Thursday, August 25, 2011

144. What Wagner Was Writing

November 2004: Prog 1415 reminds me of just how much I dislike the loudmouthed comic book fandom literati. This is because, while the prog has some pretty darn good stories in the form of Faces by Mindy Newell and John Higgins, Lobster Random by Si Spurrier and Carl Critchlow and Sinister Dexter by Dan Abnett and Jack Lawrence, they're all completely blown out of the water by the two veteran series that bookend the issue. John Wagner has written both the current stories for Judge Dredd and Strontium Dog and they're both completely incredible. You know what comics were better than these in 2004? None of them. John Wagner's name should have been in lights that year. And every year. He's consistently the very best writer in all of comics. "Total War" and "Traitor To His Kind" just prove it.

So the situation in "Total War" is this: the terrorist group of that name, last seen putting things together in the recent story "Terror," has issued an ultimatum to the judges of Mega-City One. They have secreted several nuclear devices - much like the "dirty bombs" that were all over the news that year - of varying power into hiding places throughout the city. They detonate a small one, killing hundreds of thousands, to prove that they're serious, and announce that larger bombs will be going off at regular intervals until the judges hand over their power and leave the city. Simple as that.

With one caveat, this is a completely terrific story. For readers who enjoy the more cerebral, detective fiction side of Dredd, this is one of the all-time best stories. Future technologies and the oppressive city surveillance are incredibly important in this race against time to find the bombs and find the terrorists. Watching the judges, especially long-time supporting player PSU Judge Roffman, desperately working under incredible pressure for any clue and any lead, is a real treat. The dead ends are completely heartbreaking. There's a real sense of despair when so much work goes into identifying one of Total War's top men, and the arrest goes flat when the judges learn he'd killed himself hours previously.

Two-thirds of the way through the story, there's a twisting development that I did not enjoy. Perhaps Wagner had created too clever a villain, and an organization that covered its tracks too well for even the trained investigators of Justice Department to find, but the twist that brings the judges a needed break is just too convenient for my liking. On the other hand, it really didn't matter at the time. The simple appearance of an old man with an eye patch somehow, in the hands of Wagner and artist Henry Flint, turns into one amazing cliffhanger when read weekly.

There's also a very cool subplot dealing with Dredd's niece Vienna. Early on, before the terrorists' demands are made, we are introduced to another clone made from Dredd's genetic stock, but this one has suffered severe brain damage and is deteriorating quickly. The tek judges consider Dredd the clone's next of kin and ask his permission to euthanize him. Dredd replies that he's certainly not any "next of kin" and tells them not to involve him. So they involve Vienna instead. Vienna's dealing with this and keeping her uncle Joe dragged in brings the two story threads crashing together as millions try to flee the city by any means necessary. Mega-City One being what it is, everything spirals completely out of control.

As good as this Dredd serial is, I'm not sure that Johnny Alpha's latest case isn't better. "Traitor to His Kind" is a mean political thriller. Alpha is called to Earth to track down Clarkie, the King of England, who's been abducted by mutant terrorists. King Clarkie had first been introduced back in the 1980s, a fun little parody of "I Say, Jolly What"-styled upper class twits. Now, his government is quietly keeping his abduction secret, and the minister who's brought Alpha into the picture, to smoothly and discreetly rescue him, is playing a really interesting game, keeping many plates in the air.

This is a really great story that has Alpha working pretty far outside his comfort zone. I mean, it's normal that he can't really trust anybody, but this time out, the stakes are a lot higher. He's been using the wealth of his bounties to help rebuild the mutant ghettos of Milton Keynes, and is much loved by that community. But now, as gossip is filtering around that somebody has abducted the king in a bid for more rights for mutants, Alpha is on entirely the wrong side of public opinion. Add in the usual Strontium Dog tricks of a hatefully two-faced British government and previously unmentioned family members making appearances, and this one's a taut and mean winner of a story.

Honestly, I'd have bet good money on Clarkie not getting out of this one alive. The character had earlier, in the epic, controversial "Final Solution," been seen to be executed, but in these revisionist, untold tales of Strontium Dog, there was always the feeling that Wagner and Carlos Ezquerra were going to change things around in a big way. Here, they don't, although "The Final Solution" would come up for major reappraisal in 2010.

These are both absolutely excellent stories. Wagner may not be writing darn near everything like he seemed to in the 1980s, but his work is consistently of the highest quality. He's absolutely the best, most reliable craftsman in the medium of comics, and this issue provides all the evidence that I need to make that claim. Comic fans that ignore Wagner's work are doing themselves a huge disservice.

Stories from this issue are available for purchase in the following collected editions:

Judge Dredd: Total War (2000 AD's Online Shop)
Strontium Dog: Traitor To His Kind (2000 AD's Online Shop)

Next time, Anderson's new do and the Meg premiere of The Bogie Man get the spotlight as I look at what Wagner's frequent collaborator Alan Grant was doing. See you next week!

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