Posts Tagged ‘John Wagner’

David J. Skal,”The Monster Show: A Cultural History Of Horror” (1993, 2001); John Wagner/Mike McMahon/Brian Bolland/Ron Smith/et. al., “Judge Dredd: The Complete Case Files 04″(1980-81, 2011); & Michael Deforge, “Big Kids” (2016)

June 28, 2016

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Horror reflects the anxieties of its time – that’s really not an especially new or interesting observation, and while Skal delves into that here (especially in how the horror movies of the twenties and thirties reflected a depopulated and disfigured post-WWI world, and interestingly shows how the movies of the forties often directly avoided the then-raging second World War even while setting themselves in a mock image of “Europe”), he also shows how adaptive those horror metaphors are (Dracula and Frankenstein, the two primary subjects of the book, appear consistently throughout the decades and in changing forms), and how they are reflected back by society itself. The twentieth-century did not have a one-sided relationship with horror icons (including the ones pulled from previous centuries) – there was a long-standing relationship with horror imagery that appeared before film (as Skal shows in his overview of the Grand Guignol theatre tradition), and in many ways the kinds of body horror and violent obsessions of horror entertainment influenced the way people look at things. By mid-century, horror imagery became firmly ingrained into culture at large (seen in Diane Arbus’ photography, the rise of gory make-up effects “culture”, and even in novelty songs like “Monster Mash”), even as attempts to censor or eliminate the entire genre – and by the time horror became recognized as indelible, the culture became more like the horror it consumed; the latter half of book zones in on that idea especially. Horror is not just a genre, but a lifestyle, and while they are often derived from real terrors, figures like vampires have become potent symbols for marginalized communities as well, taking some of those dark traits and re-contextualizing them to more positive ends. As well, the book highlights how some of the more outlandishly ghoulish ideas from the films seem to become closer to reality as the century moved one – although the desire to find horror metaphors everywhere leads the author to some questionable arguments concerning the trans community and HIV that were contestable in 1993, but seem atrociously wrong these days.

Another fascinating line comes from not just discussing horror movies as some cultural objects that were collectively dreamt up (as these sorts of arguments sometimes lean towards), but as the products of people with their own ideas and their own reasons for making them. Tod Browning is the central figure here, as Skal looks at his fascinating life and brief filmography and finds several recurring themes – Browning’s very peculiar career trajectory is very much apparent in his work, and it’s an especially potent series of events where his childhood as a carnival act (as a man who would be buried in a casket and then “resurrected”, because sometimes things make too much sense) would ultimately lead him to direct Freaks, the film that destroyed his directing career. Browning is the figure the book is most fascinated with, but the history of the stage versions of Dracula and Frankenstein (and the ugly business of securing the film rights) are equally important, and show in microcosm how individual directors, writers, actors, and businessmen interpreted these stories and helped create close-to-platonic conceptions of both those stories, crafting all future reinterpretations of the two most important horror symbols.

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After reading later volumes of the Judge Dredd Complete Case Files, I decided to walk my way backwards and see what I missed. This volume begins with a very long storyline that, while entertaining in parts, never comes together into much of anything. Considering how few of the stories have anything to do with the main plot (once Dredd and the other judges head into space, especially), one has to wonder if this whole idea was simply because the writers were bored of Mega City One and wanted to have an excuse to set the comics elsewhere for a while – and once they ran out of ideas for weird aliens or planets for Dredd to deal with (and considering how urgent his mission supposedly is, the points where has to stop and do something else because someone asked him are especially head-scratching), they went back to the main plot and finished it on an appropriate (but still maddening, especially if you were reading this weekly back in the eighties) anticlimax. It’s hard for me to even call most of the storyline padding, because most of the stories that happen between the early parts of the “Judge Child” saga and the end don’t even feel like they’re part of the same story – it’s more like they changed the premise of the strip for over half a year.

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It’s also frustrating because of how solid an artist line-up they have for an entire volume, with Ron Smith (who gets frequent opportunities to draw goofy cross-eyed expressions on people), Brian Bolland, Mike McMahon, Ian Gibson, and Steve Dillon trading off stories, and there isn’t a bad-looking comic in the lot. Once the “Judge Child” story ends and you get back to the more anchored lunacy of Judge Dredd, things begin to click again (although the space stories weren’t bad per se, they lacked the spark of the Mega City One stories, with maybe the exception of the “Battlefield” story – one of two opportunities for Ron Smith to do ad parodies in this volume) – the first comic to follow it is a real nice character-focused piece with even nice Brian Bolland artwork, almost reintroducing readers to the actual point of the series. Subsequently, you get real fun premises like “Otto Sump’s Ugly Clinic” and “Unamerican Graffiti” (probably the best of the stories in here, about as hilariously bleak as you can get), as well as the ridiculous action piece “Pirates of the Black Atlantic”, which somehow manages to be many different sorts of stories all at once (you go from a story with mutant pirates to “oh, a whole section of the city has just been obliterated with a nuclear missile”, which understandably is a pretty grim turn), and even acts as prelude to the stories they’d be telling not long after (this volume ends up introducing several elements that the series would go back to for years to come.) After what felt like a long time away, the second half of volume 4 felt like coming home.

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One thing that struck me while reading Big Kids was the constantly shifting presence of very specific social power dynamics, a slightly unnerving sort of casual cruelty that sometimes appears in Deforge’s other works. There’s always a need for someone to be at the bottom of the hierarchy among Adam’s peer group, who are arbitrarily (although probably not that arbitrarily) chosen to be the target, and this is never questioned even by the designated target. When Adam changes into a “tree”, the dynamics change – he no longer becomes the target as the other teenagers sense something is different about him, people in his life who are still “twigs” become lesser beings (even when, or maybe especially when, they are former authority figures like Adam’s father, his policeman uncle, and his ex-boyfriend) – the twigs are, as the narration itself explains, not actually lesser in any real way, but they not only lack the gifts of extrasensory visualizing and interconnection. But they are also seen as these expressionless, simplistic shapes that are physically smaller and lack any of the “organic” features that define the trees. In a way, this dehumanizes them in a way that Adam seems willing to take advantage of, his new way of seeing the world allowing him to ignore the other level of reality he no longer has to deal with – like on the page where he simply picks up and throws his abusive uncle out a window, the change in their relative realities giving him the confidence to overthrow those who once domineered his life. But while this seems triumphant in that scene, it’s not difficult to see that this is just another arbitrary hierarchy being used – the trees’ “awakening” is random, and the trees’ distinctive societies and relationships are an unspoken agreement.

Another recurring theme is a strange ambivalence towards art and its ability to construct and deconstruct familiarity. When Adam becomes a tree, every object or concept (like sounds) in the world becomes a Deforge-style abstraction, a flowing liquidy shape or living thing – ideas are anti-Platonic in a way, and no ideas are invisible, always visible. Being able to see things in this seemingly nonconforming, elastic way is the gift and the curse of the trees, the world becoming a formless expression rather than rigidity, but one that ultimately gets in the way of understanding people without this artistic mind, and ultimately robs them of their memories of their older world. The computer program April develops with Adam’s mom is a sort of alternative form of expression, returning to some semblance of “realism” in order to preserve those memories, but it also demonstrates the imperfection of visual memory (an idea helped by the way Deforge draws people in this – simple faces that make the imprecise fudging of details more noticeable), every image of the world around us a always a illustration from a hazy thought rather than anything completely concrete. By the end, we see that there are people who seem to gain something from this new mode of interpretation that they can flow through themselves, a viable community, but to others it is ultimately an alienating force (like Adam’s mom, who chooses to physically deform herself to feel more at home among the twigs like her husband) – artistic extrapolation and reinvention being able to bring people together or keep them separate.

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Julia Wertz, “Drinking At The Movies” (2010, 2015) & John Wagner/Alan Grant/Carlos Ezquerra/Cam Kennedy/et. al.,”Judge Dredd: The Complete Case Files 09″ (1985-86, 2015)

December 14, 2015

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Drinking At The Movies compartmentalizes life in the same way that Wertz’s later book The Infinite Wait does, using both the actual chronology and location (the various apartments she’s lived in, which also means more of her really delightfully detailed drawings of buildings and streets) to set up each section of the book. The big difference here, though, is that this one longer sustained narrative rather than a trio of short stories – so they’re more like chapters in a single story rather than different stories altogether. Having more of a narrative through-line connecting each of the sequences (which, in each chapter, are themselves treated like comic strips that range from one to several pages), recounting Wertz’s beginnings and developing relationship with the city of New York, and how that change in her life connected with several other personal events gives it a real sense of development, even if you’re still mostly reading some jokes about terrible jobs and poor life choices. In this way, it feels more like full memoirs rather than a series of anecdotes like The Infinite Wait.

This book also dates itself in a way that felt very different than the later one – specifically talking about the political situation in a few places, putting the events of the book in the latter part of the Bush years and up to the 2008 elections. These references aren’t extraordinarily prominent, and I don’t think it was necessarily intentional that the stories in The Infinite Wait used fewer specific reference points in that same vain, but it might reflect on the aforementioned compartmentalization – its pretty easy to connect world and personal events in that way, creating further context. Going back to the memoir idea as well, it’s possible that this book’s position as a longer narrative made Wertz want to connect her own story with some of the external ones, creating a sense of America as she acclimated to its biggest city – a much wider narrative overall.

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That internal/external connection is pretty consistent in the book as well, capped off with Wertz’s own realizations in the last pages – that she had no reason to place any blame on the city for her own problems. She seemed to know this throughout – most of the pages about her alcoholism and other problems show a lot of (probably retroactive) self-awareness, and despite all the frustrations with her new life, she seemed well aware of what the impediments, especially in the latter half of the book. She has some cute ways of externalizing those anyway (like the strips about her missing wallet), but they as it proceeds even those jokey formats feel raw, and when real life really intrudes, it sends the whole thing back to reality in a painfully focused way. Even when trying to add some levity, it never loses sight of the real effects these problems have. Meanwhile, those wider world events, and the details about New York life, may seem like distractions from her self-destructive behaviour, but they also give her that final realization, that new surroundings can give her a chance to create a whole new life for herself, or at least change it in important ways.

***

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I would call this another pretty procedural volume of Dredd, if not for the presence of some very important one-offs and story developments, like “A Chief Judge Resigns” and “Letter From A Democrat”, although the effects of those stories are probably felt much more later. The latter is especially effective, maybe among the darkest Dredd has ever been, just by showing how the openly authoritarian nature of the series’ universe plays out when Dredd is explicitly the bad guy – we’ve had many strips and jokes about it, but this one goes entirely straight, and while the comics afterwards more or less go back to the more standard outlandish fare (where the brutality of the Judges can be more or less written off), its difficult to shake the full realization you’ve just confronted. The whole series has made sure that it never went too long without reminding us that the stories are about a frightening totalitarian state, and here those reminders are presented without any fantastical distractions (as in “The Apocalypse War”). This volume has a couple other stories that play into that theme as well (“The Man Who Knew Too Much” and the blackmailed Judge three-parter), and although the other stories aren’t as effectively constructed as “Democrat”, they still give an impression that the writers were starting to recognize the story potential of tapping into the people who have legitimate problems with the whole Judge system.

“Letter From A Democrat” also stands out because it contrasts so heavily with the rest of the stories in this period – if there’s one consistency, it’s that this is consistently one of the most tonally varied of any of the Dredd books I’ve read. There are strips that are straight action (with the first one, “Midnight Surfer”, being the best of those), grotesque horror (like “Nosferatu”), strange Sci-Fi tragedies, and straight-up goofy comedy (with the goofiest of them, especially “The Magnificent Obsession”, working a lot more than others – definitely helped by the greatly complimentary artwork of Cam Kennedy and Ian Gibson), as well as other weird concepts like “The Lemming Syndrome”, which seems to be trying to set up some background idea for Mega City One, but really doesn’t add much. With so many different ideas in play, the quality tends to be all over the place as well – “A Merry Tale Of The Christmas Angel” has nice Steve Dillon artwork, but sort of just peters out by the end, and the big multi-part action story (with a few major continuity pieces) at the dead center of the book is just sort of there (and often kind of uncomfortable with its borderline offensive Japanese stereotypes.) Still, the stuff in there that does work works quite well, and some consistently good artwork from contributors like Kennedy, Gibson, Carlos Ezquerra, Cliff Robinson, and Brendan McCarthy. It’s quite a few different styles in there, but they are generally employed well even in some of the more disposable strips.

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Endnotes for 2014

January 17, 2015

I have some more focused book posts I’m planning to get around to, but on a whim I also wrote some paragraphs on many of the books I read in 2014, including a few that didn’t end up on the site, and some quick additional thoughts on ones that did. So, here is my 2014 Year In Review round-up:

The first thing I read this year was The Adventures of Kavalier & Clay, something that I had been holding off for a while despite having no real reason to hold it off. I didn’t write a post because I didn’t feel I could flesh out any of my ideas into anything coherent or interesting. I found it particularly interesting to read a piece of historical fiction that essentially rewrites some of the history of something relatively minor, maybe something that many of the readers wouldn’t even notice. I still am parsing, trying to determine what I think about this in terms of a medium that still grapples with the truth of its own founding narratives.

I read two books about the natural world back to back – David Quammen’s Spillover and Elizabeth Kolbert’s The Sixth Extinction. The things I learned from Quammen’s book, which was from a few years ago, turned out to have startling relevance a little bit later in the year. Despite being a 2014 book, the things Kolbert wrote about did not seem to have as much import this year when faced with some more immediate issues, although it is an ongoing condition that remains to be grappled with. Reading them together was one of my first thematic duets this year – the role of man in the precarious and hostile environment we have mostly engineered for ourselves, fundamentally changing the natural system in many ways.

I managed to write a short thing about a Michael DeForge comic I read this year, after failing to come up with a proper response to Mostly Casual last year. Ant Colony (which I followed in webcomic form as it was being posted the year before) seemed a little more straightforward, and I could find a couple dumb things I wanted to mention about it, but I’m still terrible at discussing comics in a half-intelligent way. I also read A Body Beneath, but obviously didn’t write anything about that for the same reasons as Mostly Casual.

I watched a little over half-dozen giant monster movies earlier in the year, and wrote about those as well. It’s a genre that I have a longstanding affection for, and falling for a multimedia blitz like the mark I am, I decided to use it to brush up on my stuff. This was supposed to lead up to me going to see the new Godzilla movie, but that didn’t happen because that would involve leaving my house. This also led me to read August Ragone’s Eiji Tsuburaya: Master of Monsters, which is a beautiful, utterly essential book that reminds me on every page why I love these stupid movies.

One author I decided to begin reading this year was J.G. Ballard, and I started with one of his novels (Concrete Island) and a collection of his short stories. The short stories provided some crucial context to development of his style and themes – even when he was working with more standard genre trappings, he had a knack for finding jarring, inward-looking story angles, and crafting claustrophobic environments. By the time we get to the novel (which I read first), he had transposed those ideals from the science fiction realm to a contemporary “realist” one, but with essentially the same results.

I read another volume of the Judge Dredd Complete Case Files, 07, which I forgot to write about, to be honest. It’s way more of a procedural volume, without any real major developments in the series ongoing, but since it’s those kinds of stories that make up the bulk of Dredd (and allow for more of the stuff I like from it – namely, the dark humour), it’s good to see what the creators do with their “free time” between epic storylines. The art is all over the place, leaving some interesting stylistic changes (the haunted house story in particular) and some less-than-interesting examples (a lot of the latter part of the collection), with the regulars like Ron Smith putting out their consistently good work.

My light summer reading was Matt Taibbi’s The Divide, which like Quammen’s book, had a lot of material that became in-your-face relevant by the end of the year. Questions of how policing in America is used against certain classes of people has finally become one of the most important social questions for everyone, rather than just the direct victims, and The Divide provides many disturbing examples of how the system has been set up like this. It’s not the whole picture, to be sure, but it’s an important piece of it. Reading 2011’s Griftopia gave me even more insight into some of the systems Taibbi described in his later book.

For one reason or another, I decided to go crazy with my Stanislaw Lem reading this year – I read four different books by him: one novel, one short story collection, one book of criticism, and one literary experiment, all the different forms Lem is known for. It’s pretty easy to look at all four of them together as Lem’s mission statement for science fiction: His Master’s Voice is his take on “first contact,” Mortal Engines covers artificial intelligence using older literary forms re-contextualized as science fiction (mocking those conventions in the process,) Imaginary Magnitudes* (which, despite its gimmick, is pretty much a collection of science fiction short stories in its own right) demonstrates how the genre can be applied outside standard literary modes, and Microworlds well, states its purpose pretty openly, attempting to form a basis for actual literary criticism within the genre. Even without many of his more well-known works, one could easily understand many of Lem’s pervading themes and stylistic tics just from these four books.

*To be discussed further at a later date.

John Wagner/Alan Grant/Jose Casanovas/John Cooper/Steve Dillon/Carlos Ezquerra/Ron Smith, “Judge Dredd: The Complete Case Files 06” (1982-1983, 2007)

June 5, 2013

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(Sorry for the dearth in updates for the past month. I have been reading, although not necessarily at the pace I was hoping for. I’ve also been sidetracked by other projects in the meantime. I can’t guarantee that regular updates will return, but I do have some material to run through in the coming months.)

What’s interesting about this collection of Dredd stories, as pointed out in Douglas Wolk’s piece, is how it acts as a prime example of continuity management in an ongoing series. A good number of the stories in here show the fallout from the Block Mania/Apocalypse War story that ended prior, and it really seems that those stories managed to provide a lot of creative avenues for Wagner and Grant to explore. Radioactive waste, disease, food shortages, final remnants of the enemy army, increases in homelessness…by the end of the next year, it seems that Dredd had picked apart every possible side-effect the deck-clearing in “The Apocalypse War” left behind. Aside from that, there were also several stories that picked up other threads as well – “Destiny’s Angels” brought back a few characters thought long-gone (and openly getting rid of one who should have been), or the few stories like “Blobs” and “Prezzel Logic” that showed the meetings of the biggest criminals in Mega-City One. After deliberately reducing their setting, Wagner and Grant immediately choose to build it back up again, which provides for some truly entertaining stories and good bits of world-building.

This, I think, presents one of the real benefits of this sort of open-ended storytelling: having the stories bounce off one another, showcasing some imaginative cause-and-effect, and using one story to give you the momentum in later ones. The kind of major event represented “Apocalypse War” usually leads to endless attempts to one-up it in scale (and Judge Dredd would do just that in the years to come), which has the tendency to degrade their effectiveness – you can only have so many large-scale disasters in a world like this before they just become tiring. It is then refreshing for them to see the approach they took for these follow-up stories, in which they pull back on the scale (no especially long story lines in this volume) and essentially get back to “normal”, but to take into account all of the possible ramifications of the previous story. It give both the readers and the storytellers enough breathing room to really soak in the changes to the status quo, while avoiding the kind of event overload I mentioned before. Continuity and world building, at their best, present us with a living, breathing setting that changes while still staying mostly “in-character”, so to speak. We don’t just want to see what is set in stone already, but how the established rules and personalities in a place like Mega-City One react to the stories that are told within them. It gives the impression of it not only having depth, but also of being a truly dynamic.

The choice to have shorter story lines also benefits these comics because it gives each artist the opportunity to cover each arc on their own. This is a great volume to see the distinct strengths of many of the defining Dredd artists – Ezquerra getting the darker and more action-oriented stories like the Alien-clone “Starborn Thing” and “Destiny’s Angels”, and Smith using his MAD-esque caricaturing skills in the straight-up weird comedy of “Blobs” and “The Stupid Gun”, with Cooper and Dillon filling in for “The Last Invader” (which feels somewhere between Ezquerra and Smith in spots, and features some of my favourite jokes in the volume) and “Trapper Hag”. Smith and Ezquerra even get to try some stories outside their usual wheelhouses – Smith getting the straight siege semi-epic “Shanty Town” (which, at the very least, gives him the opportunity to draw some weird-looking goons) and Ezquerra getting even the slightest bit goofier in “Condo” and “The Prankster” (although that’s definitely not to say Ezquerra only does the serious stuff – his first story in the volume is “Meka-City”, where the villain is a robot wrestler named Precious Leglock) It feels a bit odd at first, but it is enjoyable to see them involved with a variety of stories throughout the volume.

The variety there also goes back to what I was talking about before – it’s rather incredible that we can run the gamut of concepts, including alien action stuff like “Starborn Thing” (which still manages to include a goofy recurring joke in Dredd’s “baby”) and “Trapper Hag”, goofy satirical concepts like “The League of Fatties”, and tragic crime fiction like “The Executioner”- all in the same world, and many of them tied together by the aforementioned continuity. The openness of the world, much like its organic development, is a major part of Dredd‘s appeal. Most of the long-running fictional worlds, especially in serial comics, share that anything-can-happen feeling, with the limitations understood to be mostly tonal. Dredd, by establishing a satirical universe from the get-go, widens its net even further, giving it the opportunities to have something like “Jimps” be followed by “Night of the Rad-Beast”. It’s always interesting to see how something so broad in genre can be hammered into some sort of shape – and these stories do just that. It’s primarily just a lot of goofy fun, but that world building aspect does add a lot to the reading experience.

Case Files 05 and 06 work well in tandem in this way – between the two of them, we get to see most of the major concepts (the bigger examples being Judge Death and the Apocalypse War in 05, and Mean Machine and the fall-out in 06) and story tricks that Wagner and Grant will continually utilize during their long tenure on the series, stories covering a vast range of material, essential artists like Ezquerra at the top of their game, and some good examples of both the epics and the smaller stories. As my introduction to Dredd, I couldn’t ask for better – in these books, Dredd and Mega-City One really come alive, and all the possibilities the world presents become quite clear. In the more specific cases of each book, 05 offered a great starting point, while 06 really hammered home what makes the stories and worlds of Judge Dredd interesting.

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

November 8, 2012

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.

Various, “The Best of 2000 AD” (2008)

July 18, 2012

First things first: the title of this book is bunk. It’s quite obvious that, with a few exceptions, this collection does not represent the best the 35-year-old magazine has to offer in terms of actual quality. Nor does it seem to be the book’s actual aim; rather, what the book seems to be trying to present to readers, and what I personally got out of it, is a grab bag collection that pretty accurately reflects the experience of reading the average 2000 AD prog in the late 70s and early 80s (although material from later is present, it’s few and far between). The fact that the stories are (mostly) incomplete and dispersed rather than presented in proper order only adds to this – you’re going to have to get through some Mean Arena and Shako to finish off a Judge Dredd or Strontium Dog story, just like some British kids would have had to back in ’82! There seems to be the real value of Best of 2000 AD, with the “Best of” moniker mainly being a perfunctory marketing ploy.

You’re only given a small slice of all the material that’s been printed in the magazine, but I honestly feel I’ve acquired a good grasp of what 2000 AD‘s deal is just from these selections. They serve more or less as a mission statement for the magazine in its early years – violent, zeitgeist-y, odd, and humorous. Whether it’s bizarre classics like Rogue Trooper and Slaine or lamer fare like the bionic-man-bandwagon-hopping M.A.C.H.1 (whose story in here presents a group of lumberjacks, of all things, as a combination of hillbilly and Frankenstein-esque Eastern European villager), that totally out there tone is present, which really gives everything some kind of charm. It certainly helps, because there’s a lot of similar-feeling strips here – three variations of “violent future sports” (way before The Running Man was the go-to source for that cliche), even more futuristic or semi-futuristic war comics, and comics about the conflict between man and a large brutal animal. Also, every team of characters has to have at least one monster and one robot (except for ABC Warriors, which is a futuristic war comic where the whole team is made up entirely of robots). Not a whole lot of it is particularly good, but it’s interesting to see how a similar worldview, rebelliousness at its most adolescent and entertaining, run through almost every strip. This is rooted in the fact that most of them were written by either Pat Mills or John Wagner (often under pseudonyms), the two most important names in the magazine’s history (especially Wagner, whose work with and without Alan Grant on Judge Dredd for all these years has been the anchor of the whole operation). Their pitch-black sense of humour and penchant for violent silliness is the tone of choice for the magazine for the past thirty years, pervading pretty much every strip. It shows up in Mills & Wagner’s best work (for example, Mills’ two early Nemesis the Warlock short stories, with wonderfully grotesque/hilarious Kevin O’Neill artwork), and even in their lesser stuff like Wagner/Grant/Massimo Belardinelli’s Mean Team; the lesser ones often feel like them simply trying out every variation of their previous ideas to fill space, and then going as far with it as possible. But even if the idea isn’t particularly interesting, it seems like Wagner, Mills, and their contemporaries go for the gusto and try to have some fun making them. This atmosphere of shooting the shit in sci-fi comics form is rather infectious, and may be part of the reason the magazine seems to stand the test of time.

The Wagnerian method also shows up in some of the more distinctive alumni, which is another thing this collection lets you in on. Peter Milligan/Jim McCarthy/Brett Ewins’ Bad Company, which is the most “modern”-looking (and to my knowledge, latest chronologically) of the strips featured, is a pretty atypical 2000 AD comic in the Mills/Wagner mould, having both a futuristic war and a team with a monster and a robot – and if Wikiedia is to be believed, it was a Wagner/Alan Grant idea they just didn’t get the time to work on – coming from the future writer of some of my favourite comics (side note: I’d recommend checking out another one of Milligan’s 2000 AD contributions, Hewligan’s Haircut, which has him paired with the indelible Jamie Hewlett – now that’s really one of the best things the magazine has to offer). Even Alan Moore gets into the spirit – D.R. & Quinch (with art by Alan Davis) is essentially the kind of violent black humour the magazine was known for, distilled into a purely comedic (and juvenile) strip; Moore’s various contributions to Tharg’s Future Shocks and Time Twisters follow the 2000 AD tone while still retaining Moore’s own style (it’s worth noting that all of the Future Shocks reprinted here are Moore’s – except one, which was written by a Grant Morrison); on the other hand, The Ballad Halo Jones is probably the most distinctive comic in this collection, if only because it is not about violent futuristic sports or futuristic war – it does, however, still feel like a 2000 AD strip, if only because it picks up on every other strips’ attempts to create future-slang and takes it to its logical extreme.

I know from interviews that Moore admired Mills’ and Wagner’s work in the magazine, which might explain why him, Milligan, and others were so willing to get in on the fun. The fact that Moore especially has such a major presence in the book suggests that one of the main selling points Prion was banking on was people wanting to see the early work of some major British comic writers and artists (who should not be undersold here – O’Neil, Carlos Ezquerra, Dave Gibbons, and Brian Bolland have some truly excellent stuff in here, although I think 2000 AD may be a case where the writing has a slight edge in importance – the art’s not as consistent as the number of big names imply, and on the whole no one artist has the influence over the whole magazine’s output that Mills and Wagner do). But aside from just sitting there with “here’s what the guys behind FAMOUS GRAPHIC NOVEL X were doing a few years before”, it shows the tradition they were coming from, and willingly bending their own styles to – much like that infectious sense of fun I mentioned before, it one of the things that shows why 2000 AD has endured for so long. So while this isn’t a collection of graphic literature masterworks by any stretch, you can begin to understand why this is a UK comics institution; it’s silly, it’s fun, and it can be really interesting reading. To think this was the kind of stuff twelve-year-old British boys were reading in the 70s and 80s…