John Wagner/Various (w), Various (a)
March 2, 2015
For many Judge Dredd fans, 1995 was a bad year, mostly because of The Movie That Must Not Be Named.
I choose to look on the bright side. The Movie That Must Not Be Named is hilarious viewing if there are friends and wine involved, and its terribleness doesn’t sting quite so much now that an excellent adaptation is out there in the form of Dredd 3D.
1995 was also the year of “The Cal Files” and “The Pit” (technically, “The Pit” ran until 1996, but still), which is enough reason for you to get yourself a copy of Judge Dredd: The Complete Case Files 24.
Covering 1995-1996, Judge Dredd: The Complete Case Files 24 consists of a collection of Dredd stories from 2000AD, including the two preceding stories, and an assortment of short strips from the Judge Dredd Megazine.
The Case Files 24 starts off strong with “The Cal Files” (author: John Wagner; artist: John Burns), a multi-prog narrative centered on the power of institutional cover-ups. The eponymous file, compiled by the late Chief Judge Cal, is full of dirty secrets about the Judges and has disappeared. Dredd has to return it to Judge Jura Edgar, head of the Public Surveillance Unit, but in the process discovers something that could destroy the foundations of Dredd’s world.
Anything involving Judge Cal already has my interest. He’s at the top of my Judge Dredd villain list, and for me has come to symbolize the potentially unmitigated moral corruption that lies at the heart of the Justice Department. He doesn’t become evil out of anger, financial greed, or the pursuit of excessive vigilante justice that so many Judges took up in the 80s and 90s; he does it because it’s fun.
But now, the Department is reliant on Cal’s past actions, suggesting that an enemy is no longer an enemy as long as he’s dead and has something you can use.
It’s as scathing an indictment of the Judges and Dredd himself as Wagner’s previous work on “America” or the freedom-fighting “Democracy” storyline. By looking at the files (spoilers, I guess, but you knew he would), Dredd proves that even he is willing to work with the most evil person to ever run the Justice Department if it serves his own ends.
Rather than pushing this in the reader’s face, though, Wagner and Burns seem to pose this as a series of unspoken questions. It’s much more subtle than it would have been in the hands of lesser creators, and the story greatly benefits from that.
More darkness, albeit with less subtlety, comes in the form of “Hammerstein” (authors: Pat Mills and Tony Skinner; artist: Jason Brashill) and “C-H-A-M-P!” (author: Dan Abnett; artist: Anthony Williams), both of which are about giant robots. “Hammerstein” deals with the former leader of the ABC Warriors, a group of fighter robots, who is picked up in the Cursed Earth by a scrap dealer but gets his revenge through using his wits and giant-robot strength. Mills doesn’t hold back in getting across his message about the dehumanizing effects of commercialism. Then again, if you want an author who holds back, a) don’t call Pat Mills and b) don’t put a giant fighter robot in your story.
“C-H-A-M-P!” is the quietly tragic story of a boxer/tournament fighter unable to accept that his glory days are behind him. It’s not a new plot, except that this fighter is a robot whose loss of fame is due to the obsolescence of his technology. There is, of course, lots of punching, but that sense of tragedy never quite goes away–largely due to Williams’ art, which imbues the robot in question with a shattered dignity by making him look old and sad in a very human way. There’s not much of an underlying message here, but I’m not really sure this story needs one.
The one Mark Millar-authored story in here, “The Man Who Broke the Law,” is surprisingly pretty good, without the gratuitous violence or other excesses I’ve come to expect from his work. Having art by Steve Yeowell and Dondie Cox doesn’t hurt, either, with its clean lines, colors just vivid enough to be jarring while still looking good, and a stately old-school quality that suits the formalized world of the Judges.
There’s some silly stuff in the Case Files 24, too. “Dead Simple” (author: John Wagner; artists: Cliff Robinson and Gina Hart–a woman! Doing colors for Judge Dredd!) features the Simps of Mega-City One, a group of people dedicated to dressing and acting as silly as possible. However, it’s unfortunate that early Simp stories, including this one, fall back on the transphobic trope of “man wearing a bra/fishnet tights/high heels = hilarious”. A man wearing clothes associated with femininity is the silliest thing you could think of? There’s a guy next to him with a teapot tied to his head instead of a hat. That should be your baseline.
“The Ballad of Devil Angel” (author: Alan Grant; artist: Simon Jacob) is the account of how the Devil–incarcerated in Mega-City One’s iso-cubes in an earlier comic, because Judge Dredd, that’s why – joins the Angel Gang and how Judge Dredd beats the snot out of all of them. And it all rhymes. Dredd is teleported into the fray from his shower, which entails spending the rest of the strip naked and armed only with a back scrubber. The main takeaway from this story is that Dredd showers with the helmet on, reads his law books (“Waterproof Edition”) even in the shower, and has monogrammed towels. It’s a delightful moment that reminds us how ridiculous the world of Dredd can be.
This portion of the Case Files 24 ends with the first half of “The Pit” (author: John Wagner; artists: Colin MacNeil, Carlos Ezquerra, Lee Sullivan), a long-running story arc about Dredd taking over as supervisor of a bad sector nicknamed “The Pit” and taking down corrupt Judges. While it doesn’t offer the same depth of self-interrogation as “The Cal Files,” watching Dredd deal with new environments is always entertaining, especially when the supporting characters are interesting in themselves. The dynamics between the Judges of the Pit are genuine and unique; it’s easy to believe that they’re really coworkers. I’m excited to read the end of this one when Case Files 25 comes out.
As for the Megazine material–I don’t like using excess sarcasm, but remember how a lot of comic art in the mid-90s was either amazing or awful, with not much in between? In 1995-1996, the Megazine must have gotten the raw end of that deal. Also, the regular Judge Dredd section of the Case Files 24 is (mostly) very strong, so anything that’s already weak will look even weaker by comparison. I will say that Maya Gavin, the artist on “Tickers,” is the first woman I’ve seen listed as a principal artist on any Judge Dredd strip ever, and her art is better than most of the other stuff in the Megazine section.
I’d still recommend this volume of the Case Files, though. At its best, it covers the scope of everything Judge Dredd can do, from humor to tragedy to satire to unsettling and insightful self-critique. And it’s a reminder that even in 1995, the Dredd franchise wasn’t all bad.