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Douglas looks at some latter-day Dredd

Douglas Wolk

JUDGE DREDD: ORIGINS: I picked up this 2007 paperback from a half-off bin a little while back, noting that the front cover misspells artist Carlos Ezquerra’s name. One of my minor New Year’s resolutions is to read more of John Wagner’s future-cop Judge Dredd stories; I’ve actually been batting around the idea of working my way through the twelve “Complete Case Files” volumes that are sitting on my shelf and reviewing them all here. (If Laura and Leigh can do it with Cerebus, I can do it with Dredd, right?) I like the fact that Dredd is an American character whose stories are almost always by British writers, for a British audience–he’s a European nightmare of what an American hero would be like.

It’s great to see Dredd’s co-creator Ezquerra drawing most of this volume; I can’t think of any other superhero series where an artist’s new work is still so potent and so contemporary-looking 30 years after he started drawing the strip. (I bet it’ll continue to age much better than the uncredited, airbrush-happy coloring, too.) His style is enormously different from the kind of Brian Bolland/Cliff Robinson continuum that’s more closely associated with Dredd (at least in the States), and I can see why the publishers went with a Bolland cover for this volume, but I love Ezquerra’s nasty, grimy felt-tip-marker-ish dots and blobs, and the enormous chins he draws on half his characters. (There’s even a gag in here about how “chins have kinda grown since the big rad hit.”)

This volume is where Wagner lays out the chronology that was the mostly-unstated foundation for the previous 1500 or so Dredd stories: how America turned into a fascist police state, how its big cities grew into Mega-Cities, and what’s up with Dredd’s genetic heritage. It’s pretty GOOD, not as much for its broader strokes of violence and comedy (as far as Wagner’s concerned, yokels are always funny) as for its hot jets of political bile and the way the backstory–which mostly gets revealed in long, moderately unwieldy flashbacks–evokes a whole culture’s slide into catastrophe. (Wagner’s obviously writing for the trade: this was serialized over 27 issues of 2000 A.D., and I couldn’t even tell where most of the installment breaks were.)

But a couple of times, Wagner does my favorite trick of his: the sudden jolt when you realize that as a reader you’re rooting for the wrong side. There’s a little moment like that when you see Dredd softening to the idea of mutant rights, not because he’s seen the light but because he now knows that some mutants are his blood relatives; there’s a bigger one when we see the villain of the piece, President Robert L. Booth–who’s got GWB’s smirk and Reagan’s knack for sanctimonious cornpone speechifying, not to mention a resonant last name–ranting about how Dredd and company “called democracy a failed experiment! These, the judges who ripped up the Constitution!” Of course, he’s absolutely right.

There’s also a huge payoff at the end, when Dredd’s ultimate authority figure, from whom he’s been longing for approval the entire book (as much as he can allow himself to desire anything, which isn’t much), tells him that the system to which he’s devoted his life is completely fucked:

Ah, deathbed confessions.

–Which, of course, Dredd can barely even process, and can’t admit he heard. And which makes me want to read Wagner’s other recent Dredd material even more. Any suggestions about other Dredd volumes from the last ten years or so I should pick up?

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