Saturday, March 20, 2010

Judge Dredd: The Complete Case Files 14

What I try to do with reviews at this Bookshelf blog is keep it simple and spoiler-free, and let you know whether I'd recommend you pick up a copy of what I just read. Seems to work okay. This time, a brief review of Judge Dredd: The Complete Case Files 14 (Rebellion, 2009)

Judge Dredd isn't always the easiest series to follow, or for new readers to appreciate the complexities of the storylines. Most of the early material - particularly the stuff in black and white, often drawn by Bolland, McMahon, Smith, familiar to Americans through well-worn collections - stands alone very well, but while most of the color episodes - and there are a lot more of them - stand alone just fine, there's so much more pleasure to be found when you get used to all the lingering subplots that build through them. Case in point: "Necropolis," a simply amazing 26-part epic from 1990 by John Wagner and Carlos Ezquerra. This story's been collected a couple of times before, but to get the best effect, it needs to be read with the three months' worth of episodes which preceded it. Happily, this giant story is finally available in one collection. The fourteenth edition of The Complete Case Files compiles 38 episodes in one incredibly satisfying chunk of a book, and it's one everybody who loves comics should track down. It's one of Wagner's finest moments.

I think there's a strong influence from Chris Claremont in Wagner's writing at this time, particularly in the way that his 1980s work on The Uncanny X-Men would let subplots and background details grow over the course of several issues. Wagner, in time, became the master of this style of storytelling, and reworks it today better than anybody else in the medium. It's fascinating the way he finds old details from much older stories and brings them to vibrant life in his contemporary tales. About five years before "Necropolis," during the events of Judge Death's third attack on the city, there was a brief incident where the Dark Judges were teleporting throughout the city blocks, evading capture. Wagner revisits that, briefly, revealing that one woman was left in a partial coma by Death, his malignance influencing her behavior, and setting the stage for his powerful allies to break into this dimension.

"Necropolis" itself is just plain amazing. It starts with some very odd pacing, with the two Sisters of Death tormenting Kraken, a rookie who is entrusted (he sais, hedging his bets against spoilers) with Dredd's role while our hero is otherwise indisposed. The first two episodes are all action with very little plot development. But as events build, and Kraken comes under the Sisters' influence as well, the story becomes a taut, epic, page-turner. It's genuinely horrific - as events spiral into unbelievable carnage, some of the citizens' desperation will make your skin crawl - and it's all visualized in gory detail by Ezquerra, who, I believe, sets a 2000 AD record with 31 straight weeks of color artwork without missing a deadline.

This was the last hurrah for the Dark Judges as fabulous, frightening villains for the strip. Fear, Fire and Mortis were brought out of mothballs for a crossover between Judge Dredd and Batman about eight years later, and Death was periodically seen in ill-advised cameos and black comedy roles that turned him into a joke, before Wagner and Frazer Irving rehabilitated the character and gave him a great sendoff in 2004. When you read this story, however, you really wish they'd all been retired permanently, their impact undiminished.

Perhaps in retrospect, "Necropolis" did more harm than good, first by giving 2000 AD's editors at the time the idea that the characters of the Dark Judges could stand up to repeated (mis)use, and also by giving incoming writer Garth Ennis the idea that Dredd's big epic storylines needed to be bleak, carnage-filled apocalypses, leading to 1992's misbegotten "Judgment Day" saga. But taken on its own, it really was a triumph, and Rebellion's terrific reprinting in their Case Files series is one that every fan of British comics should own. Very highly recommended.

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