Judge Dredd Snapshots: Judgement Day part 17 (prog 797)

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Surrender? Oh yeah! Sure! You’ve got me bang to rights, officer!

HAHAHAHAHAHAHA!

Sabbat

Date: 22 August 1992

Script: Garth Ennis; Artist: Carlos Ezquerra; Letters: Tom Frame

Plot Summary

On a mission to stop the mysterious Sabbat, who has unleashed a zombie army on the world, Judge Dredd, Search/Destroy Agent Johnny Alpha and Judge-Inspector Sadu have been captured and are being taken to Sabbat himself. Meanwhile, Sabbat reminisces on his past.

It is revealed that Sabbat was originally Soppi, an inhabitant of an alien planet, who was regularly bullied at school by a “Big Den” – a thuggish boy with thick spiky black hair and an black and white stripey jumper. Vowing revenge, Soppi met an old witch who promised to teach him about curses. But Soppi was more interested in her books on necromancy and, after killing her, used her books to kill, and then resurrect, Den as a zombie. After years of study, Soppi went offworld to learn from Murd the Oppressor. After this, Soppi becomes known as Sabbat.

The three captured men arrive and break Sabbat’s reverie. Dredd threatens to arrest Sabbat. Laughing this off, Sabbat turns to his old tormentor, a now skeletal Den, to ask him what he should do with them.

Commentary

By this point, Garth Ennis had been the main writer of Judge Dredd, in 2000AD at least, for over 18 months. “Judgement Day” (progs 786-799 and Judge Dredd Megazine 2.04 – 2.09) was the first crossover with the Judge Dredd Megazine, which by this point had switched from monthly to fortnightly.

The basic concept was that Sabbat, an evil necromancer from another world, had travelled back through time and decided to conquer earth, raising the dead in the process to form a zombie army. The Mega City One judges have to team up with other judge forces from around the world to stop them. Dredd orders the nuking of the various cities which Sabbat had already taken over, totalling two billion people including the inhabitants of Mega City Two.

Meanwhile, Johnny Alpha – a mutant bounty hunter from the future – has come back in time to bring Sabbat to justice. He teams up with Dredd and they hunt down and kill Sabbat.

And that’s pretty much it. It is, to it’s credit, an excellent showcase for the team of artists: Dean Ormston, who would go on to great success in the US; Peter Doherty, who would become a firm favourite Dredd artist; and of course Carlos Ezquerra, who is on particular form here (the final image of Dredd and Johnny Alpha walking off into the desert having defeated Sabbat is regarded as iconic). Less spectacular is the one issue drawn by Chris Halls, which is fine but little more than aping of the painted work of Simon Bisley (Chris Halls would go on to far greater acclaim as Chris Cunningham, a music video director best known for his collaborations with Aphex Twin and Bjork in the late 1990s).

Scriptwise, this is no great shakes. It starts well enough but quickly runs out of steam. The meeting of the various world judges amounts to little more than a parade of cultural stereotypes. Sabbat himself lacks a compelling motivation beyond boredom and his origin story in this episode, a thinly veiled parody of the Beano Dennis the Menace comics (Sabbat being Walter the Softie) is weirdly reminiscent of Judge Death’s origin story in Young Death (Megazine 1.01-1.12) which had concluded less than a year before (also drawn by Peter Doherty).

I wish I could say this script is atypical in comparison to Garth Ennis’s run, but sadly he seemed to run out of steam quite quickly on the strip after a strong start with “Death Aid” (progs 711 to 720). At the time, he was a very new writer, having emerged writing the critically acclaimed Troubled Souls for Crisis in 1989 (I say critically acclaimed as it was hailed at the time, but Ennis himself has disowned it as a cynical attempt to break into comics by aping the style of “politically relevant” comics that were popular at the time).

This quote is particularly revealing:

He never shifts from enforcing the law, and he’ll shoot anyone at the drop of a piece of litter. I didn’t grow up reading him… but he’s the sort of character that never changes – still the same old bastard, so it doesn’t really matter which period you grew up reading.

Although he always responds in the same way, he is a little more sophisticated than a one-note character – he definitely has a style of his own, but really that’s getting beyond the whole point of the strip.

Garth Ennis in an interview from Judge Dredd: The Mega History (1995)

Bear in mind that Ennis took over Dredd at a time when the title character had just returned from self-imposed exile because he very much had changed. I think this reveals that he never really “got” Dredd, and his work on the series never amounted to much more than a pastiche of Wagner and Grant’s previous work, particularly the height of their slapstick phase – after Wagner had spent the last few years very much stepping away from that approach.

This isn’t to say that Garth Ennis is a bad writer. Indeed, I was a huge fan of his Hellblazer run, Preacher and many of his war comics. And, as we will no doubt see in this series, his work by no means marks the nadir of Judge Dredd’s publishing history.

“Judgement Day” also suffered a bit from being told in across both 2000AD and the Judge Dredd Megazine. Pacing in particular is a real issue, with the 2000AD episodes having to get a chunk of plot done in two episodes, and then for the Megazine to tell a longer story across more pages, and then back again. After a handful of attempts, they would stop trying to tell single stories across both publications simultaneously, and the last attempt, “The Doomsday Scenario” (progs 1141-1164 and Megazine issues 3.52-3.59), opted to tell two parallel stories instead which only occasionally intersected.

Johnny Alpha is, of course, better known as the lead character of Strontium Dog, John Wagner and Carlos Ezquerra’s second greatest 2000AD creation. This is in fact the second Dredd/Strontium Dog crossover, with Wagner and Colin MacNeil having previously worked on “Top Dog” (Judge Dredd Annual 1991). Slightly confusingly, Johnny Alpha had been dead for a couple of years in the pages of 2000AD by this point having controversially been killed off by Alan Grant and Colin MacNeil in “The Final Solution” (progs 600–606, 615–621, 636–641, 645–647, 682–687). Carlos Ezquerra, as well as John Wagner who had by that point handed the script-writing duties to Grant, strongly disagreed with the decision to kill off Alpha and had previously quit the strip. Years later, Wagner and Ezquerra would return to the strip, first in a series set before Alpha’s death, and later resurrect him.

Strontium Dog was never originally envisioned as taking place in the same continuity as Dredd, but it has become a part of both lores now, with Alpha’s father Nelson Bunker Kreelman appearing in a more recent Judge Dredd story as a young man, in “The Rubicon” (Megazine issues 380 to 381). Whether the two timelines will ever actually align is an intriguing prospect: Johnny Alpha is born in 2150 and the current year in Dredd continuity is 2142, so we ain’t that far off.

Trivia

  • Sabbat’s mentor, Murd the Oppressor, originally appeared in “The Judge Child” (progs 156-181). Needless to say, Dredd killed him.
  • For the avoidence of doubt, Dennis the Menace is a character which first appeared in the comic The Beano on 12 March 1951. He is a completely different character to Dennis the Menace, a syndicated newspaper comic strip character who coincidentally first appeared on 12 March 1951. The easiest way to understand it is that British Dennis would almost certainly have bullied the US Dennis.

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