Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Judge Dredd - Day of Chaos: The Fourth Faction

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 - Day of Chaos: The Fourth Faction (Rebellion, 2013).

I didn't do myself any favors trying to come up with a way to "review" the first of two collected editions that reprint "Day of Chaos," the mammoth 50 (!) episode Judge Dredd epic that ran for a full year from the summer of 2011 into 2012. Taken as a whole, it is one of the biggest game-changers ever seen in Western comics, with a conclusion that just plan screws everything up and leaves the series more shaken and beaten up than almost any similar event in any comic that I can think of. (The destruction of the planet Earth in a late 1992 issue of Legion of Super-Heroes might have counted, but the publishers made everything better and back to normal less than two years later.) But the "you've gotta be kidding" level of rule-changing all happens in the second volume, which will be out in a couple of months. What this book does is set things up by reinforcing reader understanding of how Dredd's world is supposed to work, and then, with an incredibly effective sense of impending doom, starts crumbling the structures that define this world into dust.

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. "Day of Chaos" is, naturally, the culmination of decades of episodes, and as such, no simple summary introduction can do it justice. The volume makes a good effort, though. It opens with a couple of pages of introduction that flesh out the long antagonism, and then begins a very effective scene-setting with a reprint of 2010's "The Skinning Room." This is a five-part story (from issues 1700-1704) that shows the political situation in Mega-City One after the events of an earlier year-long epic, "Tour of Duty," and eases readers into things by way of a typical affair of violent future crime. It's written by John Wagner and drawn by Ben Willsher, who provides much of the artwork in the story that follows, and will remind old readers and inform new ones that, as much as this is an action-adventure melodrama, it is also capable of being the absolute finest police procedural in the comic medium, with a wholly successful, cerebral approach to detective fiction that I think many comic fans don't recognize.

The reprint then skips ahead to June 2011, and 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... ah, but I'm getting ahead of myself. 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 the next several months.

"The Fourth Faction" is certain to leave anybody reading it desperate for the conclusion. What you'll get until then is twenty-three episodes of things getting worse and worse, a densely-narrated and subplot-heavy story with multiple antagonists, plotlines that weave masterfully in and out of the story, and a tone so grim that readers will agree that nobody and nothing is safe in this tale. I would have preferred that Rebellion release both volumes together - the second is due in July - but there's no chance that anybody spending the hours it will take to absorb this deep and heavy story will miss coming back for the conclusion. Highly recommended.

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