John Wagner. Bloody hell. Gordon Rennie writes some good stories here too, but I was reminded again of how extreme Wagner is. You read 2000 AD, you get accustomed to it, you enjoy the stories... and then you read some Judge Dredd as part of a year-long comics binge and you realise that, yes, the 1970s UK comics revolution isn't dead. John Wagner's still around and he's still a complete bastard.
The problem with reading lots of Dredd is that his stories are bitty. They tend to be just lots of one-off cases, without much continuity of plot or baddies. (Dredd's like the Punisher in that the character's nature makes it hard to have recurring antagonists. Anyone who opposes him generally ends up either dead or in prison for a long time.) There are exceptions, but that's the typical pattern. That said, though, this collection also shows the extraordinary variety of stories that you'll get in Mega-City One. There are comedy throwaways about eccentrics and loonies. There's a parody about a city block voting to secede from the rest of the city, written well over a decade before the Scottish and Brexit referendums. There's a blood-soaked crossover epic with H.R. Giger's Aliens, which is one of the best Aliens comic strips I've read. There are quieter stories about Dredd's more human side, but also stories where he's a fascist bully boy. There are the troglodytes of the undercity, the muties of the radlands, the forgotten werewolves from twenty years ago and racists who don't think they did anything wrong in killing women and children. "I'm a norm, dammit!"
Sometimes Dredd's the hero of his strip. Sometimes he's the villain.
Then we have the artists. It's a joy to look at. It's modern colour 21st century stuff, with the occasional jaw-dropping piece like Siku's paintings, but plenty of famous old-school names are here too. Ian Gibson, John Ridgway, Jim Baikie, Mick freaking McMahon, the great Carlos Ezquerra... oh, and Henry Flint's wearing his Ezquerra head too.
A TREE GROWS IN ELIA KAZAN (Wagner, Siku, 6 pages) = bureaucracy gone power-mad doesn't like the existence of a tree. Judge Dredd is the city's enforcer. Will he stand up for the little citizen, or will he be a jackbooted son-of-a-bitch? (No, the citizens don't know either.)
CASE FOR THE DEFENCE (Wagner, Willsher, 6 pages) = Orlok the assassin has an appointed defence council, who's trying to persuade Dredd to see Orlok's side. A trial date's been set. (ORLOK??? As in Block War and the Apocalypse War with East Meg One? Also, Mega-City One has trials?) Dredd isn't exactly overflowing with sympathy and indeed was the one who requested the death penalty for Orlok in the first place, but the story puts forward a surprisingly good defence for Orlok's actions.
GIVE ME LIBERTY (Rennie, Gibson, 12 pages) = clever and funny. Marg Rutherford Block wants to secede from Mega-City One. Dredd suggests letting them do it, because it'll be a disaster and they'll be begging to come back in two or three days. Mind you, he's also planning to stack the deck in his favour.
"A fortified border! You can't be serious!"
"We're entitled to secure our borders against any neighbouring and potentially hostile foreign powers."
ROTTEN MANNERS (Wagner, Marshall, 12 pages) = in real life, Mega-City One wouldn't work. That much power in the hands of a few men... it would be abused to hell and back. You'd have a system designed to create bullies who killed anyone they wanted and treated ordinary citizens like insects.
Wagner knows this. Welcome to Judge Manners.
VOICES OFF (Wagner, McMahon, 6 pages) = the script's fairly routine for Dredd. (Two psi-students make a pretty impressive attempt at murdering him.) The art is BLOODY HELL IT'S MICK MCMAHON.
AN EVERYDAY DISASTER (Wagner, Baikie, 6 pages) = another relatively unremarkable script. The best thing about this one is, again, the old-timer on art duties.
CLASS PROJECT (Wagner, Millgate, 6 pages) = this one's quite funny, though. A class of very small children agree to try to kill Judge Dredd for their class project. "As we're all under the age of criminal responsibility, they couldn't do anything to us."
David Millgate's art is mental and reminds me of Simon Bisley.
ZOOM TIME (Wagner, Fraser, 6 pages) = Dredd rides a Zoom Train. It's okay.
WAITING (Rennie, Holden, 6 pages) = another good one. A citizen gets called in by Mega-City One bureaucracy... and he waits. And waits. "Compulsory summons citation. Yeah, your name's on the list, and you're even right on time, too. Take a seat and Dredd will get round to you when he's ready."
The art's not as flashy as some in this collection, but I liked it a good deal. Holden does a lot with a story about an ordinary man having to wait all day. I particularly like his facial expressions.
OUT OF THE UNDERCITY (Wagner, Critchlow, 24 pages) = tough guy. Werewolf. Undercity. Monsters and psychos in the old White House. It works very well.
REPRISAL (Wagner, Marshall, 6 pages) = another story examining what would happen if you really gave people this much power and unaccountability. Genetic Infantry are striking back at the New Kremlin in retaliation for the 887,204 citizens who died in Sin City. They reckon this justifies torture, child-killing and throwing prisoners from a hovership.
OPEN JUSTICE (Rennie, Collins and Teague, 6 pages) = inconsequential, but amusing. A prisoner in Iso-Block 382 wants to tell Chief Judge Hershey about a terrible miscarriage of justice. He was going about his everyday business as a law-abiding citizen (pulling heists, shooting passers-by, etc.) when Judge Dredd seriously misinterpreted his entirely innocent actions!
AFTER HOURS (Rennie, Gibson, 6 pages) = genuinely interesting. Dredd has some downtime, so he goes for a (non-alcoholic) drink in a bar. It's surprisingly charming and a great fit for Ian Gibson's art.
DEAD FUNNY (Wagner, Johnson, 6 pages) = silly funeral chaos.
SNIPING (Wagner, Gibson, 6 pages) = Snipers! Now you can be sure to hit your target with KillCo Snipe-Safe! Equipped with a multi-function Superzoom Scope and a powerful (3999 lbu) laser blaster! Night or day - rain, fog or snow - Snipe-Safe guides you straight to the mark EVERY TIME!
JUDGE DREDD VS. ALIENS: INCUBUS (Wagner and Diggle, Flint, 100 pages) = a Dark Horse crossover and far better than the Judge Dredd Predator story they did. Bloody hell. A baddie from an earlier story has been breeding Aliens and plans to unleash them on the Hall of Justice. What's more, he nearly takes out all the Judges. Spectacular gore, a scene in a hospital maternity ward and destruction so apocalyptic that you'll be scared for Dredd when he goes in alone. A completely different kind of story from everything else in this collection.
ONE OF OUR SIMPS IS MISSING (Rennie, Williams, 12 pages) = amusing. Doesn't add up to much.
THE GIRLFRIEND (Wagner, Ezquerra, 12 pages) = mature content, from the Megazine. A rich couple buy their son a sexbot. John Wagner takes this to some extremely dark places that for once earns that "mature content" label. The story's final panel is pure Wagner.
RADLANDER (Wagner, Ridgway, 36 pages) = mutie revenge. Torture and killing. A shocking, merciless Wagner ending.
It's a stronger collection than I'd expected. It has some of that Judge Dredd bittiness I mentioned, but also an extraordinarily broad range of storytelling and of course John Wagner. Plus art so varied and impressive that I kept showing it to members of my family. It's been a while since I bought 2000 AD and the Megazine regularly, but I'm considering a subscription...