This graphic novel collects together several stories from the early years of Judge Dredd from the 2000 AD comic. The common denominator is Judge Death, one of the most popular recurring villains from the strip. His striking physical appearance alone made him uniquely memorable to me, as a child of the 1980s who only casually read the comic. Judge Death is sort of reanimated zombie, with spindly arms and legs offset by massive teeth and claws. He wears a variation of a Judge’s uniform, with a portcullis in place of a visor. His badge is a skull, rather than an eagle.
Judge Death first appears in the story that bears his name. His appearance in Mega-City 1 is unexplained, and he proceeds to “judge” any citizen who crosses his path. “The crime iss life. The sssentence isss death” – that’s his mantra. Since all crime is committed by the living, life itself is a crime – that’s his philosophy. When the real Judges tackle Judge Death, the villain’s body proves exceptionally hard to kill. And when they finally manage it, the spirit of Death floats off the body and goes off in search of another suitable vessel to possess. “You cannot kill what doesss not live,” as Death would say.
We meet Judge Anderson, of Psi Division, possibly for the first time; Psi Judges are those with psychic abilities. This allows the Judges to find out more about Death’s origin and aims. Ultimately, the fiend cannot be destroyed, only contained – and this arrangement has been recognised in all future dealings with the character.
In “Death Lives,” the second story, we meet Judge Death’s three friends, Judges Fear, Fire and Mortis, who blackmail a poor Mega-City 1 citizen into releasing the imprisoned spirit of Death. Death’s first aim is to get himself a new corpse to take possession of and transform into a new body. The Dark Judges then proceed to wreak havoc on the city. This time part of the action takes place with Dredd and Anderson following the Dark Judges back to their own dimension, Deadworld.
Lastly, we have a story from the spin-off strip Anderson, Psi Division, entitled “Revenge” (also known as “Four Dark Judges”). Judge Anderson recklessly returns to Deadworld, on the strength of a few psychic impressions about Judge Death, whom she had assumed was dead. But bodiless never means dead, when it’s the Dark Judges. Underestimating their psychic power, she ends up bringing them back to Mega-City 1, where they predictably wreak havoc once again. This time the body count is high, and Anderson faces severe charges for her actions. And once again, some out-of-the-box thinking is required to defeat an enemy that can’t be killed.
The comic has been scaled down to manga size for this edition, whereas the original was roughly A4. That may bother some readers. And that’s about the only criticism. Overall, The Dark Judges is a very welcome nostalgia trip, beautifully drawn, and full of violence and horror.