" serials, and then to 2010's "Hondo City Justice." The first two are both drawn by Andy Clarke, who's a very effective artist when he's got a story he can really dig into, or a scene that something just this side of "realism" can make extra-uncanny--the opening sequence of "Deus X," with the suicide bomber shredding everyone on the train with those planar discs, is exactly his forte. (My favorite thing Clarke's drawn is probably Thirteen, in part because as that story cranks up its scale, his style connects even the craziest sequences to the small-scale beginning.)

There are lots of other set pieces in "Deus X" that let Clarke show off: the showdown at Senso-ji, Shimura's "the art's in knowing when not to move" moment, the smashing-through-the-window bit. (And, in its way, the shower scene near the end, although that one made me feel like I'd suddenly switched to reading an adaptation of "Shimura: the B-Movie.")

"Executioner," though, is more of a stretch as a story. Dredd flying around the world to farm out an extra-judicial execution to someone else isn't entirely in line with how we usually see him (although Robbie Morrison makes a decent case for it); Sesoku and Inaba training by fighting robots with light-sabers is the equivalent of those X-Men stories where somebody realizes that there hasn't been a fight scene in a while so we get a Danger Room sequence; Sesoku turning out to be a thoroughgoing creep in every possible way makes the story's resolution less satisfying, because Shimura's not doing anything morally complicated by executing him, just making his own life more difficult.

"Hondo City Justice" introduces another new artist to the (retitled) series, Neil Googe, whose habit of filling every bit of space on the page with panels whose borders don't include a lot of right angles works in the context of a story in this setting in a way that it might not in another--this is one of those wall-to-wall-action stories that 2000 AD and the Megazine seem to specialize in but don't often actually do in such a concentrated way. The protagonist gets thrown out a window on the first page; a page involving characters observing cherry blossoms (which still has seven panels on it) is immediately followed by several with detached body parts flying everywhere.

Maybe as a consequence, it's more a chain of chaotic events than a focused plot. (This is also the second story in this volume whose villain explains his evil scheme to Inaba while she's chained up.) Giving Inaba a protégée of her own--since she's now pretty much taken over the series from Shimura--is a fun idea, and so is having that protégée be a bloodthirsty psychic Magical Girl type, and the eyeball-robot monster is an attractively weird piece of design. But Morrison still doesn't offer much of a sense of what drives Inaba, other than being a solid cop, and the story doesn't have as much of an anchor as it deserves. The second episode did, however, feature the spectacular Quitely cover below.

For the record, the still-unreprinted Shimura and/or Inaba stories are "Heavy Metal," from #2.75; the Dredd story (guest-starring Inaba) "Warriors," from #3.31-3.33; "Scary Monsters," from #3.35; "The Harder They Come," from #238-243, drawn by Colin MacNeil in black and white (which might have looked odd in this volume, although I'd still have liked to see it here); "Sumos and Sporrans," from Judge Dredd Mega Special 1994; and "Angels of Death," from Judge Dredd Mega Special 1996. (Plus, of course, the recent Megazine serial.)

Next week: we circle back around to material we've sorta-kinda-except-not-entirely covered before, with The Batman/Judge Dredd Collection

Sunday, November 18, 2012

The Simping Detective

(Reprints Mega-City Noir story from Judge Dredd Megazine #220 and The Simping Detective stories from Judge Dredd Megazine #221-227, 234-239, 253-257)

This week's special guest is Tim Callahan, who blogs at GeniusboyFiremelon, has been writing about most of Alan Moore's work at, and has a weekly column at Comic Book Resources. He's also the author of Grant Morrison: The Early Years. We got to discuss the collection of Simon Spurrier and Frazer Irving's collaboration on "The Simping Detective." Tim?

TIM: I still don't have as much background with Judge Dredd as I would like. I really got into the character and the world of Mega-City One and its surroundings when I picked up the Titan edition (with constantly cracking binding that spits out pages) of the Pat Mills and mostly-Brian-Bolland "Cursed Earth" collection, and then grabbed an early edition of the Judge Dredd role-playing game back when Games Workshop published a version. The RPG was a great crash-course in the history of the character and the city, but it wasn't a game I ever actually played. And since 2000 AD was pretty impossible to find where I grew up, those late-1980s experiences with Dredd were pretty much it, and in all the years since, I've only dabbled with Dredd. I've looked at a lot more pages of "Judge Dredd" art then I have actually read Judge Dredd stories, you know?

But I have read "The Simping Detective" stories, which at least intersect with Dredd's world. Well, I've read the ones collected as a book, anyway. Pure Si Spurrier and Frazer Irving. I bought it for the Irving artwork -- probably not too long after I first saw him blast into American comics with Seven Soldiers: Klarion -- but I found the conceit of the series pretty fascinating, particularly the way Spurrier absolutely tears into the hardboiled cliche language of the genre and shows off his verbal dexterity. It's a pastiche of detective noir, but Spurrier goes for incisive wit rather than clownish gags, even if the protagonist wears floppy shoes and a rubber nose to work every day.

DOUGLAS: The "Simping Detective" stories collected here were all there was until about a month ago, when the excellent new serial "Jokers to the Right" started running in 2000 AD (with Simon Coleby replacing Irving). And I imagine that if what you've read of Dredd before is the Cursed Earth stuff, looking at this has to be a little bit like... going straight from Kirby's Demon to the Seven Soldiers Klarion!

The conceit of "The Simping Detective" is ridiculous enough that it was originally planned as a one-off six-page story: an undercover cop whose cover is that he's a P.I. But it does make for a terrific series. Spurrier's enthusiasm for Jack Point's wordplay ("Clever scum. Like the froth on a Mensa milkshake...") keeps it really funny, page for page--Spurrier mentions here that his favorite Point-ism is "more layers than a dyslexic dragon." In fact, the whole concept of the series is a multi-layered pun: Jack Point's name previously belonged to the jester in The Yeomen of the Guard (another comedy with tragic undercurrents), and the main character of Dennis Potter's The Singing Detective is Philip Marlow, as in the Philip Marlowe whose narrative voice Point's parodies.

Irving has a similar gift for twisting the visual language of noir. (Doorways! Canted angles! Venetian blinds! White shapes that emerge out of black space!) My favorite thing about his artwork here, though, has to be the spot colors that pop up in an otherwise black-and-white story (a gesture that's turned up again in "Jokers to the Right"--and, in fact, made a memorable appearance in Low Life last year).

A lot of the fun of this project is that it can take advantage of the massive amounts of prefabricated world-building associated with Dredd's history without having a tone anything like the main series. There are cast-offs from Dredd continuity everywhere--Jack Point's "pets" Cliq and Larf are Raptaurs, ravenous creatures from a story that appeared ten years earlier, for instance. But "Simping Detective" always seems like it's lurking on the fringes of the main event, which gives it license to do pretty much anything.

That said, a lot of the "heeeey, do you recognize this?" gags are clustered into "Fifteen," which is by far my least favorite story here: it was put together for the 15th-anniversary issue of Judge Dredd Megazine, and if it wasn't at least something of a rush job, I'd be surprised. It's also one of a few stories that do the only thing that actively frustrates me about "The Simping Detective"--turning DeMarco into a boop-be-doop "sexy" caricature. The essence of the character as she'd appeared earlier had been that she wasn't that, just a super-competent, driven cop whose libido was her Achilles' heel.

I get the sense that Spurrier, at least, had some plans for further Simping Detective stories that he didn't get to carry out at the time--like, what's the story with Miss Anne Thropé and her crack team of ex-Judges? (To be fair, there's more of her in "Jokers to the Right.") After "No Body, No How," the Spurrier/Irving team shifted to working on the long-delayed Gutsville--although, at New York Comic-Con, Irving noted that he was going to be finishing Gutsville this year, so that's a good sign.

So here's a question for you: what do you make of this book in the context of Frazer Irving's work before and since?

TIM: I suspect a reader going straight from Kirby's Demon to the Seven Soldiers Klarion would be confused and yet completely thrilled by the possibilities of comics. That sounds like an ideal progression to me!

Anyway, back to Frazer Irving and how "The Simping Detective" fits into the larger scheme of his work.

When I think of Irving's work, I don't picture it in black and white. For me, his use of color is an essential part of who he is as an artist. I think of Irving's painterly approach to shapes and compositions, and I picture the bold oranges of Xombi or the soft blues of Klarion or the vibrant-but-pastel shades of Silent War. Even though I knew "The Simping Detective" was mostly black and white -- with distinctive flashes of color -- from when I first picked up the collected edition, I still thought of it as a bright, colorful comic when I sat down to read the whole thing for this discussion. I was surprised by how proportionally little color there actually is in the comic.

I know much of Irving's early work -- or at least other things I've read like Fort or Necronauts -- were also black and white comics, but I place "The Simping Detective" outside of the "early work" category, I guess. It seems more confidently Irvingesque.

He also does this thing throughout "The Simping Detective" where he seems to invert the normal black-and-white approach to making art. He works digitally, of course, and that's obvious looking at the rounded globs of brush strokes on every page, but he's apparently working from a black canvas and painting the grays and whites on top. The comic repeatedly has the effect of inky blackness with process white splashed on top to highlight this dark, weird underbelly of Mega-City One. Stylistically, it's fascinating, because the globs and splashes of white are almost completely abstract shapes when you focus on them, but when you pull back to look at a panel as a whole, the balance of light and shadow creates a clear composition that's easy to read and yet maintains an unsettling quality. It's as if the whole world is a bit unstable, or that the world is illuminated by flashlights in back alleys, and you're a bit frightened to peek outside the shaft of light to see what else is out there.

And all of this is in a comic about a detective dressed like a full-on clown, which makes it even weirder.

DOUGLAS: I'm pretty sure the simps first appeared in Prog 527, in an episode drawn by Cliff Robinson; for a little while, Robinson seemed to be first in line to draw any simp-related stories ("Simp About the House," "Dead Simple"). At first, the idea was pretty uncomplicated--"It's the new look! You wear whatever you want - the dumber the better! Guy over in Timmy Mallett started it..." The first clever move John Wagner (and, initially, Alan Grant) made was on the simp front was to bring it back a few times; the second was to set it up as a growing subculture; the third was, in a very Wagnerian long-game way, to let it very gradually become a religious and political force (via Bishop Desmond Snodgrass and, more recently, Ribena Hardly-Lucidberry).

Wagner's never really gone too far into what's involved in simping, or why people would be attracted to it other than that it's a stupid idea; he just tosses it into the story and keeps moving. But that leaves lots of room for writers like Spurrier to play around with it. In "Jokers to the Right," it turns out that simping has become a full-on, officially recognized religion that gets special breaks from the government. Fantastic.

Irving is indeed digitally painting with white on a black background here, according to his interview in that Modern Masters volume that came out last year; as he puts it, "the light is the star, not the shadow." (That book also points out a Jack Point-ish character he'd drawn on one of a set of sample pages when he was auditioning to draw for 2000 AD!) His earlier black-and-white work had generally been much starker-looking, but while working on a serial called "From Grace," he decided to keep some gray tones in his pages too.

I'd actually remembered The Simping Detective very differently than you had--I'd thought of it as black and white with few gray shadows (and those occasional bursts of color). In fact, there's relatively little undiluted white anywhere in it: lots of specific gradations and painterly textures, but the light that's the star is always at least a bit elusive. I love Irving's color work too--he's one of the few comics artists I can think of who obviously works up a new palette for every project--but I think this counts as color considered in terms of its absence. Neat!

I also love that Irving draws all of these characters with slapstick-comedy body language (in noir compositions and lighting). The extra-armed, windmilling Jack near the end of "Crystal Blue" would never pass in a Dredd story, as such--or even in most of Irving's other work--but here it totally works.

One more question for you, Tim, since I think you've read more of Spurrier's comics than I have (although I'm going to have to remedy that); how does this fit into his body of work?

TIM: I'm afraid I'm woefully underinformed about Spurrier's work. I doubt I have read much more of his work than you have, though I did read some of his American work over the past couple of years, like the still-unfinished Gutsville and his initial dabblings at Marvel with a Ghost Rider and Punisher War Journal Annual. I know he's done a billion things for 2000 A.D. that I haven't read, and while my revisit with The Simping Detective has made me more inclined to check out his other work, I still can't generate enough enthusiasm for his new ongoing American project, the son-of-Professor-X-focused X-Men Legacy series. If I do explore more Spurrier, I'll likely go deeper into his back catalog.

I have some curiosity about his prose novels, too, since his verbal showmanship is such a powerful aspect of his work with Frazer Irving here. But can he really show off his prose stylings in a work-for-hire Strontium Dog novel? I don't know if I'm that curious.

What I can say about the little Spurrier that I have read is that The Simping Detective is far more exuberantly expressive than what I've seen in his American superhero work. His Ghost Rider and Punisher seem to be on par with someone like Daniel Way -- completely perfunctory and dots-connecting -- but this sly, energetic Simping stuff is on a whole different level. It looks like Spurrier doesn't quite have a strong sense of how to balance the pastiche with the verbal gamesmanship and still balance out a satisfying plot (endings feel abrupt, particularly in the later stories), but I'd read these comics a hundred times before I'd read another rote tale of Marvel vengeance.


Thanks again to Tim! Next week, Dredd Reckoning stays in spinoff-land for Hondo-City Law, a second cross-section of the Shimura/Inaba material. 

Sunday, November 11, 2012

Total War

(Reprints Judge Dredd stories from 2000 AD Progs 1392-1399 and 1408-1422)

We've got another special guest this week! Josie Campbell is a Comic Book Resources writer, sketch comedian, and freelance writer, who joined me to talk about the 2004 Judge Dredd sequence of this book's title story and its bookends "Terror" and "After the Bombs."

JOSIE: First off, Douglas, I’m very glad to be a part of the discussion -- I’m a fairly recent convert to the Dredd-verse, and "Total War" typifies both what I love and what troubles me about Judge Dredd: that you’re never wholly on the Judges’ side.

I should say upfront that the vast majority of my Dredd knowledge comes from the much sillier early days, when Dredd would strand criminals on highway medians and openly hate Walter the Wobot (to be fair, it was very easy to openly hate Walter). There was a weirdly refreshing quality to how out of proportion Dredd’s actions came across and how insanely over the top Dredd’s punishments were--to my mind, more like "Axe Cop" or "Stardust The Super Wizard" than the gritty American comics emerging during the same period. The rest of what I know about Dredd comes from a handful of other stories from the period we're looking at here, as well as the kick-ass new movie (which also did a good job of me not wholly thinking the Judges are a good thing).

In "Total War," you want Dredd to break down the terrorist cell and catch the bad guys, you really do. But then when he does get his hands on them, the Judges are so awful you start to rethink whether you want them around -- but then a city block goes up in ash and you’re back on Dredd’s side again. It’s a morality carousel, going round and round with no sign of stopping.

On the Judges' side, you have the fact that a terrorist group is nuking the city. This is, obviously, bad. But on Total War’s side, the Judges run a fascist police state, and Mega-City One probably should get rid of them, or at least take their governing powers away since, frankly, they’re bad at it. From a practical standpoint (and one from which I, as the daughter of government workers and a kid who grew up in D.C., can’t disengage my brain), their draconian policies are a total failure. Violent crime runs rampant in Mega-City One. The Judges spend so much time enforcing the letter of the law that they squander their resources on sending regular citizens to iso-blocks when there’s a Mega-City Al-Qaeda planting nukes right under their noses--not to mention that their overzealous torture techniques kill Oddie, their connection to the terrorist cell, without procuring any usable information.

But at the same time, what grabs me about "Total War" is the fact that it’s a dystopia told from the position of power. That’s not something you see in most science fiction. Dystopias are things to rebel against ("Hunger Games," "Star Wars") or escape ("Logan’s Run," "Fahrenheit 451") or tragically perish from ("1984," "Brave New World"). In these worlds, there are no terrorists, only revolutionaries. So it’s fascinating to see Dredd take the opposite track. The audience knows the Judges are morally bankrupt by our standards, but the Judges and Dredd see themselves as the last bastion of justice and hope for the Mega-Cities.

DOUGLAS: Right--and one thing that keeps the which-side-are-you-on question interesting is that Dredd's writers often suggest that the Judges are the least of the available evils, and even that the people of MC1 are fine with them more often than not. Given the option (back in "The Devil You Know"), the city appeared to reject democracy--although Garth Ennis was a little bit cagey about whether the results were a fix or not--and "Terror," the first story in the Total War collection, opens in a bar where patrons can watch videos of the Judges beating up democratic protesters.

On the other hand, "Terror" is pretty clearly a thematic sequel to John Wagner and Colin MacNeil's first two "America" stories, which were as absolute a condemnation of the Judges' rule as the series has ever seen: Zondra Smith even lives in Bennett Beeny Block. (This is exactly the kind of character-focused story at which MacNeil excels--although, oddly, he never really sells Sonny as being a decade or so younger than Zondra.)

We know that Zondra and Sonny are doomed from the get-go--that's just the kind of story this is--but what we don't know is how they're going to go. Zondra's death is just a case of the cavalry not getting there in time; Sonny's is a product of John Wagner's particular gift for realizing where a story could use some extra chaos. Having him killing his contact and then be killed by Dredd is the natural conclusion of the story--but having him kill his contact by beheading him with a mechanical dinosaur is a total Wagnerism. (So is the scene where the Judges concur on Sonny's fate to reassure themselves: "He asked for it." "He wanted it." Sure.)

See also "After the Bombs," in which the amusingly named Gaia Innocenti, we know, is going to have to pay for her crimes somehow, despite the fact that she no longer remembers them and is effectively no longer capable of recidivism. It was a good idea to have this one drawn by Jason Brashill, too: his work is far removed from Henry Flint's in "Total War," but its soft curves and rubbery textures are entirely appropriate for a story about a character losing her grip on identity and reality. The closer Gaia is to innocence, the more likely she is to suffer a fate worse than death--and that's what she gets at the end of the story. It's fair to say that she is, or used to be, a terrible person, and also fair to say that she gets the raw end of the deal.

JOSIE: We’re seeing "Total War" from the Judges' perspective, so we end up rooting for them, and if you put all the actions on a scale in this particular instance, the Judges are less wrong then the Total War members--so you basically keep rooting for them throughout. The only things I can think of that come close to this bleakness in American literature are the later "Dune" books or Robert Heinlein’s early novels or Orson Scott Card’s work -- but in those cases there’s a real-world conservative ideology being purposefully pushed forward that I don’t think exists in the Dredd-verse. "Total War" isn’t a primer on how the Judges are right (as they would be penned by any of those aforementioned authors). It's turned on its head by the fact that you’re constantly reassessing whose side you’re on.

This is made a little harder by the fact that "Total War" is exactly the type of terrorist plot that only ever happens in fiction. A city is taken hostage, there’s a race against time, and in the end the terrorists, who had some sympathetic goals, turn out to be run by bad guys. Rich bad guys!

But this is where the art kicked in and made the story interesting again for me. Henry Flint’s depictions of the sheer carnage the bombs caused are disturbingly compelling. You can almost feel the heat from the explosions--I spent half an hour poring over the part of "Total War" where the bomb wipes out the thousands of evacuees on the bridges. I don’t know if I’d like this story half as much if it wasn’t for the art; there’s a sad poignancy to it. Flint understands that, in this story, no one is the winner.

Speaking of which: poor Nimrod! Still being fairly new to Dredd, this story was the first time I found out that Dredd was a clone or that he had a niece. But this knowledge parlays into my ultimate takeaway from the story. "Total War" isn’t really about a political attack -- it’s a mediation on waste. Total War is wasting the lives of innocents to kick out the Judges, who don’t really leave, and the rich idiots in charge never really intended for there to be any compromise. The Judges waste the individual members of the organization, and the cell’s middlemen, like Cliff Richard or Jericho, disagree with their leader’s bombing plans, which makes their involvement in Total War a waste, and both throw away their lives. Cliff literally wasting away in his apartment, Jericho ready to waste away in Iso. In this light, Nimrod is the last level of the story’s waste, literal human waste in his case.

In fact, the only time Dredd overcomes the waste is when he goes to rescue Vienna, refusing to waste any time to get to her. It’s then no accident that Nimrod saves Vienna, a mistake rising from the ashes, coated with the literal and figurative waste of the city. His is the only death in "Total War" I wouldn’t classify as a waste -- it’s an act of mercy and a reward.

Thus, when Dredd tries to resign, it’s not really about going soft or a dereliction of duty. He goes against the thematic basis of the Judges -- he did something that wasn’t a total waste, in order to help his family, what little he has. I don’t think you can really say the Judges saved the city (that’s a lot of burned buildings and irradiated people for a "win") but Dredd does save Nimrod, and indirectly saves Vienna. And if Chief Judge Hershey can recognize the importance of those two acts, maybe there’s hope for the Judges.

DOUGLAS: Interestingly, the one part of "Total War" that doesn't work at all for me is the Nimrod subplot. Having him show up for the first time in the same story in which he's trotted off means that his death (and, likewise, the "we have to find somebody to sign the euthanasia order" routine) doesn't have the dramatic force it seems like it ought to, and the "creature who just happens to have super-senses" business makes his Frankenstein's-monster rescue of Vienna way too convenient. (I note, though, that his "I seem to have forgot my maracas" scene seems to prefigure the look and tone of Flint's Zombo.)

I see how it should be a compelling idea to have a personal-level conflict for Dredd to ground the big kaboom of a story like "Total War," and I always like seeing Vienna turn up (although having her perpetually in peril stretches credulity a little). As Ben Saunders and I discussed a few months ago, Vienna's the one person who really matters to Dredd, since she's the only survivor of his greatest personal failure. So, structurally, this is almost there. "Total War" is effectively a story about a grand-scale failure of the Judges, and not the first of its kind: the "nukes hidden across the city" plot had turned up in different guises a few times in the first couple of years of the series, and Wagner occasionally likes to show a race against time to defuse a bomb that ends with the bomb going off. (The most reliably competent Judge in this story is the loathsome Roffman, as usual.)

In the light of "The Return of Rico" and "Necropolis," though, Dredd mercy-whacking Nimrod is maybe one "Dredd kills his corrupted other self" scene too many. And as dramatic as Dredd trying to turn in his badge on the final page is, that's also a card he's played a few times over the limit (and, by the end of "Day of Chaos," he seems to have taught Beeny to do the same thing). I practically cheered at "Bullet to King Four" a few weeks ago, when Hershey lets Dredd have it for his eagerness to "barge into my office at regular intervals to blackmail me with a badge you'll never hand in." Dredd's fear of personal failure--the specter of Rico that hovers over the story whenever Vienna turns up--doesn't quite work as a parallel to the systemic failure of the Judges at large; the Nimrod plot seems out of place, or maybe at the wrong scale, in the context of the nukes-going-off plot.

JOSIE: I do think that in terms of emotional impact both "Terror" and "After The Bombs" work much, much better. Like I said, while I enjoyed "Total War" overall and felt I got the thematic impact of Nimrod and the plot, boil it down and it is a pretty standard "terrorists take a city hostage/monster turns savior!" plot. With "Terror" we basically get a noir story (albeit one with, as you pointed out, a very Wagnerian dino-decapitation) and "After The Bombs" is Gaia running from the Judges and her past when there's no way to escape either.

Interestingly, I think "After The Bombs" also brings us back to the fact that the Judges are bad at their jobs. Psi Division is underperforming, there are mentions of unmet quotas, and in the end it seems Gaia’s punishment is not in response to her actions so much as it is about internal politics. Psi missed out on the bomb "glory" (and what an interesting choice of words), so they’ve now got their own bomb-predicting brain. Whether this will actually help them or become just one more justification for extreme action remains to be seen -- but to judge from "Terror" and "Total War," I doubt that trapping Gaia in bureaucratic hell will do anything but mark another skirmish in the ongoing war for the city.

DOUGLAS: One other thing I appreciate about this whole sequence: Wagner, unlike nearly every American mainstream comics writer, understands the distinctions between terrorism, politically motivated violence, and people blowing stuff up just to blow it up. Total War are genuinely terrorists. They actually have a goal in mind (get the Judges out and replace them with... uh, they'll cross that bridge when they get there), and their violence is meant to be coercive violence: they want to force the Judges to do what they say. They are also really stupid and counterproductive in terms of directing violence at the people they'd like to be their allies, but that's another matter. (See also Rage Against the Megs, more recently.) Borisenko's faction in "Day of Chaos," conversely, aren't terrorists as such, just revenge-seekers, because there's nothing in particular they want Mega-City One to do except die. The cover of Prog 1770 calls them "The Sov Terrorists," but as I recall the Judges never call them that--at least to each other--and Dredd later mentions Borisenko's "negotiations with terrorists." Points for precision.


Thanks again to Josie! Next week, it's back to (timely) spinoff territory, as Tim Callahan joins me to discuss The Simping Detective

Sunday, November 4, 2012

Mega-City Undercover

(Reprints Lenny Zero stories from Judge Dredd Megazine #3.68, 4.01-4.02 and 4.14-4.15, and Low Life stories from 2000 AD Progs 1387-1399, 1425-1428, Prog 2006, 1484-1490, and 1521-1524)

This week's special guest is Deb Chachra, an associate professor of materials science at the Franklin W. Olin College of Engineering, who does work on the engineering student experience. She also thinks a lot about music, culture and technology, is behind the Daily Idioms site, and is very much worth following on Twitter. Kick it off, Debcha!

DEB: Dredd, and 2000 AD, has always been a giant hole in my knowledge of contemporary comics, and "Low Life" is the first Dredd that I've read. I must admit I cheated; I knew it was a long-running and beloved series, and I'd be throwing myself into the middle of it. I wasn't really confident that I'd be able to handle a black start, so I skimmed the Judge Dredd Wikipedia entry to try to orient myself to the universe.

I probably needn't have bothered—not because there are references I wouldn't have gotten (like "Black Atlantic"), but because it's completely full of references I don't get, or so I infer from the copious presence of references I do get.

But it's clear, even from this small set of stories, how much the sensibility of a cohort of UK creators—not just comic book writers and artists, but also writers, designers, and more—has its roots in the Dredd universe.

DOUGLAS: That's a big statement to make (designers!), but a defensible one, I think--but I'm going to ask you to defend it! I'd love to know what sensibilities, exactly, or maybe what creators' sensibilities (especially creators outside comics) you see as being connected to what you see here...

It's true enough that a lot of comics writers from the British Isles, in particular, got early breaks in 2000 AD and then started doing work in the U.S., too: Alan Moore, Grant Morrison, Dan Abnett, Mike Carey, Mark Millar, Peter Milligan, Garth Ennis, and a handful of others. (Neil Gaiman wrote four Future Shocks and a prose Judge Hershey story; Warren Ellis wrote... one five-page Dreddverse horror story in an early issue of the Megazine.)

But one thing I think is interesting about "Low Life," in particular, is that it's sort of the sensibility that came out of 2000 AD and then passed through other comics returning to the source. "Low Life" first appeared in the spring of 2004, and in some ways it's a very post-Transmetropolitan series--its rhythms, its sense of comedy, its grime, its overall sense that the city is a damned place. (And Dirty Frank is, visually, Alan Moore by way of early Spider Jerusalem.) In the second volume, D'Israeli takes over as the main "Low Life" artist... and he'd previously drawn the Ellis-written series "Lazarus Churchyard" in the early '90s (which was reprinted in the Megazine in the early 2000s).

(Side note: D'Israeli's just astonishing. I particularly love his recent blog posts on how he's been drawing the current "Low Life" serial--which turns out to allude to a lot of imagery he saw in early 2000 AD!)

Similarly, "Con Artist"--the serial-killer convention story--keeps recalling Gaiman's serial-killer convention in Sandman. And "Rock and a Hard Place" has roots in "Heavy Metal Dredd" and maybe Alan Moore and Alan Davis's "The Hyper-Historic Headbang"... I want to say filtered through Sex Bob-Omb, but it's hard for me to imagine that Rob Williams or Simon Coleby would have read Scott Pilgrim's Precious Little Life before they started working on a story that was serialized in early 2005.

DEB: In terms of recognising the Dredd sensibility from UK creators, including non-comics creators...I talked to my friend Adam to help articulate this, and he reminded me of the piece Matt Jones, of the influential London-based design consultancy BERG, wrote for io9 a couple of years ago: "The City Is a Battlesuit for Surviving the Future" (although watching my friends in NYC deal with Sandy this week, it feels a bit like that particular exoskeleton took a direct hit and seized up, with its human trapped inside). When I think of London’s design community, I think of future-facing/experimental work on cities, sensors, and biology—sound familiar? To my North American perspective, the whole UK tech and design scene has this uniquely British-feeling mixture of humour and the unexpected–playfulness, in other words—and that’s what immediately felt familiar to me when I read “Low Life.” That community seems deeply rooted not just in 2000 AD, but in Boys’ Own and Dan Dare, and other British visions of the future (versus, say, Star Trek) And BERG themselves were named by Warren Ellis, who is closely linked with that scene, after the British Experimental Rocketry Group in The Quatermass Experiment.

And of course, given a choice of ur-texts to inspire the scenius of creative technologists, I’ll take the Dan Dare and 2000 AD of Silicon Roundabout over the Atlas Fucking Shrugged of Silicon Valley any day of the week.

DOUGLAS: YES. High five.

Another thing that fascinates me about "Low Life" is how well it works. It debuted within a couple of months of "The Simping Detective," the other durable series about undercover Judges in the nasty parts of town that's currently running in 2000 AD, and the first serial wraps up in a fairly conclusive way... but, by my thumbnail calculation, "Low Life" has run the fourth-greatest number of pages of any Dredd spinoffs, after "Anderson - Psi Division," "Armitage" and "Devlin Waugh." Part of that may be that it's become a very different sort of series over the past eight years or so: first it's Nixon's story, then it's an ensemble piece, and by the end of this volume Dirty Frank is stealing so many scenes that the way the series later shifts to belong to him makes sense.

I'm curious about the references you don't get vs. do get balance; rereading the "Low Life" this volume with that in mind, the only part of it I noticed where a joke would be entirely lost if you didn't know its antecedent was "Dirty Frank wants to take the Long Walk." How much did you end up picking up from context? (A different way of asking that: If you'd believed "Low Life" and "Lenny Zero" shared a setting but didn't directly refer to anything earlier, what might you have made of them?)

DEBBIE: Yeah, no, totally didn’t get the Long Walk allusion, and would not have seen any relationship between “Low Life” and “Lenny Zero” besides that shared setting.

In terms of references that I get and don't get, there are really two kinds: those that are internal to the Dreddverse and those that are allusions to the larger culture. Just in the Lenny Zero section, the latter case includes the reference to the Laws of Robotics in "Dead Zero" and the Resyk Dogs and Usual Perps posters in Zero's apartment. But those are just the references that I twigged--which suggests that there are others I don't get. For example, the poster on the bottom left of the last page of "Wipeout" looks tantalizingly familiar. 

Like pretty much everyone else, I love pop (and, for that matter, high) culture references. When you get them, they inevitably make you feel like one of the cognoscenti (and when you don't get them, they usually just slide past you, rather than making you feel dumb). I'm convinced that a large component of the success of The Simpsons was its ability to make viewers feel like they were in on an endless series of in-jokes, although it'll be interesting to see how well they date, bereft of their original cultural context. But the other reason why I love these sorts of references is for how they both define and celebrate a cultural commons--their success is predicated on a shared knowledge of cultural touchstones, whether it's Tarantino movies or Asimov novels. 

Conversely, references to other parts of the Dreddverse (like the allusion to "Black Atlantic," which I only got because of my Wikipedia cheatsheet) help cement its reality, its independent existence. As a non-superhero reader I had heard of DC- and Marvel-universe partisans, but didn’t really believe they existed until the day that I got caught in the crossfire between a comic book store clerk and a customer. But I am sympathetic to having grown up within these giant connected worlds and the power they hold over you.

I didn’t read comics as a child—I didn’t get into them until I was a teenager, and started straight in on Morrison and Miller and Gaiman. But I did grow up on Star Wars and Tolkien. My favourite moment in the movie Galaxy Quest is when Captain Nesmith contacts the young fanboy, Brandon, who begins by protesting that he knows it’s just a story. Nesmith cuts him off with, “It’s all real,” and Brandon’s first response is, “I KNEW IT!” Similarly, China Miéville talks about how “There are people playing home-brewed RPGs set in Bas-Lag and there is no higher compliment.” It’s like there’s a bit of our brain that squirts out some endorphins when we make the connection between different bits of the universe that reveal its unity. Not, now that I think of it, unlike my moment of revelation in high school when I understood how trigonometric identities in calculus worked—that they weren’t just algorithmic steps but the logical consequence of the underlying structure of mathematics.

DOUGLAS: Absolutely. Tangentially to that, though, for shared-universe (science) fiction to really have power for me as a reader, I think it has to have something beyond what Wikipedia calls "a primarily in-universe" perspective--that is, it can't rely only on knowledge of the fictional world for its meaning. (This is one of the reasons I have trouble enjoying X-Men comics, even though I absorbed nearly all of them for an eight-year-or-so period in the '80s and like a lot of other comics by other people who work on them these days; when I look at them now, they're just about moving the familiar pieces around in circles.)

I like this period of Low Life at least in part because it's a nifty premise on its own--"undercover cops have gotten in so deep they kind of don't belong topside any more." (Lenny Zero has a sort of similar premise--"undercover cop flips to the dark side"--as well as a tone borrowed from the Reservoir Dogs/Usual Suspects cluster of movies, which I understand were much bigger in the U.K. than in the U.S.) Both of them are secondarily made much richer by the Mega-City One setting, which has a whole lot of pre-established fun stuff on its own, as well as a much-larger-than-life aesthetic that means there can be something new and outlandish at every turn.

By "every turn," I mean in part every page turn. I think some of the reason that cluster of British creators hit it big in America is that they'd all gotten used to working in miniature. Most of the episodes of Low Life in this volume are five pages long; distilling a complete, satisfying chunk of story (that ends with a cliffhanger) into that little space isn't easy. Even so, Williams is great at making space for visual spectacle. I think every episode of "Paranoia" opens with an impressive splash panel and includes some other striking image somewhere. (He's gotten even better at that, now that he's working with the intensely simpatico D'Israeli; there's something worth staring at on every page of the current serial, "Saudade.") Lenny Zero doesn't have quite as many set-pieces to look at, but it has that plot-twist-every-page trick that I like a lot too.

There's another Rob Williams-written Dredd-universe spinoff, "Breathing Space," a serial that ran back in 2005. It's a clever concept--a noir/hard-boiled detective story set on the moon--and I enjoyed most of it enormously, until it hit its resolution, which hinges on some things that had been well established in that fictional universe but never mentioned in the story itself up until that point, and that don't have anything to do with "Breathing Space"'s genre, either. It's as if it reached out to the fictional universe to solve its plot, which feels like a little bit of a cheat.

(On the other hand, I do appreciate what I read as a metafictional touch in "Heavy Duty": the suggestion that while Judge Dredd's occasional use of enormously fat characters for comedy's sake sometimes does work, there's also something really offputting about that kind of body-policing. Are Williams and Flint trying to have it both ways? Maybe--although the specialty of this particular shared universe is having things both ways.)

This is, as you suggest, a (fictional) world in which it's easy to spend lots of time, both with a book in your hands and without one; over time I'm coming to appreciate, even more, the devotion of 2000 AD's readers and creators to each other. This week's issue, #1807, includes a big, beautifully executed surprise; people have been saying things online like "wow, I've been reading this series for 20/25/30 years and I didn't see that coming." And as nice as it is that it's still capable of thrilling surprises like that, the fact that so many people have been reading it for that long is even more heartening.

DEB: It’s funny that you describe X-Men as ‘just about moving familiar pieces around in circles’–that is also, of course, how people normally describe soap operas, another medium that is defined and constrained by its own pocket universe. But people writing comics have far less excuse to run out of ideas, since they have the whole multiverse to play in. I often describe the difference between ‘realistic’ fiction and science fiction/fantasy as the difference between whole numbers and real numbers: both are infinite, but the infinity of real numbers is still bigger.

My Twitter feed was all abuzz about prog #1807—I haven’t seen any spoilers about what happens in it, and to be honest, a newcomer to 2000 AD I doubt I would understand it (and I certainly wouldn’t appreciate the impact) of it. But I’m really delighted that the investment of long-time readers into the universe was repaid.

You commented on how hard it is to write a satisfying story in miniature, and one of the things I noticed was how closely linked the visuals are to the text. Douglas Hofstadter talks about this in his book on translation, Le Ton Beau de Marot, which riffs on a 16th-century French poem in which each line is only three syllables long, with a tight rhyme scheme that alternates with the sentence breaks. Translating the poem is an exercise in trying to juggle the semantics and the structure, with basically no wiggle room. Six pages seems like a comic book analogue of that—trying to figure out how to most effectively combine the two elements (text and graphics) to convey everything about the story. In “Low Life: Paranoia”, you could see this in the economy of the flashback sequences, but it was most evident in the temporal gaps. When the narrative transitions from Nixon fighting her way out of the club to recovering at Link’s place, it’s heralded by a single floating squared speech bubble, the tiniest fraction of the page, but the transition actually happens during the page turn. A pretty efficient use of real estate!

DOUGLAS: I think more even than soap operas, most mainstream comics franchises are required to put the pieces back where they started. My favorite Marvel-and/or-DC series in recent months was the Kieron Gillen-written run on Journey Into Mystery, which ended a week and a half ago in a very impressive way that I will also attempt not to spoil. (Gillen's another one of those British writers whose work has 2000 AD somewhere in its DNA, I suspect.) Tom Ewing wrote a really good piece about it called "The House Always Wins," which centers on what Stan Lee supposedly called "the illusion of change": the Big Thing that happens and then, eventually, un-happens, to restore the original premise of superhero comics, basically every single time. Neil Gaiman touched on it, thematically, in Marvel 1602; I haven't gotten to finish reading AvX yet, but as I understand it ends by undoing most of the major changes Brian Michael Bendis set up at the beginning of his Avengers run.

And one thing I love about 2000 AD is that it very often does kick over the toys for keeps. Supporting characters die and don't (usually) come back. Lead characters even die and don't come back, Johnny Alpha notwithstanding. There's no cosmic reset button. Changes are permanent. Stories end. Low Life can't go back to "Aimee Nixon's latest wacky mission." Even old reliable Dredd is structured to head very slowly toward some kind of ending: I can't imagine it'll be any time soon, but it also can't go on forever. (He's close to 70 years old now; over the past 35 years' worth of stories, MC1 has lost over 90% of its population. His job is shifting from defending the city to deferring the inevitable.)

DEB: A number of people I know—probably not coincidentally, mostly in the UK comics scene—are super-excited about Risk Legacy, the newest version of the boardgame, which came out last year. One of the amazing things about the game is that the rules all evolve as you play, depending on the choices made by players. It comes with a number of sealed components, and each has a specific condition under which it’s opened. Those new rules take effect permanently (as in, “affix this sticker to the board,” “rip up this card,” and the like). So it’s more like the 2000 AD of boardgames—decisions made lead to continuing changes—than the ‘everything resets to the beginning’ mode of most boardgames and comics.

Jumping back a bit, I wanted to pick up on  your thoughts on the body-policing and enormously fat characters: I think that they are, to some extent, trying to have it both ways. At the start of “Heavy Duty” I was like, “Oh yeah, here we go, getting the comedy from the fat people.” I was surprised by how sensitive it was, including Tyrone Appleby’s comeuppance for the crime of, basically, making his overweight charges feel like shit. Having said that, Rob Williams pretty much went straight to the “let’s make fun of women who don’t look like Barbie” well for in “Rock and a Hard Place” by putting Thora into full fetish gear, for no adequately explained reason.

The way these stories handled the visual portrayal of gender was similarly schizophrenic. I was immediately impressed that Lenny Zero’s girlfriend ‘Mona’ was shown, on the very first page, as pretty normal-looking. Overly-sexualized female characters are the canary in the comic coal mine for me – if open a book and see a character whose boobs are falling out of her top and whose ass is on display for no reason, it’s usually a clear sign that the creators don’t care about the character, or her contribution to the story (as with Thora in “Rock in a Hard Place”). And “Low Life” does a decent job with its female characters, although there’s the occasional move into T&A territory, sometimes explained (Aimee Nixon was required to dress as a prostitute in two successive cases, really?) and sometimes completely inexplicable (who goes out on a mission in underwear, a trenchcoat, and nothing else? or why do most Judges get armour over their chest, but Nixon gets a transparent panel?).
Speaking of Aimee Nixon... Dirty Frank is amusing, but Nixon is my favourite of the three protagonists, hands-down. She’s the anti-Batman. Bruce Wayne watched the killing of his parents when he was a child, and he grew up to be a fabulously wealthy loner vigilante, who uses his money to make boys’ toys. Not only was Nixon not helpless in the face of her parents’ death, but it was her own actions as a child (patricide) that made her an orphan. Rather than standing outside the system like Batman, she chose to find a place in the system and became a Judge. Instead of living alone in a fabulous manor, her home is together with the poorest people in Mega-City One. And while Batman famously has no special powers, Nixon had her arm amputated, voluntarily, and replaced with a prosthetic. That’s a fascinating lacuna, incidentally: the only explanation  given is that she wanted to “blend in,” which seems fairly inadequate, especially when you look at all the other Low Life Judges. Body Integrity Identity Disorder?

DOUGLAS: Neat link! I think the running joke with Wally Squad Judges is that they're able to "blend in" because they look unlike anybody else around them--nobody expects freakish-looking, mentally unstable types to be cops.

I love the idea of Aimee Nixon as the anti-Batman, though. I think you can extend that, too. Batman obsessively stays to his side of the border between himself and the people he opposes; Nixon knows that the difference between herself and her perps is not much more than nominal--that she's not just in the Low Life but of it. Remember, she does have one special power of sorts: she can lie exactly as convincingly as she can tell the truth. And without giving anything away about subsequent "Low Life" stories (some of which I'll be getting to in January), that becomes significant later on (so does the arm, actually!), and is relevant to the "not putting the pieces back where they used to be" point.


(A small bibliographical note: the book we're looking at is the first Mega-City Undercover collection, which is, I believe, still in print in the U.K., but got carved up oddly for the States. The early Lenny Zero stories have gotten bumped over to the American collection Lenny Zero and the Perps of Mega-City One, alongside the Bato Loco and Slick Dickens material; the Low Life stories from this volume are collected in the U.S. as Low Life: Paranoia--except that "He's Making a List" isn't included there. Who knows why?)

Thanks again to Deb! Next week: Josie Campbell joins me to discuss Total War.