Wow, John Wagner. I read it, I laughed... and now, on reflection, I can't think of a darker mainstream comics writer. This is a comedy, yes, but even so. Bloody hell. Admittedly you'd expect that from a story about Judge Death, the extradimensional undead who regards life itself as a crime, but let's look at some of Wagner's other protagonists.
- Judge Dredd himself, a fascist thug who'd arrest you for breathing.
- Darkie's Mob, war stories about a complete and utter bastard.
- Strontium Dog, a bounty hunter from a bleak, post-nuclear future.
- Al's Baby, where the pregnant father is a mob hitman.
- A History of Violence, which became a David Cronenberg film and which is about another mob hitman (albeit currently retired).
- Button Man, about a game that pits hired killers against each other.
- Doomlord, who judges mankind's right to exist and passes a death sentence upon us.
He's done lighter stuff as well, yes, but also gut-punch tragedies. Furthermore, those Wagner characters aren't jokey ha-ha-ha protagonists like, say, Death's Head or Sinister Dexter. (To name but two hired killer strips with the weight of a blancmange.) A John Wagner bastard will be terrifying. Joe Darkie is a rage-filled slaughterer who wouldn't blink at killing his own men, etc.
So, Judge Death. He does an interview and talks about his childhood. His acts when he was younger include:
(a) hurts his pet dog for fun, then makes it jump off a cliff.
(b) tries to kill his sister with a hairy facehugger. She survives, but only as a cripple.
(c) shoots birds for not listening when he tells them to stop singing.
(d) helps his father (a serial killer) torture and kill people, then shops him to the judges and gets permission to carry out the execution personally.
(e) murders his law school teachers, then frames a classmate for the crimes and has the entire class hunt down and kill this innocent boy in cold blood. ("He had been irritatinggg me with his helpfful attitude and chhheerfful disspossition.")
(f) as presiding judge in court, passes a death sentence on everyone and kills them on the spot. Including a couple who'd come for divorce arbitration.
(g) hunts down and murders his last surviving family members (mother and wheelchair-bound sister), who'd understandably gone into hiding.
(h) becomes a full judge and goes kill-crazy, e.g. burning a school with 1,800 children in it.
(i) turns himself into the undead
(j) murders the entire world
...and yet it's funny. You'll see long-time 2000 AD fans calling this the point where Death became a comedy character. Some of them even dislike this story as too silly. All this is true. Judge Death is hilarious here. I laughed quite a lot, especially at the lovely, blind, ancient Mrs Gunderson who never notices anything odd about her new lodger. Nonetheless, punches aren't being pulled with the kills. The murders of Death's mother and sister would fit a Universal horror movie. The lightning, the storm, the deserted tower... yeesh. And yet, at the same time, there's always Wagner's humour. "Ahhh! Thesse ssweet remembered ffamily momentsss!"
Is this story successful? I'm not sure. I suppose I'd have to say yes. It's both horrifying and funny, so Wagner succeeded in his goals. You won't be sure why you're reading it, but you certainly won't be stopping halfway through. You won't read many stories with this tone, anyway.