Advance Review: ‘Judge Dredd: The Complete Case Files 38’ – It’s Wagner’s World And All The Others Come To Play
by Richard Bruton
Another volume of the ‘Judge Dredd Case Files’, this one with strips from 2003-04, proving once more that John Wagner’s brilliance when it comes to Dredd is second to none. Sure, it’s not all 10/10 stuff, no anthology could ever be, but it gets damn close, with Wagner really showing us why he’s the defining writer of Dredd for the last four decades plus.
You know when you start one thing and it just veers off into something else? Well, that’s what happened here. Originally I’d meant just to preview this new Case Files… but then I got to reading it and had so much fun reading and ended up writing and writing about this one – well… you’ll see…
Some Case Files have that one big Dredd story that everything else revolves around, the epic Dredd, the big event Dredd, ‘Apocalypse War’, ‘The Dead Man’, ‘Necropolis’ etc. And some Case Files don’t. This one falls into the latter category. The longest strip here is the first, six episodes, 36 pages. Nothing longer than that and most of them well shorter.
But, unlike Marvel and DC and so many others, where the BIG EVENT is the thing, 2000 AD, and especially Judge Dredd, has never been about that. Thank God. Because Judge Dredd works on so many different levels, with those rare mega epic storylines just one small part of it. Far more important to the entire history of the strip, to the history of the man, to the history of Mega-City One is the short story, the one, two, three-parter, the stories that get under the skin of what’s going on in one small bit of Dredd’s world. They’re too easily overlooked for sure, but they’re also where you find so many of the great Dredds.
And so it is here.
And a hell of a lot of the reason it’s so damn good is because this really is John Wagner’s show. Yes, there are four writers in here, but Alan Grant and John Smith get one story apiece – albeit that Smith one is one of my favourites, while Gordon Rennie gets three. So, what is it that makes Wagner so masterful when it comes to Dredd?
Well, quite simply, it’s because he’s just got the tone and the style and the writing to really make Dredd sing. And he manages to do it in so many different ways, many of them on show here.
For example, let’s take his first story here, ‘A Good Man’, with Jim Murray on art, a longer than usual one-off tale from Prog 2004, the 2003 Christmas Special. It’s one of those where Wagner sets it all up to have Dredd question the law – this time by showing us a citizen working out in the Cursed Earth, a doctor who really does seem to be the ‘Good Man’ of the title. Of course, there’s the obvious twist, but it gives Wagner yet another opportunity to do what he’s always done so well – show us that Dredd really is an uncaring bastard at heart.
Then there’s the multi-part ‘Cincinnati‘, with art from Carl Critchlow, with Dredd on a rare trip to one of the dead cities in this post-apocalyptic America, with Joe in typically dogged pursuit of a perp and willing to have every gang in the wastelands of the city at each other’s throats to get him. All along, you’re being made to ask the question, what the hell did this guy do to get Dredd to come this far and throw this much at him. And, of course, in the ending, there’s one of those beautifully low-key Wagner payoffs at the end of it when you realise it’s not so much what the perp’s done, but just the sheer bloody principle of the thing.
Going a little big bigger and tying into the whole of Dredd-lore, we also have ‘Brothers of the Blood‘, with some of that always amazing Carlos Ezquerra art. Okay, it’s only four parts here, but in truth it’s something of a finale to the entire Dredd clone saga, one that’s taken in stories from all of Dredd’s clone “brothers”, whether that’s Rico I (the bad one), Rico II (the good one), or Kraken (Judda, Dredd replacement, sort of a Dark Judge in the end… it’s complicated). Here, we get another of Dredd’s clones (or more accurately, one of Chief Judge Fargo’s clones – just like Dredd), but this time it’s no longer a question black and white, good or evil. No, this is the time for Cadet Judge Dolman and Wagner’s got a much more interesting tale to tell with him.
It’s got “powerful” written all over it, right from the opening pages of Dolman slowly getting ready for another day doing something he just doesn’t want to do – being another ‘Cadet of the Blood’.
And that sense of import carries all the way through ‘Brothers of the Blood‘, full of that sense of Wagner going back over old ground, revisiting all that clone history and still managing to come up with something new. Whilst Dredd and the second Rico went one way and the first Rico and Kraken went a decidedly different path, Dolman is simply out to quit, to walk away.
So here he’s given permission, finally, to leave the Academy, provided he spends time with Rico out there on the streets, to “see what you will be forsaking… the role you were created for.”
Out on the streets, he rides with Rico, gets into things, experiences the exhilaration of the job he was born to do, especially when he gets to partner with both Dredd and Rico. But it’s the fact that it doesn’t make a difference that makes ‘Brothers of the Blood‘ so very good, Wagner going the third way for his Dredd clones, seeing Dolman off to Space Corps.
And there’s also that very Wagnerian thing of writing an ever-ageing storyline, an ever-ageing Dredd, perhaps best evoked in these couple of panels…
Again, the essence of a Wagnerian strip, just done differently, Wagner both looking to the rich history he’s created and to the future of an ageing Dredd, something that, maybe, one day, will lead us to a world without Dredd.
Now, to another classic bit of Wagner, the comedy side of things, the absolute awareness that life in MC-1 is absurdity dialled up to 11 and every single resident and Judge just has to deal with it. It may only be six pages long, but ‘Finger of Suspicion‘ is pretty much my favourite strip in this Case Files. It’s just the epitome of the classic Wagner funny one-off, with some simply gorgeous art from Cam Kennedy, all revolving around poor Ferd D. Weisenheimer, who got his finger stuck in a tap for a week and it’s left him… somewhat in difficulties…
Sure, he’s waiting for the surgery, but in the meantime, he’s just got to keep out of trouble… not so easy in MC-1.
Which is where Wagner’s (and Kennedy’s) sense of comedic timing just comes out to play. It’s page after page of gags here, all based around that really dumb setup – but it’s just another example of how good both gents are.
C’mon, take this one… here’s the setup, with Ferd hiding his hand in a bag… so well executed… the one, two, three, four hit of the panels just winding everything up for what you just know is coming.
And then the payoff… BOOM… knowing it was going to happen doesn’t make it any less funny…
But then we get the perfect moment, the absolute comedic brilliance, after getting that payoff there’s the beat-perfect next panel…
Nobody does this sort of Dredd as brilliantly as Wagner does, nobody writes funny MC-1 tales this good.
And that’s just a little bit of the reason why Judge Dredd, for the best part of, what, maybe 30 years, maybe more, has been all about John Wagner. Sure, the rotating roster of incredible artists have helped a hell of a lot, but the writing is what makes Dredd a character that’s timeless and timely, relevant in any era, constantly moving forward, with a rich history that manages to not have that incredibly off-putting continuity that ruins other characters of such long-standing.
Simply put, for so many years, Judge Dredd was John Wagner’s character and any other writer, as good as they may have been, was merely playing with someone else’s toys. And that’s just what’s on show here.
Not that there aren’t a couple of great stories from other writers in this Case Files – I’d be wrong to leave you with that impression. Sure, Alan Grant’s only storyline in here is ‘Master Of Fear‘, a pretty underwhelming thing, only really elevated by the usual beautiful art from John Burns. But Gordon Rennie and John Smith both impress, albeit for very different reasons.
Gordon Rennie’s three stories are all basically your good old-fashioned Dredd caper adventure. In the first, Gulag, with art from Charlie Adlard, he’s off to the Sov Block on a rescue mission. In the second, Hong Tong, with art from Patrick Goddard and Dylan Teague, he’s off to the Far East to crack a criminal ring. And in the third, Sturm and Dang, with all that lovely Carlos Ezquerra art once again, Dredd’s off on a hotdog run gone wrong into the Cursed Earth. Three stories, three capers, same structure, different locale, different tones and styles – Cold War action/spy movie, Hong Kong crime movie, and Western.
But again, that’s not really a criticism, merely an observation. The thing is, Rennie makes each one of the three thoroughly entertaining and enjoyable.
Gulag works so well because it’s all super serious, with Dredd getting the nod that there’s missing POWs from the Apocalypse War still in Sov territory and mounts, despite the Council’s objections, a mission to save them. Hell, there’s even a chance for one of those, ‘If you don’t like it, you can have my badge’ moments.
(Hong Tong by Gordon Rennie, Patrick Goddard, and Dylan Teague)
Hong Tong is more silly and more stylish perhaps, with Goddard and Teague giving us all their best action moves as Dredd tracks a criminal trail to Hong Tong and, much to his displeasure, finds he has to join forces with People’s Justice Ministry Inspector Liu Chan Yeun – ‘Johnny Woo’. (And this is where we get that rather iconic cover from Goddard and Teague). It’s simple procedural Dredd mixed with the oft-used stranger in a strange land trope, but Rennie, Goddard, and Teague turn it into a thoroughly entertaining affair.
Sturm & Dang is the most fun of them all, with Rennie giving Carlos Ezquerra a fabulous bit of Mutie-Nazi Cursed Earth tank action to kick off with and then going into it from there with the re-introduction of Cursed Earth Koburn… all the fun is watching the sparks fly between Koburn and Dredd obviously…
And finally, one of my favourites in here… the John Smith written ‘Meatmonger‘, with Siku on art. Christ, John Smith must be sick to the back teeth of people like me complaining he didn’t do enough in comics, didn’t get the attention his writing deserved – but dammit, this story is the epitome of that. Sure, he really didn’t write that many Dredds over the years – seven stories in total from what I can work out, but given how bloody great ‘Meatmonger‘, is – that’s a real shame.
‘Meatmonger‘ is pure body horror filtered through a Judge Dredd lens, with Smith, here paired with the artist Siku, someone whose art is very much a Marmite thing, really delivering something dark and intense.
Dredd’s investigating a series of disappearances that have been affecting the entire world, something that’s getting the Justice Department very worked up. Dredd though, well…
Okay, so he’s not all that bothered until he’s one of those taken.
And from then on it becomes a big locked room mystery, with hideous alien beasties, parasites, and an entire spacecraft full of bodies culled from many different worlds – perfect for Smith to set the disgusting scene with some evocative language…
Like I say, Siku’s artwork is a little difficult to some, and here, even though it’s wonderfully stylised and decidedly different to look at, it’s also occasionally too different, to the point where you start to lose the flow of what’s meant to be going on.
But, even with that small proviso, this is one hell of an opener, a perfect slice of Dredd horror from a writer who really doesn’t get the credit he deserves, giving us something ever so good in this latest Case Files.
But, in the end, this entire era of Dredd, hell, the whole of Dredd from its beginnings through to now is just dominated by one man, the one, the only, John Wagner. Reading this Case Files volume, reading pretty much any Case Files volume will show you that.
Of course, we know it’s not going to always be that way and we certainly have, in Rob Williams, Arthur Wyatt, Rory McConville, Michael Carroll, and a few more, a group of writers able to take Dredd on into the future for sure.
But Dredd is still John Wagner’s creation in so many ways – yes, Carlos Ezquerra is a worthy co-creator, of course, the visuals are so much of what the whole thing has become, and yes, Pat Mills had his role in the initial concept, but it’s Wagner who’s been there all these years, Wagner who’s defined Dredd more than anyone.
Volume 38 of Judge Dredd: The Complete Case Files 38 is out on Wednesday 9th December.
With stories written by John Smith, John Wagner, Alan Grant, Gordon Rennie. Art by Siku, Jim Murray, Cark Chritchlow, Val Semeiks, Cliff Robinson, John Burns, Carlos Ezquerra, Charlie Adlard, Cam Kennedy, Graham Manley, Patrick Goddard, Dylan Teague. Cover by Patrick Goddard and Dylan Teague.
Originally serialised in 2000 AD Progs #1365-#1387 and Judge Dredd Megazine #207-#213 – from 2003 and 2004