2000 AD: Prog 1900 & 1901
Written by John Wagner, Dan Abnett, Rob Williams, Pat Mills, Ian Edgington
Art by Carlos Ezquerra, Richard Elson, Abigail Ryder, Michael Dowling, John Higgins, D’Israeli
TV fans often defend their favourite shows with assurances that “it gets better.” It’s a given, at least in North America, that shows take time to truly find their footing. British television, however, is understood to be a place where the writer rules, and is thus free to craft more satisfying, finite stories untainted by corporate committee-think.
That’s not so much the case with British comics icon Judge Dredd, who debuted nearly 40 years ago in the second issue (or rather, “prog”) of 2000 AD. Prog 1900 (on shelves this week) and next week’s 1901 feature a multi-part Dredd story, “Block Judge”, by the founding creative team of John Wagner and Carlos Ezquerra. So, the creative continuity is there, but the character hasn’t stayed particularly fresh.
The current storyline is, as advertised, a good starting point for new readers: Dredd and team have been put in charge of cleaning up Gramercy Heights, one of the many densely-populated high rise structures (a mile high, to be precise, with 300-plus levels) that make up Mega City One, the urban/dystopian, post-apocalyptic nightmare world of swift justice that Dredd calls home. The judges quickly begin to have an impact and, by the end of part two, the building’s criminal constituency are poised to strike back.
Ezquerra’s work is reliably excellent; he captures the gleam and grit of the setting wonderfully, but the story demonstrates that, outside of more broadly mythological digressions like The Judge Child, Dredd is really just a police procedural. At its best, it’s undoubtedly an unusually hyper-violent and terrifically satirical procedural, but the form is well-trod ground by now.
The B stories here are more successful, with one exception. Kingdom, written by Dan Abnett and illustrated by Richard Elson and Abigail Ryder, offers a more fantastical post-apocalyptic vision than Dredd’s. Gene The Hackman (just one of several cute cinematic homages from Abnett) wanders a desert wasteland on a so far under-defined mission and battles swarms of giant insects.
With “The Grievous Journey of Ichabod Azrael” (part one appears in prog 1901), writer Rob Williams and artists Michael Dowling conjure up a terrific supernatural western with a mythology elaborate enough to resist synopsis. Suffice to say the titular protagonist is a vengeance-bent gunslinger making his bloody way through purgatory (as John Ford might have seen it) to kill God.
These are the unambiguous winners here, particularly on the visual front. Where Dredd’s panels are tightly packed with few big splashes, Elson and Dowling’s layouts are alive, dynamic and far less text-dependent. Like film, comics are a great medium to show rather than tell and these stories are as laconic as they are beautiful to look at.
From Pat Mills and John Higgins comes the most recent chapter in the Greysuit saga, “Prince of Darkness”. Conceptually, it’s Men in Black with a dash of Robocop and follows John Blake, a British intelligence offer given super strength who begins to resist his masters and reclaim his individuality. Writer Mills falls back too much on narration that can’t seem to decide whether it’s first or third person, but Higgins does exemplary work, creating a believably dank environment and suggesting dark, paranoid times ahead.
Getting back to that one exception, we have Ian Edgington and D’Israeli’s latest Stickleback adventure, “The Thru’Penny Opera”. While D’Israeli’s illustration is entirely stunning, recalling film noir and expressionistic cinema as well as early Mad magazine, the late Victorian era setting is pretty unexciting.