Sunday, January 27, 2013

Tour of Duty: Mega-City Justice




(Reprints Judge Dredd stories from 2000 AD Progs 1649-1667, 1674-1693 and Prog 2010)

For our final special guest here, I'm delighted to introduce Carl Wilson. Carl is a Torontonian journalist and arts critic; he writes for The Globe & Mail, blogs about all kinds of culture (with Chris Randle and Margaux Williamson) at Back to the World, and tweets at @carlzoilus. He's also the author of the remarkable Let's Talk About Love: A Journey to the End of Taste--a book about Céline Dion's bestselling album that's also a book about aesthetics, criticism and taste. (A new, expanded edition is due out at the end of this year.)

*****

DOUGLAS: Carl, I'm afraid I've stuck you with the toughest gig of any of our guests: you get to come in more or less in the middle of a story. Between 2007 and 2009, the John Wagner-written episodes of Judge Dredd in 2000 AD (and sometimes Judge Dredd Megazine) set up an increasingly tight set of subplots: Dredd changing his mind about mutant rights when it turns out he has mutant relatives himself, using his influence with Chief Judge Hershey to get the mutant laws changed, then taking the fall with her once they didn't work out; P.J. Maybe killing and replacing Byron Ambrose, then getting elected mayor of the city; Dredd trying to act as a mentor for Judge Beeny without associating her with himself too closely. And you're coming in right in the middle of it.

On the other hand: the serial that doesn't bother with recap or exposition for new readers is a relatively recent development in comics, as well as TV. The assumption used to be that readers could hop on at any point, and any given issue of a series would include enough background information to understand what was going on; 2000 AD still nods to that with the little inside-front-cover descriptions of each serial. But 2KAD has also been doing "jumping-on point" issues for a long time: generally every 50th issue, and one or two more a year, will launch an entirely new set of stories.


Wagner's very good at providing context in passing, usually, but I'm looking at the first couple of episodes here and noticing a lot of stuff that might have flown past anyway. I suspect it's clear that what's going on in the early episodes is a major shift of power that's put the protagonist in a significantly reduced position, but I don't know if it's clear where the mutants are immigrating from, or what "The Streets of Dan Francisco" is, or why Dredd is saying his protegée Beeny is "unsuitable," or what the deal is with his niece and with Edgar--and I also don't know if those read as "hmm, here's a thing to keep an eye out for later" or as "nobody's even speaking my language as a reader." I'm curious what the ratio of "immersive" to "baffling" was for you, and what stuck out at you about the fictional world here.

Another curious thing about "Tour of Duty": formally, it's much more a series of blocks than a line of dominoes or a tower. Some of Wagner's long serials just keep ramping up their intensity from beginning to end, most obviously his and Grant's "Block Mania/The Apocalypse War" (and I think "Song of the Surfer" would fit that description too); the 2011-2012 sequence "Day of Chaos" is nearly a year of setup followed by a short-sharp-shock payoff. But this one, like "The Pit" and "The Hunting Party" before it, is a set of mini-serials, each drawn by a different artist and each a fairly complete little arc.

As he occasionally does in sequences like this, Wagner falls back on narrative setups with which he's very comfortable. (Our protagonist is leading a small group, one of whom gets nailed right away, one of whom has a problem she's not willing to admit to, one of whom is a troublemaker with no respect for the protagonist's authority, etc.: he can write that one in his sleep.) "Tour of Duty"--the Colin MacNeil-drawn sequence--is a "prison run by one of its inmates" story, the sort of thing that can be transplanted into lots of different idioms. "Pink Eyes"/"Gore City" is a barely disguised "sheriff kills the hell out of a bunch of outlaws" Western. For me, though, "The Talented Mayor Ambrose" is where this volume takes off: a "serial killer vs. police" formula--like all the earlier P.J. Maybe stories, really--made much more interesting by additional X-factors perpetually derailing both sides' plans.

I'll get into specifics on some of the stories (and some of the artwork) a bit more later, but first I want to turn it over to you: what did you make of this book?

CARL: The startling thing was that I have avoided the Dreddiverse in all its manifestations because I'd understood it to be a kind of Thatcherite, vigilante-culture, right-wing fantasy. So then I start "Tour of Duty: Mega-City Justice" and here is Dredd being railroaded for his alliance to a liberal political administration and his defense of minority rights. It was a bit disorienting.

I didn't find it too difficult to get the gist – as you said, Wagner seems deft at dropping hints, and the basic hierarchy and outlines of the MC1 world I needed to understand came across swiftly.

But you're right, every one of those details you mentioned was pretty opaque. It was a little frustrating not to be able to grasp the relationships. But if I understand properly, withholding is Dredd's emotional m.o. So while I was puzzled by the subtext of his exchanges with Beeny, niece, Edgar and Judge Hershey (are they friends or just sometime allies?), the characters themselves would have shared some degree of that puzzlement, no?


Either way, it's par for the course when one is joining a serial already in progress. Some people are averse to that experience but I'm not – partly because if I fall in love I will always go catch up on what I've missed. I'm not sure this story got me to that point with Dredd. But enough so that I did go back, after finishing the book, to research some of the outstanding questions, such as where the judges came from, why there is a Cursed Earth, and the backstory of PJ Maybe, which were all helpful.

That background reading also reinforced my impression that this book was somewhat aberrant. It seems like it's a little less baroquely comic-book fantastical than other major Dredd epics – there's the Pink-Eye mutant's pain powers, and some of Maybe's assassination techniques, but not alternate-universe, nuclear-annihilation-level spectacle. At its heart it's a political melodrama about the balance of power between utterly corrupt and only partly corrupt factions of the regime. That was one of the most entertaining paradoxes of the Maybe storyline in fact –while as an utter imposter and wanted psychopath he is the least legitimated of the authority figures, in his actual performance as mayor he's also the most enlightened and effective, earning even Dredd's respect. If I were Slavoj Zizek, I'd spin out of that some parable about violence and authenticity – that since Maybe's private relationship to murder is the least hypocritical, he's liberated into a more generous perspective on the social good. But I'm not Zizek, so I can't carry that too far.

What I did wonder is whether these half-steps towards liberalization of Dredd's political philosophy is part of the series' long endgame, planted (so I read) by the deathbed statement of his clone-father that this system was not meant to endure. Are we to take it that his ultimate destiny is to bring the fascist rule of the judges down? It could also be part of the series of feints and reversals that are endemic to decades-long comics series, but the continuing presence of co-creator Wagner make me want, at least, to imagine that there's an overall arc being played out.

Sidebar: I didn't quite get the legal dynamic between the municipal government and the judges' council – I take it the civilian authority has pretty limited scope?

The internal contradictions of the view of the mutants also reminded me of the moral ambiguities around the status of the cylons in the 2K version of Battlestar Galactica, and made me wonder if the political shift is less driven by the storyline of Dredd itself and more a post-9/11-world awareness. There were other historical resonances, though, of course – the deportation of the mutants to purportedly wonderful-but-separate colonies reminded me particularly of the creation of the Native American (and Canadian) reservations. Loved the newscaster who said, "I can imagine many normal citizens would love a chance like that!" Then comes the reality-check storyline.

So I see how the Cursed Earth section of the book reinforces the main story, and moves toward the ultimate confrontation with Sinfield and his agenda. But like you I thought it was weak stuff compared to what follows from "The Talented Mayor Ambrose." That title, of course, directly recalls Patricia Highsmith's The Talented Mr. Ripley, and one of the reasons you recruited me to this discussion was that I am a huge fan of Highsmith and her own disguise-loving psychopath. What we might take from those parallels I'll leave to our next round.


Meanwhile, a starting point for discussing the art, which I'll admit up front will be a remedial exercise. My mainstream-comics reading came to a stop when I was a tween in the 1980s, after which my picture-book reading was confined mostly to comix-with-an-x, zines, Love and Rockets, graphic novels, etc. I don't know if there was any one big influence (don't imagine it was Dredd?) that replaced the more brightly coloured, high-contrast comics style to which I was accustomed with the mainly-black-bordered, more dense and cinematic art I see in superhero-ish comics now. No doubt technology also had a huge effect.

But my eye doesn't discern well between one instance of today's (to me) murky look and another. Mike Collins' approach to the Cursed Earth stories seemed more lively and creative than Colin MacNeil's more conventional action-movie frames; the Ezquerras' art in "Mega-City Justice" seemed lumpier (more British?) than the group effort on "Mayor Ambrose." But those are crude calls. I'm sure you can open my eyes to the subtleties I'm missing.

DOUGLAS: Taking your questions in order: Interesting that you had gotten the impression that Dredd was a right-wing fantasy! Which of course he is if you take him straight, but it's very rare that the context permits that. For all that he's effectively a liberal reformer here, he's still taking baby steps in the context of a totalitarian political system to which he subscribes wholeheartedly; it's just that he'd like to see everyone equally subject to that system's oppression. One of my favorite little moments of the whole series is in the middle of "The Graveyard Shift," back in 1983: Dredd and Hershey have some time to kill, so Hershey suggests they "work a couple of 59Cs." "Which block?" "First one we come to, I guess." A "59C" is a "crime swoop," where they kick somebody's door in at random and arrest them for whatever contraband and infractions they happen to have in their home. ("Nobody's innocent, citizen. We're just here to determine the level of your guilt.")

Withholding is pretty much all Dredd knows how to do emotionally, yes. (See Rob Williams' interview about his story in next week's issue of 2000 AD, in which Dredd basically appears as a symbol of erotic repression.) But most of his conversations in here have some context from earlier in the series. Dredd and Hershey's relationship is an interesting case: she was once effectively his protégée, about thirty years ago, and is now his boss (because she was willing to rise through the ranks; Dredd, despite his formidable reputation, just wants to be a street Judge). They got along well when they were peers; he still tends to treat her as one, or to try to pull rank on her (sometimes by threatening to quit if he doesn't get his way), and it's strained their relationship considerably. As far as friendship goes: I think he's half-admitted being someone's friend exactly once--Anderson, at the end of "Satan"--and that was like pulling teeth.

I like the idea of the series having a "long endgame," and the fact that it does seem to be creeping toward an eventual end is something I love about it. But I also can't imagine Joe Dredd bringing the Judges down. (Part of Fargo's deathbed speech is telling Joe that he and Rico can do it together--and of course Joe killed Rico decades ago.) He's the law; that's all there is to him. He can acknowledge that sometimes the law gets it wrong, but he's still going to enforce it. "Day of Chaos" made the Judges' near-total failure impossible to get around, even as it cemented the necessity of their authority; their rule may not have been meant to go on forever, but now it's the only thing keeping what's left of the city alive. And what would Zizek say about that, I wonder?

The municipal government vs. the Judges: I gather that the civilian authority has almost no power at all. See the hilariously straight-faced Mayor of Mega-City One article on Wikipedia for more, but two relevant points: the most popular mayor the city has had (at least before Byron Ambrose) was an orangutan who was voted into office as a joke; and, while "Day of Chaos" nominally hinges on a mayoral election, it ended more than six months ago and we still haven't found out who won.

As far as the effect of Dredd (and more broadly 2000 AD) artwork on American comics: I've had a few conversations here about the enormous effect that the writing in 2000 AD had on American comics, and the writers who shifted from one primary audience to another. But it's harder to see a causal connection between the look of this stuff and American comics--in part because the British comic book tradition was, until about 20 years ago, mostly a black-and-white tradition. I suspect the big change in the look of American comics was indeed technological, and had to do with computer coloring and, more recently, the rise of drawing on Wacom tablets.


A few Dredd-linked artists have certainly become big names in the U.S. (Brian Bolland is the most obvious example; another one is Charlie Adlard, who's been drawing The Walking Dead for 100 issues or so now, and also drew the first three books of Savage and a bunch of Dredd. See also Frazer Irving, Kevin Walker, Steve Dillon, Brendan McCarthy and a few others.) Carlos Ezquerra has done a lot of work in American comics over the past 15 years or so--largely in collaboration with one writer or another with whom he's worked on Dredd, actually.

(I actually think of Ezquerra's artwork as being more Continental in its look than British, as such--I associate the distinctive raggedness of his line and his very broad variation in line density with French and Spanish-language adventure comics. Although there are some things he does, like the thick, jagged panel borders, that are Ezquerra-and-nobody-else. I miss some of his old black-and-white-era techniques, like the way he'd signal a flashback by giving every line the same very light weight--that doesn't work in color comics--and I miss the supersaturated colors of the period when he was painting his colors, too.)

I think it's interesting, though, that there's much more Dredd artwork in the past couple of decades that could pass for something from mainstream American comics than there had been before that. When 2000 AD went full-color (quickly followed by the birth of the Megazine), there was a certain adjustment period as artists who had worked in black-and-white for most of their careers were jolted into working in color, but there was also a lot of painted artwork and other unconventional approaches. There's still a lot of that in both series--the Ampney Crucis Investigates serial in 2000 AD right now, for instance, or almost every Anderson Psi Division story, or the enormously distinctive appearance of the black-and-white(-ish) artwork in the recent Simping Detective and Low Life stories.

Over time, the basic look of Dredd has settled into being pen-and-ink line art with color, and often (but not always) on a sort of American-looking template; that applies to most of this volume. Even John Higgins, who's done some extraordinary Dredd material based more on color and form than on linework ("Joe Dredd's Blues" comes to mind), goes for a straighter pen-and-ink look in his section of "The Talented Mayor Ambrose." (That may also have something to do with drawing a section of a long serial that has very little leeway on when it has to run...)

And yes: I'd love to know more about what you think P.J. Maybe and Tom Ripley do or don't have in common, and about how this story fits into the conventions of crime stories and detective/cop stories.

CARL: Thanks for all the illumination, Douglas. On rereading, especially with the background you’ve given me, the black humor of the Dredd style is even clearer. And I think that, more than anything, is where the aesthetics of the series and of Patricia Highsmith most connect.

The comparison between PJ Maybe and Highsmith’s Tom Ripley doesn’t run too deep: Yes, they both use disguise, though not having a face-changing machine, Ripley’s method is more to use forgery and other deceits to steal traits from others and incorporate them into his own identity. And they are both sociopathic killers. But where Maybe is a dedicated connoisseur of death and suffering, Ripley is an opportunistic gold digger who simply has no compunctions about also digging a grave or two along the way, when he is cornered, to sustain his deceptions and con games.


The one exception is his first murder, of his friend Dickie Greenleaf – when the subtext is that it is partly out of sublimated desire, and rage at sexual rejection, which does become a bloodlust. Once he’s successfully ensconced himself in a French-countryside upper-class lifestyle with his art collection and trophy wife, he prefers to keep things serene, but suspicious meddlers keep showing up and needing to be disposed of. There’s also an element of class and sexual subversion to his story that seems absent here.

PJ Maybe is much more of a cartoonish psychopath – if the Judges had gone further than just matching his DNA with Mayor Ambrose’s and actually mapped his genome, it seems like they’d have found as much of the Joker and a Bond villain or two in there as of Tom Ripley.

What Wagner might have found more inspirational is the way that Highsmith turned the typical thriller/mystery point-of-view inside out, by telling the story from the psychopath’s point of view, and making the suspense about his efforts to evade detection rather than about the authorities’ steps in detecting him. It was a startling move when the first Ripley book came out in 1955. Today the technique is familiar, for instance in cable TV series such as Breaking Bad, Dexter, The Sopranos and even Mad Men (Don Draper, as a similarly shape-shifting class-queue-jumper, is kind of a Ripley of the American Dream, who uses advertising – and his penis – instead of a knife to make his kills). They get their thematic tension from the audience’s uneasy complicity with the likeable but morally indefensible protagonist, from rooting in many ways for the wrong side.

We don’t go quite that far along with PJ Maybe, but what he offers in the bleak emotional landscape of the Mega-City is the rare sense of someone enjoying himself, of pleasure in an anhedonic dystopia. Inga the Swedish love robot may be an idiotic male fantasy, but at least it means someone in this dull battle of greed versus law actually has a fantasy. The sequence when she role-plays Judge Hershey to dole out naughty-schoolmarm S&M, faking out both the reader and PJ himself at first, is maybe the single funniest thing in the story. And of course it pays off both in murder and in Maybe's ultimate undoing.

So that's the trick to the police-procedural side of the plot here: The Judges’ detective work is generally piss-poor, and all the revelations really come from the screw-ups of Maybe, Inga and Sinfield (who, we should pause to note, is also playing his own game of con and disguise, mirroring Maybe at the opposite end of multiple spectrums). If Sinfield didn’t keep having improbable recoveries from Maybe’s biological attacks, if Maybe had come up with a better cover story in advance (and didn’t have his DNA all over his lovebot), and so on, this bunch of purse-lipped lunkheads might never have been the wiser. Dredd doesn’t even figure out how Sinfield was controlling Francisco till Maybe straight-up tells him. At first that seemed a bit like sloppy plotting, but on second read, it rings more like a carnival-ride flip on that clunking Law & Order music. The (supposed) heroes don’t outsmart the villains, they just wait around till the schemes grow to such ridiculous scope that they’re impossible to miss.

In a word, fun.

The ending still seemed over the top. Dredd’s "gotcha" line about having been one of the two the Judges to vote against commuting Maybe’s sentence was nothing but misdirection to keep the reader from thinking that there’s no way the others would have voted for it either, given Maybe’s record. Prisons can't hold him. Hell, even if he were executed he might cheat death again. So it comes off as typical case of comic creators being unwilling to give up their juiciest villains. Maybe you could argue that’s another metajoke, that keeping Maybe around to chortle and kill another day is a further satirical wink. But it’s not the one with the most gleam.


DOUGLAS: Fair enough--his escape from doom here is indeed pretty credulity-bending, and there's no denying that he seems to be a pet character of Wagner's. P.J.'s whole raison d'être, though, more even than being a psychopathic identity-stealer, is that he does get away, over and over, through avoiding suspicion or byzantine plans or pure luck. Nobody else gets that in this series (other than the Dark Judges, for whom immortality is baked into the premise): the Angel Gang are dead (aside from Mean Machine, who's now a helpless old man), the Judge Child is dead, Orlok the Assassin is dead, and so are Call-Me-Kenneth and Cal and Borisenko and Edgar and the Judda and Mister Bones and Kraken and Armon Gill and Nero Narcos and basically every other character in Dredd who's ever been a serious threat. Chopper's alive, as far as we know, but he isn't a threat any more--really, he never was. Only this one homicidal dork keeps smelling like roses instead of pushing up daisies.

*****

Thanks again to Carl! A bibliographic note: this volume doesn't quite reprint all of "Tour of Duty"--there were seven episodes by writers other than Wagner, all set during the "Dredd posted to the mutant township" sequence. (The best of those is probably Prog 2010's Al Ewing/Paul Marshall one-off "Bethlehem," a Christmas story with a very funny formal conceit, but none of them really advance the overall "Tour of Duty" narrative.)

And that's it for "Dredd Reckoning"--I've covered all the Dreddverse comics stories reprinted in squarebound books to date, I believe. I'll be back with one or two more housekeeping-type posts, and will also be announcing a forthcoming comics-related project or two here when the time comes. Thanks to all the amazing thinkers and writers who've done me the honor of making guest appearances here, to all the commenters here and at the 2000 AD Forum who've made this such a fun project, to the Mighty Tharg himself and everyone else at the Nerve Centre for the ultimate honor of the Krill Tro Thargo, and most of all to Messrs. Wagner, Ezquerra, Grant, and all the rest for the many years of delight I've gotten from their work. 

9 comments:

  1. Good little shoutout to Zizek there. I suspect anyone who's been following Dredd's world over the years with any interest in politics would see a lot of familiar thoughts in his essays...

    I'll really miss you blog updates Douglas! Thanks for all those great essays that have been brightening up my Monday mornings for months now!

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  2. I second that - thank you very much for your delightfully comprehensive and well-presented thoughts, and your impressive commitment to a weekly schedule.

    Good god, the totality of the collected works of Judge Dredd is bloody good comics, isn't it.

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  3. I can't believe it's taken until the last post for you to mention Zizek. This blog has been a very welcome part of my life, Douglas, and I'll miss the weekly updates. Since you've been honoured by Tharg, I'd imagine you'll be on his comp list for the foreseeable future - I hope further collections of Dredd material will earn this blog sporadic updates, or feature in whatever imminent comics-related venture you hint at above.

    Thanks again, Wolk.

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  4. So glad I found this blog and what a wonderfully insightful post! A little Slavoj is always welcomed when it comes to anything to do with politics and film combined. As someone who has spent a great time studying Zizek's works, if there is one suggestion I could offer...try to make the Zizek section of the writing a bit sweatier and incoherent.

    Rami @ culturesalad.wordpress.com

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  5. Aw man, sorry to see this blog go...Thanks very much for you efforts, they were always great to read, and I hope some more of these trades become more available on this side of the pond!

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  6. Your posts will be missed, Douglas!

    About the text, it's interesting to see Fargo's last words as a sort of prophecy, and the Rico that would help Dredd bring down the justice system as the NEW Rico! Very unlikely to happen, though.

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  7. Thanks for all the insights and indepth writing on the Dreddverse, Douglas! This turned into one of my fave blogs.

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  8. Thanks for the blog! It really helped me decide which of these were worth the effort of tracking down here in the United States.

    As for your piece on the last part of Mega City Justice is concerned, I was amused how Carl Wilson read Dredd straight as a right-wing fantasy.

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