Tag Archives: john-wagner

R is for Robot Wars

Call-Me-KennethI’ve already written several times about pivotal moments in the development of the Judge Dredd series; points which proved decisive in the survival of the strip and its development. Robot Wars (progs 10-17, 1977, with a prologue in prog 9) is the first of these pivotal moments.

It is easy to forget given how it came to dominate the comic, but in the early days there was no reason to regard Judge Dredd as different to any other strip running in 2000AD. It was not “featuring Judge Dredd” – indeed the character only first appeared in prog 2. If anything, it was “featuring Dan Dare”, the 1950s space pilot who editor Pat Mills had revived to spark interest in the new comic. True, it is clear that Pat Mills felt he was onto something with Dredd, which is why its development process ended up being quite so tortuous, but that was no guarantee that the character would survive if it couldn’t prove itself.

John Wagner and Carlos Ezquerra’s decision to walk away from their creation was a severe blow. The first seven Dredd strips to appear in 2000AD were written by Peter Harris, Pat Mills, Kelvin Gosnell, Charles Herring and in particular Malcolm Shaw. With the exception of Judge Whitey (prog 2, 1977), Dredd’s first appearance, none of these stories are remembered with any particular affection.

Robot Wars was the first multi-part storyline. More significantly, it was also the first story written by John Wagner to appear in print (and the first story drawn by Carlos Ezquerra, albeit only for one episode). The difference in quality is quite striking.

The story revolves around a robot called Call-Me-Kenneth, a carpenter droid (and yes, that is a Biblical reference) who kills his brutal master and leads a rebellion amongst the robots. Dredd defeats this rebellion, assisted by his robot servant Walter, who is granted full citizenship at the end of the story but chooses to continue working unpaid for Dredd anyway.

This is the first time the satire in the Dredd strip really bites. The analogies being drawn between African slavery and the brutal treatment of the robots by the humans are pretty easy to spot. Call-Me-Kenneth is enjoyably villainous, but the humans and in particular Judge Dredd don’t exactly come off well in this story either. It is the much put upon robots caught up in between we are really being invited to sympathise with.

Robo-HunterThe both the theme of robots-as-oppressed-people and the comic potential of robots were to go on to become recurring themes in 2000AD. Killer Car (progs 53-56, 1978) recycles a lot of the comedy in Robot Wars, and Wagner went on to collaborate with Ian Gibson, artist on both Robot Wars and Killer Car, on Robo-Hunter. Meanwhile, Pat Mills went on to make the plight of intelligent robots a theme in Ro-Busters and ABC Warriors.

Back in Judge Dredd, Walter would go on to be a recurring character for many years, even getting his own series of one-page strips drawn by Brian Bolland. Rejected by Dredd, Walter ends up founding a Call-Me-Kenneth worshipping cult in Giant (Megazine 2.50-52, 1994). And there was a second robot war, this time lead by crimelord Nero Narcos, as recounted in the Doomsday Scenario (progs 1141-1164 & Megazine 3.52-59, 1999).

Robot Wars was a triumphant return to the Judge Dredd strip by John Wagner which set the tone of the series for years afterwards. While simplistic by today’s standards, it’s quality shines through. As with The Pit almost 20 years later, if Wagner had not returned to write was in effect a manifesto for the strip at this point, it is very unlikely that the strip would have lasted the year, let alone 35.

P is for The Pit

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I would argue that there are four main eras of the Judge Dredd strip. The first, which ended at the conclusion of the Judge Child saga, was mainly focused on world building and having the strip find its identity. During the second era, dominated by John Wagner and Alan Grant’s powerhouse writing partnership (and Ron Smith’s art), the strip had a very clear identity. The “golden age” of the strip, this was the era of future crime, zany crazes and at times very broad comedy. It sort of came to an end when their partnership ended, but staggered on until the conclusion of the Necropolis saga, which wrapped up a number of plot threads which had been developing throughout that era.

The third era nearly killed the strip. This is the era dominated by Garth Ennis, Mark Millar and Grant Morrison; three writers who, regardless of their individual qualities as writers elsewhere, completely failed to understand the world John Wagner, Alan Grant and Pat Mills had established. The series declined as a series of worthless and often downright offensive stories took their toll.

Wagner and Grant have to take their share of the blame as well. While Alan Grant’s strips at their worst were better than the best Mark Millar certainly could conceive, they were hardly groundbreaking. While treating the character with somewhat more respect, his vision of the character as little more than a fascist who shoots litterers proved too limiting. John Wagner’s work during this period stands out as consistently superior but despite that they are generally unimpressive with even the Mechanismo/Wilderlands story arc failing to rise above average.

In short, the Dredd strip was in the last chance saloon even before the 1995 film failed to shine. Fortunately, it would appear that John Wagner realised that and on his return as head writer of the series, decided that radical changes were needed. This lead to The Pit (progs 970-999, 1995-1996) and the start of the fourth era of the strip (which may be ongoing or have possibly just ended; it’s too soon to tell).

Arguably, the shift in style can be dated back to The Cal Files a few progs earlier (progs 959-963, 1995); but The Pit is where it all came together. The story was a departure in two ways. Firstly, it shifted in emphasis from action adventure to police procedural – this may seem obvious for a strip about a future cop, but this sort of story had in fact been relatively rare until this point. Secondly, it shifted away from being just about Dredd himself to being more of an ensemble piece. Over the years, Dredd had acquired quite a large supporting cast but this was the first time they were presented less as sidekicks and guest stars and more as teammates.

The overall plot of The Pit is small scale in comparison with the other so-called mega-epics. Concerned by the suspicious death of its Sector Chief, the Chief Judge appoints Dredd as Acting Sector Chief of Sector 301, the eponymous Pit so named because of its high crime rates, high corruption and use as a dumping ground. Dredd sets up a team of disaffected judges to investigate the old Sector Chief’s murder and eventually helps the local force uncover a widespread conspiracy being coordinated by the Frendz Crime Syndicate.

Such a simple plot for a series famous for its nuclear wars and supernatural threats. And yet it was the most enthralling Dredd story to appear in years – quite possibly for precisely that reason. For the first time in years the strip had relatively rounded characters and actual drama (as opposed to simply blowing lots of things up). It was a winning formula.

The story introduced three significant recurring character. In addition to Galen DeMarco, there was Buell – who would go on to become the head of the internal affairs-style Special Judicial Squad – and Guthrie, a Wally Squad operative forced to go underground who Dredd decides to bring in from the cold. The story ended up having a direct sequel, Beyond the Call of Duty (progs 1101–1110, 1998) – which blended the threads left at the end of The Pit with the developing Edgar story arc, and eventually Doomsday, in which the head of the Frendz Nero Narcos decides to declare war on the judges, frustrated by their repeated attacks on his crime syndicate.

Before The Pit, it was starting to look worrying as if the Dredd strip had simply come to a natural conclusion and that there was nothing left to do with it. After The Pit, the series has never really looked back. It marked a significant change in style and tone for the strip which Wagner has now turned into a fine artform (to the extent that while Day of Chaos is superficially a retelling of Block Mania and the Apocalypse War, in style and tone it could not be more different).

Indeed, it is possible to read The Pit as analogous to the fate of the strip itself: neglected for years, Wagner returned to give the strip a new sense of purpose and pride in itself.

E is for Edgar

While Judge Death is a relatively well known Dredd antagonist with certain basic flaws, Judge Jura Edgar is an example of a less known antagonist who is done to perfection. Edgar was, for 22 years, the head of the Justice Department’s Public Surveillance Unit – a division which specialises in spying on the populace.

The Public Surveillance Unit (PSU) is used in several stories to explore the growing trend for universal surveillance in daily life but the obsessive, secretive and downright paranoid Edgar is more like a figure out of the Cold War. Part George Smiley, part Margaret Thatcher (artist John Burns clearly modelled her on the former Prime Minister) and, yes, part J. Edgar Hoover, she embroils Dredd in a number of intrigues, including holding out the possibility that Dredd may not be a clone of Fargo but actually his son (The Cal Files, progs 959-963, 1995). After her introduction, Dredd and Edgar rapidly fall out and Edgar becomes obsessed with bringing about his downfall, eventually using a partial account of Galen DeMarco‘s romantic proposition to Dredd as a pretext to discredit him (The Scorpion Dance, progs 1125-1132, 1998-1999). This fails, but so too does an attempt by Dredd’s allies – including then newly instated Chief Judge Hershey – to convict her with criminal charges for secretly keeping sensitive information on senior judges. Despite this, Hershey removes her from the head of the PSU and transfers her to head a penal colony in the Cursed Earth (The Cal Legacy, progs 1178-1179, 2000).

Years later, with Edgar dying, she attempts her final revenge on Dredd and Hershey. She passes Dredd information about the Citizen’s Court, an illegal execution squad set up by a small group of judges in the 2090s. As per her plans, the surviving members of the squad attempt to kill Dredd as he carries out his investigation, but fail. The final twist however is that it emerges that Edgar herself was the ringleader of the Citizen’s Court – which is how she knew about it – but by the time Dredd returns to her penal colony to bring her to justice, she has died (The Edgar Case, progs 1589-1595, 2008).

While there are probably not enough of them, the Dredd strip has a fairly good track record in producing strong female characters, albeit with an occasional tendency to lapse into cheesecake (Anderson and DeMarco in particular appear to have managed to get the artists and editors into a lather). Edgar is relatively unique in being a female character where her gender is not made an issue of at all (the handling of McGruder, Hershey and Beeny is also quite strong, although the former tends to be presented as a crone while Hershey has had her cheesecake moments – particularly in her younger days). She has a character arc and was thankfully not overused.

She also marks a distinct change in John Wagner’s writing style. Between Necropolis and the Cal Files, Wagner had only written a handful of Dredd tales, including the arc which was kicked off by Mechanismo and ended with the Wilderlands. The rest of the writing duties particularly in 2000AD (Wagner and Grant mainly wrote for the Judge Dredd Megazine at the time) were handled by Garth Ennis, Mark Millar and Millar’s then occasional writing partner Grant Morrisson. None of these writers really “got” Dredd; Millar and Morrison never really got past the fascist overtones, while Ennis seemed to simply run out of ideas quite quickly.

It is fair to say however that even Wagner’s MechanismoWilderlands arc failed to really catch fire. It had any brilliant ideas within it but ended up less than the sum of its parts. Throughout the first half of the 90s, it really did feel as if Dredd was in terminal decline.

Ironically, it seemed to be the prospect of a film which in retrospect is widely regarded as a failure which appeared to turn things around. With The Cal Files, Wagner changed the whole tone of the strip from action-adventure to something more akin to police-procedural thriller.

It might seem obvious for a strip about a future cop to borrow from police TV shows, but at the time the change in tone seemed quite extraordinary. The Cal Files was immediately followed by The Pit and eventually lead to Wagner changing the style of the whole strip, expanding and deepening the supporting cast, focusing on cases rather than just shooting things and ramping up the political intrigue.

The bottom line was that after 20 years, we’d all grown up and needed a bit more from Dredd than zany fashions and future crime. John Wagner realised this and responded at pretty much exactly the right time.

Highlights include:

  • The Cal Files, progs 959-963, 1995. Reprinted in Blind Justice (out of print)
  • The Scorpion Dance, progs 1125-1132, 1998-1999. Reprinted in The Scorpion Dance Featuring Beyond The Call of Duty (out of print)
  • The Cal Legacy, progs 1178-1179, 2000. Not reprinted.
  • The Edgar Case, progs 1589-1595, 2008. Not reprinted.

E is also for…

Carlos Ezquerra
I’ve written quite a bit about John Wagner thus far but failed to write about his co-creator, Carlos Ezquerra.

Spanish born, Andorra (via Croydon) based Ezquerra was a celebrated artist in the 70s even before 2000AD was first published, mostly due to his work on Action and Battle. Chosen by editor Pat Mills to design Dredd, he developed the leather biker look quite quickly (while Wagner may have had half an eye of the Dirty Harry films, Ezquerra had been watching Roger Corman’s 1975 film Death Race 2000). But it was arguably his city scape designs that really elevated the project to a new level. Up until that point, the idea had been to set Judge Dredd in a future version of New York; it was Carlos Ezquerra who created the deranged vision of Mega City 1, with a cityscape that more resembles a series of giant termite mounds than high rise buildings.

Ezquerra however grew disenchanted with the development process of Judge Dredd and eventually peeled away. He was further put out by the fact that his replacement, Mick McMahon, was extremely good at copying his style – although he very rapidly developed a style which was unique to himself.

Ezquerra was to walk away, instead focusing on developing Strontium Dog for 2000AD’s sister publication Starlord (also in collaboration with John Wagner). He didn’t return to the strip for five years but when he did, his illustration of The Apocalypse War (progs 245–267, 269–270, 1982) was magnificent. The character design had developed significantly since he had left the project, but he instantly made it his own.

Ezquerra has subsequently become established as one of the main Dredd artists. He is the only artist other than Ian Gibson to have worked on the character in every decade since it’s creation and while Gibson is limited to the odd 6-pager these days, Ezquerra’s work rate remains extraordinarily high, albeit with the help of his son Hector. He remains active despite being treated for lung cancer in 2010.