When the Judge Dredd comic began in 1977, it was without a firm grasp on its own continuity or world. Over time, new elements would emerge, and odd ideas brought up for consideration. For a few years, the comic, always under the eyes of John Wagner, who has probably written a small majority of the episodes and is acknowledged as the comic's creator and chief architect, placed Dredd in a city-state with a population of 800 million. After five years, this number was halved over the course of the legendary epic "The Apocalypse War," wherein Dredd's home of Mega-City One was invaded by the ruthless Sovs of East-Meg One. Somehow, Wagner considered 400 million a slightly more manageable number than 800 million. Evidently, he's since decided that even that number was too great to control.
From time to time, the events of "The Apocalypse War" have resurfaced to confound our hero. Survivors of East-Meg One were shown to have established a new government on the shores of the Mediterranean Sea, intent on convicting Dredd of war crimes, and various sleeper agents and assassins have surfaced from time to time to make potshots at the city. But they've all failed, and frequently been shown up as blunderers, compared to what Yevgeny Borisenko accomplished over the course of the last year.
"Day of Chaos" is, naturally, the culmination of decades of episodes, and as such, no simple summary introduction can do it justice. That said, new readers would do well to begin their approach with prog 1740, from June 2011. This features the beginning of a three-part story in which Dredd's most cunning ongoing enemy, the serial killer PJ Maybe, escapes from prison. His recapture becomes a priority when "Day of Chaos" properly begins in issue 1743, but there are even more critical problems. Justice Department's Psi-Division has been a deteriorating failure for years, probably since most of their reliable operatives have died in action, but they have a very good prognosticator who foresees her own death and a disaster that will crush the city like nothing before.
With a Sov camp in Siberia preparing a massive germ warfare attack on the city, and PJ Maybe planning to sabotage the city's mayoral election, and suicide assassins at loose targeting key figures, and Justice Department planning for the unbelievable casualty rate to come in such an unthinkable way that the citizenry finally has decided they've had enough of their tyranny and rises in full-scale, city-wide open revolt, this rapidly turns into a spectacle completely outside of any hero's ability to solve. Wagner and his artistic collaborators, including Ben Willsher, Henry Flint and Colin MacNeil, kept this escalating for an amazing 49 episodes, wrapping in prog 1789.
A little over halfway through, Wagner calmly played his masterstroke. Just as it really looked like things could not possibly get any worse for Dredd and his city, somebody - I don't know that we ever learned who, or whether they had some particular scheme to control or direct them - arranged for a bent judge to release the three Dark Judges who had been in captivity. Brilliantly, Judges Fear, Fire and Mortis just killed everybody in the narrative who might have explained to the reader what the big idea was, leaving them loose within the much larger narrative as one more titanic problem to overcome.
And the thing that really worked was this: set among this kind of catastrophe, the Dark Judges genuinely don't change things for the worse very much at all. Judge Fear's one-at-a-time killings are visually impressive, but when entire tower blocks of a hundred thousand people are going mad from a lethal plague, there's not a lot that they can do, and their impact on the story turned out not to be a large one. However, they added to the spiraling sense and feeling that this truly was Dredd's darkest hour, their psychological impact almost without equal in the comic's history - I still contend that their original appearance is just about the best cliffhanger in all of the medium - and they left the reader gasping for weeks about how in heaven Dredd's going to win this one.
And he doesn't. The best he can do is survive it. The sun finally rises on a city that has been as ravaged as can be imagined. Of Mega-City One's 400 million citizens, only about 50 million have survived. Almost 90% of the population has been killed.
Where the hell do you go from here?
Unfortunately, most of the episodes that appeared since the conclusion have not really addressed the new psychological state of affairs, and the logistics of managing a world so blighted. There have, of course, been quite a few epics with high bodycounts before, but things routinely get back to normal really quickly, without the eye-popping sweep of death and destruction that this one has brought, and it appears that Wagner's fellow writers misunderstood just how thunderous a change this was going to be, and how readers would want to see "what's next" in a more considered way. "Innocent," a two-parter by Rob Williams and Laurence Campbell, appeared in progs 1798-99 and was the first story to really address just how amazingly bad things are now. There's said to be a comedic-themed one-off by Chris Weston in next week's prog 1800 to celebrate the new feature film, and then, we're optimistic that subsequent episodes will really dig into this new world order.
There's so much more to explore and learn. Mega-City One has effectively been the world's only super-power, and, in many stories scripted by Gordon Rennie, bully, for quite a few years. That's surely not the case any longer. We don't know how other cities have weathered the plague, and whether many of Dredd's gigantic cast of supporting players survived. The smart money's on most anybody who could headline a series of any length returning again, of course, but I contend that a great way to bring the cost home would be to just casually mention in passing somewhere that beloved recurring characters like Chopper, Juliet November, or Galen DeMarco were killed during the outbreak.
For something so wild and unpredictable to come from a regularly-scheduled comic is a real pleasure and a genuine surprise. Watching the status quo deteriorate and disintegrate further as the year progresses is something we are all looking forward to. I highly recommend readers familiar with Dredd start with prog 1740 - linked through the image above - and see what the heck has been going on. Those who don't know the character and world much yet, grab some recent trade collections and hop on board. This is one hell of a ride.