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Tuesday, September 26, 2006

Lawmaster

Judge Dredd has been a constant figure in nearly every issue of British science-fiction comic 2000ad over its 30-year history. For a character who pretty much started out as Dirty Harry in the future with a bucket on his head, this is really quite remarkable.

What is even more remarkable is that while a number of high profile creators have had their crack at writing Dredd, one writer has consistently written the best Dredd tales throughout the strip’s history and has, over the last decade, taken it to a whole new level.

In his time, Scots writer John Wagner has crafted literally thousands of different Dredd stories, from six-panel morality plays to six-month sagas with body counts in the hundreds of millions. The format can change, but the basics are always there – clear, crisp storytelling with a minimum of bullshit and just enough humour, getting straight to the point without skipping on the action.

Although he essentially created the character with artist Carlos Ezquerra, Wagner actually briefly left the strip before pre-publication, but soon returned. He still shared scripting duties over those first years, with Pat Mills writing much of the initial mythology that surrounded Dredd.

But after a couple of years, Wagner’s imagination went into overdrive, building up Dredd’s world with dozens of short, snappy tales and fleshing it out further in epics that ran for months in the weekly publication.

The initial clumsiness of the concept behind Dredd was burned away in this fire of storytelling. Over the years, Wagner further deepened the storyline. The fascist angle behind the whole judicial system of Mega-City One was fleshed out, eventually filling Dredd with so much doubt he walked off into the Cursed Earth to spread law amongst the lawless, never to return.

But, of course, as he always does, Dredd came back to save his city. In this, Wagner has followed in his greatest creation’s footsteps. Like many of his peers, he followed the money all the way to America, but his style and sense of humour never really caught on. Frequent collaborator Alan Grant did rather better with long runs on DC’s Batman and Lobo, but almost all of Wagner’s American efforts, such as the Outcasts and Last American mini-series, both written with Grant, along with the short-lived Chain Gang War, are now mostly forgotten.

At about this same time, Dredd was turned over to other writers such as Garth Ennis and Mark Millar. These writers would find much more success across the Atlantic, with most of their stories badly received by Dredd fans.

But when Wagner’s attentions moved back to Dredd, the quality of the stories shot through the roof. Beginning with The Pit saga, which saw Dredd take over the running of a Mega-City sector house, Wagner started building up a vast cast of characters to support the big man. With the notable help of fellow Scots writer Gordon Rennie, Wagner has put so much effort into these supporting characters, including his niece Vienna and fellow Judges Guthrie, Giant and Dredd clone Rico, that they have become a family around Dredd, able to point out his flaws while still standing beside him to the death.

And now, 30 years on, Wagner has gone right back to the beginning with the Origins epic that has just started in 2000ad, a story that promises to combine the usual huge action with the final look at where Dredd actually came from.

It is just so rare to see the same writer stick with the same creator for more than three decades, but it is even rarer for that writer to steadily improve over that time to this point, where Wagner’s work is greeted with almost pure joy by loyal Dredd readers.

In the past Wagner has said that Dredd’s origin will be the last Judge Dredd story he will ever write. It is a story that I personally can’t wait to see unfold and would mark the very best way for Wagner to move on and leave the character behind. But I hope there is still some more Dredd to come from Wagner, because he is, quite simply, an absolute fucking legend.

3 Love Letters:

Blogger TCSmith said...

Got any recommendations as to where a newbie to Dredd should start reading?

10:37 AM

 
Blogger Smith said...

As far as trade paperbacks go, I'm not sure what is currently in print, but you can't go wrong with the Complete Judge Dredd books that 2000ad publisher Rebellion are coming out with at the moment.

I think there have been about four so far, each reprinted almost a year's worth of complete stories, so you get a huge chunk of Dredd in each one.

I would recommend skipping the first couple of books where the Dredd strip was still finding its feet. If you pick up one of the latest ones, you'll get something like the complete Judge Child epic (a 26-part series that saw an exploration of the Dredd universe and introduced the Angel Gang) as well as a bunch of shorter stories. Plus they feature some really fine art by the likes of Brian Bolland and Mike McMahon.

If you want something more recent, the stories I talked about in my original post where the Dredd family has been built up have been recently reprinted in a book called Brothers of the Blood, which is a bloody good read.

And the Origins saga, which has only just started in the comic, has already been announced as a book for release early next year....

8:03 PM

 
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12:37 PM

 

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