Death and Armageddon

Judge Dredd: The Complete Casefiles Volume 5: written by John Wagner and Alan Grant; illustrated by Mike McMahon, Carlos Ezquerra, Brian Bolland, Ron Smith, and others (1981-82; collected 2013): The saga of Judge Dredd reaches what may be its artistic peak in this thick volume of stories from the early 1980’s. The peculiar mix of action and scabrous social satire that distinguishes the series reachs markedly different heights in two of the arcs collected herein.

First there’s the return of Judge Death in the Dark Judges arc. Beautifully illustrated by Brian Bolland, the Dark Judges brings four judges from an alternate Earth to sprawling megalopolis Mega-City One, the city of 150-million people that occupies a swath of North America from the Eastern Great Lakes to New England and southwards down the East Coast.

Previously, Dredd and telepathic Judge Anderson had battled Judge Death. On Judge Death’s alternate Earth, human life itself was outlawed because humans are the source of crime. Then he came to Mega-City One and started killing up a storm. Dredd managed to destroy his body, while Judge Anderson used her psychic powers to trap him inside her mind until Dredd could encase both of them in an impregnable sphere of Boing, a sort of super-lucite.

Now Anderson’s body lies in state in the Hall of Justice, encased in that Boing. But someone manages to cut the Boing open. Mayhem ensues, and the only slight chance Mega-City One has against not one but four supernaturally powerful Judges lies with the resuscitated Anderson, who’s had Death stuck in her mind since being encased in Boing, though Death has now escaped to a more suitable new body.

This arc is a delight both in Bolland’s meticulous, razor-sharp art and in the writing by Alan Grant and John Wagner. It’s one of the most straightforward Judge Dredd stories ever done — the satire is muted, and the awfulness of the Dark Judges makes Judge Dredd’s often loopily ridiculous fascism seem positively benign by comparison. It’s a great Judge Dredd story, and one of the greatest superhero battle stories ever told (though admittedly Dredd is only very loosely a superhero).

Then we turn to one of the longest arcs in Dredd history, one which begins as Block Wars and ends in the 26-episode Armageddon War storyline. It’s all an increasingly nightmarish, bleakly comic story very much of its time — the Cold War, sabre-rattling early 1980’s.

Briefly, East-Meg-One, the Soviet Mega-City, strikes MegaCity-One first with nuclear and conventional weapons. Tens of millions of people die. Then the invasion begins. Things get worse. And worse. And worse. And only Judge Dredd can figure out how to ‘win’ the war.

Carlos Ezquerra’s squirmy, often disturbingly visceral art makes a perfect complement to Wagner and Grant’s writing here. The story is propulsive. The satire is horrifyingly apt. Dredd’s committment to justice had never before racked up such a body count. And it all goes on and on, for hundreds of pages.

Not many popular comic books make their star into a war criminal. But that’s Judge Dredd. Even the fairly faithful movie adaptation of a couple years back made the action too straightforward by half. Dredd’s only a hero in comparison to the more awful choices surrounding him. He’s the action hero as an undisguised fascist. Highly recommended.

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