Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Judge Dredd: The Restricted Files 01

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 Restricted Files 01 (Rebellion, 2010)

I guess that every so often, things work out for the best. You probably know that Rebellion has been publishing a series of "Complete Case Files" for the long-running Judge Dredd feature. (The first of these was finally released in a special edition for the US market just last month.) These include the stories from the weekly progs and, from the most recent volume, the monthly magazine, but they have skipped the stories from Fleetway's old hardcover Christmas annuals and summer special issues.

Fans had asked at the time to have the annual and special stories added to the Case Files collections as bonus features, but only a handful trickled in. Finally, however, Rebellion has given the stories a two-book collection of their own. The first volume covers the first seven years of extra features from these specials along with stories from the 2000 AD, Dan Dare and Dredd solo annuals. After a pretty shaky start, there is some amazing material in the first book.

About the first quarter of the 400-page collection is really more interesting to archaeologists than to contemporary fans. While Dredd's stories were settling down into a single continuity orchestrated by John Wagner, the annuals were typically churned out by Fleetway editors with just a glance at the source material. Several of the stories are uncredited, and some of the artwork bears just a faint resemblance to the source material. There's a tale about a city called "Mega-Miami" which looks like the city in the 1970s with a future cop running around, and a deeply unfunny, early attempt at a "House of Tharg"-styled crossover where most of 2000 AD's characters of the first couple of years throw a Christmas party in Dredd's apartment. It looks like the artist, Keith Page, knocked those six pages out before lunch.

But a hundred pages in, we get to the point where Alan Grant takes a job with Fleetway editorial and Wagner takes an interest in what's going on with these books. The greatness starts with a Steve Dillon-illustrated episode from 1980 and doesn't waver after that. It includes dozens of fully-painted pages by Mike McMahon and Carlos Ezquerra, along with Brian Bolland's "The Alien Zoo," possibly the only example of Bolland coloring his own work.

Some of these Wagner and McMahon collaborations had been compiled by Titan in a 1985 collection, but most of the book has never been reprinted. One of this duo's stories is a 16-pager called "The Fear That Made Milwaukee Famous," and it's wonderful, simply one of the wildest, goofiest and most inventive adventure comics I've ever read. In it, Dredd rides out in the desert to apprehend a mutant criminal who really does not want to be called "Chickenhead" and the two of them are besieged by thousands of skeletal ghosts of a dead city. Elements of this amazing story would resurface in the creators' later Last American miniseries.

Packed as it is with so many inventive and clever stories, none of which outstay their welcome, it's difficult to point out the highlights or notable moments. Interestingly, John Byrne has a short story in here as well. At the time, the artist was very popular for his Marvel Comics' work inked by Terry Austin. I don't know that there are many other examples from the period of Byrne inking himself, but his line was altogether too heavy back then, as it remains today. On the other hand, Byrne drew a really impressive Mega-City One, and I think it's a shame he did not contribute again.

Byrne at his best, however, is a wholly different prospect than McMahon or Dredd's co-creator Carlos Ezquerra. His pages are really thrilling and full of life and wild, vivid color. The scenes of Dredd and Cursed Earth cowboys warring against giant tarantulas are really impressive, and nobody draws unbelievably obese men eating themselves sick as well as he does.

It's likely that the strange and ill-formed Judge Dredd of the book's first quarter might put off new readers, and so this might not be a good introduction to the character unless you know the circumstances and jump over those stories. Skipping past them, it's a very solid 300 pages of excellent comics at a reasonable price, around $30 in the US. The production is up to Rebellion's very high standards, and the artwork is reproduced very faithfully on very nice paper. It's a labor of love and exactly what the fans had hoped for, and I recommend it very highly.

No comments: