Sunday, June 26, 2011

The Complete Case Files 01



(Reprints: Judge Dredd stories from 2000 AD Prog 2-60; "Bank Raid" from Judge Dredd Annual 1981; Walter the Wobot strips from 2000 AD Prog 50-58)

The question a lot of people have when they're looking at a series with as many volumes as Judge Dredd is "where do I start?" And the natural assumption is to start at the beginning. In the case of this series, I'd argue that that's a big mistake, unless you happen to be a bright, angry ten-year-old British boy in 1977.

(For the record, when people ask me where to start with Dredd, I usually say America--the Rebellion edition, with "Fading of the Light" and "Cadet" appended. "America" is a fantastic introduction; it's also, really, the turning point of the series, the place where it stops being a fantasy about ideological violence without consequences and starts being a pitch-black comedy about the consequences of ideological violence. And "Fading" and "Cadet" have a bunch of great "John Wagner's playing the long game"/"wow, I really wasn't expecting this story to go in that direction" moments. Unfortunately, America seems to have gone out of print recently, and although there are storylines I like as much or more--"Tour of Duty," in particular--they're not particularly useful as on-ramps.)

It's strange to see now just how weak the first couple of Judge Dredd stories are, how quickly the series got off the ground in some ways, and how long it took to get interesting in other ways. By the end of this collection, it's definitely getting there, but it's not quite there yet. The story that was originally intended to introduce Dredd ("Bank Raid," written by Pat Mills and Wagner and drawn by Carlos Ezquerra) appears at the back of the volume, and it's a mess: Dredd bursts through the wall like the Kool-Aid Man on the first page, and spends the rest of the story being little more than a violent badass who's got a special gun and a big bike. The full-page cityscape on the fifth and final page isn't quite as impressive as it should be; there's no real sense of what would eventually make this an interesting feature.

What's surprising is that the first story that did see print--Peter Harris and Mike McMahon's "Judge Whitey," which originally appeared in 2000 AD Prog 2 (Dredd missed the first issue, one of very few in which he hasn't appeared)--is almost as weak. It's got a hint of the satire that would soon creep into the series, but a very cheap hint: the ultimate prison for judge-killers is... an inescapable traffic island! (I seem to remember that gag getting revisited much later in a cleverer way, in "Crossing Ken Dodd," but we'll get there eventually.)

It's got a bit more worldbuilding, though--the image of the Empire State Building seen from above on the first page is a nice touch, and we get more of a sense of the Judges as an organization. Still, its five pages are obviously grafted together from a handful of sources: the Devil's Island ending, I think I once read, was tacked on from another story that had been prepared, and the image of Dredd on the first page was pasted in from "Bank Raid," just to get him visible as soon as possible.

The first eight published Dredd stories feature five different writers and a lot of very rushed artwork--the panel where we see the Statue of Judgement towering over the Statue of Liberty should be a great moment, but Mike McMahon totally half-asses it. (I like the fact that the bad guy in "Krong" is named Kevin O'Neill, though--that's a nice touch; I believe O'Neill was then working as an art director at 2000 AD's publisher IPC.) There aren't many suggestions that Dredd could be for anyone other than the aforementioned ten-year-olds; the stories pretty much all end with pronouncements about The Law. ("Yes, lawbreaker Krilz! I ordered the Walk-Eezee to be put in reverse! Something that must never happen to the law!")

And then John Wagner arrives with "Robots"/"Robot Wars," and suddenly this series gets a lot more promising. It happens in his very first panel, in fact--Wagner's best trick with Dredd is the way he constantly plays with where our sympathies are. "Robots" begins with a robot begging for its life as it's being ordered to destroy itself: "You can't die if you're not alive, George. Now get into those flames!" And then we shift to the Judges watching the scene, who are basically just fine with it (although Dredd notes that "I prefer old fashioned robots: stupid things with no feelings"). Eventually, the story starts explicitly framing the robot uprising as a slave revolt--and, of course, our hero is on the side of their masters. Genius.

There are moments that Wagner obviously cracked up giggling when he thought up and had to include--the idea that robots might be named after the slogans on their packaging ("Call-Me-Kenneth"), and the Heavy Metal Kid, whose name might be a joke about William S. Burroughs' Nova Express, or might be a riff on this hard rock band. What's missing, still, is visuals that are up to the challenge of the stories. When Ian Gibson turns up halfway through "Robot Wars," the series finally starts to get the visual flair it needs. (I like Carlos Ezquerra and Mike McMahon's later episodes a lot, but in this volume they were still far from hitting their groove.)

Still, after "Robot Wars," the energy of this volume dips considerably, as a handful of writers take turns on Dredd; Wagner's still the funniest of them, but he oversells his jokes. ("Dream Palace" makes a big point of naming a character John Nobody, the sort of gag he'd later drop in passing.) It's Pat Mills, surprisingly, who turns up for the series' most concentrated burst of world-building so far: "The Return of Rico," which sets up a gigantic chunk of its later direction in six pages.

In general, I'm weirdly divided about Mills' 2000 A.D. work (as much as I like e.g. "Charley's War"). I find the tone of a lot of his stories off-putting--not really in a "failure of craft" way, but in a "this person's idea of fun is very different from mine" way. His Dredd, in particular, almost always seems "off" to me. (Wagner's Dredd would never, ever say "he--he ain't heavy--he's my brother!") But I can't deny that he's a first-rate idea guy: the penal colony for busted judges on Titan? That's fantastic.

A few episodes after that, Wagner takes over for the rest of the volume. He's definitely still finding his voice and calibrating his jokes--calling an eccentric, rich recluse "Hugh Howards" falls flat, but the page before that, we get "My boy! What are they doing to my boy?" "We're trying to rip his head off, ma'am." Shortly thereafter, two important developments for "Dredd" happen in quick succession. The most obvious one is that the series moves to the moon for a few months--I have no idea if that was somebody's idea of how to make it feel more "science fiction-y" or what, but between the Luna-1 sequence, in which Dredd shifts his base of operations to a city on the moon, and the (forthcoming) Cursed Earth sequence, we barely see Mega-City One for close to nine months.

Luna-1 always seemed like a sort of desperation move for the series to me; it may just have been that "Judge Dredd" was starting to seem a bit like Will Eisner's "The Spirit," and that series had introduced its "let's go to the moon!" sequence as a last-ditch attempt to turn its decline around. Adding the Texas City judges and their accents to the mix basically made "Judge Dredd" a space Western.) I gather, also, that there was some stuff going on behind the scenes--the fact that there's an entire episode ("Land Race") built around a sinister corporation called IPC forcing people to sign things suggests a bit of rancor.

The other big change, which actually happens a week before the Luna-Cit sequence begins, is the arrival of Brian Bolland. With the exception of a few arresting images (Mike McMahon's first drawing of the ape gangsters comes to mind), almost all the artwork in "Judge Dredd" up to that point had been somewhere between pretty good and mediocre. Bolland, though, was doing much more impressive work than anyone on the strip had done before him, and it seems to have made everyone else step their game up.

"The First Lunar Olympics" introduces the Sov-Blok rivals to the Mega-Cities; it also introduces one of Wagner's favorite joke frameworks, the sportscaster cheerfully announcing scenes of horrific violence. (It's amazing how often he manages to sneak that one in.) Did Dredd continuity ever return to the idea of wars being fought by five-person teams? It's a cute idea, but not exactly tenable; certainly, by the time of "The Apocalypse War," it was scrapped.

Also in the department of untenable ideas: Walter the Wobot, the pathetic comedy-relief servant character with a speech impediment, Dobby the House-Elf avant la lettre. He was kind of funny the first time he showed up, but as a regular character he just doesn't work, especially since he requires Dredd to be kind of a softie to him on a regular basis. (Dredd's got a little bit of a sentimental side, but later stories--especially the "Mutants" sequence--wisely play that as a genuine weakness, rather than something that makes him more "well-rounded.") At the end of the volume, we get all of two weeks back in Mega-City One before Dredd heads off to the Cursed Earth, and one of those two stories ("Firebug") is heavily Walter-focused. Walter also shows up in "Return to Mega-City" itself, which is an anomalous episode: it begins with a splash panel that jumps ahead to the hook of the story, in the mode of '60s DC comics.

Finally, a note on one particular Luna-Cit episode, "The Oxygen Board": not only is it the best-looking of the early Bolland-drawn Dredd stories, it's the first Dredd story I ever read. (It's also oddly Spirit-like in some ways--Dredd doesn't even show up until page four, and doesn't play any role in its climax.) Evidently, it was a pretty great on-ramp for a bright, angry eleven-year-old American boy in 1981.

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