Thursday, April 4, 2013

Judge Anderson: The Psi Files Vol. 3

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 Anderson: The Psi Files Vol. 3 (Rebellion, 2012).

The complete reprinting of Anderson: Psi Division, the longest-running of all the sixty-thousand spinoffs from Judge Dredd, enters its difficult middle period with this volume. It's still very good, and has moments of sheer brilliance, but it raises a lot of awkward and huge questions about Dredd's world that have not really been addressed.

This edition, a big, beautiful 300 pages long, collects twelve stories from 2000 AD, the Judge Dredd Megazine and their related special and annual editions, almost all of it scripted by Alan Grant. The bulk of the stories are from the 1995-98 period and reflect a troubled time for the comics. "Something Wicked," a story in which a cult leader dooms his followers onto an exodus from the city, was originally published toward the end of the Megazine's second volume. At the time, the first feature film about Judge Dredd was nearing release, and the publishers, then Fleetway, did that silly thing that magazine publishers do and did a big relaunch and renumbering for its third volume to accompany the major, and well-remembered story, "Satan." But sales of the Meg tanked after the movie's failure, leading Judge Anderson's stories to be rested for a year and a half before resurfacing in 2000 AD itself. During that troubled time, space in the thinner, cut-to-monthly Megazine was needed for reprints.

Starting from "Something Wicked," much of the artwork for Anderson during this period was provided by Steve Sampson, a really interesting painter who has not worked much in the medium, and who occasionally attracted discussion about his modeling. Occasionally, his photo referencing is a little too obvious, and the star of our story is quite clearly Madonna. I really like his very bright colors and composition, however, and, tasked with the amazing job of setting a story around an exodus of children fifteen million strong, he somehow comes up with some amazing imagery.

So... about those children. "Crusade" is one of the most remarkable and controversial stories from its day, and it still attracts discussion today. The conventional wisdom tends to be negative, but I think it's worth looking at a little more closely. This is a story where some force - an eternally-young psychic child whom Anderson had met in a previous adventure might be either its conduit or its architect - persuades the children of Mega-City One to leave, like a future Pied Piper luring kids onto a Children's Crusade. The judges eventually decide that taking out the leaders of this exodus, to a strange and secret city deep underground in the Cursed Earth, is the best solution. (They do not, firmly, "nuke" them, as horrified critics often repeat - that is a misreading of the situation completely contradicted by the actual incident, where several dozen people are shown to be killed by a missile from a shoulder-mounted launcher, with millions of survivors left to kill the judges in the strike force and enter the city, never to be seen again.)

Pause for a second. That's not just a loss, it's a resounding loss. And in one of the weirdest turnarounds in all of Dredd and Anderson's continuity, it is never referred to again. The story even sees the death of a longtime supporting character, and neither she nor her twin sister are ever again mentioned in the series. The loss of fifteen million children - an astonishing number by even Mega-City One's standards, ranking this among the city's most horrifying disasters - has gone unmentioned in the last sixteen years of stories. What happened to them? Their city is the third-largest in North America, and the judges just let it happen?

I think that the story is really fascinating, and I love Sampson's decisions and use of color, but it really is an amazing missed opportunity. It's also very surprising, since many newer Dreddworld writers like Al Ewing and Si Spurrier have found such success in finding old, throwaway concepts in earlier stories and making them into something wild and new, that nobody has touched on that underground city of 15,000,000 teens, tweens, and toddlers, all now sixteen years older, or the impact on all those poor parents whose kids abandoned them.

Elsewhere in the book, there's the frequently-reprinted "Satan," with lovely art by Arthur Ranson. He's often mentioned as the best of Anderson's artists, but this book covers a period where he didn't work on the series very much; "Satan" is his only story. This story looks so completely amazing that you'll not only overlook the nebulous and slightly confusing climax, but you'll be gritting your teeth in anticipation of a fourth book in this series, which should reprint Ranson's epic two-year "Half-Life / Lucid" arc - 208 pages from 2004-06. Get that on the calendar, Tharg!

Pulling things in my head together, then, this is an uneven collection. At its best, it looks remarkable and reads extremely well, and at its worst, it's still better than most rivals, even with the huge questions that some of the stories leave unanswered. I really enjoy the interaction between Anderson and Dredd, who's a major guest star in the first couple of stories, and the quiet words that they share in the aftermath of "Satan" make for a truly amazing and human moment amid all the supernatural and sci-fi events. The collection also contains a couple of bonus stories with artwork by greats like Mick Austin and Ian Gibson. So it's uneven, but still recommended. You could do a lot worse.


gotheek said...

Thanks for the review - I've been waiting ages for the collected Anderson stories, having tried to get them over the years, so these volumes are very much appreciated.

As you say, roll-on volume 4!

Unsure of whether you reviewed vol2? I found the artwork was poorly transferred to the new books, so-much so that I kept my copy of "Childhoods End" in large-format (together with the out-of-sync pages).

Grant Goggans said...

Hi, Gotheek! I did post a review of the second volume, here:

Thank you for reading!