Thursday, March 14, 2013

196. Regime Change

August 2009: For its latest summer launch prog, 2000 AD falls back on some of its most reliable and popular stories. There's no experimentation this time out, which is probably for the best. While we usually like to see a newcomer mixed in with the thrills, anything that was to launch against a lineup that includes Shakara, Kingdom, Strontium Dog and Nikolai Dante is certain to get swamped, particularly when the Judge Dredd story is the beginning of the remarkable "Tour of Duty." Boy, is this thing ever a game-changer. "Tour of Duty" is one of the most amazing long-form stories in all of Judge Dredd. It's less an epic than it is a year-long change of the rules. To understand how we got here, I need to step back and look at how John Wagner has been telling this series for some time now. The problem is, something as dense as Dredd makes it very difficult to find a starting point to the story.

See, if I go back to "Origins" to talk about the mutant issue, I still need to go back further, and further, and pick up plot threads from years and years previously. One of the beautiful things about the series is the way that Wagner leaves critically important details for much later developments in plain sight. I'm sure this has been a beast for anybody at Titan or Hamlyn or Rebellion who has been tasked with assembling collected editions and graphic novels for the character, because just about all of the big epics in the color era of the series grow from a scattering of seeds in several earlier and shorter adventures.

In a way, "The Apocalypse War" was kind of like that. The Mega-City One versus Sovs story was built up through the Luna Olympics, and the two Black Atlantic stories that Ron Smith illustrated, and finally "Block Mania," but the actual 26-part "Apocalypse War" could be read without them, especially in the 1980s, because we all understood, all too well, the fear of a US-Soviet war. I'm not entirely sure that "Tour of Duty" works anything as well as that without all the hints and fears and years of preparation, but for readers who had been following the character and all of the development, I think it works even better for the most part.

Recapping events in Mega-City One and its troubled relationship with mutants may not be strictly necessary for readers, but it is worth considering just how long this has been a key issue. This helps us realize just how much work that Wagner put into this. "Origins" had begun three years previously, and ended, in May 2007, with Dredd finally acknowledging that the city had been very, very wrong in both relying on the judge system so heavily and violating mutants' human rights. This was explored further across seven weeks that summer, in "Mutants in Mega-City One," "The Facility," and "The Secret of Mutant Camp 5" (art by Colin MacNeil, June-July 2007). Development of these issues had been delayed by the second half of the "Mandroid" story, along with various one-offs and unrelated short stories, inlcuding the first appearance of Alan Grant and David Roach's sassy witch character, but resumed in January 2008 with the seven-part "Emphatically Evil: The Life and Crimes of PJ Maybe," again with art by MacNeil, and then the five part "...Regrets," with art by Nick Dyer, in March and April, by which time there's finally some momentum toward allowing equal rights for mutants.

A comparison to the similar momentum in the read world toward allowing equal rights for homosexuals wishing to marry would probably be appropriate at this juncture.

The first mutant blocks in the city were established in prog 1600 (August 2008), amid much screaming and protest from the bigoted citizens of Mega-City One, leading to "Mutopia" by Al Ewing and Simon Fraser in November, which showed the lengths to which the citizenry would go to get the muties back out. "Backlash" by Wagner and Carl Critchlow in March and April of '09 drew all this resentment to its natural conclusion, with Dan Francisco defeating Hershey in a confidence vote for the Chief Judgeship that's pretty much exclusively about the mutant issue. Those are the major points in the story, but it's been a background issue with sprinkled resentment and mutophobia in several other episodes.

Remarkably, and oddly, there's a four month gap between Hershey's defeat and what would come next. The space is filled by the usual high-concept future crimes, ultraviolence and fun that we expect from the series, with old characters revisited and goofy fads exploding. "It Came from Bea Arthur Block" by Gordon Rennie and PJ Holden is a high point, an incredibly silly and deliberately over-the-top tale of alien hair and smug baldies. And there's sci-fi and exorcists in a great story by Ian Edginton and Dave Taylor, and a satire of prison reform using a well-meaning parallel universe of community care and pacifism by Ewing and Karl Richardson. I don't want anybody to get the idea that the series is nothing more than one endless soap opera building and building; it certainly has time and room to do everything, like it always does.

But then there's prog 1649 and "Under New Management," and good lord, that changes everything. It's Wagner and Critchlow again, and, in the densest, and saddest, six pages you've ever seen anywhere, Francisco takes office and assigns Hershey to administrative duties on a colony in outer space, and some middle management goon assigns Dredd to administrative duties out in the Cursed Earth, where the mutants will be resettled. The experiment in tolerance has failed, and the good guys have lost. Dredd and Hershey's quiet and respectful farewell scene is arguably the saddest moment in either character's history.

"Tour of Duty" does not feel like a big slam-bang epic, partially because there is no specific plot for its length. After the initial few weeks, wherein Dredd and Beeny - even his protege is swept out of the city - try to ensure that the displaced mutant citizens get a decent place to live and work, with little help from the bottom-rung judges sent out to work under his command, there's an installment about a Cursed Earth prison - slash - work farm, and then "Tour of Duty" becomes a sub-headline for all the other events that are happening.

There are crimes in the camps, and there are the usual Cursed Earth bandits and outlaws, and back in the city, there is institutional corruption, and the mayor is a serial killer. Over the next several months of the Megazine, an old villain resurfaces. In other words, it's business as usual, except that the rules have changed to reflect that fact that our heroes lost. Dredd is no longer patrolling the streets of Mega-City One. Similar to the 1995-96 epic "The Pit," previously the longest Dredd story ever, we're looking at a complete change to the status quo. Dredd's stuck in a job that he hates, and no longer perceived with much or any respect by his fellow judges, all of whom (except the loyal Beeny, and, in time, Rico as well) resent his bleeding heart getting them all assigned to this mess. This will be the way that things are, in both comics, for an entire calendar year.

I didn't leave myself much time to talk about Nikolai Dante, as I had planned to do. At this point, of course, we've learned that Nikolai and Lulu arranged for her death to be faked. His army of thieves and whores is rising up against Vlad, with the great huge battle to come in early 2010. In this story, illustrated by Paul Marshall, we see a trope of the series in which people communicate with Lulu via vid-link while she's naked, bathing, or otherwise involved in some orgy or other.

Nobody ever interrupts Lulu when she's doing anything dull like knitting, you see. This story is also notable for introducing a fellow in the Hellfire Club who's the spitting image of the old Eric Bradbury-drawn character of Cursitor Doom from the early 1970s run of Smash!. This follows a long history of comic book artists populating fictional Hellfire Clubs with familiar faces like Peter Wyngarde and Orson Welles.

Next time, away from the fiction and into the real world, as the American distributor starts ruining things for everybody. See you in a week!

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