Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Judge Dredd: The Complete Case Files 16

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 16 (Rebellion, 2010).

The last time that I reviewed a Judge Dredd Case File, I said that we were rapidly approaching the point where recommending these comics isn't just a given anymore. These days, Judge Dredd is terrific, even better than it was in its celebrated mid-80s heyday. The recently-completed "Tour of Duty" storyline makes a strong case for being the best Dredd serial ever, and a highlight of any comic serial over the last decade. But in 1991-92, Dredd was a surly teenager of a comic, all mouth and no soul.

Writer Garth Ennis, responsible for the bulk of the stories here, ran out of ideas very quickly during his tenure on the title. The book is incredibly tedious, with overlong chapters of tough-guy nonsense going nowhere fast. Sadly, a lot of the fault is down to artist Simon Coleby, who we must agree has developed amazingly and has, over the last few years, contributed several great-looking pages to the various series that run in the weekly 2000 AD anthology. In 1991-92, however, his work was awkward, blocky, stilted and he was assigned to all of Ennis's worst stories. "The Flabfighters," "A Clockwork Pineapple," "School Bully" and the risible "Koole Killers," a dull one-parter bloated to an agonizing three, would have been awful stories in anybody's hands, but giving them to Coleby was a facepalm of a mistake.

"Justice One" is the longest Ennis story in the book. Painted in various shades of brown mud by Peter Doherty, another talent who has improved tremendously over the years, this murder-in-space mini-epic promises on the opening page that what will happen onboard Justice Department's flagship starliner will be unimaginable. It isn't. After a promising first episode, this story reveals itself as just another "judges in love and trying to flee" mess, the sort of thing John Wagner was doing in his sleep six years previously, albeit with a laughably absurd getaway plan.

It's not all this awful, but enough of it is. Ennis did contribute a couple of amusing one-offs before mediocrity completely overwhelmed him. There's a clever Twin Peaks parody, and a Cliff Robinson-illustrated story about the first guy that Dredd ever arrested making an unwelcome comeback to say hello closes his portion of the book. You can occasionally see Ennis's love of the character shine through, but weekly deadlines on this strip just weren't for him. But at least he liked Dredd. What's coming up when we hit the 1993-95 run really will be tough to get through.

While Ennis was the main writer on the weekly comic, Alan Grant took over writing duties on the strip in the monthly Judge Dredd Megazine. This book collects another clutch of ten installments. Some of these episodes are pretty good, but it really looks like somebody was saving money by just letting anybody draw it. "Raptaur" is a long epic that could have been a good read - there's actually a funny little bit about an eloping couple on gliders - but the artwork by Dean Ormston is just horrible. Same with a one-off drawn by Charlie Adlard - another who'd improve massively over time - and one drawn by American artist Sam Kieth in, apparently, twenty minutes. The policy of putting untried artists on Dredd really was one of the editorial team's worst blunders. Occasionally, some good pages by Robinson, Colin MacNeil or John Burns make it through, but for the most part this is an ugly, ugly book.

Well, that's not completely true. The interiors are mostly garish and undercooked, but the book itself is another example of Rebellion's very classy work with reprints, which puts damn near everybody else in the field to shame. In all, it collects fifty episodes in color on nice paper. The reproduction is very good and if you must have ten months' worth of Dredd from this period, it might as well be in a package that looks as good as this. Recommended for completists, but not with any real enthusiasm.

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