Even forty years later, it's still one of Judge Dredd's most famous epics. Including its prequel, Block Mania, it's a breathless monster of a story that lasted most of a year and reduced much of Mega-City One to nuclear rubble. It's a war story. Not just a big fight, but an actual war, told from beginning to end. East-Meg One invades, killing 150 million people in the opening bombardment alone. Ultimately, Dredd wins by nuking East-Meg One and half a billion people.
As a Judge Dredd story, it's also a bit odd.
The thing about war epics is that they're liable to feel a bit impersonal. We're seeing the movement of entire countries, not of individual people. It's also possible to tell intimate war stories, of course, but even so, to me, this story arc feels a bit... mind-numbing. (I nearly said "stupid".) It's so huge that it's sometimes hard to connect with. Block Mania can be a bit dull, although it improves when Orlok the Assassin appears to make things personal. Then, after that, The Apocalypse War is obviously the story of that war. It's breathtaking in its scale and matter-of-fact mega-kills. It's riveting. It's got suicide missions, street battles and the execution of collaborators.
Its Sov villains can be shocking. The alternate dimension Earth that's nuked by the Apocalypse Warp... YOU UTTER BASTARDS. (At the time of publication, incidentally, the USSR was still very much alive and kicking. They'd just invaded Afghanistan. Gorbachev and glasnost were still five years in the future.)
Trying to read the whole epic all at once, though, is slightly hard work. It does well at keeping the story thrilling and Dredd-centric, but the story being told is bigger than individuals. Even the battles are slightly impersonal. It's not Judge vs. Judge, but instead Dredd leading a resistance force against the East-Meg Rad-Sweepers (tanks) and Karpov MF7 Sentenoids (tubby robot walkers that look like something you'd find under a rock at the seaside).
It's also full of famous faces, from both past and future. It's got future Chief Judges McGruder and Hershey, but also blasts from the past like Chief Judge Griffin (!), Walter the Wobot, Max Normal and even Dredd's landlady Maria. (Oh, and at one point we hear that the Judges are making up their depleted numbers with robots, years before Mechanismo.)
1. BLOCK MANIA (1981, 2000 AD 236-244, Wagner, Grant, McMahon, Dillon, Bolland and Smith)
I find a lot of this storyline boring, but it has its moments. It kills Judge Giant, although Wagner and Grant later regretted not milking that more. There's black comedy. "That was a real smart move we made joining up with them!" UULLGH!
It also has mighty artists. It has the great McMahon. (He quit Judge Dredd because of this storyline, incidentally. Block Mania is full of crowd scenes, which took McMahon so long to draw that it just wasn't worth his while.) It has Ron Smith, who fits surprisingly well even though elsewhere I can find his grinning faces a bit cartoonish. It has Steve Dillon. And, awesomely, they end with Brian Bolland. Giving him your epic's finale much guarantees that it'll seem magnificent.
2. THE APOCALYPSE WAR (1982, 245-270, Wagner, Grant and Ezquerra)
This, on the other hand, is by Ezquerra from beginning to end. His work isn't pretty, but he created Dredd and, for me, is probably the definitive Dredd artist. You couldn't ask for a better fit for the material.
Personally, I think this serial works better in individual episodes. Every episode is blood-and-thunder war and ultra-violence. It's thrilling. Never mind the story arc shape, just look at the body count and the "jump off a tower block" heroism. It's got some memorable cliffhangers and a surprisingly strong ending, with the Sov Judges letting Dredd walk through to execute War Marshall Kazan.
As a whole, though, it can feel a bit empty. A plot synopsis is liable to read "fight in battle fight in battle fight in battle".
That said, though, it's hard to disagree with those who call this one of the greatest ever Judge Dredd stories. It was published in weekly instalments. If that's how it reads best, that's not a bad thing. It's pushing Dredd into something more like Battle Picture Weekly, which it hadn't attempted before. It was the first Dredd story to make drastic, permanent changes to his world. (Mega-City One is reduced to the smaller and often radioactive remains of itself. East-Meg One is nuked, an event that was still having catastrophic knock-on effects decades later.)
Oh, and Sov Judges' uniforms look cool. I prefer them to the regular ones, actually.