Friday, April 27, 2012

 

Judge Dredd – The Complete Case Files 01

The galaxy’s greatest comic, 2000AD, has just turned thirty-five, and this week it’s thirty years since I started reading it. So where better to start again than with this chunky 300+ page reprint volume, taking in the whole first year of the grim future law officer who’s still 2000AD’s star, Judge Dredd? Set in the huge Mega-City 1 of a century ahead, covering almost the whole of the former USA’s Eastern seaboard, these stories are sometimes primitive, building Dredd’s world, often funny, already with some remarkable artwork, and where everything from TV to family to the Olympics can kill you…

This omnibus graphic novel is the first of a superb series collecting the whole of Judge Dredd (ish) in chronological order, and with many advantages over previous reprints – it’s the whole thing; it’s a very thick volume; it’s quite a cheap price; this one has several ‘extra features’ at the end – and only a few downsides (with the cheapness comes a slightly smaller page size than original publication, making some panels a bit cramped, and while most of the stories here originally opened with two colour pages, this is only black and white, something more noticeable on the few pages for which they clearly didn’t have the original proofs and are printed in glorious grey murk).


Meet Judge Dredd
 
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I Am the Law!
“Mega-City 1… 800 million people and every one of them a potential criminal. The most violent, evil city on Earth… But, God help me, I love it.”
You can tell it’s early days when Judge Dredd is still saying “God” and not “Grud”; 2000AD soon discovered, like Battlestar Galactica, that they could get away with as much profanity as they liked as long as they made it up (strangely, the end of this volume’s ‘covers gallery’ of Dredd featured on the front of 2000ADs of the time has only three of his six, and one of those omitted has an early use of “By Stomm!”). Of all the Dredd compilations – and this “Complete” series alone now has about twenty volumes – this is the crudest and simplest, but one of the most interesting, as it gradually builds Dredd’s world in the nightmarish sprawl of the Mega-City that from the start is far, far more than just a giant New York, with Carlos Ezquerra’s fabulous weird swirling citiblock designs, even if they’re not yet named as such. And the giant of the giant city, Dredd himself, is also still not yet fully formed as the most capable, most implacable, the most feared and famous of the Judges – though he’s rapidly getting there.

Mega-City 1 is ruled by the Judges – although there’s an element of democracy hinted at here, with a City Mayor, the civil administration doesn’t run anything important, and democracy ended in what used to be the USA with the Atomic Wars that laid waste to much of the country (most of this, by the end of this volume, still yet to be explained). Yet despite nuking the Republican heartlands, the remainder of the country still turned fascist to fight the crimes of 800 million kettled and mostly unemployed citizens. In this selection covering the complete run of Judge Dredd stories from 2000AD issues, or Progs, 02-60 – he was only trailed in Prog 1 – there’s the implication at first that the heavily armed, heavily trained, and just plain heavy Judges are a rare elite, with a remarkably tiny board of remembrance for those killed in action and criminals handed over to an ordinary police force (though still no courts). This soon falls away, leaving a vast Judge force in sole charge, giving out instant, brutal justice.

Co-creators John Wagner and Carlos Ezquerra make very different contributions here: Wagner writes much of the volume, his scripts head and shoulders above pretty much everyone else’s (in later years, he writes pretty much the whole saga himself, usually with a long-time writing partner but under an array of pseudonyms to give the impression of a much wider authorial staff); Ezquerra, however, creates the stunning vistas of Mega-City 1 and Dredd himself but, pissed off that they didn’t bother to use one of the stories he drew as the first one and so giving the impression someone else should get the credit, only draws a handful here and then refuses to return to the strip for five years. Still, he starts the whole thing off, and every time I see his grittily textured, striking compositions, they appeal to me like no other comic artist.

Perhaps if I’d started reading 2000AD at the very beginning, I might have thought differently, but when I picked up Prog 261 five years in, in the week starting 24th April 1982 (they’re now up to Prog 1780), Judge Dredd was in the middle of what for me is still his most stunning saga, the 26-part The Apocalypse War, which you can find in what I reckon is definitely the strongest reprint volume, The Complete Case Files 05. And that marked Ezquerra’s triumphant return, with him and Wagner responsible for every frame and every word. The only break, as I’ll come to, was a story that turns up in this very collection. So for me, John Wagner and Carlos Ezquerra are simply the business for Dredd, as they should be. I associate many of the stories in this first volume with years spent slowly building my collection backwards, saving up pocket money and trawling through the boxes of Back Progs in Manchester’s long-gone shop Odyssey 7, where finds from the past were always exciting and Nik Kershaw’s Wouldn’t It Be Good was for some reason always playing. It’s still a ridiculously evocative song for me to this day…

The Standout Story

This ought to be a difficult choice, as I’m fairly confident this volume has more stories in it than any other – simply because Judge Dredd started off as one-issue short stories, and soon grew into much larger, longer tales. So the obvious selection here would be by far the longest, the precursor of all those much, much longer epics to come, the nine-issue Robot Wars storyline; but that has its problems, for me, so no. That leaves one other obvious choice, a much-reprinted, much-lauded one-part story that’s still seen as a crucial part of Dredd’s history (and is much-copied even in this volume). And, all right, I will pick that one. But I’ll start by cheating, and also picking another that I actually prefer, and that for me is more a sign of Dredd to come…

You Bet Your Life!
Walter! Turn that off this instant!”
“B-but Judge Dwedd – this is Walter’s favouwite pwogwamme!”
“It’s also so illegal that I could have you dismantled for even watching it. They kill people on that show!”
Judge Dredd co-creator John Wagner has always been his best writer for me; like Doctor Who’s Robert Holmes, he’s cynical, violent and very funny, and this little one-part story has the sort of vicious satirical bent that Dredd will tend to grow into. Despite being published as early as Prog 25, it was also one of the first Dredd adventures that I read – because it has the rare distinction of being ‘repeated in prime time’, republished not only in compilations like this but in 2000AD’s own weekly Dredd slot in Prog 268, remarkably the only week when that massive half-year epic The Apocalypse War took such a toll on its consistent creative team (again, John Wagner writing) that they had to skip a deadline. And it doesn’t seem at all like part of the relatively crude early Dredd still finding its way; with its grinning talk-show host, stupid venal contestants – among the few citizens this early on to get characters beyond ‘thug’ – and their horrible deaths satirising TV greed and violence, with Ian Gibson’s gleeful art suiting it all perfectly, this is Judge Dredd fully formed. Only an improbably good role for his service droid Walter gives away that it’s from quite early on – and that role in itself points to a problem with Robot Wars, which ends with Walter being given his freedom and equal status with humans. This is a Mega-City with much incidental death in the call of duty, but no death penalty; just read that quote above again. A fwee wobot, eh?


Open the Box!
 
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The Return of Rico
“Good morning! Mega-City Justice H.Q.! Please state your business.”
“My business is personal! I want to speak to a Judge… Judge Dredd!
“I’m sorry, sir. The Judge is out on patrol.”
“Just tell him I called… My name is Dredd… Judge Dredd!
“But, sir, that’s impossible… There’s only one Judge Dredd!”
Rightly regarded as a crucial, classic Judge Dredd story, this was first published in Prog 30 but has fallout for decades, from the remarkably similar John Wagner exploration of the same theme, Mutie the Pig, to a sillier revenge tale in Red Christmas and then an outright piss-take with Walter’s evil brother Gus – and those are just the ones in this first volume! – to a darker version in the sprawling epic Necropolis and even a completely bungled attempt in the ’90s Judge Dredd movie. At 6 pages, The Return of Rico is the longest single-issue Dredd to this point, hardly extensive but cramming in a huge amount… Mike McMahon’s art is unusually moody and introspective, giving the noirish story a striking air from the first. But the crucial contributor here is 2000AD’s founding editor Pat Mills, the only writer in this volume of the same calibre as Wagner, though with a very different, more passionate, feel: his Dredd has more of a heart, his stories less funny, and the whole thing generally less satirically fascist. Here, the Judge Joe Dredd we all know’s identical clone brother ex-Judge Rico Dredd returns for revenge twenty years after Joe shopped him for turning bad. It’s a simple basic idea, but done with more depth and experimentation than any of these other early stories – with flashbacks to their childhoods, which you can hardly call childhoods, showing Rico as the more capable cadet and, improbably, Joe-the-later-best-Judge-ever giving him credit for pulling him through training – and a brilliant, terrible reveal of what those twenty years did to Rico. It has its flaws, and its side-effects: the song reference at the climax dares you to snigger; Rico’s timeline is a mess, with Mutie the Pig, as it happens, revealing that the Dredds are only 33 here, and in later years completely screwed when his daughter turns up; and Mills’ more human, yet more uncomplicatedly heroic Joe Dredd is less powerful and less disturbing than Wagner’s faceless embodiment of authority. Yet for all that, it still packs a punch.

And you can read it for free on the 20000AD website.

Something Else To Look Out For

Reading Dredd’s first year all in one go, it’s a striking mixture of creativity and repetition. Much of Dredd’s world is in place from the very first; much of it comes in in dazzlingly ingenious slices of the future, with many stories essentially a one-shot framing device to say ‘Look what new mad thing we’ve thought of!’ And yet, alongside this fountain of new ideas and designs, most of the stories are very short, action-packed and not exactly deep, while on top of that there are themes that repeat over and over again, with those echoes of The Return of Rico only scratching the surface. And at the same time, if you’ve got used to Judge Dredd from any point after the first couple of years, some elements and ideas are mysteriously absent, with little character given to the citizens, later to become the crazed backdrop of the series, and the towering blocks in which they live similarly anonymous.

Most strikingly, the Judges themselves are smaller both in number and in appearance: Wagner’s concept was pretty much of ferocious bikers as law enforcers; Ezquerra’s brilliant designs gave the Judges a far more distinctive look, covered in icons and shoulderpads (less Dynasty than American football, with one shoulderpad absurdly but inspiredly moulded as an eagle); but at this stage they still look more like slim bikers in figure-hugging lycra bodysuits than the massive figures we become used to as their accessories expand to ludicrous size and their bodies fill out to suit them. And for that expansion, the artist here who deserves singling-out is the one who started as an Ezquerra-wannabe, Mike McMahon, yet to discover his full style. Yet even in the very first story published (another which you can read online for free), controversially drawn by McMahon, just look at the size of Dredd’s boots as he talks to the “Grand Judge”… Judge Dredd himself, yet to acquire the nickname “Old Stony Face”, for this brief volume looks young and slim, but don’t get used to that; like the rounded helmet that for the moment frames it, his ‘baby face’ will soon get sterner and straighter. And he’ll have a much bigger chin.

At this prototype stage, many of the stories weren’t named on the page, and to make it more confusing to find them, there’s no contents page to these volumes – though, thankfully, there is just that on the 2000AD website. And those repetitions coupled with that lack of titling can sometimes make The Complete Case Files 01 confusing to flick through if you’re dipping in and out of them and perhaps haven’t read any for a week. ‘Haven’t I already read this one, but with a slightly different last page?’ you might ask yourself. For a start – and from the start – a lot of the stories are incredibly butch. Judge Dredd doesn’t yet have his reputation with the reader, and barely with the citizens, for being the ultimate iron first of law and order, so they try very hard, over and over, to make you believe it. In that first story, Judge Whitey, thug “Whitey” Logan is a Judge-killer to show how macho he is; Dredd insists on going in to tackle him alone to show how much more macho he (and by extension the Judge force) is. It’s not a bad opener, though it is very, very butch, and McMahon has some impressive action art – with the very first frame cropped from a pilot by Ezquerra – with only the lack of scale of the “Devil’s Island” prison (no Iso-Blocks this volume) disappointing. But then, a little later, there’s The Solar Sniper, which is almost exactly the same story, combined with introducing the City’s Weather Control; and, to bring the theme full circle, Whitey then breaks out with the aid of his own weather control. Similarly, Dredd is determined to take on Call-Me-Kenneth (butcher than the name suggests) and many others alone, as well as resigning a few times in a strop before realising that the City just can’t make it without him – a habit he grows out of, and when he resigns much, much later, it’s with real impact and its own secret spin-off. It’s perhaps unsurprising that with so much testosterone soaking the pages, this volume is by far the weakest for any women characters: no-one’s thought to have women Judges yet, incredibly, and such women as there are tend to be prettily posing receptionists, so hurrah for old “Green Fingers” Ma Mahaffy, the evil gardener who actually does something for herself.

Antique Car Heist, one of the less successful stories, comes from the terrific and terrifically weird artist Massimo Belardinelli. Unfortunately, his style doesn’t suit Dredd at all, nor his bike, but thankfully the mistake made so early (and so ludicrously contained) where Dredd removes his helmet in fact cements the character in never, ever doing so, making him the literally faceless embodiment of the Judges. Frankenstein II isn’t a great story, but introduces the idea of stealing people’s organs to keep the rich healthy – not yet named as organ-leggers – and has some great McMahon art of Dredd firing his bike cannons… Though one strange side-effect of Ezquerra not working on the strip for most of its first five years is that it’s only when he returns that he shows what the shiny cone he put on the front of the bike is for: until then, many artists use the machine gun bike cannons either side of the front wheel, but you never get to see the big laser above it in action. A two-parter that makes much of his bike, The Mega-City 5000, doesn’t seem like an important story, but will become so; it’s another very macho one, with a bike race and Dredd joining in to show that he’s got a bigger – motorbike – than anyone else. Except that Bill Ward is the only artist to draw Dredd’s Lawmaster as a bit tiny, and Dredd all spangly, which may just possibly be a critique but I suspect just isn’t any good. Fortunately, the second half of this brings in the clean, dramatic style of Brian Bolland, arguably Dredd’s most fan-beloved artist. It still has a problem in retrospect, though; not only is pretty much the same story done again, again, but better in Land Race, but it introduces the character Spikes Harvey Rotten, a big, black-bearded biker in the Hell’s Angels mould who appears to be dead at the end. In every way, this seems a little strange if you read The Complete Case Files 02The Academy of Law is a more interesting two-parter, setting up the Judges’ separation from their families and giving us a new black Judge, Judge Giant, in a rare tie-in to another 2000AD strip (in this case, the Harlem Heroes).

Perhaps the most intriguing one-shot stories are those which explore a weird bit of Dredd’s world: The New You face-change parlour comes early, reimagined later in the book as The Face-Change Crimes, a far superior, far funnier Hollywood skit with glorious artwork from Brian Bolland; The Brotherhood of Darkness borrows from Beneath the Planet of the Apes to have near-blind mutants coming in from the as yet unnamed atomic wastelands; a little later, more weirdly, lastingly and satisfyingly, there are the very similar Troggies, coming up from the old (as yet unnamed) Undercity to prey on the citizens and, worse, croon at them, the evil decaying hipsters; there are futzies, people who go suddenly mad from ‘future shock’; New Labour-like crimes of smoking or, worse, selling 2000AD; just how many exciting different types of bullets Dredd’s gun can fire; I’ve said before how much I love Dredd’s informant Max Normal, who isn’t; and robots. Lots of robots. From robot hotels to robot cars to giant robot apes to robot rebellions, pretty much all of them are bad news, but they also provide this volume’s biggest storyline.


The Neon Knights
 
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Robot Wars and Law on the Moon
“You can’t die if you’re not alive, George. Now get into those flames!”
The Robot Wars saga, eight episodes and a prologue, plus later sequels, is Judge Dredd’s first epic, and though later ones have run to three times that length, it already shows some of the strengths and weaknesses of the better-known, more frequently reprinted ‘Dredd epics’. It’s written by John Wagner, and drawn by… Four different artists, only some of whom get it, and all of whom have wildly different styles. Even Ezquerra, who mostly turns in impressive work on his episode, throws away the first appearance of Walter the Wobot, while his big, brutish design for the villain is swiftly replaced by something blandly handsome and forgettable. Ron Turner, an artist from an older generation, does some interesting stylised metallic shading and baroque big robots, but just isn’t right for the Judges; McMahon is dependable; but it’s the flowing style of Ian Gibson which unexpectedly comes to the fore here, simply because he’s just so good at coming up with strange droids, as well as giving this grim story an uncharacteristically dark and dirty style (with a few funny caricatures on top). Gibson does a lot of work in this volume, occasionally as “Emberton” (such as when a character’s named after him), usually stylish, occasionally slapdash – I suspect because he could be a very fast worker, and while his work on the likes of Halo Jones is famously beautiful, he was also sometimes tapped to do things in a hurry when other artists simply couldn’t deliver, suffering as a result – but this, other than one great splash-panel of Dredd bursting in in a later story, is his most striking here. The inconsistency of the artwork, though, is distracting even when individual episodes are impressive, and the script is surprisingly inconsistent, too.
“Death to the fleshy ones!”
Most notably, while Mills later returns to the topic of slavery in America with different metaphors and more politics, Wagner’s robot revolution is all over the place. Initially, we see the robots as suffering victims and the human oppressors set up for a fall; Dredd, the satirical fascist hero who’s meant to make you feel uncomfortable is suddenly the noble one; yet the characterisation of the robot leader Call-Me-Kenneth as a mad brute throws away any shades of grey (though making this self-styled messiah a carpenter is a touch that gets past the censors), as to make you side with the fascist state its enemies have to be even worse; and the end of the story leaves a nasty taste in the mouth. Robots who aided the humans in the war are given pleasure circuits, but then told to get back to slavery and presumably not given much time to enjoy them; the lisping drinks wobot who basically falls in love with Dredd, Walter, is given his fweedom – but instantly rejects it, wanting to be the Judge’s slave. After which Dredd kicks him around, puts him down and sneers at him for being a robot for the next half-dozen years, many of them admittedly entertaining (not least the terrible jokes of the Walter the Wobot – Fwiend of Dredd comedy spin-offs which are reprinted at the back of this volume, though frustratingly incomplete), until the writers get either bored or ashamed and he mysteriously vanishes from the series. Elvis the Killer Car is essentially the same story later in the volume, a little more playfully and surprisingly going for four episodes while mostly running on empty, but it’s unsurprisingly Pat Mills who writes the more socially conscious sequel, The Neon Knights, in which men in hoods go round beating up robots and “robot-lovers” with what I’m sure they told the censors was nothing like a burning cross. You may be able to spot the subtext there. The Ape Gang, on the other hand, has Wagner’s simian Mafia led by Don Uggie Apelino and, though it’s witty and inventive and McMahon has fun with it, it ends up as, oh dear, more slaves stripped of personhood (and, peculiarly, reprinted with a late-’80s 2000AD ad).
“Don’t do it, citizen! Littering the streets is an offence!”
The oddest set of stories here are those where Dredd is appointed Judge-Marshal of Luna1, the United Cities of North America Colony on the Moon; in theory, this is for six months, though if you count the Progs you’ll note they get tired of it well before then and are presumably gagging to get Dredd back to Mega-City 1. Though, again if you read volume 2, it doesn’t entirely work out that way, as it’s another year on before things really get back to ‘normal’. In the meantime, this is essentially an excuse to do a different side of America: first the big city, now the Wild West. There’s a mild story arc with Moonie Fabrications, not that it matters much, but largely an excuse to mix up lots of Western and other national stereotypes, from Dredd’s subtle Deputy Judge Tex, to the even less subtle Mexican Judges, to the seriously not subtle at all Sov-Judges from a rival Moon Colony. But without Mega-City 1, they tend to be more forgettable than most, despite exceptions: the very silly Red Christmas, with Dredd’s brass neck and electric nose-wipers; Wagner and Bolland’s glorious The Face-Change Crimes, which could easily have been set back in the Big Meg, and the same team’s The Oxygen Board, with lovely art and an ironic idea which conversely makes the best use of the Moon; most memorably, their twin tales The First Luna Olympics and Luna 1 War, which set up a much longer-running story arc that will become explosive four years later and, amongst other things, depict sport as war by any other name and vice versa, and show the Olympics as hilariously disastrous for the Brits. We’ve got all that to look forward to. I wish it was on the bloody Moon… Where was I?


The First Dredd
 
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This volume ends with an abrupt Return to Mega-City 1 in a clever little idea for a story, followed by one packed story that re-establishes so much about Mega-City Dredd, from dodgy robot politics to horrible law and order New Labourism. Don’t show it to Yvette Cooper, or she’ll demand extra police powers. And then, of course, those extras: more Walter; not enough covers; and, fascinatingly, the pilot Judge Dredd story, drawn by Carlos Ezquerra, dropped for its violence – Dredd gives summary executions like a robot, which they decided might get the new 2000AD closed down like its effective predecessor Action and switched to lots of shooting but no death penalty – but with some great art, above all the vast Cityscape on the final page that clearly formed the blueprint for all the other artists to this day.

The whole book, then, is packed with great ideas and weak ones, great artwork and weak, satire, violence and things that make you go ‘Oh’. But, most of all, it’s packed. Judge Dredd is the best-known and longest-running British comics character of the last third of a century; this volume shows you how he started, with 336 pages for about fifteen quid. And a lot of it’s even good. Bargain!

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Comments:
I first came to Judge Dredd when my Uncle gave me all his back issues (1 onwards with missing sections here and there) of 2000AD in the mid-nineties. I've been hooked ever since and I've been buying these Case Files since they first started coming out.

I agree the layout isn't the best (and some of the reprints are almost unreadable, could've of done with the occasional touch-up on lettering) but overall these are my favourite addition (bar the Ballad of Halo Jones) to my graphic novel shelf.
 
That sounds cool. The mid-90s were when I probably lost track of new 2000ADs, with piles of the old ones at my parents' and me in London! But recently I've been picking up both new and old again.

Yes, it is a shame about some of the reprint quality, but the sheer size and affordability more than makes up for them. I'm making my way through the first ten years of Dredd...
 
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