Category Archives: Dredd Stuff

Judge Dredd Snapshots: War Games (prog 854)

Dredd to control request back-up…

We’ve got a nest of Sino-Cit Judges right here in Mega-City!

Judge Dredd

Date: 25 September 1993

Script: Mark Millar; Artist: Paul Marshall; Letters: Tom Frame

Summary

Judge Dredd finds himself under attack; first by Sino-Cit Judges, then Sov Judges and then finally zombie judges. It turns out that he is part of an experiment. Chief Judge McGruder and SJS Judge Stone explain that he has been given an experimental drug to heighten aggression. The people he attacked and killed are ordinary citizens who had been brought in for minor offenses, who they unleashed the drugged up Dredd onto as part of the experiment. McGruder explains that Psi Division predicts a major crisis to happen in approximately 18 months and that they need judges to “toughen up”.

Commentary

I’m struggling to write this installment, mainly because this is not only my least favourite period of Judge Dredd but this particular episode is possibly the worst of a bad bunch.

Mark Millar will presumably be known to the vast majority of people reading this and you will no doubt already have made your mind up about him. By any measure, he’s an incredibly successful writer. One of the things I find interesting about him however is that, despite having had so many of his works adapted for the screen, such as Wanted, Kick-Ass, Kingsman and, after a fashion, Captain America: Civil War, one of the first things those adaptations tend to do is make all the characters more likeable, punch up the motivations and generally make them less cruel. As a repository of great ideas, he’s rightly highly regarded. But you have to get past the extreme sadism first.

This story is a case in point. Dredd casually kills half a dozen basically innocent people on an extremely flimsy context and basically no-one, least of all Dredd, seems to care. One of the problems is, like Ennis, Millar seemed to have the caricature version of Dredd who shoots people for jaywalking and looking funny, and wasn’t particularly interested in exploring any other idea despite this being an increasing concern of John Wagner in the years running up to it. Unlike Ennis, his strips tended to lack any vestige of humanity at all.

It is, to be fair, a very 90s take. We are in the post-Watchmen period, which easily lasted until the mid-2000s, in which a whole army of British and American comic writers seemed to be determined to “deconstruct” any character they could get their hands on. What it tended to result in is a lot of sameiness: Millar’s Dredd is virtually identical in outlook to his version of Captain America in The Ultimates. It certainly became quickly clear to me during this period that edginess was generally a byword for saminess.

This is Mark Millar very early in his career; his only previous notable work was the Trident Comics’ Saviour and reviving Robo-Hunter, another John Wagner creation, in 2000AD.

He was the main Dredd writer in 2000AD from progs 829 to 880, although his work would continue to appear intermittently up to prog 1030 in 1997. During this period he co-wrote two stories with Grant Morrison. “War Games” in fact immediately follows “Inferno” (progs 842-853), which Millar wrote a seperate series leading into it, Purgatory (progs 834-841).

2000AD was really struggling at this point with a bit of a talent drain. There has always been a sense that British writers and artists would do their apprenticeships in 2000AD before moving onto bigger things in the US, but during this period 2000AD stalwarts were also to be found working at Deadline (created by Dredd artists Brett Ewins and Steve Dillon), Crisis (2000AD‘s “political” sister title) and Revolver (2000AD’s more “trippy” sister title heavily influenced by Deadline). There was of course the recently launched Judge Dredd Megazine, where John Wagner was focusing his Dredd energies. And finally, there was creator owned anthology comic Toxic!, set up by Wagner, Alan Grant, Pat Mills and artists Mike McMahon and Kevin O’Neill – a very explicit attempt to take on 2000AD on their own terms.

As a result, 2000AD was busy trying out new writers and artists, many of whom were frankly a little green. Some would go on to much greater things; a lot came and went. It would take the best part of a decade – and the cancellation of all of the aforementioned rival titles (except the Megazine) before the title began to recover.

Finally, this episode foreshadows a major upcoming crisis; one which, for whatever reason, never actually took place. It’s possible that this talk of a “crisis” starting “in the eastern blocks” within eighteen months is meant to refer to “Crusade” (progs 928-937), a strip Millar co-wrote with Morrison, but it doesn’t really fit. What’s most likely is that there was half an idea for another “mega epic” written by Millar to appear in a couple of years time, but it never really came to anything and he simply moved on. But, given that the only thing the judges seemed to do to prepare for it was give their top judge a bunch of psychosis-inducing experimental drugs, it’s probably for the best it never happened. An epic storyline would appear in 12 months time, but it would have nothing to do with Mark Millar and instead draw of plot threads which had been unravelling over at the Judge Dredd Megazine.

Judge Dredd Snapshots: Muzak Killer – Live! part 1 (prog 837)

Music is only cool when it’s old.

Marty Zpok

Date: 29 May 1993

Script: Garth Ennis; Artist: Dermot Power; Letters: Annie Parkhouse

Plot Summary

Marty Zpok, a serial killer with a grudge against popular music is currently serving 60 years in an Iso-Cube for a previous massacre, where he is regularly beaten up by his fellow inmates. A gang of his admirers lead by Indiana Saddoe break him out. They are shot down, but Indy and Marty escape. After Marty expresses his distaste for Indy’s taste in modern alternative music, Marty spots a new vid show being aired called Word Up and announces his plan to take over the show.

Commentary

I was pretty critical of Garth Ennis in my last post, but to be fair he had his moments, and the two Muzak Killer stories, which started with “Muzak Killer” (progs 746-748) are some of them, even if they are a little on the nose. In that respect they are no worse however than, for example, Wagner and Grant’s “The Game Show Show“.

The first story is a vicious send up of the state of pop music at the time, and in particular Stock, Aitken and Waterman’s so called “hit factory“. Marty Zpok manages to massacre thinly veiled caricatures of pretty much all of the big pop stars at the time such as Jason Donovan, Kylie Minogue and Bros. In “Muzak Killer – Live!” Marty turns his attention to the state of youth-targeted TV at the time, and in particular The Word – a magazine format show which covered music, film and celebrity.

It is clear from reading both stories that Garth Ennis is having fun, and has an axe to grind – not just at the state of pop music and youth TV but also at a certain type of cultural snob that will be all too familiar to anyone who grew up in Britain and Ireland at the time. Marty Zpok himself is clearly modelled on Morrissey (although he actually kills an even more thinly-veiled Morrissey in “Muzak Killer – Live!” part 2), while Indy Saddoe is modelled on Robert Smith, the lead singer of The Cure. As such, these strips have a certain energy that most of Garth Ennis’s scripts during this period sadly lacked, although I don’t think they have aged very well: aside from the digs at long forgotten celebrities, the scripts are peppered with misogyny and homophopbia.

As it turns out, this would end up being almost Ennis’s last published Dredd story. He would only write two more: “Goodnight Kiss” (progs 940-948), a fairly forgettable story which was presumably only delayed due to the time is took for Nick Percival to paint it; and, much later, “Helter Skelter” (progs 1250-1261). During this period, John Wagner would continue to write Dredd but for the most part his work was restricted to the Judge Dredd Megazine.

Dermot Power does the painted artwork for both stories, an artist probably better known now as a concept artist on Episodes II and VII of Star Wars, as well as many other films. “Muzak Killer” was actually only his second published 2000AD strip, and he went on to greater acclaim taking over as the artist on Sláine (my personal favourite strip of his being “The Treasures of Britain” in progs 1001-1010, 1024-1031).

Trivia

  • I’m not going to pretend to remember all the references this strip is peppered with, but the driver of the getaway vehicle Marty flees prison in, Karl Shamen, is clearly modelled on Kurt Cobain – and the Shamen were an band most famous for the song “Ebeneezer Goode” which mainly existed to prank music programmes into playing a song extolling the virtues of the recreational drug Ecstacy (you can also see a poster for a band called “Shame” on Indy’s wall which is another thinly veiled reference to them).
  • No idea who the fourth gang member is meant to be, sadly, but his name Bili Blur is similarly a reference to a popular music combo of the time.
  • Indy lives in a block called “Peel Acres”. Peel Acres was the nickname that Radio One DJ John Peel called his home. John Peel’s late night radio show was for decades the programme that people seriously into independent music would have listened to every week.
  • Other bands referenced are Judas Priest (“Judas Smith”), Cud (“Fudd”), Nirvana (“Montana”) and The Pixies (“The Fairies”).

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

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.