John Wagner/Alan Grant/Carlos Ezquerra/Colin Wilson/Brian Bolland/et al.,”Judge Dredd: The Complete Case Files 05″ (1981-82, 2006)

I had been wanting to read old 2000 AD material for a while, Judge Dredd stuff in particular, so I had spent some time looking things up, trying to decide what to start with (my first foray into it ended up being the Best of 2000 AD book I read last summer). The recommendation to start reading Dredd with this book came from Douglas Wolk’s excellent blog, Dredd Reckoning which, coincidentally, was a major inspiration for this site and the style of analysis I’m going for. Go read it – it updates every Sunday night.

As Wolk explains, there are a few good reasons why Case Files 05 is a pretty good starting point: while it doesn’t explain the basic concepts of the series (which are pretty easy to understand after some quick Wikipedia diving), it does provide a good demonstration of many of the tonal/thematic points that the series is known for. This is partly because, despite a rotating line-up of artists (the ones on the cover of the book are only about half of them – other prominent ones are 2000 AD stalwarts Ian Gibson and Ron Smith), all the stories here were written by series co-creator John Wagner and his partner-for-many-years Alan Grant, who in the early 80s more or less established themselves as THE Judge Dredd brains, to which all others will be compared. That this book also contains two of the lynchpin stories in the series’ history is also important – even though readers had already been acquainted with Dredd’s world for a few years, “Judge Death Lives” and the “Block Mania”/”Apocalypse War” duet are still the ones they come back to – the ones that set the bar and changed the landscape of the series. Considering that the most recent storyline in the series, written by Wagner, is a callback to both of them says quite a deal, really.

But we’ll get back to those in time. The first few stories in this volume are a series of simple one or two part “Judge Dredd versus a future crime” stories – which, while not as memorable as the country-nuking epics or satirical jabs at its own concept – are what the vast majority of the series is, really. It is, in a way, a good introduction to what the everyday goings-on of a Mega-City Judge is – battling thugs and stopping crimes of varying levels of absurdity. They range from fairly straight – “The Perp Runners” or the “The Numbers Racket” for example – to very silly – “The Umpty Baggers”, which is about the world’s most addictive candy, or “The Stookie Glanders”, where organs are harvested from the most polite aliens in the universe. Despite this, there is never a feeling of tonal whiplash going from to another – from the outset, we understand that this is an absurd universe. And although there are varying shades of that absurdity (especially by the time you get to the last few stories, which are MUCH darker than the rest), the core silliness of the series is still there, making the whole enterprise feel cohesive. This is almost certainly due to Wagner and Grant – at this point, they knew what they were doing, even when simply trying to fill pages.

“Judge Death Lives” is a special thing in a class all its own – partly because of Bolland’s excellent artwork, but also because it is the story that best represents Dredd‘s dark sense of humour. It introduces the incredibly cool Dark Judges (Judge Death himself appeared earlier – thankfully, that story was in Best of 2000 AD), and their goal of punishing the ultimate crime: life. It’s a story that ups the ante cosmically, hilariously plays on the absolutism of the Judges (I mean, as outlandish as it is, one can’t really argue with the idea that “all crime is committed by the living”), and really go out of its to play up Dredd’s stoic head-on approach to any situation. The other stories do a good job establishing Dredd’s fearlessness and pragmatism (“The Psychos” does it, although it’s not nearly as funny, and the final joke in “The Hot Dog Run” is one of the best examples), but it’s “Gaze into the fist of Dredd!” that really hammers home how much of an over-the-top badass he is – and so it becomes all the more gripping immediately afterward, when that is put to the test in “The Apocalypse War”.

The book also contains quite a few stories that gradually establish and develop the concept of the city block, one of Dredd‘s core conceits. Starting with “The Problem with Sonny Bono” (which, among other things, is an amusing jab at white flight), whose conception of inter-block conflict would be expanded upon in “Block Mania”. By the time we get to “Judge Death Lives” and “Diary of a Mad Citizen”, which respectively demonstrates the scope of the blocks and the psychological impact the state of the world has on citizens, we know quite a deal about how Mega-Cities operate and all the issues being faced by the dim masses – which then leads us straight into “Block Mania” and “The Apocalypse War”, which play upon our understanding of the world and cut swathes through the population. So, we get to know the status quo before the status quo is irrevocably altered.

Those two stories are the centerpiece of the book – sprawling and intense, incredibly well-served by Ezquerra’s gritty take on the characters (which he co-created, after all). Within the context of 2000 AD, it feels like Wagner and Grant’s take on Pat Mills/Gerry Finley-Day’s Invasion, all brutal takeovers and violent resistance, except that since this comic takes place in the distant future, it’s allowed to call the bad guys Soviets. Playing up the Cold War certainly gives the story some weird political context – I can’t imagine what it would be like to read a story where an American blows up most of the USSR in the early 80s – even though the East-Meg One forces are mostly just generically evil, without any real ideology analogous to the real world situation (although we get nice parallel fascism scenes in one prog that shows how little respect both Dredd and the East-Meg leader have for the people they ostensibly protect).

Mainly, this story’s goal here is not just to cut down on the size of Mega-City One to something manageable, but to absolutely cement Dredd’s character – honourable, indomitable, ruthless, and most importantly, forevermore guilty of mass murder, even if it was defensive. Although “Apocalypse War” is not one of the blatantly self-satirizing stories in the Dredd canon (it’s played as a fairly straight action/war story, darkly humourous folk singer interlude and the thudding presence of Walter the Wobot and Dredd’s Italian stereotype landlady aside), it’s still key in understanding the approach Wagner and Grant take to the series and the character – the over-the-top badass does what it is essentially the most over-the-top-badass thing imaginable, and the readers realize how scary that actually is. These themes will be expounded upon, and the whole series will return to goofy one-off tales immediately after, but by the end of this volume, we come away with a very different view of Dredd and these stories – we still cheer on the goofy violence, but the threat of it escalating to something far worse is always lingering in the background.

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