Thursday, December 29, 2011

158. Lack of Background

November 2005: Over the previous two entries, I've mentioned a very highly regarded Judge Dredd story by John Wagner and Kev Walker entitled "Mandroid." It's a long way from being one of my favorite Dredd stories, but it really is an effective and triumphant look at just how badly the best intentions can go awry. If I'm honest with myself, I'd have to agree that my rotten mindset and personal unhappiness in the last half of 2005 colors my reading of it. I was in a bad place and in a bad relationship at the time, and something as downbeat and depressing as "Mandroid" certainly wasn't going to provide a nice distraction.

Over its first few episodes, the twelve-part story introduced us to Nate Slaughterhouse, a decorated war veteran who has lost more than half his body to grievous wounds and given a realistic cyborg shell. Honorably discharged with his wife, a veteran officer, and their young son, they try to start a life in Mega-City One and find the place every bit as miserable and overwhelming as a reader can imagine. It's one of the very rare occasions where Wagner doesn't play the inhuman insanity of the city for laughs; here, Mega-City One is an absolute, miserable hellhole, and Justice Department is a largely incompetent, badly understaffed agency whose presence, while mostly ineffective, is still desperately needed to maintain just a hint of order. Unfortunately for Slaughterhouse, it isn't nearly enough.

So with his wife missing and his son murdered, Slaughterhouse becomes a vigilante, enraged and driven by the judges' impotence in the face of escalating street crime and organized "legitimate" business. Dredd is there as a constant, reassuring force. "We'll get him," he says. "We always do." And this is true, but it doesn't mean anything, either. The violence of the city just keeps getting worse, as even the lethal force that the judges wield is no longer a deterrent anymore.

Slaughterhouse is a compelling and tragic figure, and Walker's art really works beautifully in this setting. I really like the style that he's been using for the past nine years or so, with stark lines, limited detail and solid colors. He's not afraid to lose figures in fog or shadow, and people stand with huge weight and menace. There's a fantastic cliffhanger where Slaughterhouse returns home to find Dredd waiting for him. The lawman is standing quietly, his gun drawn but by his side, and holding one of Slaughterhouse's overcoats. There are two bullet holes in it, shots that the vigilante took and which bounced off his steel chassis. "I've been waiting for you," Dredd says simply, and even though there's nothing more in that panel's text or narration to imply a specific tone, I read that as Dredd speaking with such human sadness.

Throughout the story, Dredd has been incredibly sympathetic and understanding. I really got the impression that Dredd honestly liked the man, and wished his city was a better place for good people like him and his family. With that one, simple sentence breaking their bond and turning them into adversaries, it is an amazingly effective cliffhanger, one that just makes readers want to put the issue away for a while before tackling the other stories.

As I've expressed before, there's occasionally a big gap between "best" and "favorite." "Mandroid" is completely brilliant, and I strongly recommend the collected edition for anybody curious about the strip. But I also offer the caveat that it's not usually like this. Mega-City One is only bearable because its misery is almost always couched in lunacy. Despite the words I've devoted to it here, "Mandroid" is just too bleak and harrowing for my liking, and I'm honestly glad when the strip ends and I can focus on other things, like Sinister Dexter's world spiraling completely out of control again.

I was rereading some earlier chapters in this blog this week and noticed how one major thing has changed in the way that I approach it. It began with me reporting my reread from the perspective of doing it with my children. Sadly, my older son has elected to live in Kentucky, and my daughter stopped reading after about a hundred issues. She was a little outraged and disappointed with how things went down in Sinister Dexter, her favorite strip. She didn't quite read this strip from the same perspective that I, or anybody else, did. She read the story as being about Demi Octavo. To her, Demi was the central character, and Ramone and Finny were just the guys that she sent out to do her job. When Demi was killed in the epic "Eurocrash," that put an end to her brief flirtation with the comic.

"And death shall have no dumb minions" feels very much like the thematic sequel to "Eurocrash," especially when things start to fall completely apart around Demi's sister Billi. Interestingly, for a while, it doesn't quite go that way. Now, "Eurocrash" was almost totally brilliant, but there was one flaw in the earlier chapters. Violating the "show, don't tell" rule, writer Dan Abnett kept asserting that Demi's hold over the city's crimelords was weakening, but only gave us some very slight evidence that this was true after making these claims. Nevertheless, it was a short hop from that claim to the godawful entropy setting in, destroying Demi's empire and leaving Ramone and Finny helpless to stop it. Demi's inevitable death is an awesome punch when it comes, but it was telegraphed from space.

This story begins with an entirely different mood. Ramone and Finny have new employment with Appelido and they seem to be in control of their destinies. Ramone and Tracy are happy together - and I'd be remiss if I did not mention that a bedroom scene with these two early in the story, painted by Simon Davis, is almost certainly the sexiest and most erotic moment to ever appear in the comic - and Downlode looks to be as stable as this erratic, dangerous city can be.

But then we learn that Billi has been placed in Appelido's organization by the police to gather evidence. Now, a big chunk of this requires some suspension of disbelief at both Downlode's laws and human behavior. Basically, since Appelido is a clone of crimelord Holy Moses Tanenbaum, and the law says that - wait for it - clones can be prosecuted for the crimes of the person from whom they're cloned, the city's planning a big sting operation to prosecute Appelido for Tanenbaum's crimes, and that's what Billi's doing on the inside. Since Tanenbaum had, years before, kept Demi as his mistress, Billi wants to avenge her late sister by killing the clone of Moses.

This is problematic. Of course, the main reason that I have come to dislike Sinister Dexter is that Abnett has overcomplicated the bejezus out of the thing, helping to confirm that a once amusing and playful diversion of the strip has turned into a narrative nightmare, but until I started thinking about it, I had enjoyed "And death shall have no dumb minions" for its surprising and powerful escalation and climax. While, in "Eurocrash," Ramone and Finny are working together very closely and things only hit that inevitable punch because they get separated, here, there's a sense that if only they could make it to the right place at the right time, they could have avoided all the carnage. Pardon my language, but an insightful friend once noted that the really great thing about the famous final episode of Blake's 7 isn't just that they all die, but that they die fucking up. It takes some bravery on the part of a writer to allow his lead characters this kind of vunerability.

So yes, things get really, really bad in this story. It looks very much like it ends with Ramone dead, Billi about to join him in the afterlife, and Finny about one gallon of gas away from either incarceration or a million bullets. Especially with the artwork by Davis at his career best - and I know that no artist appreciates the insinuation that their best work is behind them, but really, this is lush, detailed, vibrant, exciting and so many leagues superior to the latest sixty-odd, identical, orange-and-purple pages of the most recent Ampney Crucis Investigates story that it's not at all funny - and knowing just what an utter and total mess that Sinister Dexter would devolve into, it would have been best off ending here at this emotional high. It would have been ugly and messy and left unanswered questions, but with just a little tweaking to the last few pages, this could have been a memorable and amazing end.

Sure, the bad guys would have won, but this is Downlode, and our heroes are hired killers. The bad guys win in every story anyway.

Stories from this issue are available in the following reprint editions:
Judge Dredd: Mandroid (2000 AD's Online Shop)
Leatherjack: The Complete Leatherjack (2000 AD's Online Shop)
Rogue Trooper: Realpolitik (Out of Print, link to Amazon UK sellers)

Next time, "Mandroid" artist Kev Walker gets selected for the front cover of Prog 2006 and a stunning new lineup for the new year! Plus more about Sinister Dexter, because I've got more to say about it.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Ah, one of my favourite bloggers is aware of one of my favourite shows, "Blake's 7". Excellent!