Sunday, October 30, 2011

The Dead Man

(Reprints: The Dead Man from 2000 AD Prog 650-662, and Judge Dredd story from 2000 AD Prog 662)

"The Dead Man" is an 81-page story wrapped around a single startling revelation. It's a black-and-white serial (launched in an issue whose cover promised "More Colour!"), credited to unknown writer Keef Ripley and former Luke Kirby artist John Ridgway; it's set in the Cursed Earth, which would make it part of this project even if "Necropolis" didn't pick up on some of its threads. And if you're reading the Dredd books in order and haven't gotten to it yet, you might want to close this entry right now and come back to it after you're done.

But before I get into it, one point of contention that I can't avoid mentioning. So you're writing a 2000 AD serial in 1989; it's got a black protagonist/narrator (good! a nice change from the 2KAD norm), who talks in a not-quite-grammatical argot that involves "wuz" substituted for "was" (less good), and has a deferential relationship to an older man, and seems to do the eyes-bugging-out thing a lot (dubious, although it makes sense on the grounds that his eyes eventually become a plot point). What in God's name suggests that "Yassa," of all things, is a good name for that character?

That said, talk to anybody who was reading 2000 AD around this time, and they'll tell you that "the 'Dead Man' reveal" blew their mind. John Wagner wrote the series as "Keef Ripley" so nobody would guess the Dead Man's real identity until he was ready to say so, and reading the final three episodes is like watching a chain of dominoes fall until the final domino sets off an explosion. (I will say, though, that starting the current edition with a left-hand page rather than a right-hand page does the story a disservice a couple of times toward the end: the climactic revelation in part 11 really ought to follow a page-turn, and the double-page image of Phobia and Nausea gets cut in half here. Also, I gather that this version was initially supposed to be called "Tales of the Dead Man," as in the version shown up top, but got changed to the shorter title at some point.)

It's also interesting that this is such an un-Wagner-like story in a lot of ways, especially in that it's about darkening mood rather than intricate plot. The premise starts as "a stranger comes to town" and turns into "a man goes on a journey." Aside from the one panel where the Dead Man reaches out for Yassa, there's nothing like an action sequence until the end of the third chapter. The conflicts with the grunts basically just seem to be there to provide conflict more concrete than the scary premonitions everyone keeps getting, and to demonstrate that the Dead Man's a crack shot.

At its core, though, this is 13 chapters of the Dead Man waking up, recuperating, figuring out his real identity and remembering what happened to him. In the city, his body reflects the city (he is the law, the law is the state, therefore he is the state); in the Cursed Earth, his body reflects the landscape too, as Yassa mentions the first time he sees him. The razed landscapes of the dead cities, and the burning acid waters, are scarier than the grunts or even the Sisters themselves: Ridgway's images of the ruins of Crowley are chilling because they're so minimal, nothing but a few charcoal-looking husks of beams and silhouetted ashes.

Colin Smith's lengthy discussion of "The Dead Man" mentions Yassa's throwaway line of exposition at the beginning of chapter 10--"my pap says it's chem pools in the hills turns the river bad"--as an example of Wagner's particular gifts. Rereading the story with the knowledge that Ripley is Wagner, you see some dry jokes that tip his hand, like the little girl named Flotilla, or the central-casting preacher Larry Larkin quoting nonexistent Scripture and getting called on it, or Yassa insisting that "Dog meat'll poison you! That's what it'll do!"

It's a very nice touch that Ridgway draws "The Dead Man" in a style that doesn't look much like his Judge Dredd work: it's a horror-Western, built around light sources slicing through shadow and cross-hatching. (Ridgway's inking here reminds me a little of Alfredo Alcala, actually.) I guess we know as of the cover of Prog 661 that Dredd's eyes are blue--or, at least, that the replacement eyes he got after "City of the Damned" are blue. Is the blinding of Yassa supposed to echo Dredd's in that story? It seems like a strange plot point to repeat without intentionally making something of it.

Yassa's diction on the final page abruptly gets a lot more eloquent after one more "wuz," just as the color fades in for the first time in the entire story (and note how Ridgway leaves most of the page's first panel in black and white, just letting sepia seep in at the edges: nice!). The only other time his narration shifts to that kind of fancier speech is when he's discussing remembering what happened later on ("It's a question I've asked myself many times in the madness where I now dwell..."). I wonder if the idea was originally that Yassa has grown to manhood in darkness and is narrating part of the story many years later; his return in "Necropolis" seems to have been more a spontaneous gesture than something that was planned all along. It's also odd that Dredd's talking in a more portentous mode than usual ("It will not return--not unless all goes ill with me!") even after he's recovered his memories.

The concluding bit of text on that last page of "The Dead Man"--"continued overleaf"--is brilliant: this is not just a story that ties into Judge Dredd, it's an "ending" that segues directly into the Dredd story that begins on the next page, which in turn springs out of Dredd episodes that have been running alongside "The Dead Man." (The coloring matches so well that I have to wonder if Will Simpson colored that final "Dead Man" page, too.) This is a story, in other words, that could only have its full impact at the time and in the way it was first told: as a serial running alongside another serial in a context where no one would have guessed they're as closely linked as they are. After that, the secret was out, as we see on the cover of the initial paperback collection, below (drawn by Sean Phillips).

Next week: we pick up immediately after the final page of "The Dead Man," with The Complete Case Files 14, featuring "Tale of the Dead Man" and the whole remarkable "Necropolis" sequence.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

The Complete Case Files 13

(Reprints: Judge Dredd stories from 2000 AD Prog 619-661)

In 1989--when almost all of these episodes were published--Alan Grant and John Wagner still had joint custody of Judge Dredd, with Grant writing about a third of its episodes, and occasionally bringing back recurring supporting characters. Wagner, though, was clearly the one who got to make long-term plans for the series, and he was starting to clear a path toward "Necropolis." That meant a lot of short stories rather than longer ones, and that in turn meant that for most of this year Judge Dredd was effectively a comedy feature that intermittently turned very, very serious.

I don't know how many episodes were in the can at any given time, but the sequencing of Grant's and Wagner's respective episodes is sometimes baffling. Maybe it was Tharg's assistant (Richard Burton, at the time), or the writers, who bore the responsibility for deciding what would run in what issue--or maybe it was just decided by what happened to get drawn first. But there are a handful of unfortunate week-to-week transitions: following Grant's maudlin "A Child's Tale" (why are innocent little boys named "Billy" at least 40% of the time?) with a Wagner story that also involves a young unreliable narrator's perspective and kid-style drawings ("The Confeshuns of P.J. Maybe"), or Wagner's "Curse of the Spider Man" with Grant's "The Amazing Ant Man" (naming the mad scientist Henry Pymm is an obvious joke, naming one of the ants Adam is cleverer), or a Grant story about an animal that does a person's will ("A Monkey's Tale") with a Wagner story about an animal with a human mind ("Confessions of a Rottweiler"). It's also curious that the next-issue blurb at the end of "In the Bath" simply bills the following story as "Staccato"--that story turns out to be "John Cassavetes Is Dead," which briefly mentions that Cassavetes was the star of "Johnny Staccato," whose title doubled as Grant's former pseudonym.

Some of the sequencing decisions have to have been affected by a format blip in 2000 AD. From prog 626 to 635, "Judge Dredd" ran entirely in black and white for one of the few times since it had taken over the center-spread fairly early on. I'm not sure why--although that period coincides with the ten-issue run of "Slaine: The Horned God," Book One, whose full-color Simon Bisley artwork I believe got the spotlight on it instead. (Starting with prog 650, 2000 AD advertised that it had "more colour," and I don't think the Dredd-in-black-and-white happened again much, if at all.) Also, some of the issues with black-and-white Dredds made up for it with extra back-cover images, like this fine Ron Smith piece:

Still, the monochrome thing worked out nicely in the case of "The Confeshuns of P.J. Maybe," one of Liam Sharp's most deftly executed Dredd art jobs--the alternating black and white backgrounds on the last few pages are particularly well done. "Confeshuns" seems to put that particular subplot to rest: P.J. Maybe was clearly one of Wagner's favorite characters to write (and apparently still is), but Wagner's also often broken his own habits, and this might be him trying not to overuse that particular story formula/nemesis for Dredd. (Wagner came to his senses a year and a half later, returning to Maybe shortly after "Necropolis," but then set him aside for a decade.) It's a splendid piece of writing, too, with finely honed gags both small (Alger Hoss's name) and large (PJ's attempt to frame Hoss going way better than expected)--and that final heartwarming caption is a terrific knife-twist. I've also always loved Judge Anderson's unemphatic plug for Emphatically Yes, seen below:

It's the rare "Star Scan" from this era of 2000 AD that doesn't just seem like an unused cover. A lot of the Dredd covers from this era are dramatic shots of him that are unconnected to the story in that issue and drawn by a different artist. The art on the feature itself in this era was even more up-in-the-air than it had been recently, although there are a handful of really solid one-offs here. Barry Kitson does right by "A Total Near-Death Experience," despite a story enlivened only by the character name Lazarus Kohlrabi; Steve Yeowell's lovely work on "Family Affair" (the cover's below) is the first of only half a dozen Dredd episodes proper that he's drawn, which is a real shame. (To be fair, he was smack in the middle of Zenith at the time, and he did eventually draw a hefty chunk of Devlin Waugh.) Jim Baikie is so on top of his game in matching Wagner's ace Damon Runyon impression in "Little Spuggy's Christmas" that it's hard to believe he's the same artist who drew those hasty end-of-"Oz" episodes.

Baikie's comedy mode works for "In the Bath," too--a story that's marred by yet another one of Wagner's wacky-foreigners routines, although it also manages to hit the note that Dredd's starting to get old. This was also an era where a lot of Dredd episodes were straight-up jokes (rather than satirical thrillers or adventure stories with absurd elements). Grant's "musical" episodes anticipate the tone of the Heavy Metal Dredd stuff from a bit later: "Lockin' Up the House" is a slightly embarrassing take on the rave scene of the time (there's an Alan Moore line in some Bojeffries Saga story about "you kids with your bloody acid house parties" that sums up its attitude), and "Dead Juve's Curve" hews so closely to its model that it actually credits it at the end of the story.

There's some neither-here-nor-there artwork in this volume, but the only real visual disappointment is "Banana City," a gritty thriller that couldn't be much less suited to Will Simpson's delicate, impressionistic watercolors. On the other hand, "Kirby's Demon" (of course the kid's first name is Jack...) is reason to stand and cheer--Carlos Ezquerra's first Dredd artwork in 2000 AD in a good long while. It'd been close to six years since he'd drawn Dredd on a regular basis, and this and his other stories here (notably "Young Giant," whose distinctions between which perps it's okay for Giant to kill and which it isn't are not particularly carefully constructed) seem like five-finger exercises to limber him up for the 31 straight full-color episodes of "Necropolis" we'll see in Case Files 14.

Judge Dredd's post-"Oz" holding pattern finally resolves with "The Shooting Match," a resonant little sketch of a story that started the movement toward "Necropolis" in earnest. (John Higgins was exactly the right choice to draw it. Nobody does complicated lighting arrangements like he does, and this story's all about the shifts of light in a single room.) Also note the closing note of the close-up on Kraken's badge: there's a very sharp callback to that coming up.

The timing of the "Necropolis" lead-up has to have been tricky: the landscape of Mega-City One was obviously going to be very different after "Necropolis" than it had been before, so Dredd had to burn off pretty much all of its standing inventory, and as of the issue where "The Shooting Match" appeared, the clock was running. (Yes, I'm being deliberately ambiguous about why, for the benefit of the few readers of this blog who are following along with the books week by week.) Which may be why we get fluff like "It Still Pays to Be Mental" and "I'm Manny, Me Fly" in the later pages of this volume. Still, this was one of 2000 AD's golden moments: at one point, "Song of the Surfer," "The Dead Man," "The Horned God Book II" and "Zenith Phase 3" were all running simultaneously.

Grant and Wagner both get in thematic sequels to "Letter from a Democrat" in the final section of this batch, although Grant's "Politics" falls flat: it's effectively "The Man Who Knew Too Much" reprised less effectively. "A Letter to Judge Dredd," on the other hand, is a pivotal episode, if a curious one. It's a serious moment that makes Dredd call his entire world-view into question, surprisingly quickly (we've seen him have doubts about his performance before, but not about the system of which he's a part). So it's strange that it's got two big, goofy jokes looming over it: the kid being named "Wm. Wenders," as in Wim Wenders--there's an innocent little boy named Billy again!--and the "giant pineapples from space" routine at its end.

"Necropolis" and its prequels seem, in many ways, like Wagner's attempt to wrap up his run on Dredd, both plotwise and thematically: "Cardboard City," for instance, returns to the long-ignored Maria basically just to move her off the board. (Arguably, "killing" Chopper fell into the same category.) I'll be going into that idea a lot more when I get to Case Files 14, the all-"Necropolis" special, in a couple of weeks. The back cover of #633, seen above, was the first blatant hint that Dredd might be ending: an announcement that 2000 AD was about to get a bar-code on its cover, staged as the cover of Abbey Road, with barefoot Dredd playing Paul.

Next week, though, we return to spinoffville for Tales of the Dead Man, the collection of Keef Ripley and John Ridgway's Cursed Earth thriller that ran during this period.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Chopper: Surf's Up

(Reprints: Chopper stories from 2000 AD Prog 594-597, 654-665, 964-971 and 1387-1394, Judge Dredd Megazine 1.01-1.06 and 2.36 and Judge Dredd Poster Prog 4)

Chopper wasn't at all a likely character to spin out of Judge Dredd proper and into his own stories--he'd carried a bunch of solo episodes in "Oz," but those had seemed like a one-time opportunity to throw a spotlight on him. There's no way he could have carried an ongoing series; part of the fun of the stories collected here is that they're occasional check-ins over a period of fifteen years, and a lot of time passes between them. And yet the best of them are absolutely fantastic: powerful, funny, grim, moving. Maybe it was just something John Wagner saw in him.

The first official Chopper story, "Soul on Fire," does look like it's wrapping up unfinished business from "Oz," a story that didn't quite turn out the way anyone thought it was going to, including its characters. Chopper isn't particularly a bad person, and honor drives most of what he does--but he's also a slave to his ego, and simply can't accept that he lost Supersurf. It's always "if only..." with him. (To continue the "alignment chart" idea from last week, Chopper's a true-neutral character. He's neither good nor evil, neither lawful nor chaotic. He has no respect for authority, but no interest in harming anyone who doesn't pose a direct danger to him. He just does as he pleases, and watches out for himself and for his circle.)

"Soul on Fire" is a different kind of story from 2000 AD's stock in trade; I can't think of another story that long that had run there at that point that involved no violence at all, just an unofficial athletic competition. It recapitulates the final sequences of "Oz," but in a much calmer way. Colin MacNeil's artwork isn't quite what it later became--he's still a little iffy at drawing facial expressions, and breaks the grid he sets up on almost every page (usually a sign of an artist who's trying too hard to make things look exciting)--but he's already really good at keeping the story flowing, and giving some very crowded-with-panels pages a sense of stillness and quietness.

The peak of the volume, though, is "Song of the Surfer," the story in which Wagner and MacNeil really clicked as a team. It pushes the horror/thrill balance of "Oz" even closer to pure splatter, but almost every time it feints toward fist-in-the-air moments, it immediately leaps back toward asserting that no, what this is about is just stupid butchery, and Chopper's willingly signed himself up for it. (The death of Dallas Hall, early on, is a genuine shock--a minor but likeable character with a few years' history, gone in an instant in a horrible way--and it sets the tone for every death that follows it.) The one moment of genuine triumph is when Chopper snaps right before the end, and it's a jolt every time I've gotten to it. Also, for all that chilling carnage, "Song of the Surfer" is weirdly not unfunny--it features Wagner's sharpest parodies of sports-announcer blather, a routine at which he's always excelled. ("Yes, Dick. The cream of world surfers could soon be just that--a cream..." "And I think--Yes! The tip of my own left foot has been blown off!")

(Interestingly, MacNeil's art starts looking much better midway through the story, at the point when Supersurf begins and the artwork switches over to full painting. It's a pity he doesn't seem to do that kind of process any more: the Supersurf sequence is up there with America as his most striking work on Dredd. While I'm at it: I'm pretty sure that after the Porcupine Alley sequence in chapter 10, MacNeil barely draws Chopper's strapped-down left arm, or even includes that area of his body in a panel, again--was his arm supposed to have been blown off right after Porcupine Alley, and later drawn back in in a few places?)

So here's the thing about the end of "Song of the Surfer": Chopper is dead. Nobody comes over to him, looks at his body and says it explicitly, but every single dramatic cue of the story implies as strongly as it possibly can that he dies without quite reaching the finish line, including that final page where it pulls back on the gigantic word "FINISH" - "FINISH" - "FINISH." He's had his last-minute conversion to aggressive action to avenge his friends, but he's failed Charlene and failed himself in every other possible way. That's why the ending is powerful.

And then Garth Ennis comes along and is like "oh, yeah, actually he got better after that." This is the first we've encountered of Ennis's work in Dredd Reckoning, thanks to the cross-sectional nature of this volume (the stories here span 1988-2004), and I'll be discussing his stuff a lot more once it starts showing up in Case Files 15. One of its hallmarks, in general is how seamlessly it dovetails with Wagner's (and to some extent Grant's) tenure. What's startling about "Earth, Wind and Fire" is that it doesn't; it's as if Ennis was so attached to Chopper as a character that he couldn't admit that Wagner had killed him. (But it has to have been done with Wagner's approval, given that it ran in the first six issues of the Megazine--! Curious.)

Even beyond that, Chopper's nearly unalloyed victory in "Earth, Wind and Fire" isn't particularly like him: he's the hero of his own story, and a hero to the people who appreciate his resistance, but he's not a hero. (I also think it's kind of hilarious that a major plot point hinges on the distinction between photographic negatives and prints, but I can't really blame Ennis for not guessing what photography was going to turn into a couple of decades after his story.) I will say that John McCrea's art here is some of the best I've ever seen from him. I don't know what 2000 AD and Judge Dredd Megazine's page rates for painted color work were at this point, but they have to have been high enough to encourage artists to linger over their work: both magazines had some beautiful-looking stuff. 

Then we get the two short stories; maybe they were included for completeness's sake. They're both pretty insubstantial, if attractive-looking. "Dead Man's Twist" is much more artist Martin Emond's show than Ennis's or even Chopper's (as you can see above, Emond is way on the far end of the kind of representational artwork that usually appears in Dredd and its spinoffs); "Funeral in Mega-City One," prepared for one of 2000 AD's "poster progs" (big poster on one side of a folded-over sheet, six-page story on the other), is a trifle of a thing--its text is under 300 words long, and it... certainly is a six-page piece with Chopper in it.

Alan McKenzie and John Higgins' "Supersurf 13" is another sequence that's much more notable for its artwork than its story. I can't tell how John Higgins achieved the sort of colored pencil/airbrush effect he uses here, but it lets him show off the high-contrast end of his uncanny color sense--the color reminds me a bit of his work on "Joe Dredd's Blues," although the actual drawing technique is drastically different. There are a few remarkable individual images, too, especially that half-abstract full-page shot of a ship landing in Mega-City Two.

The story, though, falls almost totally flat: if "Soul On Fire" is the silhouette cast by "Oz," then "Supersurf 13" is the Silly Putty imprint of "Song of the Surfer," a smudged, muted recapitulation. I like the idea that Supersurf 13 is not just somewhat defanged but actually reality-show-level ridiculous, although the mortal-danger elements that remain undercut the suggestion that victory in this competition would be meaningless for entirely different reasons than in Chopper's earlier competitions. And if Smokie the Magical Aborigine in "Song of the Surfer" is a little iffy, the Japanese-people-are-so-weird! routines here are intensely wince-worthy ("your friend Chopper is in deep sushi"?!).

Also, I suspect this may be one of the very few Judge Dredd-related stories that have appeared in 2000 AD but have subsequently been declared noncanonical. The unsustainable element in this one is the idea that Hondo-Cit is building new housing for its citizens on the post-"Judgement Day" site of Mega-City Two; give that half a moment's reflection and it makes no sense at all.

Still, Wagner's always been good at the yes-and game of collaborative worldbuilding: "The Big Meg" acknowledges as much as possible of Alan McKenzie's story, especially the death of Jug's family, and quickly moves on. Calista's a by-the-numbers femme fatale, but it sort of makes sense that Chopper would fall for her--he's wily, but not especially bright. (His signature image is a smiley-face, after all.) It also makes sense in the context of the ways in which this is an old-fashioned noir crime story, with Venetian blinds and everything. (I suspect the title's a nod to "The Big Sleep.") The noir stuff might have been clearer with a more distinctive visual approach--Patrick Goddard and Dylan Teague's artwork looks much more like current American superhero comics than anything else in this volume, and while it gets the story and its set-pieces across, it doesn't have a lot of stylistic zing.

But just look at what a jewel of concision "The Big Meg" is. In the first episode alone, we get massive amounts of worldbuilding, Chopper trying and failing to pass as his former rival, Justice Dept. knowing more than they're letting on, the relaxed-looking sequence about Jug's last ride that actually incorporates enormous amounts of exposition, Jug's death scene echoing the famous scene from "Oz" of Chopper in the storm (which itself echoed the end of "Midnight Surfer"), and finally a berserk action sequence. That all happens in six pages, constantly flipping back and forth between the main timeline of the story and flashbacks. Near the end of "The Big Meg", there's a page that incorporates two flashbacks that might just has easily have been presented in chronological order--but it works, because that's the mode of the story.

I also love the fact that Chopper actually does look a decade and a half older than he did in "Oz." And the tag-line reproduced above, from #1388, is a joke so good I have to wonder if "The Big Meg" was written to give it an excuse to appear on a cover. If you don't get what it's referring to, it's a callback to the single funniest line ever to appear in 2000 AD, from "D.R. and Quinch Go Hollywood"; go thou and get a copy of the D.R. and Quinch collection pronto. Close the curtains, Geoffrey, I'm amphibious.

Next week: back to the Complete Case Files for volume 13, featuring "Young Giant," a whole lot of comedy-style one-offs, and a modicum of setup for "Necropolis."

Sunday, October 9, 2011

The Complete Case Files 12

(Reprints: Judge Dredd stories from 2000 AD Prog 571-618)

The easy way of thinking about the split-up of the John Wagner/Alan Grant writing team in the wake of "Oz" is that Wagner kept Judge Dredd and Grant got most of their other gigs. But that's not quite true--besides the fact that they continued to work on occasional projects together, the actual distribution of Dredd stories over the next couple of years was more like joint custody, and as with any such situation, it was sometimes awkward at first.

A few of the earlier episodes reprinted in this volume are leftovers from the Wagner/Grant era ("Simp About the House" and "The Sage" are both drawn by not-terribly-speedy artists and seem to have been in the works for a good long while). But Grant actually continued writing Judge Dredd episodes by himself on a fairly regular basis: seven in this volume (by Barney's count), fourteen in the next. One of them, this time, is "The Brainstem Man," which set up the Judge Anderson serial "Helios" that began six months later. It reads as very Grantian, in the sense that it seems to have been inspired by something he'd been reading lately--the cerebrum/limbic system/brainstem bit.

Grant and Chris Weston's "Worms" is cute enough, although having the two writers' separate "murderous teenage unreliable narrator" stories in consecutive issues doesn't do Grant any favors. His other stories here are mostly light, wacky comedy of a kind that was at odds with the direction in which Wagner was driving the series. "The Power of the Gods," in particular, seems like the kind of premise-warping story that would have been more at home in an annual, and the central joke of "That Sweet Stuff"--the illegal drug of the future is sugar!!--was one that this series had already worn out. "Spok's Mock Chocs" is the really weird one of the bunch, on the strength of its loopy artwork: Barney credits Brendan McCarthy and (in his sole appearance as a Dredd artist) Jamie Hewlett, but the printed version names "R-MC2, Hewlett, Whitaker" (Steve Whitaker, I'd guess)--and credits the script to one "G. Grant." Huh.

As for Wagner's stuff: "Hitman" went out with a Wagner/Grant credit on it, but since Grant disavows participation in anything involving Chopper after the climax of "Oz," I'm guessing it's a Wagner solo. "Hitman" seems to have come together pretty quickly, judging from the fact that it was drawn by Jim Baikie, who'd also drawn the final couple of episodes of "Oz." Unfortunately, Baikie's work here looks considerably hastier than usual--its raw, dashed-off quality doesn't work for Dredd. The script also seems a bit off, tonally. The idea (derided by Grant in that interview I linked to last week) that Dredd let Chopper go out of respect comes up, but seeing a reflective, self-doubting Dredd, for the first time since "A Case for Treatment," in a scene where we can actually see his eyes (!!), somehow doesn't quite work. (Neither does Dredd telling Hershey "Get lost, huh? I want to sleep." That's not the way he addresses the colleagues he values.)

Within a few weeks of the split, though, Wagner's scripts are starting to fall into his natural voice again. "Full Mental Jacket" has some odd tonal fluctuation between its "nutty juves" comedy and its tragic domestic-melodrama turns, but the extended dog theme (including the Oliver Goldsmith quote near the beginning) works pretty well. (Though could it have been some sort of swipe at Strontium Dog?) It also seems to have run into deadline problems--it wasn't often that a serial this short switched artists partway through. The final two installments are drawn by the peculiar team of Brendan McCarthy and Steve Parkhouse, who draws at least a few panels in his "Bojeffries Saga" style, notably this one:

I complained about "A Case for Treatment" a few weeks ago, but this sequence from it does provide the springboard for "Bloodline." That two-parter is one of the crucial building blocks for the next few years' worth of Dredd stories, but it's also a bit of a mess. It's confusing enough that its narration switches between two different characters and doesn't entirely stick to its third-person vs. second-person scheme, but it's even more confusing that the characters in question are physically almost identical (and so are a couple of the other characters in the story, always a problem with multi-Judge storylines), and Will Simpson simply doesn't do enough to distinguish Dredd and Kraken in long shots. Of course it's the point that they're hard to tell apart, but it'd have been useful to have some visual cues here--this is where American comics' "multiple POV, multiple colored captions" technique of recent years might have come in handy.

Where Simpson shines, though, is the "Curse of the Spider-Woman"/"Return of the Spider-Woman" sequence. The obvious way to have tackled those stories would have been high-contrast grotesquerie, the sort of thing Ron Smith did in "The Black Plague." Instead, Simpson paints them in loose, light-toned watercolors, to echo the character's diminishing connection to her human life, and it makes them poignant where they could have been gruesome.

He's not the only artist to come into his own in this period: Liam Sharp, who had floundered in his earlier Dredd work, finally clicks with the two P.J. Maybe sequences in this volume. (Or perhaps they click with him: light farce with nasty undertones suits his style.) It was more than a year from Maybe's introduction in "Bug" to his return in "P.J. Maybe, Age 13," but this time Wagner has more of a sense of who he is and what his world is--the whole "Emphatically Yess" business is a dumb joke that somehow stays funny. I can't imagine that anyone thought Maybe would still be a significant character twenty years later, but he's actually kind of brilliant as an archrival for Dredd: if your protagonist is a defender of the law and a gifted investigator, it makes sense that his opposite number would be a character who a) is neutral-evil, alignment-wise (has anybody made a Judge Dredd alignment chart, by the way? If not, I may have to) and b) has a particular gift for avoiding suspicion. 

Alan Davis's artwork on "Bat Mugger" is really nice-looking--and the story calls back to "Citizen Snork," of all things!--but it was his only Dredd episode, and the final work he'd draw for 2000 AD. There's a bit of backstory there: Davis had been drawing Batman in Detective Comics and Batman and the Outsiders for a few years, and at that point he was supposed to draw the first Batman/Judge Dredd team-up. (It was clearly in the works for a long time, since it appeared 3 1/2 years later.) He notes in his interview in Modern Masters that "Bat Mugger" was a warmup for the project, but that he ended up dropping out "after months of contract wrangles."

The surprising art discovery here, though, is Colin MacNeil, who'd drawn the Chopper story "Soul On Fire" a few months before he took his first crack at Dredd with "Our Man in Hondo." "Our Man" has a clever premise--what appears to be a "Dredd teams up with the local law" plot actually ends up being about Dredd trying to cover up Justice Dept. malfeasance--but it's a frustrating story, thanks to Wagner's embarrassing fake-Asianisms. (The way that, as with the Stan Lee stuff, he even confuses Chinese and Japanese stereotypes is a clue to how tin-eared his script is. I know I sound like a broken record on this, but I'm going to keep complaining about Wagner's comedy foreign accents until he quits using them. "Strange Customs" is another offender on that front, too...) Still, MacNeil is a very solid if unflashy storyteller, and his design for Judge Inspector Sadu is pretty sharp; it turned out to have some staying power, too.

John Ridgway always seemed more suited to ground-level noir than to Dreddish futurism for me--that might have been one of the reasons why the Dead Man fake-out worked so well--but three of his relatively few Dredd stories proper appear in this volume, including two that couldn't have been much more different. The protagonist of "Alzheimer's Block" is named after Agatha Christie's Jane Marple (and drawn to resemble Joan Hickson, who played that role on a BBC series that ran from 1984 to 1992), and it's a barbed variation on the "elderly spinster detective" archetype--that final-page twist is Wagner at his cruelest and funniest.

"Twister," on the other hand, is a lot more fun in theory than in execution. You can pretty much imagine where the idea came from: when it was clear that 2000 AD was about to get a bunch more color pages and that Dredd could go all-color, somebody must have remembered the way The Wizard of Oz transitions from black-and-white to color, noted that some people had to have thought "Oz" was about L. Frank Baum's creations rather than Australia, and proposed a Dredd story structured the same way. (At first, the way the color sections worked meant that Dredd stories would begin on the centerspread and continue after an intervening five-pager of some kind; getting the color/black-and-white balance right every issue seems to have been tricky, and required the occasional reprint from Dredd's Daily Star strip.) But it expends so much effort setting up its formal structure that it never gets around to actually being funny or suspenseful, and the "it was all a dream--or was it?" gambit flops.

The only other extended storyline here is my favorite in this shaky, transitional year: "Crazy Barry, Little Mo." In some ways, it's one of Wagner's first solo Dredd stories to hint at his mature voice--as odd a thing as that is to say about someone who'd already been writing comics for well over 15 years at that point. But the crisp dialogue here, the offhanded worldbuilding, the rapidly shifting point of view, the mixture of police-procedural suspense, twisted comedy, violent action scenes and total weirdness, and the way Wagner's tone is shifting away from kids' entertainment (with a few Easter eggs for their parents) and toward the assumption that he's writing for an audience of his peers: they add up to something that wouldn't seem too far out of place if it appeared in next week's prog. Also, Kurten's origin is of course the same as Batman's. Whether or not that had anything to do with Grant's other gig--or with the Batman/Dredd project--is a fine question.

Next week: we duck away from the Case Files sequence for a look at Chopper: Surf's Up, the big volume collecting "Soul On Fire" (which coincided with the middle of this volume) and the subsequent Chopper stories. And by "we," I mean that I'm hoping to be joined by an as-yet-unconfirmed Special Guest. Stay tuned.

Sunday, October 2, 2011

The Complete Case Files 11

(Reprints: Judge Dredd stories from 2000 AD Prog 523-570)

An elephant in the room: some enterprising person or group of fans decided, at some point, that they could do the Complete Case Files books better. There are digital bootleg versions of the early Case Files floating around online; the difference is that the bootlegs have color where the original pages were printed in color (the first two pages of most episodes before mid-1988), and they insert all the Dredd-related-but-not-Judge Dredd-proper stories at the appropriate point in the narrative.

For a lot of the earlier volumes, that's a minor improvement. (For some, it's an actively bad idea--at least one bootleg I've seen gets a lot of its color pages from badly chopped-up and reformatted American reprints.) But in 1987, 2000 AD's production values were ramped up a bit, and as of a few episodes before Case Files 11 begins, the opening spread of the Judge Dredd feature was suddenly in painted color. The half-tone versions of the color pages in the printed Case Files 11 is decent--although it still gets muddy in a few places, like the beginning of "Return of Death Fist"--but it's distinctly not the way these stories were intended to look. And the bootleg files also include other Dredd-related pages from the original publications, the most interesting of which this time is this one, which was printed in the issue before "Oz" started:

There are a lot of in-jokes going on here, most of which I don't get and bet I'm not supposed to get, but the implication is that seven members of the 2000 AD staff had gone to Australia to research "Oz." (Was that the case?) The bent-over droid at far right is "Burt," a.k.a. Richard Burton; I'm guessing that the droid in the green sweatshirt and visor is John Wagner, and the one with the glasses and purple shorts is Alan Grant, but if anyone can correct me and/or fill in other information, I'd be grateful.

In any event, it seems as if Dredd stories had been stockpiled in advance of "Oz," which was the first "epic"-length Dredd story that had been attempted since "City of the Damned" a few years earlier. The 22 episodes (11 storylines) that precede it in this volume are drawn by ten different artists--only Liam McCormack-Sharp gets two stories, and they appear consecutively. And Tharg's stern note that the droids have one week to get "Oz" in order hints at how hurriedly it must have been put together: when the first three episodes of a 26-part story are all drawn by different artists (and nine different artists in all contribute), there's clearly some frantic catching up going on. Jim Baikie seems to have been the speed demon of the lot--not only did he draw the final two episodes, he drew the three that followed them (in the next volume).

"Oz" is a new kind of Dredd epic, in the sense that Dredd is almost tangential to it. Remember that theory I had a few weeks ago about how the long serials usually address some aspect of the relationship between Dredd and the city? This one deals with either of them only during the Judda sequences; it's basically a Chopper story. (Dredd is entirely absent for long stretches of it, which was awfully unusual; so's the thematic two-page splash that opens the first episode.) Seeing all the parts of "Oz" together, actually, I can't help but wonder if the Judda plot was originally intended as a different story that would follow the Chopper/Supersurf sequence, and then got spliced into "Oz" when deadlines were getting tight. The Judda business turns up out of nowhere in the seventh episode (and when Chopper returns two weeks later, he picks up right where the sixth episode left off); the Judda and Chopper only appear in the same installment a few times, and the two plots' resolutions have almost nothing to do with each other.

Also, the Judda sequences are something of a distraction: Chopper's story is so compelling that mysterious violent weirdos shouting slogans, interspersed with chunks of exposition, get tiresome quickly. On the other hand, Brendan McCarthy's artwork here is a much better fit than it had been in Case Files 10--you can see him trying to give the series a consistent look. Unfortunately, it's a look that all the other artists ignore; when Will Simpson takes over for the conclusion of the Judda business, the visual energy goes way down all of a sudden.

It's interesting to imagine what "Oz," or in fact this era of Dredd, could have been like with a more consistent visual approach. There are very few artists who can handle a 6-to-8-page weekly strip, but it's just possible that Brendan and Jim McCarthy and Brett Ewins might have been able to tackle it together, at least for a while. (The latter two were mostly off drawing "Bad Company" during this era, though.)

I reread "Oz" after not having seen it in a long time, but a few months after rereading "Song of the Surfer"--which we'll be getting to in a few weeks. The "dangerous sports" aspect of this story goes over the top; there's a tragic thrill in the idea of a sport whose championship not everyone may survive, but a sport whose championship routinely slaughters most of its competitors doesn't seem like it could attract a lot of top athletes, you know? (Wagner addresses that a bit in "Song of the Surfer," but it passes without comment here.)

So the pleasures of "Oz" are less about its overall arc than its individual moments. I particularly love the sequence where the turtle gets another chance at life, which lasts all of five panels, but there are lots of other well-turned bits: Chopper going down in the storm, hearing everyone calling his name again; the "Space World" sequence, which gives Barry Kitson an opportunity to draw a very different sort of sci-fi image; McCarthy's image of Wipeout crouching on his board; the color spread being reserved for the final two pages of part 20. (Whoops, that's another one that's not so effective in the printed book.)

The end of "Oz" was, famously, one of the major factors in the end of the Grant/Wagner writing partnership: Grant wanted Dredd to shoot Chopper in the back, Wagner wanted to reserve Chopper for future use. (Wagner has said that "Oz" was less a factor than their miniseries "The Last American" a few years later; Grant claims that Wagner divided up their collaborative gigs at the end of 1987, which would've been right after "Oz." In any case, they kept working together on occasional projects for another decade.) Grant's recollection is that "John wanted Chopper to win, but Dredd to let him go free because he respected him," and says he never read the final episode. In fact, Wagner's ending is a smart solution to the dispute, and doesn't resemble Grant's description.

It's not as if the partnership was producing inferior work (although it probably helped that they don't seem to have been quite as overworked in this period); they'd also gotten back to thinking about Dredd as a long game, setting plot threads that could reach into the future. The Judda routine set up the long-running "bloodlines" sequence, but the most durable invention here is an unlikely one: "Bug," the one-off that introduces PJ Maybe, who's still appearing regularly in the series almost 25 years later. The "young serial killer" premise is in place, and it's clear that they were planning on following it up quickly--but PJ's next appearance didn't happen for over a year, and this appearance doesn't suggest the Adrian Mole-style perception/reality split that would go on to define him. (Its other curious aspect: "Karen Berger Block," which appears in the first panel--Berger was arguably the most forward-thinking editor at DC Comics at that point.)

"Simp"--Cliff Robinson's best-looking story to date--ends with a plug for "Simp About the House," which also wouldn't appear for close to another year. "The Return of Death Fist" wraps up a dangling thread from "The Fists of Stan Lee." And then there's the "Revolution" three-parter, the long overdue follow-up to "Letter from a Democrat" and the most consistently fine story in this volume.

"Revolution" is a particularly timely story this week: it's about a peaceful demonstration, and the dirty tactics authorities use to try to break it up. The democratic coalition's intentions are a lot more specific than Occupy Wall Street's, but it's kind of unnerving that Wagner and Grant assume the people's right to assemble is something even the Judges wouldn't dare to mess with, when that currently seems to be anything but the case. (As Yves Smith puts it: "I’m beginning to wonder whether the right to assemble is effectively dead in the U.S. No one who is a wage slave (which is the overwhelming majority of the population) can afford to have an arrest record, even a misdemeanor, in this age of short job tenures and rising use of background checks.")

I'm a little surprised that "Revolution" appeared more than a year after "Letter to a Democrat," which it echoes formally as well as in plot--the panel where Blondel Dupre is on TV and someone at home is getting bored and changes the channel, and the repeated images of cowed citizens watching the incidents of the march on TV at home, directly repeat a bit from the earlier story. (It's smart that John Higgins draws this story, too, and his artwork here is much sharper than it was on "Letter.") The nasty judicial tricks that pop up in the closing sequences are appropriately shocking--the "family man" bit is particularly clever, and Judge Silver's paternalistic disapproval in his public speech twists the knife.

The only sour note is Dupre's earnest monologue on the final page, which is stirring where it needs to be stinging. Its implication is that we're finally going to be seeing more stories about Mega-City One's residents trying to get out from under the judicial jackboot, and we don't--not for another couple of years, anyway.

The other one- and two-parters in this volume that don't connect to broader developments generally don't have a lot going for them ("Corporal Punishment" is particularly dippy), and it's hard to understand why the thoroughly forgettable "Alabammy Blimps" sequence got five episodes while "Revolution" was squeezed into three. What "Alabammy Blimps" does have going for it is Steve Dillon's artwork, whose conflict-as-comedy approach prefigures the look he'd adopt for Preacher many years later. "Blimps" and Dillon's chapters of "Oz" were the final Dredd stories he'd draw for a few years: shortly after that serial ended, he and Brett Ewins cut way down on their 2000 AD contributions to concentrate on their new magazine Deadline.

Next week: Case Files 12, in which the Wagner/Grant team's split comes into effect, PJ Maybe comes into his own, and both Dredd and the reprints go full color.