Previously on Drokk!: Things are all good in the 22nd century, as long as you’re a reader from today just visiting Mega-City One for the Thrill Power. After nuclear apocalypse and orangutans being elected to political office, I can only imagine what it’s like to live there…
0:00:00-0:02:44: Welcome, dear friends, to a Drokk! unlike any other, at least insofar that Jeff and I were both poorly when we recorded it, but more importantly, neither of us particularly dug Judge Dredd: The Complete Case Files Vol. 8, the massive slab o’comics that we’re covering this time around. It’s all the Dredds from 2000 AD Prog’s 376 through 423, which is a lot of Judge Dredd, but it was also… a bit of a slog, as we quickly get into.
0:02:45-0:07:51: Is this, as I call it, the “flop sweat volume”? Has the previously untouchable writing team of John Wagner and Alan Grant lost its way, or merely taking a breather while relying all-too-much on a medley of the greatest hits from the strip’s past? If it’s the latter, there’s a problem, as we talk about: This isn’t a book that does the greatest hits any favors.
0:07:52-0:18:42: Almost accidentally, we fall into a discussion of the first extended storyline in the book, “Dredd Angel,” which has some good gags, but little else, raising our ire — mine especially — with the missed opportunities to make some kind of larger point about Dredd’s mission in amongst Liberace references and butt jokes. (No, a different kind of butt.) Jeff, at least, is enamored with the idea of Tulsa melting because of an atomic blast, so there’s that.
0:18:43-0:23:59: If “Dredd Angel” was disappointing, then “Gator” is genuinely wretched thanks to some very poor art choices and a story that feels like it was put together by Wagner and Grant on a series of off-days. In retrospect, this really was a bad omen for what was to come, but as if to make it worthwhile, Jeff teaches me some albino alligator history.
0:24:00-0:44:45: The “Judgment” trilogy — an unofficial way to describe three stories that delve into whether or not Dredd is growing a conscience, and if that’s a good or a bad thing in the world he’s living — is one of the two highlights of this volume, and we unpick how dark the three stories are, the ways in which they subvert audience expectations for this kind of story, and the running gag of Dredd not getting on with accountants. All this plus: Robot children are scary! The creepy institutional stance on emotions when it comes to being a Judge! And: A cliffhanger that stays hung for longer than you’d expect!
0:44:46-0:47:43: Before we get to “City of the Damned,” it’s time for a brief respite when “The Wally Squad,” which boasts some great art by Brett Ewins and, for one episode, “McCarthy” (Brendan? Jim? It’s unclear, but I suspect the former.) The story is light, but Jeff suspects that’s exactly what everyone needs at this point in the book. (We also touch on Jeff’s feelings on the trope of an undercover cop going bad, which is what this story is about.)
0:47:44-1:21:24: “City of the Damned” is the heart of this book in more ways than one — it’s the longest story in here, but it’s also a deeply flawed story that sums up the disappointment of the collection in one fell swoop, with Wagner and Grant seeming disinterested in their own work and featuring some lackluster artwork from Ron Smith. That doesn’t mean that Jeff and I don’t have a bunch to talk about, especially because it brings about a return of Jeff’s obsession with the Shadow Self, which prompts a discussion about whether or not the writers were fully aware, never mind engaged, in the subtext of what they were writing, as well as whether or not Dredd is capable of change — or, at least, whether Wagner and Grant think that he is. We also talk about my nostalgia steering me wrong (not for the first time), the wasted potential of this story, how quickly it goes off the rails, and two ways in which this storyline is echoed in Dredd strips to come. Not bad for something that I describe as “literally a Scooby-Doo chase for 14 episodes.”
1:21:25-1:31:12: Again, if “Dredd Angel” was followed by something disappointing, “City of the Damned” suffers the same fate, with both “The Hunters Club” and especially ‘Monsteroso” utterly underwhelming us in terms of being overlong and unoriginal. (Really, a “robots gone wild” story? We haven’t seen those in, what, seven or eight volumes?) Oh, and then there’s the casual racism — and appalling denouement — of the firestarter storyline, as well. Jeff makes a reference to a mention in Thrill Power Overload about how burned out everyone at 2000 AD was feeling at this point, and, really? You can tell.
1:31:13-1:42:23: It’s not all bad news, though, as “Sunday Night Fever” brings Cam Kennedy on art and a story that has genuine weight to it, especially considering the era in which it was created. Out of nowhere, it’s as if Wagner and Grant have remembered that Dredd can be used to actually say something about the world. We also talk briefly about two other strips of note, both of which focus on the idea that Judges really shouldn’t have feelings — which is probably the running theme of this collection, all things considered. Also: the Judges really don’t care about the citizens of Mega-City One, but do like the idea of lasering people’s brains just a little bit too much.
1:42:24-end: We wrap up by talking about what might have gone wrong with this volume to make it such a disappointment, from exhaustion on Wagner and Grant’s part to an over reliance on gimmicks, references and cheap jokes. (Introducing my unlikely reference to Darby and Joan!) The volume is enough of a disappointment that both Jeff and I point out that we probably wouldn’t recommend it to any newcomers, but at least Jeff and I agree on the highlights to be found inside. Before too long, we’re talking about our Tumblr, Twitter, Instagram and Patreon, and then looking forward to next month’s Case Files Vol. 9 read-through. (I completely forgot it has “The Midnight Surfer” storyline, despite the fact that this volume ends promising that next prog! I am a disappointment to everyone.) As always, thanks for reading and listening. Splundig Vur Thrigg, as the kids say.
I’ve talked on the podcast about the emotional rollercoaster that was Heroes in Crisis for me; I was underwhelmed, then slightly more whelmed, and back and forth — slightly more on the under side, admittedly — until a final issue that, at the time, felt as if it earned a lot of goodwill back merely by going for a sentimental, illogical fix that felt emotionally right, even if I could see why a million fans would disagree. So, when the collected edition ended up in my mailbox, I figured, why not read the whole thing in one sitting, and see how it holds up?
So, there’s some good news and some bad news.
The good news is that Heroes in Crisis worked a lot better for me on this read-through, for a number of reasons; the bad news is that many of those reasons center around the idea that — having read the series through before, I was less distracted by things like, “Failing to live up to preconceptions set by the work and its promotional material” this time around. That seems… kind of like a problem…?
Let’s get this out of the way first: Heroes in Crisis fails as a murder mystery, I think, not least of all because the murders are revealed to be manslaughters with some evidence tampering after the fact. Additionally, there’s the fact that the comic is an unreliable narrator, with the reader seeing two (equally untrue) interpretations of the deaths at different points in the series, in an attempt to misdirect the reader while also setting up the eventual reveal. (The comic is actually so unreliable that it’s still unclear to me after multiple readings whether an on-panel death in the third issue points to a last-minute rewrite of the big reveal, or else another purposeful misdirect that’s setting up the big reveal. That, too, is a problem.)
It’s also not, despite the way the book was marketed, a “big” story. Indeed, it’s almost obtusely the opposite — it’s purposefully internal and insular, and the eventual big reveal is literally, “I kept everything to myself and then when I didn’t, it killed everybody” — and, although the “trinity” of Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman appear, they’re far from the main characters of the book; indeed, Wonder Woman is barely present, which honestly feels like a mistake upon re-reading, if only to counter-balance the omnipresent maleness of the story. (It’s literally one where the phrase “Bros before Heroes” is used in two different, important, scenes.)
And yet… if you can divorce Heroes in Crisis from the context it was originally placed in — which it arguably places itself in, thanks to the fake-out of the murder mystery introduction — it’s a far better comic that it’s given credit for. Or, at least, that I was giving it credit for. There’s a subtlety at play in the writing that got lost in serialization, especially amid the expectations the series had at the time — knowing the end from the start, you can see that King actually lays clues and foreshadowing in place far earlier than it would seem; outside of the plot, there’s a lot of really nice character work, even if it can seem at odds with the way we expect some of those characters to act — and a surprising humor to the whole thing, as well, despite the obvious grimness of the whole thing.
(Re-reading this, I started to feel as if Tom King is a Marvel writer in some deep way; he writes characters as characters and eschews the good guy/bad guy dynamic that I think DC thrives on, to some extent. There’s a moral ambiguity and a need to portray everyone as flawed, rather than iconic, that feels as if it’s more suited to Marvel’s sense of mythology than DC’s. Which, of course, might be why he’s been so successful at DC. Never doubt the power of counter-programming.)
I feel like I should say something about the art, but I’m not sure what. Clay Mann is a strong superhero artist, and he draws really attractive figures that, for the most part, emote what King needs. There’s an element of female objectification throughout that’s distracting and, at times, overwhelms the moment that Mann should be selling, which is disappointing; Travis Moore is a capable fill-in to accompany Mann without the seams being obvious on some pages, and the other two artists — Lee Weeks and Mitch Gerads — are very good at what they do, and they do it capably. Yet, it’s not really an especially visual book, despite double page spreads for each title reveal that were clearly created with the intent of allowing Mann to show off. Honestly, the most notable thing about the visuals for Heroes in Crisis for me might be just how great Tomeu Morey’s colors are.
It remains a messy book, with moments where I read and thought, oh, really? even now, being more generous towards it. (Hello, the “She sent it 35 seconds ago” line, or Gnarrk quoting Keats in a full page splash.) It’s definitely overly ambitious, and could have benefited from a firmer editorial hand to keep it from losing focus. Yet, for a book about trauma and the pressure of living up to expectations — of, really, failing to live up to expectations, in many ways — it feels right, in some way, for it to be such a mess in the ways in which it’s a mess. It feels consistent, or coherent, perhaps. Right, in some way.
I’m glad I re-read it, and found new things to appreciate in it, but doing so also just made it particularly clear how Heroes in Crisis failed to measure up to what it appeared to be, when it first launched. How much that matters — how much it will matter to readers going forward, reading it separate from the pre-release hype of the original run — is, I suspect, something that will up to each and every individual reader’s personal preference. YMMV, as the kids once said, in other words.
Hey, everyone—Jeff here. My apologies for show notes on the truncated side of things this time around: as alluded to in this ep., I’m kinda running around in all directions this week (hence the video above) for good reasons I hope to explain one day (before the end of the year?). For now, I hope you’ll be able to get by on the shownotes below and your just-about-weekly dose of Graeme and me fussin’ and feudin’ comic book style!
Okay, comics Twitter, let me know: What’s the most slept-on book at DC right now? What’s the most ignored Marvel book? And what makes them great in your eyes?
— Graeme (@graemem) September 12, 2019
There are a lot of wonderful things about being a comic writer. I’m going to list some, then I’m going to say the one that means the most to me.
1) When new pages of art come in from some brilliant artist
2) When the color makes it pop even more.
— GAIL SIMONE (@GailSimone) September 13, 2019
It’s a new season of The Great British Bak(ing Show)e-Off! Let’s meet some of the new contestants, freshly plucked from a clover lawn, like all British bakers! No spoilers ahead, but I probably make a mean joke about your current favorite: pic.twitter.com/HZ4PVcYbbf
— A Calamity Jon you will not hear about on the news (@calamityjon) September 4, 2019
Previously on Drokk!: The Apocalypse War ended two volumes ago, but it perhaps should come as a surprise that the aftermath of nuclear conflict takes awhile to work itself through. The real surprise may be that writers Alan Grant and John Wagner make it seem so entertaining…
0:00:00-0:01:31: Speedier than usual — and more scattered, because someone (it’s me) has forgotten how we normally start these episodes — we introduce ourselves as well as the fact that, this episode, we’re covering Judge Dredd: The Complete Case Files Vol. 7, which includes episodes from 2000 AD Prog’s 322-375, publishing in 1983 and 1984.
0:01:32-0:11:31: Jeff and I disagree on what the defining feature of this collection is; for Jeff, it’s comedy, for me, I’m struck by the existential horror that life in Mega-City One has become by this point, calling these stories “bleak in ways the series has never been.” Perhaps that’s why Jeff thinks that this is the closest the series has gotten yet to the platonic ideal of Dredd as a strip in his head — or maybe it’s the level of craft on display in these stories, as Wagner and Grant continue to push at the edges of what Judge Dredd as a comic can be.
0:11:32-0:24:35: We talk about the fact that, in this volume, Mega-City One feels more out of control than ever, and also about the grim humor — and perhaps misanthropy — that propels so much of the writing in this collection, whether directly, as in the “High Society” one-off story, or obliquely, as in a story in which the public votes an orangutan into office. This is a volume in which Wagner and Grant seem to be becoming more interested in Mega-City One citizens than they are the titular hero, but it doesn’t necessarily mean that they like them.
0:24:36-0:32:47: All of that leads us into a discussion on world building, and how seemingly effortless it’s become by this point — even when such world building seems to overwrite what other creators (Pat Mills, ahem) have done earlier in the strip. Or is it just reinforcing what has come before?
0:32:48-0:49:16: By this point in the run, Judge Dredd as a strip — and Wagner and Grant as a writing team — have perfected the idea of writing for multiple audiences at once, which means that Jeff and I talk about the multiple layers to be found in these stories, whether it’s literary shout-outs or an unexpected number of superhero references that are found in this volume in particular. Are there implicit digs at Alan Moore to be found? Are Wagner and Grant just entertaining themselves as they work their hearts out? And what does this do to tonal whiplash, versus tonal consistency? All is under discussion!
0:49:17-1:05:47: Just how prescient is the strip at this point? I say that it’s feeling far more in tune with the world today than I expected, or necessarily am comfortable with — shades of how Jeff was feeling last episode — and we end up talking about what Jeff calls the “uncanny valley” of topicality in the strip, and how much of it is actually predicting the future, versus just paying attention to humanity and history.
1:05:48-1:28:03: We talk about “The Graveyard Shift,” the seven-episode storyline that seems to be the heart of this volume, and just how overwhelming it is, as well as what it does in terms of world building but also character building for Dredd and for Mega-City One as the most obvious supporting character in the strip. Plus: How funny is this volume?
1:28:04-1:38:46: From “The Graveyard Shift,” we go to another handful of storylines in the book, whether it’s “Citizen Snork,” “The Haunting of Sector House 9” or the untitled training of Rookie Judge Decker that closes the book out, and delivers a great character both of us hope we see again. But: is the fact that Judge Dredd as a strip seems like it can actually do any kind of story what gives the strip its power by his point? Jeff suggests that’s the case, and as usual, he’s probably right.
1:38:47-1:47:03: This is, once again, just a great looking book, and we talk about that: The presence of Steve Dillon, Brett Ewins and Cam Kennedy can’t be overlooked, and the variety of visual styles on display is something that Jeff feels particularly strongly about. So much so, in fact, that he won’t let me complain too much about Ian Gibson. (It’s such a good looking book that Ian Gibson is the weak point. Just think about that!)
1:47:04-end: Attempting to close things out, I have a couple of final questions: Are the Judges seeming different in the book — because they seem kinder to me at a couple of important moments — and what are our favorite stories? For Jeff, it’s “Haunting of Sector House 9,” and for me, “The Graveyard Shift.” We briefly talk about the fact that Wagner and Grant’s shockingly heavy workload at the point these comics were being produced might have made them even better writers, and then we wrap up by mentioning the usual Twitter, Tumblr, Instagram and Patreon links to visit. Next month: Vol. 8, and an abandoned mega-epic awaits! As usual, thank you for listening and reading.
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.