BIG NEWS! I’ve been hired* to do the official HBO Watchmen tie-in comic, TALKING WATCHMEN. (“Hired” in the punk rock spirit of no one asking for this) pic.twitter.com/Vqouh1Oa1F
— Kenny Keil (@kennykeil) July 27, 2019
Previously on Drokk!: Mega-City One as we know it — or, at least, as we’ve gotten to know it over the previous five episodes — is no more, as the result of the Apocalypse War, a storyline that both redefined the world Dredd lives in and the strip that’s named after him. But what can you do after that kind of monolithic event?
0:00:00-0:09:05: We quickly get into things, introducing that we’re talking about Judge Dredd: The Complete Case Files Vol. 6 and diving into the fact that neither of us really knew quite what to expect in the fallout of the last volume — a feeling only amplified by the fact that the first storyline features a wrestling robot called Precious Leglock.
0:09:06-0:19:11: Jeff has a theory about this volume, and it’s that John Wagner and Alan Grant are using the stories in this volume to set out their theory of the Judges and where they stand on the fascism of it all, prompted not only by this volume, but also what’s happening in the world at this moment. I also have a theory about what Wagner and Grant are doing as it relates to the Judges and judicial overreach in the wake of the Apocalypse War… but then, there’s all this weird humor getting in the way of the darkness…!
0:19:12-0:40:48: We dig into the unevenness of this book — never in terms of quality, but in terms of story and tone, certainly, with the combination of darkness and comedy being something we talk about. We also talk about cultural insensitivity in Wagner and Grant’s writing, and also the way the line of what’s acceptable culturally has shifted in the 30+ years since these stories were first published, and also the debt Paul Verhoeven’s Starship Troopers may owe Judge Dredd, in terms of the use of satirical propaganda as storytelling tool. All this, and a tiny little note about a sneaky change in the world building of the strip, as the Cursed Earth sneaks inside the walls of Mega-City One.
0:40:49-0:53:01: In a volume where almost everything else is in constant flux, Wagner and Grant remain the constant, writing every strip. As they push against expectations for what Judge Dredd is as a character and a strip — in the process, pretty much demolishing those expectations by showing off how versatile the latter can be — Jeff and I talk about the way in which the writers are setting out their command and control of the series. And, getting back to Jeff’s theory, is this the volume where the two decide that the ultimate purpose of Dredd is simply to entertain?
0:53:02-1:18:06: We turn, eventually, to our favorite stories from the volume, beginning with mine: “Destiny’s Angels,” in which Wagner, Grant and Carlos Ezquerra take what would in someone else’s hands be a very dramatic epic and push it in an ever-more silly direction, leading to us talking about the multi-layered approach of the writing in Dredd. There’s also an impressively over-the-top conclusion to the story, which prompts Jeff to use the phrase “This remarkable achievement in the world’s grimmest whimsy,” which feels very appropriate, considering.
1:18:07-1:58:44: Then, to Jeff’s favorite story in the volume, “Shantytown,” which has a particular hold over him, as he explains. It brings a lot of subjects with it, not least of which the inherent fascism of the Judge system and Judge Dredd as a comic strip, and how complicit both the readers and the creators are in supporting that. Amongst the many things under discussion: Is “Shantytown” an occupation story in which we’re expected to root for the occupation force merely because it’s their name on the series’ title? Are the Judges evil? Are Wagner and Grant co-signing onto a cruel, dehumanizing system? What constitutes a happy ending, and what undercuts one? Is Dredd inherently trustworthy, despite everything? Is anyone else surprised by Jeff dropping a Mitchell & Webb reference? Okay, that one’s not actually discussed, but still.
1:58:45-2:19:59: We move onto other things that are particularly grim about this volume, including the unofficial imposition of martial law and constant growth of the Judges’ power in this volume. Does this represent the most honest depiction of political power in comics, and if so, is that accidental, considering that 2000 AD was still very much a kids’ comic at the time these episodes were printed? Also, we talk about Jeff’s fear that Wagner and Grant may have fascist tendencies based on comics’ history of important creators drifting in that direction, and once again touch on the idea that the tension in Wagner’s writing in particular when it comes to the idea that the Judges serve a purpose in their community is an important one to Judge Dredd as an overall strip.
2:20:00-end: We wrap things up with mention of the fact that, for those showing up at San Diego Comic-Con this week, I’m going to be on the Judge Dredd: Satire or Super-Cop panel on Thursday afternoon, before going into the usual mention of Tumblr, Instagram and Twitter, not to mention our Patreon. Next month, we’ll be back with Vol. 7, in which there are werewolves, competitive eating contests and, most importantly, the arrival on the strip of Cam Kennedy. As always, thanks for listening.
Previously on Drokk!: John Wagner has been joined by his long-term writing partner Alan Grant, as the world of Mega-City One comes ever more defined by the episode. We’ve survived the Cursed Earth, the Day The Law Died and even the Judge Child Quest. But can anyone survive… the Apocalypse War…?
0:00:00-0:01:37: We jump into the episode in a remarkably quick fashion, so eager are we to discuss Judge Dredd: The Complete Case Files Vol. 5, which covers material from 2000 AD Prog’s 208 through 270 — which is to say, far more than a year’s worth of material. Which makes it all the more surprising that the quality in this book is so high. A note on the podcast as a whole I’ll sneak in here: We’re so in our own heads that we never actually give the full names of the writers of the entire book; it’s John Wagner and Alan Grant, co-writing each episode. I mean, we’ve talked about them before in earlier episodes, so chances are everyone already knows, but yet.
0:01:38-0:09:35: We just right into things by talking about how strong the book is as a whole, with almost no filler, and even the stories we think might be filler are particularly strong. The whole thing, I argue, reads like one larger narrative about the fragility of the block system (and, arguably, Mega-City One as a whole). We talk about that, as well as the dark humor especially present in this volume, and the ways in which Judge Dredd (the strip) uses continuity differently from other comics.
0:09:36-0:23:30: Is this volume so strong because Wagner and Grant have found the perfect balance between world building and storytelling? That’s something I suggest, while we also talk about the two writers — and, specifically, their work in this volume — as being an unrecognized inspiration for a lot of subsequent British writers. Also, is the work in this book a response to 2000 AD’s then-contemporary interest in the concept of “future war,” and how would “The Apocalypse War” storyline stand up against fellow 2000 AD icon Pat Mills’ Invasion strip?
0:23:21-0:31:49: Intentionally or otherwise, Vol. 5 is very clearly a book of two halves, with the first half managing to create an atmosphere and understanding in the reader’s mind that supports the final “Block Mania” and “Apocalypse War” storylines. We discuss how organic this feels as a reader, while Jeff points out something that I’d missed: The first half of the book also contains a storyline which is, in many ways, the overarching structure of this volume in miniature.
0:31:50-0:39:10: We take a brief detour to talk about one of the so-called filler stories, which nonetheless proved to be surprisingly chilling to both Jeff and myself. Can a story about a man with a gun read “innocently” any more; when it first was published almost 40 years ago — and in the UK, where gun violence is far more rare — was it as removed from reality as the other, more outrageous, strips that surrounds it?
0:39:11-0:50:01: If the book is, as I argue, actually two books, then it’s impressive that the “lesser” of the two is still some of the best Dredd there is. Jeff and I talk about our love for “The Hotdog Run,” a three-parter that precedes “Block Mania” and “The Apocalypse War,” as well as touching on something that’s important and somewhat new about this volume’s strips: The suggestion that the Judges are, in fact, far more fallible than they’d previously been portrayed — something that is necessary for what’s to come.
0:50:02-0:58:05: Another detour of sorts, as the artists in the volume come up for discussion. We bid farewell to both Mike McMahon and Brian Bolland with this volume, both of whom go out on top — that McMahon art in particular is amazing — while Colin Wilson arrives with some art that suggests that Bolland’s influence will remain in this strip for quite some time. Even inside the mind of Ron Smith, who isn’t otherwise a particularly Bolland-esque artist, portrayals of Dredd aside.
0:58:06-1:04:04: If Joe Dredd is the eponymous lead of the strip, Jeff argues that Mega-City One is the primary co-star, which is why what happens to the city in this volume is so impactful; Wagner and Grant essentially manage to convince readers that the big co-star is going to get killed.
1:04:05-1:15:12: We finally arrive at the “Block Mania”/“Apocalypse War” cycle — which lasts 34 issues, all told, and is one massive story that pretends otherwise. There’s a quick plot synopsis, and then we’re into talking about how bold a piece of storytelling it is, and how it continually wrongfoots the reader in a genuinely impressive manner, continually outpacing expectations. As Jeff argues, it not only lives up to the hype that surrounds the storyline, it transcends it. (Bold, I know, but really; this is entirely earned praise.)
1:15:13-1:27:41: As bleak as it is — and “The Apocalypse War,” especially, is one of the most bleak storylines in all of Dredd, if taken literally — there’s something surprisingly entertaining and enjoyable about these two storylines. Is it simply that we’re ready for anything, even scenes of Walter the Wobot and racist stereotype housekeeper Maria, to break the existential horror of what is happening elsewhere? We also discuss the names of the various city blocks that show up in “Block Mania,” and what might be the most unlikely-to-be-picked-up-by-the-kid-demographic reference in Dredd yet.
1:27:42-1:34:33: Let’s take a moment to appreciate just how staggeringly good the art is throughout the 25-part “Apocalypse War,” with Carlos Ezquerra returning to the strip for the first time in five years to draw the entire thing. Jeff describes his take on Dredd and the world of the strip as “understated iconic,” and that feels entirely appropriate. There’s discussion of his style, of an amazing method of differentiating a flashback scene from the “present day,” and of the ways in which Ezquerra was like Jack Kirby.
1:34:34-1:49:28: This leads onto a conversation about Ezquerra’s past drawing war comics for the UK, which turns into a discussion about the influence of British war comics — which John Wagner had also worked on, of course — on this particular strip. I make the suggestion that, for the length of “The Apocalypse War,” the strip actually stops Judge Dredd as we know it, even as the storyline makes the most explicit argument for Dredd being a broken, damaged, dangerous man instead of a hero. Jeff runs with this, and points out the criticism of Dredd present in the story’s conclusion, which implicitly recasts the entire storyline as Dredd’s fault in an entirely new way.
1:49:29-1:59:02: Dredd is actually missing for significant chunks of “The Apocalypse War,” and we talk about the strip growing past him for this particular storyline. Also discussed: Carlos Ezquerra’s fine art inspiration for one particular panel, and the fact that I read this while watching HBO’s Chernobyl, which made for some strange parallels. (Something not mentioned in the podcast, but consider this an extra: I wondered how much influence the iconic British anti-nuclear war TV drama Threads had on “The Apocalypse War,” and the answer is none; it came out afterwards.)
1:59:03-2:03:42: As we start to wrap things up, Jeff answers the traditional question: Would this be a good place to start reading Dredd? Despite having compared “The Apocalypse War” to Watchmen, he argues against it, thinking that the book requires the build-up offered by earlier volumes; I also think it’s not the best idea, but mostly because “The Apocalypse War” would utterly skew new reader expectations of what Judge Dredd actually is, as a longform narrative and give false expectations of future volumes.
2:03:43-end: We finally head towards the exit sign by talking ever-so-briefly about the fact that this is actually the 400th episode of Wait, What?, as we close out of month of 10th anniversary programming. (Thank you, everyone, for listening, for however much of that decade you’ve been there for.) Then, as ever, we talk about our Instagram, Tumblr, Twitter and Patreon accounts, and Jeff sings us out. Happy Apocalypse, everyone…!
Previously on Drokk!: After a somewhat uneven first couple of years, Judge Dredd as a strip has settled into somewhat of a groove as co-creator John Wagner took full control of the writing chores and set about transforming the series’ setting Mega-City One into an important character in its own right. Who would want to separate Dredd from Mega-City One at this point?
0:00:00-0:02:46: With the kind of rustiness that comes from not having recorded a Drokk! in awhile, we stumble through an introduction that explains that, this episode, we’re covering Judge Dredd: The Complete Case Files Vol. 4, covering 2000 AD Progs 156 through 207, running 1980 through 1981. But before we get too meander-y, I have a question for Jeff…
0:02:47-0:09:59: Is Vol. 4 a collection full of re-runs and deja vu? We discuss that Judge Dredd as a serial has been around for long enough to have a history, and the drawbacks that brings — namely, that there’s now the opportunity (taken often in this volume, it feels like) to repeat ideas and storylines, as well as merely reference them, although that happens as well. Aw, Judge Dredd, you’re old enough to have continuity now…!
0:10:00-0:25:36: In response to my question, Jeff brings up his theory about a running theme in this particular collection: The importance of free will, and the lack of free will when it comes to the characters in Dredd. (Well, outside of Owen Krysler, AKA the Judge Child, and Dredd himself, perhaps.) Is Wagner arguing that people can only exist within the confines of their character, but that their characters are purely defined by external influences? And we’re not talking about those external influences being the Judges, either… They might be as trapped as the rest of the citizens.
0:25:37-0:38:38: Another potential running theme is Dredd as both contrarian to everything around him, but also as an unchanging monolith that everything and everyone else has to work around. But is that a problem? Both Jeff and Judge Macgruder think so, but Jeff goes so far as to suggest that it might be a particular problem because Dredd doesn’t have any control over his own actions because he’s been programmed into being a machine — something that this volume in particular isn’t shy in presenting a case for.
0:38:39-0:51:29: It isn’t just questions of free will that this volume is obsessed with; I also think it’s an era of the series that is focusing on satirizing (and criticizing) consumer culture, with the return of Otto Sump and televised war games being the most obvious examples. In response, Jeff brings up the work of Italian director Segio Corbucci, whose spaghetti westerns presented a particularly bleak worldview that may also have informed some of the episodes of the strip on show here, especially in the Judge Child storyline.
0:51:30-1:08:19: There’s always been an undercurrent of dark humor in Dredd, but does this volume represent a new level of that? Nuclear apocalypse and body horror fuel some of the “weird darkness,” as Jeff calls it, in these episodes, with Basil Wolverton and Ken Reid being referenced as potential influences on Ron Smith’s artwork in particular. We also discuss the morality (or lack thereof, potentially) in Dredd as a character, whereas he may be the most moral character in the series but that doesn’t mean he’s especially moral — especially when it comes to passive aggressive confrontations with other Judges over facial hair. (Not mentioned in the podcast, but I’m mentioning it here: Dredd also has a real problem with accountants, and appears twice in this volume.)
1:08:20-1:19:44: Has John Wagner created such a unique tone to the series at this point that no-one else will be able to capture it? We talk about the future evolution of Dredd, and how it impacts the work of future creators when it comes to working on the character, and then we talk about the seeming lessening of the parallels between this strip and Will Eisner’s The Spirit, which has become somewhat of a running theme on this podcast.
1:19:45-1:31:48: There are a lot of new characters introduced in this volume who’ll show up again in the future, bringing about a discussion about supporting casts both in Judge Dredd as a strip, and British comics in general. Did British comics, historically, not really care that much about character because there wasn’t enough space to include anything other than plot and high concept?
1:31:49-1:39:18: For a comic that has often been referred to as being particularly punk rock, this volume of The Complete Case Files gets punk pretty wrong, borrowing a lot of the surface imagery but surprisingly little of the underlying attitude. I refer to it as a Bob Haney version of punk, which feels odd given the timing of both 2000 AD’s launch and these strips in particular, but perhaps we’re reading too much into Ron Smith’s aesthetic as a whole. There’s also a slight reprise about the free will question, thanks to the conclusion of the “Unamerican Graffiti” storyline that prompted this particular diversion.
1:39:19-2:00:01: We get into our favorite stories in the volume, with Jeff choosing between “Unamerican Graffiti” and “Loonie’s Moon,” and my choices being either “Pirates of the Black Atlantic” and “The Fink.” While we’re at it, we talk about foreshadowing what’s to come, whether it’s creative legacies of these stories — you can see shades of future 2000 AD and Wagner/Grant collaborations at times — and also stories that are about to show up in the Judge Dredd strip as a whole. Also, I come up with a theory about how the strip treats animals versus humanity.
2:00:02-2:05:02: We quickly wrap things up for the episode, mentioning that we have Tumblr, Twitter and Instagram accounts, as well as the Patreon account that makes all of this whole thing possible — and then there’s the fact that, next episode, we’re literally heading towards nuclear armageddon in a storyline that’s actually called “The Apocalypse War.” So, you know, good times ahead, I guess.