Judge Death anxiously awaits the dawn of 3D comics,
so he can poke out your eyes with his gross fingernails.
Oh hey, it's another infrequent update. Hiya! Hope you're keeping well.
Anyways - comics. Secret Wars, which I've gone over before, is now well-underway, and it's been taking up a considerable chunk of my attention...not to mention my wallet. But it's not the be-all end-all of my funnybook affections - in particular, I'll always have time for some properly British weirdness from 2000AD, the weekly anthology book/deliverer of Betelguesian THRILL-POWER (delete as apt) which the uninitiated would best recognise as home of Judge Dredd, fascistic future policeman. The majority of great comic talents from this damp little island, on both the writing and art sides, earned their stripes in 2000AD before applying for work with the big American publishers - and like bands that began underground or pro wrestlers coming from the independent circuit, it's frequently their 2000AD work that shows them at their most ingenious and daring.
...having said that, the creators at play on Dark Justice - a Dredd story first serialised in 2000AD Progs 2015 and 1912 to 1921, and now available as a handsome hardcover collection - don't fit that mould. John Wagner created Dredd with Carlos Ezquerra back in 1977 and has stuck with that world, and the company that features it, ever since, while Greg Staples has lent his masterfully moody painting many comics publishers, Magic: The Gathering cards, film concept work, you name it. This isn't the work of developing talent, it's pros at the top of their game.
It is also a story about lisping zombie policemen murdering people on a spaceship. You need a review beyond that? Really? Fine, let's dig into the necrotic flesh a little deeper.
Do what Zombie Crispin Glover says, you fool!
Dark Justice is still a very recent addition to the ever-growing Dredd timeline, but new readers don't need to fret - it's a self-contained story, with just enough nods to past events to establish the 'why' of the situation. But since I've got a post to fill (and love waffling) here's the short version: Mega-City One, the massive urban sprawl covering the U.S. eastern seaboard, has been crippled by an escalating series of terrorist attacks, culminating in the release of a rage-inducing plague, all orchestrated under the name 'Chaos Day' by some nasty Russians who never forgave the city, and Judge Dredd in particular, for nuking one of the main Eastern Bloc cities out of existence at the climax of a war many years ago.
Before that, Judge Death - an undead judge from a parallel Earth who decreed life itself was illegal - disappeared, seemingly gone for good after a battle with an electrified hillbilly on the astral plane (really) and getting dragged into the hereafter by the souls of his victims. But now, he's back, when the city that has so stubbornly resisted him before is at its weakest...
Bonus exposition provided by Judge Dredd's Enormous Floating Head here.
There's a little more to it than that, but, well...okay, difficult discussion incoming. I love the Dark Judges, alright? They are by far my favourite villains in all of comicdom. But I'd be lying if I said they were bywords for narrative excellence - or, to put it more simply, they're almost always doing the same bloody thing. They might learn a new trick here or there, but with the exception of the mega-epic Necropolis - where they really did 'win' for quite a long time - it always boils down to the same beats. They return, they kill some cannon fodder, they get shot a bunch and laugh it off ("You cannot KILL whhhat doesss not LIVVVE!"), then Dredd or whoever makes the grand intuitive leap of shooting them lots until they turn into ghosts, and someone either puts them in the traps from Ghostbusters or shoots a can of Silly-String near them. Day is saved.
I'm not alone in this, either - the foreword of the collected edition, which is actually copied excerpts from a series of emails between Wagner and Staples, has Wagner conceding that he's had a lot of trouble thinking up new spins on Dark Judge stories. And while Dark Justice has some worthwhile new ideas, there is a nagging air of deja-vu to the basic setup: the Dark Judges stowing away on board a spacecraft carrying the privileged rich who've tired of Mega-City One feels awfully similar to the setup of the 4th-and-final Batman/Judge Dredd crossover, Die Laughing, wherein the Dark Judges (and the Joker, who wants to be a zombie because who cares) stow away inside a massive armoured dome containing rich party-goers who've tired of Mega-City One. Except this time Dredd has Psi-Judge Anderson and a bunch of armed pest exterminators for back-up instead of a rich butthole who cosplays as the animal that gives himself nightmares. Which if nothing else means I didn't spend the entire story wondering why Dredd didn't just kneecap the spandexed nancy-boy and throw him in the cubes.
Judge Death laughs when he's losing, because singing when
you're winning isn't a guarantee for evil blokes.
Of course, such complaints will be lost on a less-anal mind than mine (so, most people), and while the setup is familiar, the story plays out differently. While Die Laughing was content to be almost a screwball comedy outing with an abundance of gore, Dark Justice aims - and hits - the tension of the early Wagner/Grant/Bolland Dark Judge tales, and coupled with the more believably enclosed setting (and Staples' incredible use of lighting, which I'll come back to) it gives the story the ambience of an Alien movie, or a run through one of the better Dead Space games. There's no place to hide, and not enough space to run.
The cast is just a little too big to really get to grips with, but Wagner is great at understated development, marking out just enough tics to separate the likely survivors from the walking meat. His take on Anderson is perhaps less deep and introspective than Alan Grant and Arthur Ranson's long-running essay on the character, but it's still a worthy how-to guide for adding a 'quippy' character without screwing up your serious tone. And Wagner's Dredd is Dredd. No other Dredd really matters, and so many others fall into the trap of making him overwhelmingly angry or relying on catchphrases. Dredd is as rigid as the laws he fights to uphold, and every burst of dialogue feels terse and clipped like it's delivered by telegram rather than vocal chords. The Dark Judges, of course, are the opposite, flamboyant and exaggerated and sssso vvvery ssssibilant, and I doubt there's any greater fun for Wagner as a writer than thinking up increasingly elaborate threats and gloats for them to mangle with their malformed mouths. Speaking of, special props to Annie Parkhouse, longtime 2000AD lettering workhorse, for the extra-wobbly captions and spoooooky font used on all D.J. speech here.
I don't want to spoil the story any more than I already have, but there is one idea raised during Dark Justice that really had me pondering. There's a moment where Judge Death is (once again) failing to capitalize on holding a human shield and starts ranting, saying how Mega-City One will easily fall without Dredd and Anderson to defend it, to which Dredd retorts, "You give me too much credit" without an ounce of ego. I don't know if Wagner intended for this to be a powerful moment, but it struck me like a brick to the face, as I suddenly realized what the Dark Judges' problem is: they're super villains, in a very classic sense, and they behave and think like the kind of baddies who fight Superman or Spider-Man or other members of the long-underwear crowd. This kind of threat would be taken completely seriously if it was, say, Two-Face talking to Batman, or maybe Red Skull dissing Captain America - and in those kind of stories, we just blindly accept that if this one flag-chested guy dies then the Nazis win immediately, because that's what we've been taught to believe. But here it's not Captain America, it's Judge Dredd, and he absolutely isn't a superhero. Yes, we sometimes think of him that way, because he's the protagonist of so many stories, but he's still just one judge among thousands. Hell, he's not even unique as a 'special' judge - there's at least one identical clone of him on the Justice Department payroll, with all of his skills plus considerably less wear-and-tear, waiting to step into place if old Joe croaks. The Dark Judges just can't grasp that, and see only these two dread rivals as their opposition. Meanwhile, the Justice Department - a crippled but still functional law engine designed to deal with the total collapse of society - shouldn't have any real trouble from four wacky dudes in costumes...so they don't. It's a logical point, but it seems odd to raise it in the text, unless there's a plan to readdress this imbalance in future...?
We can all agree that Mortis has always been the best Dark Judge, right?
That's not just me? HE HAS A HORSE FACE.
Meanwhile, Greg Staples...Ho. Ly. Shit. That about sums it up, right? I mean, look at the pictures on this page, then remind yourself they've been scanned and will look much cleaner and nicer in person. Yes, nicer than that. It's astounding. I've always been a sucker for painted work in comics, but usually that comes with a decrease in detail and overall quality compared to the same artists' work on single pieces, like covers and such. I accept that and try not to whine about it. What Staples has done here, though, is simply refused to do less than his absolute best for any panel, no matter how small or inconsequential it may be. If the high bar for painting in comics is Alex Ross' work on Marvels, then...screw it, this is higher. On a purely technical level, Staples has tried for something much harder; there's almost no big splash images here, so instead he's painted every individual panel as a massive-gruddamn-masterpiece, then had them carefully scaled down to fit the gaps in each page. It's classic comics storytelling constructed from the contents of a macabre art gallery without peer. It's too good to compliment sensibly because no praise feels high enough.
Remember how I mentioned lighting? It's one of those things you don't really think about in comics because it's usually very functional: characters and objects will remain visible so long as they are 'in use', characters will be cast in shadow whenever the scene demands they look mysterious, and none of it will ever really relate to the properties of the sun or artificial light sources within the scene because, y'know, who cares. This of course was not good enough for Staples on Dark Justice, as light sources affect his scenes like...well, not like reality per se, but like lighting on a well-produced film or television show does. Part of the bonus material in the collected edition acknowledges that Staples had some assistance here, reaching out to the makers of the rather cool fan film Judge Minty (I don't have a link handy, but I'm pretty sure it's on YouTube) to help understand how stage lighting benefits a scene. Going the extra mile absolutely paid off, particularly with the cold blue murk of the spacecraft interiors and the accompanying torchlight, that casts the (human) characters' faces with a sickly yellow pallor. The harsh, all-consuming red of the emergency corridors where the Dark Judges first emerge is another particular highlight, as is Judge Fear finally getting the big Darth Vader backlit hero shot he should've had decades ago.
Did I fail to mention Judge Death has sisters? That he used to sleep with?
(they're not actually his sisters, mind you - even Death has standards)
So how does Dark Justice stack up in the final analysis? It's not the best Dredd tale by a fair margin - in fact, I'm not even sure if it's the best Dark Judges one, since Necropolis is still unmatched for its sheer scale of horror, plus Young Death: Boyhood of a Superfiend and Judge Death: The Wilderness Days are strong contenders on the more comedic front. But it's a solid one nonetheless, and a welcome return to the earlier, creepier Dark Judges after a succession of sillier outings. The real star here is Greg Staples, and his artistic tour de force is well worth the RRP. It's a gorgeous nostalgia blast for 2000AD regulars, and a still-gorgeous taster for the wonderful, horrible oddness that is Judge Dredd for newcomers. Heartily recommended.
(said heart was then torn from this reviewer's chest cavity for jusssticce and also irony)
To be continued?