Friday, September 24, 2010

Judge Dredd: The Complete Case Files Volume 15

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 (Volume Fifteen) (Rebellion, 2010)

We are just about teetering on that little precipice where I won't be able to recommend these books quite so wholeheartedly any longer. Even 2000 AD's biggest supporters must admit that the venerable British comic took a quality stumble in the early '90s. This block of 46 Judge Dredd episodes - 36 from 2000 AD and ten from the first installments of its sister book Judge Dredd Megazine (the current issue of which celebrates the title's 20th anniversary) - was produced when the title itself was floundering somewhat. The Slaine saga "The Horned God" and the Dredd epic "Necropolis" had each just ended, and with them went the period that most people define as 2000 AD's "golden age."

This is the first book in Rebellion's Complete Case Files which might really feel a little off-putting to new readers. The stories are set in the aftermath of "Necropolis" and the death of sixty million citizens - wrap your brain around that number - at the hands of Judge Death and his mind-controlled army. Many of the episodes refer back to it, whether by visiting how some of the supporting players, such as the teenage serial killer PJ Maybe, made out while the city was in turmoil, or by showing the desperation of citizens trapped in refugee camps waiting for new apartments to be built.

That's not to say that it's all relentlessly grim. 1991 saw the debut of Garth Ennis, then a promising young newcomer to comics, as Dredd's lead writer in the weekly comic, while John Wagner and Alan Grant moved over to the Megazine to script his adventures there. In time, Ennis would start repeating himself and running out of ideas, but his first few installments really are interesting. He starts out with "Death Aid," in which an old Dreddworld antagonist, Elmort Devries and his Hunter's Club, decides to liven up things in the Necropolis-hungover city with a sponsored mass kill. For charity.

Then there's "Emerald Isle," a celebrated six-parter which teamed Ennis with artist Steve Dillon for the first time, and let the two of them loose on every Irish stereotype that they could cram into thirty-six pages. From singing fish to potato guns ("Spud gun to smash!" is just a lovely line) to a good-natured, hard drinking Irish judge in a green uniform whose idea of getting news from informants is taking Dredd on a pub crawl, they're all here and all ridiculous.

The artwork throughout the book is terrific. Apart from Dillon and old hand Carlos Ezquerra, there are standout episodes by Anthony Williams, Jim Baikie and a tremendously freaky story about a shapeshifting spider-like alien drawn, with the demento-dial cranked up to eleven, by the late John Hicklenton.

Personally, I'm not able to read it without the heavy knowledge that the good times are about to end; probably the next five books in this series are going to be a little rough going before they come back to the episodes from late '95, which is when Dredd would become consistently great again. But this has a lot to recommend it even without that prescient knowledge. From the dark exploration of what the former Chief Judge Silver had done during "Necropolis" to the goofy performance of what passes for Macbeth in the future, it's a really great set of stories, and fans of Ennis and Dillon's later triumphs on Hellblazer and Preacher will definitely want to see their first collaboration. Highly recommended.

1 comment:

Lee McKnight Jr. said...

Should be getting Vol 11 in the mail this week, so not quite there yet. I'll get them all at some point, because I'm compelled, but will be interesting to gauge the quality, per your post, after this one. Thanks.