The Batman/Judge Dredd Collection by John Wagner & Alan Grant

wagnerj-batmanjudgedreddWay back in the mists of time (around 1990, maybe), I recall the Aliens vs. Predator comic. I think this may have been first to begin the trend of combining two well known movies or iconic characters. Since then we’ve had all sorts of combinations, involving Aliens, Predator, Terminator, Superman, Batman, and now Judge Dredd. Normally, my cynical side would question this publishing strategy as a crude attempt to extend a fanbase, but I have to say I really enjoyed the Judge Dredd vs. Aliens story Incubus that I read earlier this year.

So how do Dredd and Batman fare in the same story? Both characters are concerned with justice, but approach it from vastly different perspectives. Batman operates above the law, reaching where the law cannot. Judge Dredd is more of a by-the-book police-state lawman who has no tolerance for vigilantes. As you can suspect, the two characters do not get along. In the first story, Judgement on Gotham, Dredd finds himself in Gotham City as a result of Judge Death’s antics. The Dark Judge has used his dimension gate technology to open a portal to Batman’s world, where he proceeds, characteristically, to wreak havoc on Gotham. Batman ends up in Mega-City One, Dredd arrests him, and the two eventually wind up back in Gotham to fight Death. It’s a good story, marred slightly by a tendency to go for laughs more than scares – which harms the impact of Judge Death’s presence somewhat. Judge Anderson and Mean Machine Angel also feature in the story.

“Vendetta in Gotham” sees Dredd return to Gotham City, to pick a fight with Batman – seemingly for evading his fascistic brand of justice back on Mega-City One. Dredd’s actions initially felt out of character, but there’s a twist in the tail.

“The Ultimate Riddle” is a story in a similar vein to Battle Royale and The Hunger Games. Dredd finds himself mysteriously transported into a cage, in a room full of cages. Batman is in another cage. The rest of the cages are filled with weird and bizarre beings from other dimensions, representing the most fearsome warriors of each culture. A battle to the death commences. And who is the adversary who orchestrated all this? The clue’s in the title.

Lastly, in “Die Laughing” we have the Joker teaming up with the Judge Death, willingly becoming a Dark Judge himself. On Mega-City One, a biodome devoted to hedonism is getting ready to close its gates forever. Once it is sealed, the citizens within it will be permanently locked away forever from the rest of the city, their lives devoting to pleasure-seeking within its confines. Except the Dark Judges get locked in with them.

Not nearly the best Judge Dredd stories I’ve read, but good fun nevertheless.

Judge Dredd: The Dark Judges by John Wagner & Alan Grant

wagnerj-thedarkjudgesThis 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.

Strontium Dog: Search/Destroy Agency Files 01 by John Wagner & Alan Grant

Strontium Dog was one of my favourite characters from the pages of the weekly British sci-fi comic 2000 A.D., which originated in the early 1980s and continues to flourish today. I read the comic erratically in my youth, so until now I’ve only been scratching the surface of the amount of Strontium Dog strips that have been published. In fact, you could say I’m still only scratching the surface, since this mammoth 330-page tome is merely one of four.

The comic is set in the 22nd century, some years after an atomic war on earth – a war that left many people mutated because of a radioactive isotope in the fallout called Strontium 90. Fear of mutants became the new racism among “norms.” Mutants lived in poverty, unable to get jobs. As a solution, the government offered one job to all mutants – a job that no norm would take: Search-Destroy Agent. SD Agents are bounty hunters, scouring the galaxy for the the worst of humanity – sometimes to arrest and sometimes to terminate. But the public don’t call the bounty hunters SD Agents; they call them Strontium Dogs.

Johnny Alpha is one. His mutation left him with the ability to see into men’s minds. He also carries an assortment of weaponry, including a blaster that can fire bullets through solid matter, set to detonate at a specific range, and a range of bombs that can manipulate time itself. Johnny works with a partner, Wulf, a viking warrior from the past.

The stories are wild and wacky, even going as far as sending Johnny on a mission to earth’s past, to bring back Hitler to pay for his crimes against humanity. The one thing I noticed, as an adult, reading this stuff, is how unafraid the writer was to wreak havoc. Often, the innocent are slaughtered along with the guilty, with reckless abandon. If memory serves, I think that’s something you would rarely see in 2000 A.D.‘s 1980s rival The Eagle. Heroes were also allowed to have a darker side, seen in Johnny’s willingness to fulfill a contract without asking too many questions about the target.

The writing credits in this volume go to T.B. Grover and Alan Grant (I’m assuming T.B. Grover is a pseudonym for John Wagner). Both writers are highly imaginative. Carlos Ezquerra quickly finds his feet as the principal artist. (I think this trio are also responsible for a lot of early Judge Dredd, too.) The only place the volume falters is with the inclusion of a few Strontium Dog strips that came from 2000 A.D. annuals of the period. These were written and illustrated by outsiders, and are amateur by comparison. But I guess they had to be included for the sake of completeness.

I wasn’t awed by Strontium Dog, but it was an entertaining and imaginative set of stories, worth reading.