Drokk! Episode 18: “The Good Times Are Over”

July 20, 2020

Previously on Drokk!: After more than a decade, John Wagner stepped back as the lead writer on the strip, allowing a hungry new up-and-comer, Garth Ennis — then still in his teens — his big break. It wasn’t good, but things were about to get much worse.

0:00:00-0:02:44: In a particularly speedy introduction — assisted by the shortest cold open in Drokk! history — I’d like to think that Jeff and I make two things very clear. Firstly, that we’re reading Judge Dredd: The Complete Case Files Vol. 16 this time around. And secondly, that these are some very bad comics indeed.

0:02:45-0:08:56: We’re going to spend most of this episode talking about the failures of the writing in these stories, as is our traditional focus, but it can’t be overlooked that there’s also some very poor artwork to be found in this collection, from a number of artists whose later work was very good indeed. There’s also some great stuff — I love John Burns’ work on Dredd a lot — but the shadow of Simon Bisley falls heavily on the work here, sadly, as I explain.

0:08:57-0:42:49: So, why is Garth Ennis not succeeding here? We go hard on the topic, while also going hard on Ennis himself — or, at least, the 20-year-old writing the stories collected in this volume. That he’s only 20 is likely a contributor, as is the fact that he’s probably feeling all kinds of pressure taking on a strip that he clearly idolizes maybe a little too much to allow him to be effective. Where are the editors, we ask, while also blaming Ennis for writing a particularly flat Dredd and failing to give any other characters (with one notable exception) any kind of life whatsoever. Mr. Lester has a theory about why that might be, and it’s a pretty compelling one.

0:42:50-0:52:30: It’s not just the newcomers that are letting the side down here, though; Alan Grant contributes a number of stories to Case Files 16, and they’re uniformly bad, as well, lacking character motivation and exposition, but unfortunately including a side helping of racism that’s genuinely shocking to read when it appears. There’s also a resolution to a long-running plot thread that we’d forgotten, and also a reminder that, when surrounded by a collection of truly subpar work, even “barely competent” suddenly feels like a breath of fresh air.

0:52:31-1:03:41: Jeff’s attempt to get me to pick a favorite non-John Wagner story from the book backfires as I pick a John Wagner story — “Watchdogs,” one of only two in this collection — leading to me taking on Jeff’s traditional role of projecting meta text into what we’re reading; Jeff isn’t convinced, but it leads into a brief discussion about what Wagner can do that Ennis and Grant solo aren’t able to, and asks the question, “How much can a good artist save a bad story?”

1:03:42-1:07:47: A very brief digression brought about by Jeff referencing the Judge Dredd pinball game (of course) has us pondering the fact that this book, featuring work published 14 years into the strip’s existence, feels as if it’s the kind of uncertain, what-is-this-strip-about, thing that should have come at least a decade or so earlier. Such is the power of Wagner’s hold on Dredd, it seems.

1:07:48-1:29:52: At the heart of the collection are two stories — Wagner’s “The Devil You Know” and Ennis’ “Twilight’s Last Gleaming” — that tie off the democracy storyline, and seem almost in conflict with each other. We try to talk about that without being overpowered by my strong visceral hatred of Ennis’ contribution, and… almost succeed? Well, almost-almost, at least. Covering “Twilight’s Last Gleaming,” we discuss the ways in which it betrays Wagner’s Dredd as a character, humiliates Blondel Dupre and the democracy storyline as a whole, and arguably reveals Ennis as a pro-fascism writer with a weakness for a strong man leader who disregards morality and the norms in the name of maintaining the status quo. It’s a story that arguably doesn’t even make sense given what’s come before, but at least it looks nice…?

1:29:53-1:46:57: Wagner’s “Devil You Know,” meanwhile, brings out Jeff’s metatextual reading prowess, and we also discuss a couple of ways in which the two stories make an accidental argument for the Judges being a corrupt system that fails to do what it was created to do, and instead focuses on itself. And, yes, we also talk about the way in which that feels a particular way in this particular moment in history, too.

1:46:58-1:53:02: With absolutely no surprise to anyone — despite Jeff’s attempts otherwise — we declare this collection Dross, instead of Drokk, and talk briefly about our choice of favorite non-Wagner stories, both of which are chosen because of the art instead of the writing. (Mine is either “Firepower” or “The Art of Geomancy,” Jeff’s is “Hand of Fate,” if you’re curious.) It’s not a fun time, this book.

1:53:03-end: In which we look ahead to the next Drokk!, where Garth Ennis writes a crossover between the Megazine and 2000 AD, and wrap things up with the traditional mention of the Tumblr, Twitter, Instagram and Patreon. Grud bless you all for making this painful journey with us, Whatnauts.

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14 comments on “Drokk! Episode 18: “The Good Times Are Over”

  1. Voord 99 Jul 20, 2020

    Scattered thoughts:-

    – First, I’d like to thank our hosts for their harsh criticism of this volume, which completely validates the taste and judgement of myself at a much younger age. Because *these* are the stories that finally drove me to give up reading Judge Dredd and stop buying 2000AD.

    Well, not just these, probably — but I can’t remember what else was in 2000AD at this point, which is probably telling. But I recall that there was a lot of stuff in the Megazine that I didn’t think was very good, from the very start of it, and I definitely do remember that I had been less and less enjoying Judge Dredd in 2000 AD for some time and that the stories here were a very large part of why I gave the whole thing up.

    -I’d like to be able to say that Twilight’s Last Gleaming was the last straw, but it wasn’t, as I’m pretty certain that the Edwards Scissorhands parody was in the last issue of 2000AD that I ever bought.

    But I was very disappointed in Twilight’s Last Gleaming. It felt like such a betrayal of all the complexity that had been brought into the strip over at this point a period of a few years. I have a vivid memory of the visceral negative reaction that I had to Blanche Dupree’s line “Why are we fighting a man like that?” and the arbitrariness of the huge margin of victory, which came with no explanation beyond “That’s just the way it is.”

    (How vivid? I remember exactly where I was when I was reading it and having that reaction. Waiting for a takeaway pizza, as it happens.)

    – But I don’t know that you can place the blame for the failure entirely on Garth Ennis. There’s a big question here: why didn’t Wagner write Twilight’s Last Gleaming? It’s the conclusion to *his* story, not Ennis’, a story which Wagner spent years developing. And in its immediate context, it’s a story that has to happen because of something that Wagner set in motion, the referendum.

    Garth Ennis here is someone who has to come in at the last minute to tie up a whole series of things that comprise a story that he would never have written in the first place. Is it any wonder that he did a terrible job of it, that the result is a poisonous combination of hollowness and creepy authoritarianism?

    So why? It’s not that Wagner didn’t have the time, because he did write the opening half of the story. Why not flip things around, have Ennis write The Devil You Know, and Wagner write Twilight’s Last Gleaming? I’d be really interested to know if Wagner or Ennis has ever addressed this.

    It is very hard to believe that Wagner went into this story — certainly hard to believe that he introduced the idea of the referendum — without any idea in mind of how to resolve it. One possibility is that what we have is not in outline that different from what Wagner was intending.

    I can see that Wagner’s plan might have been that Dredd would win the referendum, that ultimately, people would turn out to be willing to endorse the judges’ rule because they think that – as he makes Dredd say here – it keeps them safe. I think that’s perhaps more likely than that he expected that there could be a major change at this point in the basic concept of Judge Dredd.

    From the beginning, there’s been a strain of pessimism about human nature in Wagner’s depiction of Mega-City one, a willingness to entertain the possibility that maybe Dredd is necessary. Wagner is interesting because he is simultaneously able to be very critical of what he created back in the late ‘70s, but also able to sympathize with its appeal. I think Wagner comes across as a person with left-wing views, but also someone with some right-wing tendencies, a strain of small-c conservatism that means that he grasps why someone might find “law and order” appealing as a slogan, even as he thinks that person is wrong.

    And in the democracy stories, there have been these little moments of cynical counter-narrative, all the way back to the cut in Letter from a Democrat to the family watching the original democracy activists taking over the television studio (a moment that Ennis repeats here, obviously). What Jeff Lester pointed out, that Wagner chooses to open The Devil You Know with more of that, is important.

    I’d come back to the fact that I don’t think Wagner’s Dredd is a reformer, at least not yet. What he says after Necropolis is that he’s going to put the system to the vote, not that he thinks it should change in any way. And whether or not America was meant to be in continuity, it’s a big statement of who Wagner at this point thought Dredd was.

    So I can see that Wagner might have broadly done much the same thing that Ennis does, and that the point would have been that at the end of the day, most people prefer Dredd to having to think for themselves. The democracy protestors are the best of us, but they don’t represent what people really are like.

    But what I *don’t* think Wagner would ever have done is have Blanche Dupree doubt her position before the vote, because Dredd is just so [expletive deleted] amazing. And I absolutely can’t see Wagner ever writing the scene where Dredd humiliates Blanche. Wagner might have shown that the democratic idealists *failed*, but not that they were *wrong*.

    Which is the thing about Dredd being heartless. It’s not the case that Wagner (and Grant) never wrote Dredd as heartless. They did all the time, often as dark comedy — think of Dredd and Hershey doing a crime swoop in The Graveyard Shift because they’ve got a little time to kill. But Ennis writes Dredd being brutal and heartless as an unironic punch the air moment for the reader. I think that’s what feels so wrong.

    (Yes, I do think this is unironic. Some of Ennis’s stuff falls into the category of ironic violence about which Jeff Lester talked, but not when he’s celebrating Dredd.)

    But back to the question of why Wagner didn’t write Twilight’s Last Gleaming (or the story that would have corresponded to it, as one might like to imagine that it would have had a less clichéd title).

    I have no idea, but it reads as a really significant failure on Wagner’s part. Rather like the failure to pay off the “A Question of…” stories in City of the Damned, but more so and on a larger scale — as if, at the end of the day, Wagner just can’t surmount the way that this particular story would force him decisively to confront the tensions involved in Dredd being a brutal authoritarian hero, and steps aside in favor of someone who does not feel any conflict about that at all. Not saying that was it – it was probably something more banal – but that’s how it reads to me.

    – I may be misremembering, but wasn’t it 400 million who died in The Apocalypse War, and the other 50 million are those who died in Necropolis? That actually strengthens Graeme J. McMillan’s point, because The Apocalypse War is arguably not a failure of the system. In fact, one could make the case that Wagner and Grant depict the fact that Mega-City One comes through against the odds to survive and win as a vindication of the system.

    But Necropolis? That *is* a failure of the system. Narrowly, Silver felt that he had to replace Dredd with Kraken as a way to prop the system up. More broadly, the judges, despite their claims to be trained to be supermen and superwomen, fall under Phobia and Nausea’s spell and abet all that killing, and that puts the lie to the myth of the Academy on which the judges base their claim to rule. Necropolis was just “normal” Mega-City One heightened and darkened — that’s also discrediting. Finally on a symbolic level, Necropolis is a twisted mirror of Thatcher’s Britain, ruled over with iron discipline by female figures who are depicted as horrific caricatures of older women, and the judge system has always been relevant to and informed by the law-and-order aspects of Thatcherism. Unflinching order and discipline lends itself to a drive to mass slaughter? That’s pretty damning.

    – In my continuing watch for appearances of Britain in this British strip, we finally get our very first glimpse of Brit-Cit. The Vidders is not very good, and the idea of Brit-Cit having “snob sectors” is maybe a little obvious.

    But it does have a more direct purchase on inequality around 1990 than did the Wodehouse-y “future Edwardiana” that we saw before this. I’m pretty sure that there will have been readers who could comfortably distance themselves from effete aristocrats like whatever the ambassador in the Alabamy Blimps was called who were less able to distance themselves from this megacitified version of an upper-middle class neighbourhood where all the people are terribly nice and all the children go to good schools. [Coughs nervously.] So one cheer for Garth Ennis, maybe, even if it is another “Mega-City One is so tough, and doesn’t that mean that Dredd is so cool?” story?

  2. Arjun Jul 20, 2020

    I’m not entirely sure how much I buy the “Ennis is a fascist” argument…maybe it’s true of his Dredd work (which I’ve read very little of, admittedly; still have a few case files to go before I get there) but I’m not sure I buy that from his later work. His last Fury comic (Fury: My War Gone By) definitely goes towards the opposite of the “strong man who keeps us safe” route; Fury is presented as a grizzled war bastard but basically participates in continual failures and ultimately accomplishes little of importance, while his sidekick, who is portrayed as weak and soft (he breaks under torture, has reservations about the amorality of certain missions) ultimately gets a happy ending (albeit a fairly patriarchal one). Hell you could make the argument that The Boys goes against this (the war bastards in the series are generally seen as liars who only create other monsters and their own messes). I definitely buy that he’s cynical toeards mass movements, and I’m not saying he’s some sort of radical leftist, but ‘m not sure if fascist is the right word here.

    • Jeff Lester Jul 20, 2020

      Yes, these are good points and I agree: in fact, part of what I like about The Boys is how much Ennis really does lay out a worldview in which it’s the Hughies of the world that are the heroes and that matter..it’s just that we need the Butchers to sacrifice themselves for you/hugh(ie). And how much that really is Ennis’ worldview is also up for grabs: he may just be constructing that worldview so he can have adventures of tough men doing tough work in a world much closer to our own, with enough complexity to fool the eye into feeling real.

      Buuuut. Young Ennis looks pretty darn fascist here. And even as he goes on to separate out the tough guy from the establishment, it’s clear the values he repeatedly puts forward as important can get wedged into a fascist mindset very, very easily.

      • Voord 99 Jul 21, 2020

        Not to make everything about Northern Ireland, but…Northern Ireland! I think one can’t talk about these things in Garth Ennis without addressing the fact that he did not grow up in a context in which the “normal” assumptions of the US or the island of Britain, or the South of Ireland applied — assumptions about the value of the sacrifice of lives in war even if the war itself is pointless, about the belief in the absolute necessity of there being brutal men (the Butchers) who will take reprisals on behalf of the decent people (the Hughies) by having the strength of will to do horrific things to the other community, about what constitutes a normal level of state security and presence of the military in everyday life, about what rights the individual can safely be allowed to have, about whether everyone else can be considered really to be a member of the same national community as you, about whether you can shop in the nearest convenient shop or if it’s in the wrong area for you to set foot in.

        I would quickly emphasize that Northern Ireland today is a much more normal place than it used to be. (The change in some places, especially near the border, is frankly astonishing,.) Nor was Ennis particularly exposed to the worst of it — his home town of Holywood is a nice safe middle-class Belfast suburb. But on the other hand, timing-wise, he was born in 1970, almost exactly at the beginning of the Northern Ireland conflict.\

        So basically, things don’t fall neatly into fascism and not-fascism in a one size fits all way that applies to everywhere’s historical experience. In Irish history, things that resemble fascism – especially Volunteerism, the formation of paramilitary non-government groups that drill in uniform and are prepared to fight for their community and/or their side in the national question – are much older than twentieth-century fascism, and go back to the 18th century.

        • Matthew Murray Jul 22, 2020

          This is a really good point. To expand a little on the “normal level of state security and presence of the military in everyday life” many people in Northern Ireland at this point would have been exposed to armed military and police officers, police and military checkpoints, military vehicles driving through cities, barbed wire blocking off certain areas., and more. Considering that the vast majority of police officers in the rest of the UK were unarmed at this time (Wikipedia seems in indicate that 7-17% of London police officers were armed at the time the comics in this volume were coming out) Northern Ireland was very much an outlier in this instance.

  3. Miguel E. Corti Jul 23, 2020

    Great episode! I’m amazed how you were able to spin so much conversation gold out of this dross. I have to admit, I let myself get duped into thinking that Ennis might be course correcting. After “Watchdogs,” where I did a real-life fist pump as soon as I saw Wagner’s name, I started thinking things would pick up. Then in part 2 of “A Clockwork Pineapple,” Dredd visits a shoe store that only sells right shoes, but the proprietor says the store next door sells leftties, which felt like a real Mega-City One moment. But what got me was the proprietor noticing Dredd’s boots are tight, meaning Dredd is following the advice of the judge who trained him, a callback to when Dredd started to have doubts. I thought for a brief moment that Ennis had finally realized where he had gone wrong, and he would start picking up the threads laid out by Wagner. Well, we all know how that turned out.

    I appreciated your meta-commentary on what was going on behind the scenes at 2000 A.D., despite much of it being speculation. From my understanding 2000 A.D. was a top-selling magazine at the time. Why would editorial turn over their biggest strip to such an obvious neophyte? Was nepotism involved? Aside from some of the fascist tendencies on display, I see nothing of the Ennis who would go on to write, say, Punisher or Preacher later on. Was there just no one else willing to work on that weekly schedule for what were probably piss-poor wages, or could editorial really not find a writer with chops to continue for Wagner? I really want to know the story there, but I should probably brace myself for it being as dumb as the story of how Scott Lobdell got to take over on X-Men in the ’90s.

    One question, and it’s probably more for Graeme, but if any of the other listeners know I’d appreciate it. Does Dredd ever get good again, and if so when?

  4. Winty Jul 23, 2020

    This really is a bad volume. “A Clockwork Pineapple” being the absolute nadir (despite some stiff competition).

    It’s interesting that time has been rather kinder to the Stock, Aitken and Waterman stable of acts parodied in “Muzak Killer” than some of the more “worthy” acts referenced by Ennis/Zpok. “Better The Devil You Know” (Kylie, not Wagner) and “Too Many Broken Hearts” are pretty good pop songs.

    Sorry to disagree with our hosts but Dupree’s line, “I just wonder sometimes … why are we fighting a man like that?” , does ring true. We have seen Dredd cross the Cursed Earth, overthrow Judge Cal, go on the Judge Child Quest, lead the resistance against a Sov invasion, lead a punitive expeditionary force against the Sovs and nuke them without a second thought, and yes, be burned alive by the Sisters of Death, walk back across the Cursed Earth and take back Mega City One from the Dark Judges. What chance have ordinary people have against a system embodied by a man like that. Dredd, as written by Wagner and Grant, has always put Mega City One before himself. And the final result, given what we know about the Mega Citizenry, sadly rings true too. They elected an orangutan as mayor, fer Grud’s sake!(The United States looks set to re-elect another orange ape for a second term. Not that things are much better in Europe, the UK and Scotland. The rise of divisive, binary politics, far-right extremism, nationalism (including Scottish Nationalism – there’s some pretty unsavoury stuff lurking behind their avowed social democratic facade) and voter cynicism/apathy are problems undermining democratic values on this side of the Pond too).

    As if to blow my theory in the previous post about the Judges not being racist completely out of the water comes “The Art of Geomancy”. “Charlie Chan” was an archaic reference even when these comics were originally published. I can only vaguely remember BBC 2 showing those films in the early ’80s. There can only be three explanations:
    1. Alan Grant is a racist. I don’t think this is the case. In this story and the Anderson strips he shows an interest in and understanding of Eastern mysticism/religion. The hokey accents and stereotypes that have appeared previously in the strip are an extension of the particularly British comedy chestnut that “All foreigners are funny” and the strip has not exactly portrayed rich, male WASPs in a flattering light either.
    2. The Judges are racist. Again I don’t think this is the case. Perhaps other Whatnauts out there will correct me, but I don’t remember racial slurs being employed against Hispanic or Black characters. I have seen the Judges being dismissively xenophobic towards other Mega Cities (inc. Oz, Brit Cit and Emerald Isle). Nevertheless, the strip has also shown the other nation’s Judges not putting up with any shit from their heavy-handed, sanctimonious Mega City One counterparts and as such can be seen as a critique of American hegemony. The persecution of Muties is a different case. The strip has consistently shown the persecution of “good” Muties, or unlucky citizens who have mutant genes, in a critical light. Criminal mutants, particularly murderers and tyrants, are treated just as harshly as criminal citizens.
    3. Grant is trying to portray racism as a facet of the Judge’s totaliarian/ fascist regime. Bingo! However, for the reasons I outline above, I don’t think this works. It’s a poor choice on the part of the author.

    Grant’s contribution to this volume is particularly disappointing given the quality of the work his partnership with Wagner produced. Would it be unfair to suggest that he was concentrating on his more lucrative work for DC at the time?

    Thanks again for the podcast. Volume 17, if memory serves me, will be fairly gruelling as well.

    • David M Jul 25, 2020

      ‘Divisive, binary, politics..’ interest me for so many reasons. One of them is the role of protestant culture in facilitating these. ‘Divide and rule!’ existed as a maxim long before Luther, but protestant religion making separating from people who are ‘wrong’ into a moral imperative has had an effect on people who are neither protestant or religious. The history of protestant churches is a fine example of the Pringles principle, that once you start, you just can’t stop. The dominant role that culture has played in the last few hundred years has spread this influence. Having a culture that generates it’s own divisions is a boon to anyone with a wedge, ambition and a lack of compassion.

  5. Bruce Baugh Jul 26, 2020

    I’ve been back and forth with myself all week about this, and finally decided to go ahead and post. Graeme, Jeff: do you want to take a break from Drokk? Like, maybe through November and reassess then?

    Yeah, we know that you committed to it thanks to Patreon backers committing to it, but seriously, if anything ever counted as extentuating circumstances, I think what’s happened in the last year and a half, and particularly the last half year, would count. You could take a pause from Drokk and do something for a planned 4, or 5, or 6 monthly episodes that doesn’t grind your souls quite so much.

    You may well decide that it’s best to continue, but I feel like you deserve the opportunity have it asked seriously, so that if either or both of you really wants/needs to say “I’m not good with this right now”, you can.

  6. Voord 99 Jul 27, 2020

    In default of Graeme J. McMillan’s expert opinion, here would be my answer to the “when is the next genuinely good Dredd?” The end of volume 20 (which is where I’ve reached), the Megazine stories in that volume. Wagner does some of his best work ever.

    But I emphasize “end.” The earlier 2000 AD portion of volume 20 is not good. Not good at all. It’s not good in general, and it also contains what I believe will probably turn out to be the single worst Judge Dredd story ever written, an astonishing low for the series. (Warning: the story in question is irredeemably racist.). Reading the story after that one caused me to think something that I have never thought before. “Thank God! This next story is by Mark Millar. That means that it won’t be as crass and insensitive.”

    • Voord 99 Jul 27, 2020

      That was meant as a reply to Miguel Corti’s post. That’s what I get for using my phone.

      • Miguel E. Corti Jul 29, 2020

        Thank you for the heads up. Volume 20… I already have 17 sitting on my shelf. I feel like I need to share in our hosts’ pain by reading along, but if they’re as god awful as this volume, I don’t know if I can do it. I recently re-read the vs. Batman and Aliens/Predator collections as kind of a mental balm. I may have to skip ahead to keep myself mentally balanced until we get past this nadir.

        I’m also completely dreading getting to the story that made you exclaim that thought about Mark Millar!

        • Voord 99 Jul 29, 2020

          I’m now on volume 21 – and the quality jumps back up, a lot. And volume 21 makes some stories from earlier volumes (stories that weren’t bad, just not particularly inspired) better by paying them off in a genuinely absorbing way. A good example of Wagner’s “long game.”

          So I am cautiously optimistic about what 22 and the rest of the next stretch of volumes will be like.

          • dougokeefe Jul 30, 2020

            I know nothing about the Megazine, but I did a little research, and it seems like Wagner returns to writing Dredd in 2000 AD in a big way with CCF 21 and continues steadily through CCF33, with a couple of exceptions (CCF 23, which is only half Wagner, and CCF 31, which has no Wagner at all). At this point, at least, it’s clear to me that Dredd is Wagner’s baby. I’ll be skipping the intermediate volumes, unless I hear that I mustn’t from Graeme and Jeff (and you all). I’ve just sent off for CCF 21. But I’m very grateful to G&J for reading all that dross so I don’t have to!