Not wishing to set a precedent here but in response to a reader comment I look at a volume of IDW’s JUDGE DREDD. There’s little, if any, toilet humour in this one. I've got all that out of my system (tee hee!) But if you like icy disdain then bring your skates because we’re doing figure eights! Or maybe I liked it. Ha, Ha, just kidding. JUDGE DREDD by Daniel, Swierczynski & Lee
Anyway, this… JUDGE DREDD, VOLUME 5: THE AMERICAN WAY OF DEATH Art by Nelson Daniel, Steve Scott Written by Duane Swierczynski Coloured by John-Paul Bove Lettered by Shawn Lee Originally published as JUDGE DREDD #17-20 IDW, $17.99 (2014) JUDGE DREDD created by Carlos Ezquerra & John Wagner
For a few years now IDW have had the licence to produce original Dredd comics in America, and these exist distinct from the (more familiar to me) UK Dredd canon, which is currently handled by Rebellion. Theoretically IDW are in a pretty advantageous position; they get to start from scratch without any of the early mis-steps of the original strip (Maria! Non-Judge policemen! Mick McMahon thinking Dredd was black!) and can cherry pick plots and characters from an impressively fecund near-40 years of ideas and concepts pre-tested in the fieriest crucible of the imagination possible – British children’s minds. Alas, it gives me no pleasure whatsoever to report that on the evidence of this volume IDW have bungled it quite badly. I wanted to like this book; I want to like every book I read. Whatever kind of creature it is which knowingly seeks out things it dislikes, that is not the kind of creature I am. (Unless it’s DKIII: TMR because, seriously, **** that garbage.) JUDGE DREDD VOLUME 5: THE AMERICAN WAY OF DEATH is not a disaster, but like many a Tory given all its in-built advantages it’s a disappointment.
Thanks mainly to Nelson Daniel's lively cartooning (and frequent use of a function on his PC which replicates that dotty stuff I like so much) as I read the book I was enjoying it, but the further I read that enjoyment was progressively undermined by some pretty basic gaffes. Not least among these was the utter disregard with which the volume treated potential new readers. Like, uh, me. It’s pretty staggering; as though IDW expect everyone to have read Vol.s 1 thru 4 thirty seconds before they cracked the covers on this one. Would it have broken the bank to use a page to provide a cast list and a “What Has Gone Before…” paragraph? (No, it wouldn’t.) I’ve read Dredd for longer than is admissible in mixed company so, yeah, I know who Judge Janus and Judge Omar are, and why they can talk to each other using unanchored thought balloons (helpfully colour coded pink for a girl and blue for a boy like this is fucking Bunty or something) but does Chet in Omaha, who has never read a Dredd before? (No, Chet doesn’t. Look at his big simple face; he hasn’t a clue.) Of course, it’s not so much the basic set-up of Judge Dredd as a series I’m talking about; just looking at the book effectively communicates the fact that it takes place in The Future, Judge Dredd is a Cop and Things Are Less Than Rosy. Dredd’s a pretty direct concept. With the exception of Mark Millar & Grant Morrison most sentient creatures can pretty much pick up “Judge Dredd” so easily it’s almost as though it’s by osmosis. No, it’s more the set-up of the story herein itself which is the problem.
Essentially this doesn’t read like a complete story but like a section in a larger story. Which is fine, very sexy, very modern, very Television and all that but Christ, people, context counts. And context here is sorely lacking. Although the book is ostensibly about Dredd vs. The Dark Judges, some fuzzily defined business about two people who have swapped bodies (in a previous volume, I guess) keeps barging its way to the fore like a drunk on a bus. This is a problem, as I picked it up for The Dark Judges, and if you want me to be more interested in some other story that’s already half over you’ll have to put your back into it. Unfortunately, Duane Swierczynski doesn’t. He is, I hasten to add, professional enough to convey the essentials of the situation (a man and a woman have swapped bodies, one of them was a Judge, and the Judge swapped bodies so that the other party would go to Titan (the space prison for Judges) instead). Sure, Swierczynski manages to smoothly integrate all that into the text and I can think of plenty of Red Hawt Comics Writers who would have skinned their knees at even at that low hurdle. But, c’mon, being better than the worst isn’t good enough. Beyond the basics there’s no deeper insight into the situation proffered e.g. the relationship between the two people, how the swap occurred or even what crime the Judge committed. Let me put it in terms a writer would understand – when you go to a meeting with some people “in” Television what’s the first thing everyone does? Introduce themselves! The smile on your face tells me I’ve been understood.
It’s unfortunate that Swierczynski seems to have elected to tell this other story with the The Dark Judges acting as merely a spicy backdrop, because this means he doesn’t really develop that bit either. The book starts and The Dark Judges are running amuck in Mega-City One because, uh, because…of something that happened in the previous volume? (Chet’s really flailing now, IDW. I don’t think you’ve won him over. He’s looking wistfully at the TV.) For some inexplicable reason Swierczynski has decided to add a bunch of new Dark Judges as well. I know we’re always moaning that people don’t create stuff anymore but, you know a) there’s a time and a place and b) it still has to be good. These new Dark Judges are totally unnecessary and utterly underwhelming in comparison to their antecedents. I mean Nelson Daniel draws the balls off them, there’s nothing wrong with his designs at all; they are fresh, funny and not a little icky as befits a concept which straddles the sinister and the silly as deftly as that of The Dark Judges.
It’s a tough gig adding new Dark Judges, a bit of a poison chalice really. Especially since even the immediate additions post Death’s first appearance (Fear, Fire and Mortis) do, in retrospect, have the whiff of Brian Bolland’s having done some sweet character designs which were just thrown in to spice stuff up. Personally, Judge Death’s enough but there’s so many of the buggers now that even he’s barely in the book. Remember when you went to see BLADE: TRINITY and there were all these other people in it and Ryan Reynold’s abs vying for screen space? But you had gone hoping to see Blade not all these other people, and certainly not Ryan Reynold’s abs? It’s like that. A bit. There are so many Dark Judges, and the book is so slim that most of them only really get a scene to establish their shtick, and if they get more than that then it’s because the plot requires them to do something to propel it along. The action’s disappointing too, with Judge Dredd (points awarded for him being written as suitably curt and street-smart rather than a thick thug) strolling about dispatching his enemies with incendiaries. It's hardly Sun Tzu is it now? Mind you it’s hardly a permanent solution but then again the permanent solution is somewhat problematic. It’s problematic in the sense that it seems pulled from Duane Swierczynski’s backside. It hasn’t been of course. Obviously, this solution is a call back to events in an earlier volume but since there is no indication of this in the text it all seems bit random and dismayingly abrupt. (Chet’s started digging for gold up his nose and I don’t think he’ll be back, IDW).
So even Nelson Daniel’s fizzy Charlie-Adlard-but-with-a-pulse performance can’t save what is basically a Freaky Friday re-run with cameos from The Dark Judges. In the hellish future world that is The Savage Critics Judge John is The Law, and Judge John’s verdict is that JUDGE DREDD VOLUME 5: THE AMERICAN WAY OF DEATH is EH!
BONUS: HOW WELL DO YOU KNOW THE NEW DARK JUDGES? TAKE OUR FUN QUIZ AND FIND OUT!
Judge Blank is: A) A mysterious teleporting entity which acts in opposition to the other Dark Judges.
B) A plot device used to get people from one far-flung location to another.
Judge Fistula is: A) A blobby looking chap who links people together by impaling them with lengthy fleshy barbs.
B) A Scouser who issues sexual threats at passers-by (“I’m gunna fist you, la’!”)
Answer: A) (Now, I’ve not been graced with a fistula (“an abnormal or surgically made passage between a hollow or tubular organ and the body surface, or between two hollow or tubular organs”) but I do know what one is (see preceding note) and this “Judge Fistula” thing seems a bit tenuous. You may disagree. From the pages of sketches and notes in the back of the book it seems Duane Swierczynski was going for a Human Centipede effect. Since the whole Human Centipede effect depends on someone having their mouth sewn to a stranger’s arse and here we just have some people stood dazedly about connected by flesh sticks I think he missed that effect. I think “Judge Tumour” might have been better but again, that’s just me.)
Judge Skinner has: A) Had his lyrics discussed in an Oxford Professor of Poetry lecture by Sir Geoffrey Hill.
B) No skin and can remove the skin of his victims by magic.
Judge Sleep is: A) A lady Judge who causes irritating gummy secretions in people’s eyes, which harden and can be really tricky to get out even if you use your little finger and get right on in there. Hot water and cotton wool are the cure.
B) A lady judge who puts people to sleep forever.
Answer: B) (Which sounds more like Judge Coma to me but there you go, I’m not a writer like Duane Swierczynski so what do I know.)
Judge Burroughs : A) Shoots wives in the head "accidentally" and fantasises about naked sailors hanging themselves in sufficient quantities that the resultant terminal ejaculate makes it look like it is snowing.
B) Burrows like a mole. (Brring! Brring! Brian Azzarello called, he wants his wordplay back.)
Answer: B) (He also looks like a mole, albeit a skinned one which, look, okay, moles do burrow, I’ll give you that, but I’m kind of hazy on their connection to death. I’m struggling to think of any culture which has the mole as a totem of death. I’m flawed; I’ve watched a lot of bad movies where “nature fights back”, but I can’t think of even one where moles start acting up. Rabbits and worms, yes, slugs even, but moles? I’m drawing a blank here, to be honest. Maybe Duane Swierczynski’s got an allotment and moles got into his lettuce last summer and he still bears a grudge. Judge Burroughs is stupid is what I’m getting at there.)
Judge Sludge is: A) Made of Sludge and able to spray victims with a dense emission.
B) Evidence that inspiration can fail us all.
Judge Metastasis is: A) an ever increasing giant composed of people subsumed into its bulk, all of whom are ruled by one mind; a searing commentary on the mindlessness of the mob.
B) the result of someone reading Clive Barker’s In The Hills, The Cities at a formative age.
Judge Stigmata is: A) Able to sidle up to people and charismatically induce them to wound themselves.
B) An attention seeking hairdresser who gives priests who look like Gabriel Byrne boners.
Answer: A) (Unfortunately, and I take no pleasure in pointing this out, this is not actually stigmatism as the wounds do not appear spontaneously and nor do they conform to those said to have been endured by Jesus Christ. Those, you know, being the defining elements of stigmatism. What we have here in this book is hypnotically induced self-harming. I know it seems picky but there you go. Again, no writer I.)
Judge Choke is: A) A somewhat hazily realised comment on the self-destructive nature of smoking. (Okay, maybe he just straight up chokes people on smoke. Design-wise anyway, Judge Choke definitely looks like Ghost Rider after a light summer shower.)
B) An insecure actor who corners people at parties and, in an increasingly hysterical manner as the evening wears on, and the drink gets sunk, points out that although appearances in drearily unexceptional production-line Marvel©® movie fodder have made him rich he just really, really needs you to know that there’s just so much more to him than that; what with him having once directed a movie adaptation of Chuck Palahniuk’s Choke. Struggling to stay conscious victims stab themselves in the leg with those cocktail sticks you put the tiny sausages on, eventually expiring from blood loss.
Judge Judy is: A) a TV program my Mum watches during the day because she is retired and that’s her choice; she’s worked hard and she’s earned that right.
B) a cheap joke on my behalf to see us out.
Answer: A) and B)
NEXT TIME: I don’t know. Do you think I actually have a plan? Probably this week’s 2000AD and a couple of other – COMICS!!!