Thursday, April 26, 2012

167. Dredd Rides Into History

September 2006: Scheduling this good just can't be accidental. "Origins," a major Dredd epic that will run for 23 episodes, continuing - with a nine-week break after part 16 - until prog 1535 in May of '07, launches in this issue after nine months of hints and teases. It's got a cover by Brian Bolland, which means you know Tharg's taking this epic seriously. This classic-model droid is only brought back into service for the important things. Bolland's cover pays tribute to two important personal losses, who are given tribute names on the city blocks behind the judges. Longtime letterer Tom Frame, a friend to many who've worked on the Galaxy's Greatest, is given front-and-center treatment on the Mega-City One skyline, with former Pink Floyd vocalist Syd Barrett named on a tower behind him.

There's nothing unsatisfying about the opening episode of "Origins," but it does have that feeling of slow burn about it. Readers can tell that this is an epic that will unfold gradually, and that the hints that there is much more to Dredd's - and the city's - past than we've been told is going to keep everybody hooked while the story shakes out. In other words, this isn't a story that's going to knock anybody out in episode one in prog 1505. No, for that, there's "Cal Hamilton" and Simon Coleby, doing a Dead Man twist in episode six of Malone.

I did vow, some chapters previously, that this blog was done with Sinister Dexter, but Malone deserves a little more comment, because it's just so audacious and so unexpected and so incredibly successful. This is a remarkable fake-out, where it looks like we're following an amnesiac, well-dressed man on some future frontier planet in a noir thriller. The story had seemed a little lost and nondescript among all the wild business around it, especially Dredd, which was probably the plan all along. Amazingly, it is exactly the same twist, told exactly the same way, as The Dead Man. The writer is hiding under a pseudonym, the artist is an established talent not known for or identified with the original subject, and at the end of the penultimate episode, we learn that the protagonist is an established character from another series who has lost his memory. In prog 660, "Keef Ripley" (John Wagner) and John Ridgway showed us that the Dead Man was Judge Dredd, and this time out, "Hamilton" (Dan Abnett) and Coleby revealed that Malone was Finnigan Sinister, who vanished from Downlode one year previously, wiped his memories and had face-change surgery to avoid detection by the police or hitmen working for the crime lord Appelido. The event was hailed from the rooftops as a resounding triumph from every quarter.

Well, I say exactly, but not quite. The big difference between the two twists is that The Dead Man led into one of Dredd's most memorable and amazing adventures, "Necropolis," and Malone led into five years of slow-paced, irregularly-scheduled and incredibly frustrating and unsatisfying stories. And on that note, back to Dredd.

Like "Necropolis," "Origins" was preceded by five weeks of tone-setting episodes. In a story called "The Connection" by Wagner and Kev Walker, Dredd hunts down a pair of mutants - or is it a trio? - who successfully enter the city in order to get a mysterious box into the hands of the judges at a critical moment. Walker illustrates the story with the same moody, dark tone that he had mastered on some earlier Dredd adventures, principally the celebrated "Mandroid." There is some remarkably interesting foreshadowing, as Dredd dreams of conversations with Eustace Fargo. Decades previously, he had been the first chief judge. Dredd and his clone "brothers" had been grown from Fargo's cells, but there had always been confusion as to when this history unfolded. A fan, Robin Low, is given a "special thanks" credit on "Origins" for tracking down all of these very old, throwaway references to the past in such earlier adventures as "The Cursed Earth," "Dredd Angel" and "Oz," and coming up with an actual timeline to put Fargo's life, the emergence and establishment of the judges, and Dredd's rookie days, into an actual, linear sequence for the first time.

"The Connection" ends with the two - or is it three? - mutants dead and that box missing. Dredd, eternally unsatisfied, figures that he'll never know what the heck all this pointless running around and shooting was for and gets back to patrol duty. Unknown to him, a kid, paid fifty creds to deliver the damn box, slowly makes his way to the Grand Hall of Justice. He's silent, the box under his arm. Wagner and Walker have put an awesome, imposing weight around the proceedings. Without a word or a sound effect or a narrative caption, the weight of the final panel is impossibly ominous. This boy is going to change everything. He does. He doesn't even get a name, but all of the astonishing, world-shaking changes that have come to Dredd's world in the last six years all come from this kid.

"Origins" sets up the mutant referendum, which sets up the mutants in Mega-City One stories of 2008, which sets up "Tour of Duty" in 2009-2010, which sets up the currently-running "Day of Chaos" spectacle. I don't even know if "epic" is a big enough word to describe or explain "Day of Chaos." The unimpeachable fact of the matter is that Judge Dredd has spent the last six years being the best comic being published anywhere. It has always been great, well, mostly, but for the last several years, the only comic that I have seen that has been as good as Dredd has been Jaime Hernandez's "Love Bunglers." It's an ongoing, incredibly dense set of game-changing, daring storylines that upend the status quo and destroy reader expectations. I know that I'm preaching to the converted when I say this here at Thrillpowered Thursday, but maybe the word will get out. Nobody, in any genre, is telling continuing adventure drama in the comic medium with half the impact or success of John Wagner in Judge Dredd for the last six years. If you think that you like comics, then the collected edition of "Origins" should be on your shelf, and that's just the start. Period.

So what's in the box? Tissue from Eustace Fargo. Tissue from a living subject. This is hardly the first time that Dredd's gone into the Cursed Earth on a quest for some McGuffin or other, leading him into episodic encounters with strange settlements and ugly situations - see also "The Cursed Earth," "The Judge Child" and "The Hunting Party" - but the stakes have never been so high, nor have readers been so invested. "Origins" begins quite surprisingly slowly, with the first few episodes establishing the ugly reality of life in the wild for mutants, before the second chunk of the story finds a novel way to introduce this never-revealed backstory of Fargo and the introduction of police-with-judging powers to the city streets in the early 21st Century.

The story continues, winding its way through flashbacks and following the demands of the mysterious antagonists who seem to have Fargo's body. Along the way, readers learn a lot more than we ever knew and meet a very, very old enemy again. I'm still not entirely convinced that "Origins" is really the best kind of "new readers start here!" story that some think that it might be - I think that it just relies a little too heavily on continuity that longtime readers take for granted - but it is absolutely a triumph, and it is always a huge pleasure to reread, with a hell of an ending. If you're among the few reading this who have not read "Origins" before, then you definitely need to, and if you already know it, then it is absolutely worth a revisit.

Stories from this prog have been reprinted in the following collected editions:
Judge Dredd: Origins (2000 AD's Online Shop)
Stone Island: The Complete Stone Island (2000 AD's Online Shop)
Nikolai Dante: Sword of the Tsar (Volume Seven, 2000 AD's Online Shop)

Next time, there's an equally important event playing out for Dredd in the Megazine as we meet Cadet Beeny! See you in seven!

No comments: