Last week Tucker Stone, in reviewing 2000 AD #1786, referred to Judge Dredd writer/co-creator John Wagner's merry dispatching of rarely-seen series arch-villains the Dark Judges as "the most audacious fuck-your-hopes and screw-your-dreams dick-shriveler of an anti-climax ever," which was meant as a compliment. Wagner, after all, was nearing the end of Day of Chaos, a 46-chapter Dredd 'mega-epic' (#1743-1789) which gradually revealed itself to be something of a swan song for the writer, a riotous fit of toy-smashing in the form of an aloof study of exactly how a society such as future authoritarian Dredd's Mega-City One might collapse into utter bedlam. Biological terrorism and good old-fashioned missiles combine to destabilize the population base and scatter the brutal law corps, all in retribution for the events of The Apocalypse War, a 1982 storyline by Wagner, co-writer Alan Grant and artist/co-creator Carlos Ezquerra, which -- given the quasi-realtime procession of Dredd continuity -- actually did occur roughly 30 years ago, in Dredd time.
But The Apocalypse War also carried great value to 2000 AD readers; its climax, in which Dredd coldly nukes the hell out of the series' Soviet Union analogue, transitioned the character's brutality from just a source of tongue-in-cheek excitement into something of a disturbing clarity - a logically consistent morality nonetheless alien to the reader's own understanding of ethics. Future Dredd writer Garth Ennis would later call it "the greatest moment in comics history," which is fitting, as Day of Chaos sees Wagner gone deep into a narrative voice not a hundred miles away from Ennis' own distanced war story perspective, similarly fascinated with cycles of violence.
I'm going to spoil everything now, by the way, because there's a bit more going on than what I've seen written.
You see, Day of Chaos is roughly analogous to a superhero Event story, at least superficially; it presents the main superhero(es) with a very big problem, which they confront in a manner that affects the status quo of their (and all participating) series. There's also a big movie coming up, which the experienced observer might take as a signal for the series to fold itself into a more manageable, perhaps film-like shape in case any viewers might want to jump aboard; Judge Dredd, after all, is a small enough thing -- one weekly comic, one monthly comic, and (soon) a second, North American monthly -- that it actually could theoretically benefit from movie attention. So of course Mega-City One would be threatened with a big crisis, as that's what comics of this sort do in times like this.
Except, Wagner approaches such meta-textual assumptions with something resembling the old Dredd irreverence, manifesting a brutal series of frustrated expectations. Initially an espionage novel-like work of intrigue focused chorally on a society's participation in its own potential demise, Day of Chaos rapidly begins to spin out of the characters' (though not the writer's) control - the lead villain dies with over a dozen chapters left to go, while wide-scale urban disaster images begin to linger, including the series' towering Statue of Judgement collapsing in 9/11-like smoke and fire. Chapter after chapter becomes concerned with constant, thudding confrontations between Dredd and a disease/terror-ridden populace, ending with many shot down and others persuaded to commit suicide rather than spread the infection. It's action violence taken past the level of queasiness, like you've had too much sci-fi ice cream: splash pages depict bodies piled in the streets, wide scale calamity I haven't seen to such a sustained degree since Alan Moore's & John Totleben's latter issues of Miracleman. And all the while, the narration counts down to Chaos Day, as the supporting cast drops dead and old (surviving) villains turn in special appearances.
Then - almost nothing. Chaos Day arrives, and the only thing different about it is that public elections are held, in spite of it all. There's no last-second appearance by Judge Death, the Joker of the franchise - Wagner purposefully denies us the fannish pleasure. Instead, what happens is that emotionless Dredd admits to himself that this is fundamentally something he caused, decades ago, and that he's become ineffectual in the face of a truly massive threat. But life goes on; the fire burns itself out. Millions die, but society endures.
It has to, you know. Wagner is the key writer of Dredd, and in the unique position of the character's fans proving generally unwilling to accept anyone but him for extended periods of time. Dredd is not a creator-owned character, however, and nobody has shown any desire to actually stop the serial any time soon. What we have here, then -- to my eyes -- is a statement on the continuance of such sci-fi 'heroes': throwing as big and detailed a peril at the concept as the creating writer can think of, then revealing it as something that nonetheless cannot topple the franchise. Al Ewing is the new writer as of this moment, and while he certainly won't ignore Wagner's story, he'll know that fundamental to Judge Dredd is a concept that will operate in much the same way despite any amount of wholesale environmental destruction or collateral damage.
In sum: it's been often said that Dredd the character 'is' Mega-City One, the oppressive consumer society that houses the story's populace. In Day of Chaos, it becomes known that this is less true for Dredd the character than Judge Dredd the serial, as the title cop himself is left quietly wondering what will happen in the future. He will have to endure in this place, with things only he and his creating writer will completely understand, having been there.
And now one of them is gone, and Dredd is left alone in a crowd.
PLEASE NOTE: What follows is not a series of capsule reviews but an annotated selection of items listed by Diamond Comic Distributors for release to comic book retailers in North America on the particular Wednesday, or, in the event of a holiday or occurrence necessitating the close of UPS in a manner that would impact deliveries, Thursday, identified in the column title above. Not every listed item will necessarily arrive at every comic book retailer, in that some items may be delayed and ordered quantities will vary. I have in all likelihood not read any of the comics listed below, in that they are not yet released as of the writing of this column, nor will I necessarily read or purchase every item identified; THIS WEEK IN COMICS! reflects only what I find to be potentially interesting.
Not the Israel My Parents Promised Me: In which further Harvey Pekar material manifests -- I think it's maybe the last of the posthumous material due anytime in the near future, actually -- a 176-page Hill & Wang hardcover detailing the writer's complicated feelings on the titular nation, delivered, as one would expect, with the speaker present on the page. Art by J.T. Waldman, with an epilogue scripted by Joyce Brabner. Sample images; $24.95.
American Elf Vol. 4: Might as well make it an autobio week, right? This 384-page Top Shelf package covers 2008 through 2011 in the life of artist (and recent Eisner winner) James Kochalka, through his sketchbook diary entries. More recent strips are available online, of course. Samples; $24.95.
Judge Dredd: The Complete Case Files Vol. 5: But yeah - movie coming out, books get released. This is the North American-targeted Simon & Schuster edition of the fifth comprehensive Dredd collection, 400 pages fortuitously considered by expert opinion to be the best readily available place to start reading the series, as it sees the character fully developed and worked through by artists who've figured him out, most notably Brian Bolland -- who draws the introduction of the Dark Judges team, which will be printed again in that IDW Bolland book, although it's not colorized here -- and co-creator Carlos Ezquerra, who handles the now extremely relevant The Apocalypse War (which takes up over a quarter of the page count). Scripts by Wagner & Alan Grant; $19.99.
Judge Dredd: When Judges Go Bad: Or, you can look into this themed collection of assorted crooked cop scenarios, written by Wagner and Mark Millar with various artists, including Dave Taylor of the recent Batman: Death by Design. More detailed rundown; $17.99.
World War 3 Illustrated #43: The latest edition of the long-lived comics-and-text outlet for incendiary global and social politics, focused here on the issue of censorship in many forms. Participating artists include Seth Tobocman, Peter Kuper, Sue Coe, Mike Diana and others. Distributed by Top Shelf. List of contributors; $7.00.
Bloody Chester: Your prominent big book publishing original for the week, a First Second release seeing artist Hilary Florido complete her first book-length comics work, adapted from an unproduced screenplay by one J.T. Petty and colored by a Hilary Scycamore. It appears to be a Western horror thing, set in a ghost town, executed with some manga inflection, so expect a heavy blend of international impulses. Preview; $18.99.
Concrete: Three Uneasy Pieces: Just a lil' comic book-format collection of recent Paul Chadwick stories from the new Dark Horse Presents, in the ambling, rather quixotic style familiar to smaller Concrete stories. I think the next DHP compilation is Howard Chaykin's Marked Man, a hardcover due in November; $2.99.
Dark Horse Presents #14: Speaking of which, here the anthology temporarily expands to 104 pages to accommodate a bunch of new stuff, including a new piece by Michael Avon Oeming, along with continuing bits with Sam Kieth, Carla Speed McNeil, Dean Motter, Mike Baron & Steve Rude, and various others; $7.99.
Ōoku: The Inner Chambers Vol. 7: Your manga-not-published-by-an-entity-directly-connected-to-this-column pick of the week, if probably not too many weeks in the discernible future, as this ongoing Viz-localized series from the hugely popular-among-connoisseurs Fumi Yoshinaga -- a story set in a matriarchal parallel Japan concerning a male harem -- is now entirely caught up with the Japanese releases, so it's going to be a matter of waiting for the artist to finish new material rather than following any set release schedule; $12.99.
Carbon Grey Vol. 2 #1 (of 3): It's a pretty light Comic-Con hangover kinda week, so I'm gonna throw out another entry for something I know nothing about, save for the fact that it's fairly well-regarded: a Heavy Metal-looking Image-published 'dieselpunk' series setting political intrigue in a sort of fantasy WWI setting with a large female cast and a sizable number of creators, notably scenarist/layout artist Hoang Nguyen, scenarist/line artist Khari Evans, painter Kinsun Loh and scriptwriter Paul Gardner. Funded by a recent Kickstarter campaign, which also functions as a nice preview resource; $3.99.
Untold Tales of the Punisher MAX #2 (of 5): This series is a grab bag of random issue-length 'mature readers' Punisher stories by various parties. I'm mentioning it here for the participation of Jason Latour, who's done some neat recent work over on B.P.R.D.; $3.99.
The Jack Kirby Collector #59: Finally, your publication-on-comics for the week sees this long-running, TwoMorrows-published Kirby resource switch up its format to smaller, magazine-format dimensions, albeit at a thicker 104 pages. A color section with selections from the artist's collage work will be included, along with assorted columns and rarities. Preview; $10.95.
CONFLICT OF INTEREST RESERVOIR: Gilbert Hernandez's completely delightful kids' comics from the pages of Measles are collected in The Adventures of Venus (the linked sample is my single favorite Beto comic, btw, flaky a choice as that may be), along with a new piece; $9.99. Shimura Takako's soft 'n delicate story of transgender sexual identity among adolescents continues in Wandering Son Vol. 3; $19.99. And Jack Davis: Drawing American Pop Culture provides 208 pages of stuff from the humorist, illustrator and Mad contributor; $49.99.