Judge Dredd Snapshots: Oz part 12 (prog 556)

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I’d … I’d like a piece of Mr Armstrong with a sprig of parsley and lemon sauce, just like you did him for the captain. It… it sounded so good but I… I don’t suppose you’ve got any left.

Well yet supposes wrong! I’ve got a whole half torso right here in me freezer!

Chopper and Cookie

Date: 9 January 1988

Script: John Wagner & Alan Grant; Artist: Will Simpson; Letters: Tom Frame

Plot Summary

Fugitive Supersurf champion Marlon “Chopper” Shakespeare is attempting to get to the Sidney-Melbourne Conurb in “Oz” from South America by hover board, but is forced to land on a mysterious ship in the Pacific Ocean. The sole occupant of the ship is an insane robot chef, Cookie, who killed the ship’s crew and put them in his stew. Having enraged the robot, Chopper fends off the robot’s attacks with a meat cleaver by using his power board as a shield, damaging it. He is overwhelmed but fools the robot into granting him a final request: a serving of Bosun’s Broth, the meal that Cookie made out of his first victim. Trapping Cookie into the ship’s freezer, Chopper attempts to flee but Cookie escapes. Eventually Chopper manages to overwhelm Cookie by firing a flare gun at him and throwing the robot overboard. The danger over, he programs the ship to take him the rest of the way to Oz and makes some rough repairs to his power board. Making the final part of the journey on his hover board, he is positively identified by the Oz judges. Judge Dredd, who is awaiting the fugitive there, allows a hint of admiration to cross his face.

Commentary

Although it doesn’t seem to be seen as one of the classics, I love “Oz” (progs 555-581). Partly because it was the first Dredd “epic” that I read in the weekly comic (and is in fact the first story of that length since “The Apocalypse War” way back in 1982). Partly because Chopper is such an engaging character. And partly because it combines a return of a popular character, which could have simply been a rehash of his previous appearance, with a story focused on Dredd himself which significantly expands the strip’s lore.

I’m also a big fan of this two part story involving Cookie. It’s a perfect little fairy tale inserted in the middle of a much bigger story, with Chopper here playing the role of Jack and Cookie the giant he has to defeat more with guile than fighting ability. Cookie is a classic bonkers robot that you see popping up in any number of 2000AD strips, particularly Dredd and Robo-Hunter (also created by John Wagner and largely co-written with Alan Grant). And the story resolves satisfactorily how Chopper manages to traverse the Pacific Ocean on little more than a flying plank. Finding a boat in the middle of nowhere is a little convenient, but this story makes it feel earned.

I should however explain the wider context. First of all, Chopper. Marlon Shakespeare first appears in “Unamerican Graffiti” (progs 206 & 207), a short story in which Chopper is a graffiti artist on a mission to become “King Scrawler” of Mega City One. It’s a relatively simple story, alluding to the growth of street art which was entering into public consciousness at the time, elevated by a sense of pathos when it emerges that the disaffected teen’s rival The Phantom turns out to be a renegade maintenance robot. For neither the first or last time in the strip, going back to the first multi-part storyline “Robot Wars” (progs 10-17), the plight of how robots are treated in Mega City One are compared to topical issues about discrimination, civil liberties and dehumanisation.

At the end of that story, Chopper is locked up. He eventually reemerges in “The Midnight Surfer” (progs 424-429) in which Chopper has apparently reformed and is teaching kids to skysurf – fly around on hover boards roughly analogous real world surfing waves. Eventually it emerges that Chopper is planning to take part in the race Supersurf 7, highly illegal because it takes place on the streets and endangers civilians. Dredd and the judges try to stop the race, shooting down many of the participants, but before being arrested Chopper manages to win the race and becomes a folk hero.

“Oz” takes place three years later. Supersurf has been legalised in the Sydney-Melbourne Conurb and Mega City One is gripped with Supersurf fever and a protest movement emerges demanding that the judges release Chopper so he can take part in the race. Chopper escapes, crossing the Cursed Earth and Pacific Ocean to take part in the race. Dredd is sent to Oz to arrest him should he arrive but is stopped from arresting him by the Oz Judges. Chopper ultimately joins Supersurf 10, with Dredd’s permission – although he vows to take him down if he tries resisting arrest after the race. Chopper takes part, ultimately to lose in a photo finish with his rival Jug. He tries to make his escape, expecting to be shot by Dredd, but at the last minute Jug gets in the way and allows Chopper to escape.

But that’s only half of the story because Dredd hasn’t simply been sent to Oz to pick up Shakespeare. After an attack in which a number of senior judges are assassinated by a group calling themselves the Judda, a teleporter signal is traced back to Oz. It emerges they are followers of Morton Judd, a renegade judge and geneticist who decades ago had sought to take over Mega City One and, having failed, went missing. Using stolen genetic samples, including from Chief Judge Fargo, of whom Dredd himself is a clone, Judd has bred a private army of soldiers called the Judda who worship him as a god. And now they intend to return to Mega City One to take over.

Suffice to say, Dredd doesn’t let them. He locates their base hidden inside Uluru (in the story still called Ayers Rock) and blows it up, taking most of the Judda with it.

“Oz” was originally meant to be illustrated by just two artists: Cam Kennedy, who drew “Midnight Surfer” and Brendan McCarthy who had come up with the idea of a lost tribe of Judges in the Australian Outback while working there. In the end Kennedy wasn’t able to draw it so he was replaced by a whole range of different artists. Despite this, the art doesn’t suffer too much from having too many competing visions on the project.

The artist who drew this episode, Will Simpson, would go on to tie with Brendan McCarthy for drawing the most episodes in this 26-part story (6), and contributed one of the most striking images of the saga: a painted double page spread of Uluru being nuked superimposed by the head of Morton Judd cursing Dredd. The two part story involving Cookie would actually be his first Judge Dredd contribution, although he had drawn some episodes of Anderson: Psi Division shortly before. As 2000AD increased its colour pages, he would become known for his painted art, particularly for the Rogue Trooper reboot “War Machine” written by Dave Gibbons (progs 650-653, 667-671, 683-687). It is fair to say that the poor paper quality at the time didn’t do his painted artwork many favours (a common problem with 2000AD at the time).

“Oz” also marks the end of John Wagner and Alan Grant’s writing partnership, although they would continue to work together on the odd script after this including Batman/Judge Dredd: Judgement on Gotham. As well as disagreeing over their mini-series The Last American for Epic (a Marvel imprint at the time), they came to blows over whether or not to kill Chopper at the end of this story or not, with Grant insisting that Dredd needed to kill him. Eventually John Wagner got his way but this is the last time the two worked together on the weekly strip, with Wagner writing most of Dredd, and Grant taking on Anderson: Psi Division and Strontium Dog.

As well as the occasional appearance in Judge Dredd, Chopper would return in his own series – the most memorable being “Song of the Surfer” written by Wagner and drawn by Colin McNeill (progs 654-665) in which Marlon Shakespeare apparently dies when a maniac turns Supersurf 11 into a massacre. To be honest, that probably should have been where it ended, but Brendan McCarthy has recently memorably returned to the character with “Wandering Spirit” (Judge Dredd Megazine issues 395-399).

The format of putting these two very different plot threads into one here mostly works, but is probably not exactly how the story would develop now. These days, a story like this would get broken up into smaller chunks and spread over a longer amount of time, a trend established with the very next mega epic “Necropolis” where the main story (progs 674-699) is foreshadowed by several shorter stories in the months running up to it. I wonder if this shift was partly because the nature of Wagner and Grant’s partnership style didn’t lend itself very well to the sort of more complex storytelling that we would subsequently see. While the period of their partnership is rightly seen as a high watermark for the strip, for the most part the stories that came out during that period would be no longer than 8 episodes.

As for the Judda, this is the last we see of them. To be precise, Morton Judd appears in flashback in “Origins” (progs 1505-1519, 1529-1535) and one of the Judda clones, Kraken, is apparently reformed and replaces Dredd himself for a time (although as I alluded to in my last article, that doesn’t end too well). I’m a little surprised we haven’t seen small pockets of Judda popping up in the strip every few years, although given the unfortunate tendency in Dredd for characters to be brought back well past their use by date, it is possibly for the best.

Trivia

  • It’s a small thing, and you barely see it in this episode, but it always annoys me that Will Simpson draws Chopper’s smiley face tag with a nose.
  • Brendan McCarthy’s most famous dip into Australian culture is of course Mad Max: Fury Road, for which he received a co-writer credit after decades of development work on the Mad Max franchise. He has worked as a concept artist for numerous other films and also helped develop the animated show ReBoot.

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