A Judge, a Bounty Hunter, and a Warlock Walk Into a Bar…

This article was originally published on Ferretbrain. I’ve backdated it to its original Ferretbrain publication date but it may have been edited and amended since its original appearance.

2000 AD is a unique cultural institution: a weekly SF/fantasy comic which has hosted a wide variety of strips and stories for over 30 years which hasn’t turned into a continuity-infested sack of shit, and refuses to run franchise-wide event comics of the likes of DC Comics’ Final Crisis or Marvel’s Civil War. It helps, of course, that the various series that 2000 AD hosts aren’t shoehorned into a single multiverse (although crossovers can and do happen if the writers feel like it), but I feel that the real secret of the magazine’s success is an editorial policy of not letting butter-drenched arguments about what colour Judge Death’s underwear is get in the way of a good story. “Canon” is not fetishised, and an in-depth knowledge of canon is not required of the reader; whilst there are certain rules and conventions to writing Judge Dredd (for example) which you don’t break, individual Dredd stories simply need to be internally consistent within themselves, rather than meshing seamlessly with every other Dredd tale that has ever been published anywhere. This lends the magazine a certain approachabiity which the major DC and Marvel titles lack; you can just pick it up and start following it any time you like (as I did when I was 11, and as I’ve done again recently now that I’ve rediscovered its charms).

At the same time, of course, some of the archival tales of the Galaxy’s Greatest Magazine are really quite good, and don’t deserve to linger in the vaults – and when said magazine’s been running for decades, some of those stories get quite long. With trade paperback compilations becoming an increasingly important part of every comic publisher’s portfolio, it was inevitable that 2000 AD would turn its hand to producing phone book-sized reprints of the magazine’s more famous, older, and longer stories. And thanks to a special offer at my local Border’s outlet and the very reasonable price of the reprints in question (£13.99 each for most of them, £18.99 where there’s a significant amount of colour material being reprinted, and 2-3 times the number of pages you’d get from other, comparably priced trade paperbacks) I snapped some up recently. Here’s my thoughts on the first volumes of the Judge Dredd, Strontium Dog, and Nemesis the Warlock reprints.

Judge Dredd: The Complete Case Files Vol. 1

Considering how far he’s come since writing for 2000 AD at its inception – his graphic novel A History of Violence was filmed by David Cronenburg – it’s amazing that John Wagner still finds time to write for his most famous creation. It was through the inspiration of Wagner and artist Carlos Ezquerra that Judge Dredd rode his AI-enhanced motorbike onto the pages of 2000 AD in its second issue, and he has been the comic’s flagship series ever since; an issue of 2000 AD without a Dredd strip is nigh-inconceivable. Judge Dredd began as satire; having written various thinly-veiled Dirty Harry rip-off stories on commission during the 1970s, Wagner came up with the idea of parodying the genre (and voicing his concerns about the way society was going) by taking it to its extreme.

Judge Dredd is a member of the elite law enforcement forces of Mega-City One, a sprawling metropolis comprising much of the inhabited east coast of the former United States. With atomic war restricting civilisation to the various Mega-Cities dotted around the world, democracy has fallen by the wayside and it has been replaced in the Big Meg by the Judge system. (There’s allusions to there being a mayor and a civilian police force in the earlier parts of this first compilation, but they quickly get swept aside and aren’t mentioned again.) The Judges combine the role of judge, jury, and police officer, arresting perps and dispensing justice on the spot; Wagner initially wanted the death penalty to be the standard in Mega-City One, but this was considered to be too extreme, so the default punishment is being tossed in a solitary confinement cube for a wildly disproportionate period of time. though various cruel and unusual punishments exist for the more cruel and unusual criminals.

The character of Dredd and the tone of the stories would evolve somewhat from their simple beginnings – a simplistic parody character could hardly keep the audience’s interest for 30 years, after all – but these basic principles of the series have remained constant, and in the early stories compiled here that’s kind of all there is. Most Judge Dredd strip from this era follow a simple pattern: some criminal attempts some manner of caper, Dredd reacts with overwhelming violence, as the action unfolds some zany technology, fashion trend, obscure law or social phenomenon is showcased to remind us that we are in the future, and eventually Dredd gets his man and delivers a witty (sometimes punning) tagline about how you should not fight the law because the law will win. This isn’t a terrible formula (it is still occasionally used to this day for one-shot stories), but in those early days when nobody was sure whether the magazine would survive its first few months almost all of the stories stuck to it, which gets repetitive fast; fortunately, in the latter half of the compilation we see Wagner and the other writers experimenting with the sort of extended story that would become the norm for the strip, as Mega-City One is rocked by a robot rebellion and Dredd serves a term as head Judge of the Moon.

More damaging at this stage of the Dredd saga is the somewhat schizophrenic nature of the stories, which struggle to find a happy middle ground between dark satire and pun-tastic future-flavoured tomfoolery. On the satirical end of things, at first glance the writing (especially the dialogue) seems weak and contrived – certainly below the standards of Strontium Dog strips that Wagner was also writing at around the same time – until it becomes clear that Wagner and the other writers for the strip are deliberately adopting a stilted, wooden tone designed to make the stories resemble pro-Judge screeds from the world of Judge Dredd itself, the forced jocularity surrounding Dredd’s brutality recalling real-world fascist propaganda. (I’m thinking of the comedy routine that starts at around 50 seconds in to the video). This becomes interesting for a couple of strips once you notice it. Then the tone becomes grating again. They’d eventually drop this conceit (or, if I’m just imagining it, improve their writing) after a few years of publishing the strip; unfortunately, this compilation does not extend that far.

The satirical content, however, doesn’t entirely sit well with the “wow the future is zany” comedy that is also part of the early Dredd package. From toe-curlingly bad puns from Dredd at the end of a story to the maximum security prison which is a motorway roundabout to transcendantly irritating sidekick Walter the Wobot, the early Dredd suffers from regular spasms of goofiness which undermine the dark satire that the strip would eventually choose to concentrate on. (That said, these early excursions into nuttiness do at least establish the fact that the people of Mega-City One are barking mad, an idea which would become an important axiom of the series).

Really, the big problem with volume 1 of Dredd’s Complete Case Files is that it is raw, primal, unformed and unevolved Dredd; there’s a wonderful comic series hidden away in here, but it would only become unveiled in its full glory later, once the unnecessary clutter has been cleared away. The Complete Case Files, Vol. 1 is, as the title implies, for completists only.

Strontium Dog: Search/Destroy Agency Files 01

Wagner and Ezquerra would also create what is arguably 2000 AD‘s second most famous series, Strontium Dog, which initially appeared in sister magazine Starlord until the magazine folded and its best strips migrated to 2000 AD. Set in a future where mankind has spread to the stars, but Earth itself has been crippled by a devastating nuclear war 30 years prior to the series’ start, the strip’s protagonist is Johnny Alpha, one of many mutants spawned by the pervasive radioactive fallout on Earth. Mutants are a hated and despised underclass, and many are rendered invalid by their deformations, although a few exhibit broadly beneficial mutations – Johnny’s mutation, has altered his eyes, giving him X-ray vision and a limited kind of telepathy.

Just about the only way for a mutant to get ahead in the world, if like Johnny they are capable of handling the work, is to become a bounty hunter for the Search & Destroy Agency, work which humans find extremely distasteful and therefore leave to mutant S/D agents, or “Strontium Dogs” as they are called (behind the Agents’ backs, if the normals are wise), and Johnny – accompanied by his partner, the unmutated human Wulf Sternhammer – is the agency’s best man, touring the galaxy in pursuit of its most dangerous criminals.

Comparisons to Judge Dredd are inevitable; both strips are about tough guys aided by fantastic technology in pursuit of criminals in a world changed utterly by nuclear conflict. The parallels, however, stop there. First off, Joe Dredd and Johnny Alpha are very different characters; Alpha is far more mercenary and less idealistic than Dredd is; he is not enforcing the law so much as serving his clients (although his clients need to represent a lawful authority – he’s a bounty hunter, not an assassin). What’s more, Johnny doesn’t always obey his clients unquestioningly, or even respect them, and if he thinks they’re being outright unjust he’ll try to find some way of turning the tables on them. And even though at the end of the day he’s in it for the money, he’s been known to part with pretty damn substantial bounties if he spies a fellow mutant in need. Perhaps the key difference between Dredd and Alpha is that Dredd is a paragon of his society, whereas Johnny is a pariah: he is hated and feared by the general populace, and whilst he often bitterly accepts second-class treatment as an immutable fact of life he doesn’t hesitate to put the boot in (within reason) if he finds a way to stand up for himself (there’s a lovely bit where he extorts massive amounts of money from a planetary government which desperately needs his help, simply by racking up his fee every time they use an anti-mutant slur).

The presence of Wulf and other allies of Johnny also changes the dynamic of the series; whereas Dredd is basically a one-man SWAT team, handling all the crises that come his way by himself (at least in stories from this period), Johnny and Wulf are a team, and whilst Johnny is the lead character there’s plenty of opportunities for Wulf to step into the spotlight, kick some ass, and save Johnny’s skin. In fact, the recurring characters at this point in the series are genuinely more interesting than those in Judge Dredd; even the comic relief character is better (said character being the Gronk, an alien of an intensely timid species who tags along to act as Johnny and Wulf’s medic) due to not being completely pointless.

It’s to the credit of 2000 AD that after the merger with Starlord they didn’t simply squelch Strontium Dog as an unnecessary competitor to Dredd. In fact, the strip thrived, with John Wagner collaborating with Alan Grant on the writing (although the stories at this point were usually credited solely to Grant, perhaps to avoid giving the impression that Wagner was writing too much of the comic). Longer, epic stories were attempted, to great success – my favourites in this volume include Johnny and Wulf’s pursuit of a fugitive into an alternate dimension which could very well be Hell, and the Dogs’ trip back in time to arrest Hitler on behalf of a cross-temporal war crimes tribunal.

The five volumes of the Search/Destroy Agency Files cover the full original run of Strontium Dog. I intend to keep reading them, because the series is superb, although there are stormclouds on the horizon; for the last two years of the series’ run, which I estimate would be covered in the fifth and maybe fourth volumes of the Agency Files the story was written by Alan Grant alone, and in The Final Solution he killed off Johnny Alpha. John Wagner is on the record as thinking this was a mistake, and Carlos Ezquerra – who was still doing the art at this point – was so upset by the story that he refused to draw it and they had to bring in a different artist.

I came to 2000 AD after that happened, which I always found disappointing; I seem to remember lots of sad “When are you going to bring back Johnny Alpha?” pleas on the letters page which made me think “Damn, that Alpha guy sounds fun.” I did, however, witness the appallingly bad attempt by Garth Ennis (he of Preacher fame) to continue the series as Strontium Dogs – plural, because it was meant to focus on the supporting characters who had survived The Final Solution. It was an interesting idea in theory, but in practice it involved the poor, timid, weak-hearted Gronk having a stroke and becoming a gun-toting psychopath and many other examples of horrific character inversion. There’s a happy ending, though; Wagner and Ezquerra eventually resurrected Johnny Alpha and gave the series a complete reboot, using the conceit that the original run of Strontium Dog simply represented the folklore about Johnny and his friends, and that the new series was the true history. If this new series is half as good as this intensely enjoyable sample from the original run, I might have to look into it.

The Complete Nemesis the Warlock, Vol. 1

As founder editor of 2000 AD itself, Pat Mills’ place in comics history is already assured, but the saga of Nemesis the Warlock is surely just as important. The conflict between Nemesis, a scion of a race of alien sorcerers beholden to Chaos, and Torquemada, master of the dread Inquisition that rules Mighty Terra’s galactic empire and seeks to purge the universe of all alien life forms, is (as well as being a major influence on Warhammer 40,000) one of the best revenge narratives in comics, as Nemesis and Torquemada strike at each other with ever-escalating fury.

Nemesis has humble beginnings in two one-shot stories from 1981, interesting mainly for the outlandish transport systems that Nemesis sabotages in the course of them. It is clear, though, that following their positive reception Mills soon came up with a grand plan for the series; each subsequent Nemesis serial in the pages of 2000 AD is a “book” in the saga of the warlock, and each book builds on the foundations of the last. Replete with bizarre and wonderful imagery drawn first by Kevin O’Neill and later by Bryan Talbot (whose work on the steampunk-influenced Book IV: The Gothic Empire would surely influence his own later The Adventures of Luther Arkwright), from the alien races to the masses of Terra to the bizarre architecture, technology, and fashions on show the series presents an absolute feast for the eyes. Tightly plotted, well-characterised, and with a smart look at the realities of the conflict between culturally xenophobic humans and diverse but desperate aliens, Nemesis the Warlock is the crown jewel of the 2000 AD phone book reprint series; what’s more, the complete saga only takes up 3 volumes, so it’s the most cost-effective out of all of them if you want to collect the lot.

I would go into more detail, but I can’t even approach critical objectivity when it comes to this one; the worst I’ll say about it is that The Gothic Empire, the last major story in this collection, drags a little because it was also meant to act as a reboot for the ABC Warriors series. Maybe it’s because it dates from just a little later into 2000 AD‘s history, after the birth pangs had settled down, but I think this first volume of Nemesis is far superior to the Judge Dredd and Strontium Dog collections I have reviewed here – although Strontium Dog comes a close second.

3 thoughts on “A Judge, a Bounty Hunter, and a Warlock Walk Into a Bar…

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  2. Pingback: She Is The Law! – The Thoughts and Fancies of a Fake Geek Boy

  3. Pingback: Where Did the Patrol Go Wrong? – The Thoughts and Fancies of a Fake Geek Boy

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