With the faithful and frankly pretty badass 'Dredd' movie of last year, there's finally a real demand again from comic fans for material featuring everyone's favorite fascist supercop with the perpetual Grumpy Cat face. That said, Judge Dredd is actually a very tough character to modernize as he was born in a very specific era, an extreme parody of Cold War politics and 1980's jingoistic war fetishizing. Even the 'Dredd' movie mostly ignored the underpinnings of social commentary that the comics represented, and modern takes on the character generally attempt to mimic the retro aesthetic of the early comics rather than try to find what Dredd can say about the here-and-now. What better way to rediscover the original Judge than to read single-issue reprints of his earliest comics, written and drawn by his creators? Well, buying a large collected trade paperback instead of piecemeal issues like this one for example, but we'll ignore that option for now. 'Judge Dredd Classics' #4 collects the second part of the 'Apocalypse War' arc, originally published as a series of six-page short chapters, of which this volume collects four. The story concerns an all-out nuclear war between Dredd's Megacity and their Soviet counterparts, with both side's commanders spewing vitriol and ultimatums that they promptly ignore in favor of uninterrupted escalation, like a big dumb game of Doomsday Chess. For those unfamiliar with the franchise, the opening pages immediately establish the satirical tone of the series, with a group of hippies singing blissfully about their impending annihilation before being physically crushed by a nuclear missile. While campy and exaggerated, people should remember that these comics were published in the heart of the Cold War, where thermonuclear apocalypse was actually an ongoing part of the political discussion. The parody is dead on and still potently funny; when a technician in Dredd's command center becomes overpowered by emotion after a nuke wipes out over a hundred million MegaCity civilians Dredd deems him 'prone to hysteria' and has him thrown out.
The writing is educationally dense, telling the story in short, tightly-compressed six page segments, revelatory to my generation who are used to the page-count burning writing styles of Brian Micheal Bendis and Matt Fraction. John Wagner and Alan Grant play the line between horrifying and goofy quite nicely, applying a very British sense of humor to the totalitarian hellscape. Carlos Ezquerra's dense dirty artwork gives the comic its appropriate nastiness, and has great touches like the Judge's badge on his helmet being an emergency respirator. While the short-story comic is far from a dead medium today, the tone and style found here is an example of writing and art from a time when this kind of honed density was required, before Alan Moore would stretch the comic book's legs out in 1986.
While there's no real reason to publish vintage comics this way when big cheap trades are available, the comic contained is a great portal to a different time in comic books and a different time for the world. Like the racial caricature Axis enemies of the 1940's to the snickering alley rapists of the 1990's, vintage Judge Dredd captures the dark side of the era, but unlike those examples, instead of sending in heroes to defeat the things we were afraid of, Wagner and Ezquerra made the hero the problem itself. It's something I'd like to see captured in Dredd again, especially since the world is getting weirder and creepier every day, but for now it's worth the trip back in time to this unique piece of pop culture history.
Writers: John Wagner & Alan Grant Artist: Carlos Ezquerra Publisher: 2000AD and IDW Publishing Price: $3.99 Release Date: 10/2/13