Hey all. Just wanted to remind you all that the entire remainder of Last War in Albion Volume 3 is available for Patrons. And last night came the first part of Volume 4, a whole volume on Neil Gaiman’s Sandman, a fact I’m definitely not mentioning because some highly visible piece of Sandman media launches today.
Previously in The Last War in Albion: Garth Ennis handed off the reins on Judge Dredd to Mark Millar shortly before Millar began the Summer Offensive.
I knew they’d learn my secrets. The way they find out everything—I knew I would be judged—but not like this! Not like tonight! – Garth Ennis, Helter Skelter
The Summer Offensive was an eight issue run of 2000 A.D. in July and August of 1993 in which the magazine was effectively turned over to Grant Morrison and Mark Millar, who between then wrote four of the five strips for those eight weeks, with the fifth being by John Smith. For Morrison, this in practice marked a farewell to their run in the British market and a capstone to the phase of their career that included things like St. Swithin’s Day and Dare. Save for “zzzzenith.com” and a single issue Janus: Psi Division strip, both in 2000 A.D., the Offensive would mark the last time Morrison was the sole credited writer on something for the UK market. More to the point, the Summer Offensive fit into the aesthetic tradition of the UK comics renaissance that was in 1993, down to its dying embers, with its name making clear that it was wholly committed to an aesthetic of shock and taboo breaking.
Being 2000 A.D., one of the five strips was Judge Dredd, which Grant Morrison took on as one of their two solo strips for the run, penning a twelve issue epic called Inferno (which ran for four weeks past the end of the Offensive). This is, on the surface, an enticing combination—one of Britain’s greatest comics writers on the country’s greatest comics property. But Dredd has proven an idiosyncratic challenge for plenty of good writers, as Garth Ennis can attest. Morrison’s approach to the challenge was, in some ways, surprising. Their reputation, after all, was built on their visionary reinventions of American properties like Animal Man and The Doom Patrol—radical reworkings that in many ways went further than even Alan Moore’s trademark reworkings of characters. Now, after more than 850 installments between 2000 A.D. and the Judge Dredd Megazine, Dredd was surely ripe for such a reinvention.
Instead, however, Morrison took the strip in an aggressively lowbrow direction. As they put it, “Dredd’s just a big bastard with a gun, never anything else. There’s nothing under the mask. So I thought long and hard and then just wrote him as a one dimensional bastard with a gun.” This is not to sy that Morrison did not attempt to leave their mark on the character, taking time to damn Ennis’s run with faint praise (“I did make a definite decision not to do a kind of quirky ‘isn’t life strange in Mega-City One?’ thing, since Garth has been blowing that trumpet with varying degrees of success throughout his run on Dredd”), and they had Millar as a hype man to proclaim that “At first, everyone thought Grant was going to do Judge Dredd like some kind of poof, the way he did Batman, but once they actually got a look at the script, they realised this was how Dredd was always meant to be.” But for all the simplicity of Morrison’s approach, it was not poorly thought out in the least. A sort of reconstructivist and purist approach to action comics was in heavy vogue on the back of the massive success of the fledgling Image Comics, which struck a massive blow for an artist-centric counterrevolution to the artsy pretensions of British Invasion writers. Indeed, the same interview where they set out their approach to Dredd saw them talking about their forthcoming run on Spawn for Image, where they reasoned, “When I was signing in America, I met a lot of the kids who read Spawn and basically they just want to see lots of fighting and bright lights and monsters and violence. That’s the kind of story I’ve written.” And it was very much the sort of story they wrote for Judge Dredd as well.
Helping with this sense of “a return to the old school” was the choice of artists for Inferno, which saw Morrison paired with Carlos Ezquerra, who had co-created the character in 1976. Understandably angered when Mills gave the character’s debut in prog 2 to Mike McMahon instead, Ezquerra walked away from the character, going on to co-create and draw the bulk of Strontium Dog with John Wagner. In 1982 he returned to Dredd as the artist for the legendary Apocalypse War epic, finally and instantly establishing himself as one of the iconic artists of the character. Ezquerra’s art was striking and unique—a grotesque style that highlighted the intense grottiness of Dredd and his world. Under Ezquerra, Dredd did not feel like the absurd and thrilling playground of ostentatious violence that other iconic artists like Brian Bolland summoned. Instead it was a dirty, awful place ruled by dirty, awful fascists. But Ezquerra balanced this with a deft kineticism that sold the action beats, creating one of the iconic takes on the character.
Just as Morrison’s basic decision to do what was, in their view, a purist take on Judge Dredd was a decision for simplicity reached through a savvy and thoughtful assessment of current trends in comics, their actual approach to the strip was a fairly substantially engineered execution of pleasant stupidity. Their first installment, for instance, essentially avoids the plot of the overall arc, relegating it to one page at the beginning and two at the end. These consist of some Psi-Judges with ominous premonitions of disaster, specifically of “death from the skies,” revealed in a final splash to be a bunch of spaceships heading to Earth with a bunch of renegade Judges who broke themselves out of space prison. (Morrison, in a decision that prefigures their poor decisions elsewhere in the Summer Offensive, opts to make one of the Psi-Judges Indian, giving him stilted and gramatically awkward dialogue.)
The bulk of the strip, however, is the four page middle section that simply features Judge Dredd being Judge Dredd. Morrison opens with a splash of Dredd on his Lawmaster speeding through the gleaming cyberpunk edifice of Mega-City One when he stumbles on a robbery in progress. This is mostly a set piece for a portrayal of Dredd as an utter badass—despite having a bazooka, the robbers are simply too terrified of Dredd to shoot straight, and he calmly guns both of them down, figuring with a grim quip about how he doesn’t aneed a meatwagon, “brush and dustpan ought to do the job.” It’s a simple, unfussed execution of the basic concept of Dredd. Or, rather, it’s an execution of a basic concept of Dredd—one shorn of the political satire of John Wagner’s best work or of the sense of absurdist place that Garth Ennis’s work ascribed to in favor of a badass who metes out elaborate and triumphant violence. Reductive, perhaps, but effective, and Morrison sells it with efficiency.
The basic plot of the story is similarly efficient and straightforward. The renegade judges attack Mega-City One, spectacularly crashing their ship straight into the Hall of Justice and unleashing a plague. Judge Dredd and the other Judges fight back, which is to say attempt to beat the shit out of Grice, the leader of the renegade faction. This is expressed in aggressively direct terms that leave no room for thematic ambiguity, inasmuch as Morrison is dealing with lofty concepts like “theme” here. The climactic fight begins with Grice taking a flamethrower to the remnants of the Hall of Justice, giddily cackling, “No law! There is no law! There. Is. No. Law!” At which point Dredd arrives and delivers the single most obvious line that he possibly could at this point: “I AM THE LAW!” Grice is eventually defeated when Dredd summons his Lawmaster to crash into him, then orders it to drive back and forth over him repeatedly. “What’s the matter, Grice?” he says after the job is done. “Feeling run down?” It’s big stroke, operatic stuff, if operas mostly consisted of men beating the shit out of each other.
And yet within this cathedral to intentional stupidity is a crucial plot beat that hits an odd aesthetic note—one far sillier than Morrison’s Dredd is outwardly pretending to be. Given that Inferno stretches a full twelve parts, running for four issues past the end of the Offensive proper, Morrison needed more plot than a single attack on Grice and his forces could provide. And so Morrison solved this problem with a structure that had Dredd attack Grice, fail, regroup, and attack again. This necessarily created a plot beat in which Dredd is on the brink of catastrophic defeat and somehow escapes. And so as Dredd is about to be unmasked and slain there’s a sudden explosion, and Dredd disappears. It’s subsequently revealed that Dredd has been saved by Walter the Wobot, the lisping comedy sidekick robot who first appeared all the way back in the Robot Wars. This did not quite qualify as a deep cut—Walter had his own backup feature in 2000 A.D. for a while, and was a well-known part of the magazine’s history. But it was nevertheless a tonal shift, in which a story defined primarily by giddy violence suddenly and dramatically unfurls an openly silly element. It’s a minor point to be sure, but it’s still notable as the first example of something that would eventually become one of Morrison’s standard tricks in longstanding fictional universes, playing the stark differences between various eras and styles off of each other, often to reverse the Moorean trick of taking a goofy element and making it serious, instead solving the problems of grimmer and darker eras by throwing something from a silly one at it. More to the point, however, the use of Walter the Wobot is a clear sign that the gregarious stupidity of Morrison’s Dredd is something deliberately constructed, an affectation put with a knowing wink for the fun of it.
The same could not be said of Purgatory, the Mark Millar lead-in strip that introduced Grice in the weeks leading up to the Summer Offensive. This was not strictly speaking a Judge Dredd story—Dredd is mentioned in it, but does not really appear in it, and the strip ran alongside the regular Judge Dredd, which was playing out the last of Ennis’s run alongside some of Millar’s earliest work on the character. Purgatory takes place far away from Mega-City One, on the prison planet of Titan, and tells the story of how Grice breaks out from prison and launches the attack that forms the plot of Inferno.
Superficially there’s a high degree of cohesion between Purgatory and Inferno. Both are drawn by Ezquerra (who Millar, with telling tastelessness, hyped up by claiming that “In his native Spain, Carlos is known as the Mad Matador—El Loco. He was brought up in the heat, blood and agony of the bullring and there are stories of him taking on gore-maddened bulls armed only with two toothpicks and a bottle of San-Miguel.”), creating a visual thru-line to go with the overt plot handoff (the last panel of Purgatory sees Grice furiously declaring that “we’re coming for you Judge Dredd” as a caption box tells readers that the plot will be continued in Inferno). Both stories are also hard-hitting action pieces, broadly belonging to the same sort of quasi-purist approach, imagining a straightforward “just the action” take on Judge Dredd that never actually existed in 2000 A.D. They are clearly of a kind—the product of two writers working closely together on compatible aesthetic goals.
Nevertheless, there are clear differences. Inferno is fundamentally organized around the assumption that the reader wants to see Judge Dredd kicking righteous amounts of ass. This was sometimes cartoonishly visceral violence, as with crushing Grice’s head beneath a motorcycle, but the fundamental pleasure was not taboo breaking in and of itself, but rather the fact that it was the iconic comics character Judge Dredd doing it. This is clear in Morrison’s use of Walter the Wobot, whose appearance makes it clear that the pleasures of this comic are rooted in the iconography of Dredd.
This cannot be said for Purgatory, and not merely because Dredd is merely a presence looming over the comic. Millar’s comic is instead largely a celebration of brutality. [continued]