Sunday, December 27, 2015

The Year in Dredd

It has been another rough and tough year for Judge Joe Dredd and his beloved Mega City-One in the pages of 2000ad and the Dredd Megazine. The ongoing effects of the most recent mega-catastrophe continue to cripple both the character and the city, and the future is anything but certain.

But as grim as the setting is getting in the aftermath of the Day Of Chaos disaster - with haunted and rotting city blocks full of abandoned corpses, and the city teetering on the edge of total collapse – the actual long-form storytelling of Judge Dredd remains an absolute pleasure, with quietly powerful payoffs to decades of plot-work mixing easily with truly absurd action spectaculars, and moments of achingly simple wisdom.

Almost 40 years after he first co-created the character, John Wagner is still the absolute master at writing Dredd, with a number of great stories throughout the year that have benefitted from his keen eye for detail, dark humour and long-term thinking. But, as ever, there have also been a number of other writers adding to the Dredd tapestry in 2015, all building up the bigger story.

These included Michael Carroll, whose Blood of Emeralds with Colin MacNeil was a straight piece of Irish conspiracy, tackling the vaguely offensive stereotypes of previous Irish Dredd stories with a new serious determination; and Ian Edgington, who showed just how thin the judges were getting on the ground in the short, sharp Ghost Town with Dave Taylor.

In the Megazine, Al Ewing and Ben Willsher got up to some good true crime business with The Cop, while Gordon Rennie and Carlos Ezquerra went back out into the Cursed Earth for some social commentary and bloody big gunfights in El Maldito, with a story with satirical bite that was also another good example of Dredd being a double-hard bastard who you really shouldn’t try to kill.

Notably, until a late flurry, there were less of the done-in-one short stories this year -  the six-page morality plays that have played a large part in building up Dredd’s world were rare, and even the short-term fillers were often two or three episodes long. This does result in richer, deeper stories, but also loses a bit of the efficient spark of the strip.

The best non-Wagner Dredd of the year was undoubtedly Williams and Flint’s Titan/Enceladus stories, where the city coming under attack from a group of pissed-off ex-judges – some with legitimate grievances – returning to Earth as psycho-killer ice monsters to get their revenge.

It was a story that showed how physically weak the city was getting, but also how it was dropping into depths of moral ambiguity that offered no easy answers, and then ended with Dredd riding to face the baddies on a horse.

The long, sad story of ex-Judge Aimee Nixon came to a pretty abrupt end in the final pages of Enceladus, but her story ended a while ago. All the rage that Henry Flint splashed across the page in this last blast of vengeance was just epilogue.

But when it comes to Dredd and his world, nobody captures it like John Wagner, and he contributions remain the highest standard.

Part of the charm is his ability to check in on some old characters. He can lead off with a rollicking Dark Judges storyline, with all the awful puns, crazy action sequences and a small mountain of dead bodies you would expect (and some gorgeous art from Greg Staples that was worth the wait), and PJ Maybe returned, and managed to make more of an impact with his absence in the story, with a Maybe-sized hole in the middle of the narrative, hidden away from the reader as much as the judges (a new way of presenting this old villain).

And part of the charm of Wagner’s stuff is that they don’t always hit the mark – the five-part Breaking Bud managing to be completely forgettable, despite artist Richard Elson’s best efforts.

But when they do hit the mark, they hit it drokking hard. Just when everything is feeling cosy and safe, Wagner will hit you with a sucker punch of a story like The Beating, where Dredd really comes off as the true fascist he has always been accused of being, beating a man to death for talking back to him. It’s an unnerving read, as Dredd refuses to apologise for what he has done and is subject to public outrage, only to fake a cop-out towards the end.

It leaves the reader wondering just who they were supporting all this time, and then, after this strangely nasty story has been running for several weeks, it wraps up with a tiny coda where Dredd turns out to be doing it for the greater good.

All those awkward questions about power and state, and members of the law acting outside their range, and it’s actually a gag – Dredd is having a conversation that only he can hear. That takes some balls, especially when it’s riffing on the real-life tragedies of homicidal law enforcement officers.

But the best moment in Dredd came late in the year, as Wagner and MacNeil did something remarkable with the America storyline in the pages of the Megazine.

Terror Rising is another story in the long-running saga of the fight for democracy in Dredd’s world, going all the way back to the early years of the strip. The questions of freedom in Dredd’s world came to a head in the America saga back in the early nineties, where the fight turned really bloody and nasty, and soon escalated into Total War, a group that was happy to incinerate hundreds of thousands of its fellow citizens to give it a vote.

Total War were always outright arseholes and murderous fanatics, but the movement also created one of the greatest characters in the whole Judge Dredd saga – Judge Beeny, a young woman who first appeared as the infant child of a democratic fanatic and her loser lover, and grown into a good, honest judge who might just be the best hope for the future of the whole city.

Benny has grown up in real time, and has spent a few years on the hard streets of Mega City One, toughened up by the horror of Chaos Day, while never losing her fierce and independent ideas about justice and freedom in the future city.

At the end of Terror Rising, after just a few years on the streets, Beeny is quietly admitted into the leading Council of Five. And it’s all handed so matter of factly, but this is a seismic change in Dredd’s world – a woman who is almost literally the child of fascism and democracy takes the best of both worlds, and creates something new.

Dredd can’t change the world, old Stoney Face is too rigid to change the law, but he has slowly, painfully bent it in the name of fairness over the years. When he pushes too hard, and makes the radical suggestion that mutants are people too, it snaps back, but Beeny is a new generation, with new ideas.

The rest of the story is about the final failures of Total War, both practically and ideologically. The last hardcore cells of the group are quietly wiped out by the judges, leaving nothing but a bloody scorecard.

Wagner is laying down some proper wisdom in his silly little comic strip – you can’t change the world with sudden acts of violence, because trying to provoke a reaction like that just gets you slapped down. But a lot of pressure over time can get results, if you have the will and drive to see it through to the end, no matter the consequences.

This is something that could only be done in a story that has run in real time for decades, and is the kind of growth never find in an American comic book, stuck in the eternal amber of the status quo.
This story has been brewing for years and years and years, and it’s now paid off wonderfully.

It’s even a tiny victory for poor Ami, the first victim of this story, way back in the first America story, as her ideas about freedom filter through into the next generation.

And it's not over yet. This kind of societal change is hard and tough, but Dredd and Beeny are as hard and tough as they come, and they can take on the challenge.

1 comment:

Tam said...

What a great write up! The last chapter of Terror Rising was probably my favourite comic of this year. It's so rare to have some genuine optimism in Mega City One and, as you say, it's been building for decades so it felt earnt in a way that fiction in ANY medium rarely achieves.

I really do think John Wagner is the best writer in comics. Alan Moore's written some better stuff from time to time, but no one else has managed to remain so fresh and consistently surprising for so long. And I'm also impressed that every Dredd story he writes is immediately accessible to a new reader without ever irritating long term readers. The other strips in 2000 AD and the megazine are often a bit hit and miss but just Dredd alone makes them more than worth buying and anything else is a bonus...

Also thanks for another year of consistently enjoyable articles on your blog! All the best for 2016!