Friday, June 17, 2016

I am the Law! Reading Judge Dredd, Part 1

I first read about Judge Dredd in 1981 the pages of Fantasy Empire #1, a semiprozine focused on British science fiction and fantasy. I had bought the magazine for its Doctor Who cover, but it also included articles on Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy (which I think I was already a fan of), the Prisoner (which, despite this article, I didn’t really discover until years later) and Judge Dredd. For whatever reason—and I can’t recall what those reasons might be, 35(!) years later—the Dredd article really had an impact, and made me want to check out his series.

At the time, exposure to Dredd in the US was limited to a couple of reprint volumes from Titan Books, focused mainly on the work of Brian Bolland. I bought the first Dredd volume, which collected Bolland’s earlier stories, including the first Judge Death tale, and the two-volume collection of the Cursed Earth. If memory serves, my local comic store also got a volume collecting the second Judge Death story (the first appearance of the other Dark Judges) and other stuff. There were also some other collections of 2000 AD material, like Robo-Hunter and Nemesis the Warlock, but I remained focused on Dredd.

I remember being fascinated by the high-energy storytelling and the weirdness of Mega-City 1. And this was probably my first real experience with an anti-hero. I understood that Dredd was the main character, but not necessarily a hero to admire. I don’t know that I entirely got the satire at that point, but I could see that there was a lot of humor to the series. In short, this series about the adventures of a hard-line fascist cop in a huge post-apocalyptic future in an overpopulated Mega-City covering the entire east coast, was like nothing I’d ever seen, and I loved it.

As my life went on, my interest in Dredd waxed and waned. For a while, Titan Books (I think) had a comics company, Eagle Comics, which reprinted a lot of 2000 AD stuff, which is where I finally discovered/read Robo-Hunter, Nemesis, and other series. It’s where I finally discovered the work of Dredd’s artistic creator, Carlos Ezquerra. It’s where I discovered Strontium Dog. But I eventually drifted away from all of it for a while.

In 2002, through the magic of the Internets, I learned I could actually subscribe to 2000 AD and the Judge Dredd Megazine through the mail. I’ve been receiving it ever since. Maybe 10 years ago, Rebellion (the company that publishes 2000 AD) started releasing the Judge Dredd Complete Case Files, reprinting all the Dredd stories in order of publication from the very beginning. I had been faithfully buying them for a while, but fell behind and stopped. However, I’ve decided it’s time to actually work on getting those things read and get caught up. And I thought it might be fun to blog my thoughts as I read them. 

Story 1 (Untitled): This story--set in New York City, not Mega-City 1--is pretty low-key. It's not particularly a showcase for the weirdness of the future city, or even particularly the system of the judges. Instead, it's almost a straightforward cop story. A gang of criminals kills a Judge, and rather than send in a heavy assault team--the Grand Judge's proposed solution--Dredd goes in to take them out on his own. That's necessary, he says, to make sure they retain respect for the Law and the Judges. And that's it. It's an effective short story, and makes Dredd seem like the total bad-ass, but knowing where the series would eventually end up, it seems like a surprisingly inauspicious start.

Story Two (Untitled): Here we start heading into more familiar territory. Not only is the setting named as Mega-City 1 (with New York being described as part of it), but the story hinges on the weirdness of future technology, specifically the New You face-changing parlors. It's not just a cop story dressed up in science fiction clothes, but a story where the science fiction is an intrinsic part of the tale. Also, Dredd continues to be a bad-ass, with some great action sequences drawn by--I think--Carlos Ezquerra.

Story Three (Untitled): For the first time, we learn about the atomic wasteland outside of Mega-City 1, although it isn't yet named. We also encounter the mutants from outside the city, but we aren't given any details as to whether there are mutants in the city or not. This story practically screams to be a multi-part tale, and feels a bit rushed in just five pages. It begins in media res, with a mutant attack on the city already underway. Hostages are taken, so Dredd infiltrates the mutant gang by putting a hooded cloak on over his uniform and helmet, which completely fools the mutants. He rescues the hostages and escapes, but because of the page count, it's all very easy. Still, it's fun, and it fleshes out Dredd's world that little bit more. Also, this is the first time the setting is exclusively named Mega-City 1, without any mention of New York at all.

Story Four (Untitled): This story introduces Dredd's home life, in the form of comedy Italian housekeeper Maria. The notion of a broad ethnic stereotype insisting that Dredd relax and chill out is easily the broadest the humor has gotten to date. You can easily imagine her serving up a plate of spaghetti and meatballs and insisting that Dredd take her niece out, she's such a nice girl; Maria is that heavy-handed and unsubtle of a character. Fortunately, the series evolved away from her quite some time ago. I don't know how Maria was written out of the series; it's possible that one day, they just stopped mentioning her. I suppose I'll learn as I work my way through the case files.

As far as the actual story, this is another crime that's dependent on the science fiction setting, which is always nice. A series of murders are being committed by a man who isn't happy seeing virtual reality replace the classic, practical robot monsters from the movies he loves. In some ways, it's even more relevant today, as film fans and film makers debate the use of digital technology versus practical effects in films.

Also, this is the first issue with credits. The story is credited to M. Shaw, and the art to Dredd creator Carlos Esquerra.

Story Five (Untitled): Once again, the story is by M. Shaw, while this is the first time the art is credited to Mike McMahon. The story, about a doctor (Frankenstein 2!) illegally transplanting organs into rich people to extend their lives, is a familiar one to today's readers. It's a fairly common science fiction trope, although I don't know how familiar it was in 1977. 

Story Six (Untitled): This story has no credits, oddly. Honestly, after the bits of world-building and focus on sci-fi crimes in the previous few stories, this one is a little disappointing. It's a pretty standard story of Dredd stopping a gang of muggers. It showcases what a tough guy he is, but otherwise, it could really be almost any cop story.

Story Seven (Untitled): Still no credits. This issue features another first: Dredd with his helmet off, although we don't see his face. We're told he is horribly disfigured, but I don't know if that' something the series has stuck with over the years. I also liked the crime, with thieves stealing what--in the 1970s--were standard, unremarkable cars but which have become collector's items over the next century and a half.

Story Eight (Untitled): While the stories still don't have credits on them, I found a list on Wikipedia with credits for the stories. If that's accurate, this is the first published Dredd story written by seminal Judge Dredd writer John Wagner. It's also the beginning of the first multi-part Dredd story, although that isn't completely clear at the end of this issue. The notion of sentient robots isn't necessarily anything new in science fiction (even in 1977, when this story was published) but this is the first time Dredd addresses it in his strip. The scene with the robot forced to sacrifice itself by its master is tragic, but feels more like a setup for future stories than an organic piece of this particular prog. The art, by Ron Turner (again, according to Wikipedia) is nice. I was particularly struck by the dragon-like design for the Justice Dept bloodhound robot. As time wears on, that sort of design aesthetic will possibly seem overly beautiful for a department which values function over form. Here, though, it's gorgeous.

Story Nine (Untitled): While this is the first actual part of Dredd's first multi-episode tale, you wouldn't be able to tell from this installment. It appears to be fairly self-contained, with just Dredd wondering about the possibility of a robot revolution leaving things feeling slightly open at the very end. This also introduces Walter the Wobot (although without his trademark speech impediment here). It also introduces the notion of the Judges' weapons having a variety of types of ammunition, although here it is selected by a control on the gun, not voice-activated.

While the robot revolution isn't exactly groundbreaking science fiction, it is the sort of story Dredd needs to focus on, in order to separate it from standard cop stories. However, this particular version seems a bit heavy-handed; there's not any real indication of why Call Me Kenneth suddenly goes off his programming. It feels a bit more like a plot convenience than anything else. Still, it's one thing to think of that as I read these stories one after another, and another to remember that these were meant to be read one after another, with a week in between, and probably tossed away after that. And the art, which appears to be by Carlos Ezquerra, is gorgeous. 

Story Ten (Untitled): And the robot revolution begins in earnest! Although, before that, robo-profiling also begins in earnest, as Dredd quits the Justice Department over the Chief Judge's refusal to assume that all robots will turn to crime just because Call Me Kenneth killed 14 people. Oh, how the Chief Judge will come to regret that unreasonable decision, and realize too late that if one person/being of a certain type goes bad, it's only a matter of time before the rest follow.

Of course, the robots do all go bad, following the call to rebellion led by Call Me Kenneth, who, it turns out, is actually considerably less destroyed than the end of the previous issue would have led us to believe. Although repaired, the instinct to kill is still with him, and it's still completely unexplained. Not sure who the artist is this time around, but he's no Ezquerra, that's for sure.

Story Eleven (no title): Dredd and the Judges continue the fight against the robots, led by Call-Me-Kenneth. This installment is mostly battles, most notably the one between Dredd and the industrial construction robots, the Heavy Metal Kids. Dredd is established clearly as a leader among the Judges. However, we still get a very human depiction of him; he nearly collapses from exhaustion, and is brought home to rest, attended by Maria. 

What I still feel is lacking--and I may have just missed it because I read the first few installments of this story sitting on my back patio grilling a steak--is the motivation for the robots to suddenly revolt. It seems to have been a spontaneous development in Call-Me-Kenneth, one that isn't even eradicated by replacing his head and programming. In and of itself, that raises questions, but seeing the other robots all suddenly following him doesn't help clarify things. Are they basically all being swayed by the strength of Call-Me-Kenneth's personality and dedication? If so, I suppose it makes sense that Dredd would decided--on the last page--that the solution is for he and Call-Me-Kenneth to duke it out. However, if the treatment of the robots continues to be the same, and we don't know why Call-Me-Kenneth suddenly rebelled, isn't it a likely possibility that the same thing might happen all over again?

And that’s all I’ve read as of this writing. Stay tuned for more of my thoughts as I work my way through the complete tales of Judge Dredd!

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