Wednesday, October 3, 2012

“Is that it?”: Dredd, Dante and disappointment

(#1 in a two-issue limited series) 

I’m sitting in a disturbingly healthy café on Shaftesbury Ave in the centre of London. It’s mid August and I’ve just arrived in the UK, and one of the first things I do after travelling thousands of miles to get here is go out and buy five new issues of 2000ad from Forbidden Planet.

I’m usually about ten weeks behind with the comic by the time it gets to my end of the world, but now I get to read a solid chunk of thrill-power in one go, and this is a proper dose: the final parts of the latest Dredd mega-epic – Day of Chaos – and the last few chapters of the 15-year-long adventures of Nikolai Dante. I’ve got a lot of heavy emotional investment wrapped up in these two stories, (sad but true), and I’m desperate to see what happens next.

So I read the comics in about ten minutes, sitting in that café while the lovely wife enjoys some kind of weird yoghurt/muesli thing, and they’re done. The Dredd epic ended on a massively abrupt note, and Dante’s fate was weirdly inconclusive, and I can’t help it. I can’t help thinking it: ‘Is that it?’

Yeah, that’s it.
It’s my own fault, of course. Disappointment often comes from unrealistically high expectations, and with both Dredd and Dante consistently exceeding my expectations for the past decade, I was certain these climactic chapters would be more of the same.

I don’t even know what that it actually was that I was expecting. Something epic, and majestic, probably. Some note of triumph, almost certainly. Something conclusive, anyway.

Instead, both end on a relatively rare down note. Each ending is far quieter than the stories that preceded them, even as they bring everything to a conclusion, tying up a few plot threads while leaving others hanging.

It just wasn’t what I was expecting, and it’s taken a few weeks to appreciate these comics a bit more.  I didn’t get what I wanted, or expected, or even demanded from these stories, but I’m feeling more and more impressed by the fact that they didn’t give me what I asked for.

The Dredd ending was particularly jarring. At least Dante had been winding up for a while, and there were plenty of warnings that that particular end was coming. But after a year of build-up, the actual Day of Chaos in Judge Dredd ended up being a couple of episodes long – just 12 pages.

This did not conform to the pattern of a Dredd mega-epic. They might have long lead-in times (or sometimes just pop up out of nowhere), but the actual epic would always be between 20 and 26 issues long. (It’s notable that the length of a Dredd epic – in pure page count – is often less than the average six-issue US trade paperback).

So after a year of stories counting down to the Day of Chaos – including a few interludes and the 20-part Eve of Destruction arc – to see it come to an abrupt end after two issues was actually quite shocking.

Like actual violence, the build-up is the drawn-out part, but the actual event is over in an instant. It’s all set up, even if there is no resolution, because there is nothing left to resolve, just piles of corpses as the horrific death toll gets higher and higher.

There would be no moments of fight-back, or triumph, or victory for Judge Dredd in this story. There is only containment of the threat, the ultimate lawman limited to damage control rather than justice as his city dies horribly around him.

This might be the shocking thing about this ending - Dredd fails. By the end of it, Mega-City One is just a shadow of its former self. Hundreds of millions have died on Dredd’s watch, and while he did his best to save as many as he could, it just wasn’t enough. He loses.

It did feel like Day of Chaos was a climax to decades of story, and there was every chance this could be Judge Dredd’s final tale – his successor is in place, he’s an old man who has been on the streets for more than 50 years – but he’s still there at the end of Day of Chaos, standing tall as the city crumbles around him.

Which means there is still the possibility that this will still actually be the event that ends Joe Dredd. It’s always been expected that he will go out in the ultimate blaze of glory, or get gunned down by some punk on the streets, but Mega City-One is broken by the end of this story, and what if that’s too much for Dredd? 

He still has a lot of work to do to get the remains of the city under control, but once things get back to a semblance of normality, all that guilt could destroy him.

Make no mistake, I still think Judge Dredd has been my favourite comic of the past year – it’s unmatched in complexity and density and excitement, and still one of the most darkly humourous comic around. (The fact that the Dark Judges get free, only to become instantly irrelevant because the living are doing a much better job than they could ever manage, is fucking hilarious.) 

And it’s a 35-year long game that is still paying off in unexpected ways. The events of Day of Chaos all happen because Dredd is still paying the price for his actions during the Apocalypse War. He could admit that he would do the same thing if somebody destroyed his city, but he still has never apologised for his genocidal destruction of East Meg-One, and has even proved his point in an actual gruddamned court of law

This is Dredd’s greatest strength, and the thing that takes the sting out of the sudden end to Day Of Chaos – the story has decades of tight history to call upon, so something like the Dark Judges can go on ice for almost 20 years before suddenly bursting back out into the narrative, or terrible actions prove to have worse consequences across entire generations.

And the other part of this is that the story goes on – Mega City-One has been irreparably damaged and there are plenty of stories to be told in the aftermath of the Chaos Bug. The Day of Chaos stories finish here (and John Wagner takes a deserved break), but there are many, many more Judge Dredd stories to come.

Dredd endures. 

For now.

And then there was the Russian rogue Nikolai Dante, which does not have the benefit of a future. That series has come to a complete end, and it’s not one I really saw coming

I’ve got a lot more to say about that particular ending as well, so I'll save it for the next post. Besides, I have the strange urge to go back and read the past five years of Dredd comics all over again. Where did that come from?


Tam said...

I think I know the cafe you mean!

Day of Chaos is the best story in any medium I've seen this year, (although it's not quite the best comic; that honour goes to Joe Sacco's stunning Footnotes in Gaza) and I thought the incredibly downbeat abrupt ending was perfect and the only way to end that story. Showing the judges facing the mounting chaos of the virus would've been gratuitous and nihilistic, (although there's probably scope to show some flashbacks to it, i suppose) and reduce the whole powerful 'actions have consequences down the line' thrust of the storyline to a load of zombie movie cliches. Having said all that, the one thing missing was a 'The End' caption, since it was a bit jarring to not even realise it had finished until reading the following week's Dredd story!

Personally I think John Wagner is probably the best living comics writer because he's still crafting fresh, intelligent and unpretentious stories and defying expectations at a time when even the greatest of his contemporaries are starting to get a bit predictable...

Bob Temuka said...

One of the cafe workers did see my bag of goodies and remark that most of his business came from people who had just been to the comic shop....

I think Wagner's work has been absolutely stunning over the past few years, and just as good as he's always been. Day of Chaos is growing on me, more and more, and apart from the shock of the abrupt ending, I was pretty damn impressed the first time round.