Friday, January 7, 2011

#1 fo 2010

Judge Dredd
by John Wagner, Carlos Ezquerra, Colin MacNeil, John Higgins and many, many others

Somewhere in the middle of Mega-City Justice, the climactic storyline to the long-running Tour of Duty tale, Judge Dredd tries to figure out why the Chief Judge has abruptly changed his mind about returning to the top spot after a recent injury, but can’t quite make the connection that will blow his case wide open.

The reader knows all about it – we’ve seen the corrupt Judge Sinfield steal and use the mind-altering drug – and Dredd should know about it, because the killer who used that chemical as a trademark has recently been recaptured (after a lengthy and hilariously successful term as Mega-City mayor).

But Dredd doesn’t make that connection, partly because he assumes the Chief Judge’s change of heart is simply a matter of a man getting old, something Dredd has struggled with in the past. He has changed his mind – while remaining Mega-City One’s absolute rigid symbol of justice – on several crucial issues over the years, and has changed the make-up of the city through sheer force of will. But he still has doubts, and the doubts he recognizes are those he thinks he sees in the Chief.

It’s just one moment. Other creators might get a 12-issue monthly series arc out of this simple idea, but it’s just one part of the overall tapestry that was Judge Dredd in 2010. Part of an overall saga of deceptive complexity and unashamed thrills that made it my favourite comic of the past year.

***

Telling a story in six-page chunks is much, much harder than it looks. Fortunately, John Wagner has been doing it for about 40 years now, and knows how to keep things ticking along nicely.

One of the most interesting things about this most recent turn in Dredd’s story is the apparent lack of action. Every other Dredd epic has been measured in body count, with the Apocalypse War still holding the record with the deaths of 400 million citizens, but Mega City Justice managed to avoid almost any bloodshed, with no loss of tension.

Dredd would still sneak off and gun down a few perps every episode to take his mind off the tedious politics, but the drama was in men of honour standing up for corruption and in complicated schemes coming undone under misfortune and absurd comedic swerves.

This absurdity is a major part of Dredd’s success, and the last few years of Dredd stories has had a heavy dose of it in the form of PJ Maybe, a psychopathic killer introduced as an eight-year-old, who has grown up throughout the comic and eventually became the mayor of the biggest city on earth. That was funny enough, but the real laughs were in the way he turned out to be the best mayor Mega-City One ever had, while still indulging in a bit of homicide on the side. (Mind you, the previous best mayors were a man who turned into a mushroom and an orangutan.)

It’s this mix of absurdity, solid drama and heavy action that continues to make Dredd so readable, and sees every slice of the story stand alone as a perfect piece of comics. This brutal economy of storytelling means everybody has to keep up – if the reader has no idea who investigators Buell and Garcia are when they show up at the story’s climax, then it’s not going to take the time to go over it again, although there is enough to show they have Dredd’s back now that he has provided the necessary evidence.

Wagner has been telling this latest story of Dredd’s attempts to give mutants the same rights as human beings – an unpopular move that saw him exiled to an administrative job in the Cursed Earth – for several years now, using this tiny increments to craft a story of enjoyable complexity and subtle depths.

Dredd’s scowl never changes, but the man has come a long way.

***

One of the primary criticisms of the title character in Judge Dredd is that he’s just a fascist. It’s hard to argue, mainly because it’s completely true. In one story this year, Dredd comes down hard on a particularly crime-ridden patch of the city, and utilizes a justice department sniper to take down minor criminals, blowing the kneecaps off grafitti artists and putting shots through the heads of pickpockets.

But he is also an honourable and just man with an iron willpower. He has wrestled with the conflict between the law he represents and actual justice for decades, he has admitted mistakes (usually of a personal nature), actually gave the citizens of Mega City One a go at democracy (they went for the devil they knew), and will not tolerate any kind of bullying (usually with the aid of his nightstick).

While still something of an enigma behind the blank fa├žade of his helmet, Joe Dredd is also a man whose motives are always clear. He doesn’t pretend to be anything other than he is, and forces his point of view across with sheer implacable logic, which helps with the economy of storytelling. When he is given the chance to plead his case, he takes a half dozen panels to state it clearly and precisely. (And, in another brilliant little moment, concedes that he could have done more to stop anti-mutant hate groups, but only because he has been too soft of them and needs to come down harder – Dredd is going to beat the prejudice out of the city, one bigot at a time.)

Over the past decade, Dredd has also built up an enviable supporting cast, with characters that move in and out of his life, often growing into surprising new people while out of his sight. There is Rico, his clone replacement who has managed to hold onto Dredd’s honour and fairness when all others have failed; and Judge Giant, another character who has grown up over the years into a fine judge; and Dredd’s neice Vienna, who has been unable to avoid the tragedy her blood brings.

Most of all, there is Dredd’s surprising tenderness (or as tender as he ever gets) towards Judge Beeny, a young and brilliant street judge who happens to be the daughter of a pro-democracy terrorist. His encouragement, and the quiet pride he feels as she grows into a new breed of judge who doesn’t deny her human feelings, shows that Dredd is a man who can change and adapt to a new generation, while passing on the few lessons he has managed to acquire.

You break the law, and Dredd will break you. But while there were once lively debates in the 2000ad letters page over whether Dredd was a robot, nobody can now deny that he is a man, with all the strengths, weaknesses and contradictions that brings.

***

There were some comics this year that were more intellectually complex, more genuinely moving and more viscerally thrilling than the ongoing story of Judge Joe Dredd, but none of them were as personally enjoyable for me.

It’s one of my favourite things to do each week. I’m going out for a birthday dinner at a wonderful Mexican restaurant in a couple of hours, and I’m hoping the newsagents next to the restaurant has the latest issue. It’s hard to tell at this time of year, with Christmas/New Years messing everything up, but a new issue usually shows up every Thursday, so I’ve got a chance.

I’ve been doing it since I was six, with the occasional lapse. I know every shop in Auckland that sells 2000ad, and always make some time in my week to get to one of those stores, because I just can’t wait to get the latest dose of unadulterated thrillpower.

It’s impossible to deny my favouritism towards 2000ad when making this list of the best comics of the year, because it’s always been there. I was dying to know if old Ben was really a robot after the High Rock escape, and what was in Kano’s black box, and how things were going to get progressively worse every week in Zenith Phase IV, and how Dredd was going to tear down a group of corrupt, power-hungry judges who had seized control of the highest offices of the law.

Under the guidance of Matt Smith – who has been the current Tharg for almost a third of the comic’s existence – the comic has chugged along quite nicely, with a sprinkling of new talent and some seasoned pros supplying some seasoned work

There is always something worthwhile in every issue. There is always the duff stuff, and each issue of 2000ad usually has one story that just doesn’t work, but there is always at least one bit of brilliance. In the past year, strips like Nikolai Dante and Strontium Dog have been utterly fantastic, but the comic’s main star is always the one to beat.

Because no matter how bad 2000ad has got over the years, there has always been Judge Dredd.

There is always Dredd.

***

It’s Wagner who deserves much of the credit for Dredd’s success over the years, but this is comics, and his artistic collaborators are the ones who have to draw that weight on Dredd’s shoulders.

Fortunately, many of the artists who tell Dredd’s current stories have literally been working on the character for as long as Wagner has. Co-creator Carlos Ezquerra’s work is always particularly welcome, and nobody does it better than the Spanish artist.

Ezquerra’s line has got a little shakier over the past few years as some health issues start to intrude on his professional life, but the appearance of his dynamic and powerful art on a Dredd story is now an event in itself – almost guaranteeing some kind of status quo altering event.

There is also a sprinkling of new talents, getting their chance at the UK’s most famous buckethead before moving off to the States for some real money. But there are still some familiar faces that keep on keeping on, with names like John Higgins and Colin MacNeil contributing several chapters in the story. These artists have been producing art for some of the most thought provoking Dredd stories for more than 20 years, including the first democracy story and the shattering America.

They know what they are doing.

***

When all the debris from Mega City Justice starting to settle, the strip ended the year with another run of absolutely inessential Dredd short stories by a variety of non-Wagner writers and some terrific artists, including the brilliant Brendan McCarthy.

As unimportant as these stories are – and they are often little more than a sardonic punchline – they are still part of the overall story. Even with all the shifting politics and the city’s balance of power swinging wildly, life in Mega-City One goes on, and Dredd doesn’t stop.

Even in the big stories, he is out there on the streets, cleaning up the criminal scum and dealing with the insanity of this future world. Even after the biggest and most earth-shattering events, Dredd is still out there, dealing with clumsy pastiches of modern pop culture and outright villainy.

Life goes on, even in the future madness of Mega-City One, and Dredd is a constant presence. The strip is better than it’s ever been, and while Mega-City Justice tidily warpped up a number of long-running plotlines, there is always more to come. Always more story to tell. It will be a pleasure to follow it.

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