Judge Dredd: Total War by John Wagner

wagnerj-judgedreddtotalwarTotal War is the name of a terrorist group that was first mentioned in the Judge Dredd comic strip in the story “America” (1990). Under review here is a much later 12-part story from 2004 entitled “Total War.” The terrorist group seeks a return to democractic government for Mega-City One. The city is, as fans will know, a fascist police state. The Judges came to power following the chaos that followed a worldwide nuclear war. They were an essentially a force of order at that time. But should their reign be brought to an end? This has been a question that has come up before, but never in such an extreme manner. To overthrow the current system, the terrorists have planted two hundred nuclear bombs at locations throughout the city, demanding that the Judges step down and hand power back to the people, or the bombs will be detonated one by one. And indeed, by the end of this tale, the citizens of Mega-City One do not come out unscathed.

The theme of democracy is explored more fully in the earlier saga “America,” which I look forward to reading at some point. I imagine it tackles the theme with more depth, where the lines between good and evil are blurred. This introduces a maturity to the strip that is lacking in its earliest years. Back then, when 2000 AD was really aimed at children, there was no question of the Justice Department’s role as the epitome of goodness. But the truth is not so clear, as later stories would attest. As for “Total War” in particular, there is no such subtle undertone. The fight for democracy has been taken to an insane extreme and must be crushed.

Not the most exhilarating Dredd I’ve read, but an enjoyable tale of carnage nonetheless.

Judge Dredd: Necropolis by John Wagner

wagnerj-judgedreddnecropoliThe “Necropolis” story has been reprinted in several forms, as a two-parter and as a single volume. To really appreciate the story, you need to be familiar with a seemingly unconnected prequel called “The Dead Man” (which was crafily not billed as a Judge Dredd story in its original printing in 2000 AD, progs 650-668). Also it benefits you to be familiar with Dredd’s prior dealings with Judge Kraken, another Dredd clone. Also, “A Letter to Judge Dredd” in which Dredd is deeply moved by letter from a young person whose father was killed. Finally there are several short strips called “Countdown to Necropolis” (progs 669-673). Then we get down to “Necropolis” proper – a story that spans 26 issues of the comic (progs 674-699).

As if four Dark Judges who can’t be killed aren’t enough trouble, we now learn that Judge Death has three sisters. The Sisters of Death use a Psi Judge as a bridge to our dimension, enabling the whole Justice Department to be psychically controlled. Mega-City One is now totally at the mercy of the Dark Judges, who proceed on an unparalleled slaughter the likes of which has never been seen before in the pages of Judge Dredd. Dredd himself, having encountered the Sisters in the Cursed Earth, returns to Mega-City One to find the place in utter ruins. He manages to team up with some surviving cadets and Psi Judge Anderson. Together they attempt to overthrow the Dark Judges’ reign. They face insurmountable odds, and even if they win, Mega-City One will never the be the same again.

The story doesn’t sound like anything special, but it’s the backstory that injects it with so much potency – for one, Dredd’s reason for being the Cursed Earth (which I won’t spoil). The best place to read this story properly is in Judge Dredd: The Complete Case Files 14, where you will get all the extras, or in the two-volume edition published by Titan (2003), where you’ll get some of the extras. Avoid the single-volume edition published by Hamlyn (1998), as it fails to include most of the prequel material. This is deservedly one of the most popular and most remembered stories in the ongoing saga of Judge Dredd.

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: Origins by John Wagner

wagnerj-judgedreddoriginsThe Justice Department receives a ransom demand from persons unknown residing in the Cursed Earth: pay one billion credits and they will return the body of Judge Eustace Fargo. Judge Fargo was the first Judge of the new judicial system that took justice out of the courtrooms and onto the streets. He was also the person from which Judge Dredd was cloned. It was universally believed that his body lay in a tomb at the Halls of Justice, but that story was just a fabrication. The ransom demand came backed up with evidence – a little box containing a sample of Fargo’s tissue, delivered straight to the Judges’ headquarters. And so, Dredd and others set off into the Cursed Earth, on a mission to retrieve the original Father of Justice. And the thing that makes the issue especially pressing is that the tissue sample appears to have come from a living organism.

Who is the mysterious adversary who made the ransom demand? What trials will the Judges face among the mutants of the Cursed Earth, en route to their destination? Is Judge Fargo alive? All the elements are there for a great story, and it is. One of the best aspects is actually the backstory. We are treated to a large look at the distant past – the history of how the new judicial system came to replace the old, and how America became the radioactive wasteland called the Cursed Earth. We also meet a young Joseph Dredd and his clone-brother Rico (before Rico went bad), thrust out of the Academy early to deal with state of emergency in Mega-City One. These are much more than just brief glimpses into the past to tickle the fancies of committed fans. A fair chunk of the graphic novel takes place in this earlier time period.

An epic Dredd story, spanning almost 200 pages, one that will appeal especially to long-term readers.

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.

Judge Dredd Versus Aliens: Incubus by John Wagner & Andy Diggle

wagnerj-judgedreddvsaliensWhat happens when Mega City 1’s coldest, fiercest lawman comes in contact with the galaxy’s coldest, fiercest alien? A winning combination for a story. This graphic novel is not an attempt to say that Mega City 1 somehow exists in the past history of the Alien movies; that would be absurd. But why not take a creature from a popular movie series and drop it into a different mythos? It’s fun.

We begin with a citizen stuck in a traffic jam, desperate to get to hospital because he knows he’s going to die. It’s how he’s going to die that’s the surprising part – at least for the Judges, and those unfamiliar with the Alien movies. The creature bursts from its host’s chest and is on the loose, rapidly growing to adulthood. Where did it come from? How did the man get impregnated? Are there any more of the creatures? The answers come from an old foe of Dredd’s – someone he banished to the Cursed Earth, but who eventually found his way on to a starship. And now he’s brought something back to Earth.

“Incubus” is the name given to the Alien species here. It’s the first time I’ve heard it called this, and it’s a perfect fit, when you consider the historical meaning of the term: a spirit that comes to your bed in the middle of the night and has sex with you against you will. Not dissimilar to a run-in with a face-hugger. And after all, the Alien uses the human host as an incubator.

Incubus was first published as a four-issue comic, and can also now be obtained as a graphic novel. A highly enjoyable rollercoaster ride for fans of either Alien or Dredd. A mixture that’s likely to create a few new fans on opposite sides.

Judge Dredd: The Complete Case Files 01 by John Wagner (and others)

wagnerg-judgedreddcasefilesThe new Dredd movie resurrected my interest this old comic book anti-hero from my childhood. In the late 21st century, America is a radiaoctive ruin known as the Cursed Earth. In the middle of this wasteland lie three vast sealed cities, one of which is Mega City 1. It’s an overpopulated dystopia of technology and squalour, where unemployment rates are high and crime runs rampant. Order is maintained by the Judges, police officers who act as arresting officer, judge, jury, and sometimes executioner. Crime is far too big a problem for the time-consuming procedures of democracy and trial-by-jury. These elite trained and heavily armoured Judges patrol the streets on bikes (known as Lawmasters). Their main weapon is a side-arm (Lawgiver) that is capable of being switched to a variety of firing modes, including “hi-ex” (high explosive). Judge Dredd is the fiercest and most uncompomising Judge of them all, utterly devoted to keeping the law. In the 30+ years of this character’s existence, from his origin in the early issues of the 2000 AD comic in the late 1970s, no one has yet seen his face (a boundary overstepped thoughtlessly in the the Stallone movie). All that is visible beneath his dark helmet visor is a permanent scowl – an expression that never changes. Fans of the comic will love the new movie, as it maintains the authenticity of the character to a tee.

Judge Dredd is basically a fascist and a fundamentalist in his thinking – traits that would ordinarily cause us to hate a character. But there is just something about Dredd that makes you root for him, and I’m not sure what it is. For whatever reason, the character has endured phenomenally. Perhaps it has something to do with the appeal of westerns. Dredd is basically the sheriff, and there are few, if any, romanticised outlaws in his world. People fit very obvious categories of good and evil. Law-breakers are greedy, murderous, and trigger-happy, while the Judges are an uncompromising force protecting civilisation. They represent a definition of good that is not weak and gentle and fawning. Although Mega City 1 is essentially a police state (which is not the most desirable thing), it’s the sort of place that we know would be hell on earth without the Judges. I’m reminded of the quote: “Evil reigns when good men do nothing.” I think we love Judge Dredd because he represents form of ethics that is happy to justify kicking your ass into next week without a qualm of conscience. Dredd is Lex Talionis, the jaw of the jungle, manifested on the side of civilisation rather than against it.

This volume contains repints of the earliest Dredd stories. There are over 300 pages of short stand-alone tales and multi-issue serials to enjoy, from the first years of 2000 AD. There’s so much material that you inevitably forget a great deal of it quickly after reading. A main highlight is the Robot War, which introduced the frequently recurring character of Walter. We also meet Judge Giant for the first time, graduating from the Academy. And Dredd encounters his clone brother Rico. Highly enjoyable reading, and merely the tip of the iceberg. There are at eighteen subsequent volumes, not to mention many graphic novels in the Dredd universe.