Over the last year, regular listeners will have heard JamesMOMB and I rediscovering our individual and deeply felt loves for 2000AD – seen us being Born Again in the Church of Tharg, if you will.
This has been an interesting process for me. 2000AD has been around long enough – and survived through some important phases and changes in western comic history – that it is often easy to fall into the well-worn pattern that Viz magazine has lampooned since its early days – that it’s “not as good as it used to be”. When you aren’t buying 2000AD regularly, it’s easy to believe this, but once you get back into the swing of being a weekly reader, it’s harder to see things quite so simply.
The anthology is still home to higher quality comics than you’d think you could reasonably expect from a weekly book. What has happened, though, especially for long time readers, is that it’s impossible for it to deliver those same definitive, kick in the throat comic moments that it used to. Characters like Judge Dredd, Strontium Dog, or even Sinister Dexter, and narrative spaces like Mega City One, are well established and much loved, and that doesn’t seem to be changing any time soon, but one side-effect of that is that a character can only have so many definitive moments, or “firsts”, over a thirty year history.
These worlds are built on certain defining moments, and it’s hard – when a world is built well – for readers not to be nostalgic for them, and look on anything that comes after and doesn’t deliver those same early, exciting beats as poor reminders of the time when it all first kicked off.
The first time Judge Death turned up, he was a horrifying and warped mirror held up to Judge Dredd, who caused chaos and wet the readers’ pants for them.
The first time the Dark Judges showed up to cause carnage in Mega City One, that was new, because Judge Death was hard enough to deal with, and he was far easier, as an individual threat, to contain than these four macabre monsters. Each was a great, symbolic idea on their own, and together it was easy to believe that the Mega City 1 Judges were going to be overwhelmed.
Although subsequent appearances were tied into some pretty immense storylines – long-time readers don’t have much trouble remembering Dredd’s exile and the Dead Man – if you read the stories in sequence, those first few appearances stick with you, and anything since is just – admittedly fun – continuity.
This is why those moments loom large for fans. Dredd punching through Fear’s gated head has become as important a part of this world as any of the history that’s been explored in the time since. Those first stories ran over a few weeks and a few dozen pages, over twenty years ago, and people still care about them now.
Because I’m one of those people, and because I’m a huge fan of the Rashomon effect in entertainment – where new information or perspectives can give the audience a whole new approach to the same events - the “Dark Judgement” comics, published by Futurequake, and written by Richard McAuliffe, with art by Conor Boyle, was always going to be an interesting read for me.
The comics – one published last year, and the other to be released in time for this year’s Thought Bubble – are one of several examples of a special arrangement allowing Zarjaz, through Futurequake, to publish comics featuring characters belonging to Rebellion, who own 2000AD. This is a fairly uncommon arrangement – the only other time that comes to mind of this happening is with the licensing for Doctor Who, wherein unofficial spin-offs have been allowed for several years – and if Dark Judgement is anything to go by, looser reigns on the intellectual property allows for some very interesting work to be created.
Each book holds four stories, set during the first assault by Death, Fear, Fire and Mortis on Mega City One, with each story focusing on a different Dark Judge. In some cases the stories tie directly into specific events that we’ve seen before – both Fear tales allude to the famous confrontation with Dredd I mentioned earlier – and these offer some fascinating insights into those events. Others explore the gaps in the original story where the camera wasn’t on one of the Dark Judges.
What this makes you realise is that although these characters were plenty villainous enough, we never did learn all that much about most of them. As well as two excellent stories exploring Fear’s power, we get to see that Death isn’t the only one of the group who has a more Machiavellian, sophisticated sadism going for him. Fire in particular turns out to be a nastier piece of work than we might have previously realised, while we get a much deeper insight into Mortis’ power set than I think we had before.
These changes don’t significantly alter any of the stuff we already know – there’s room here for Rebellion to do whatever they want with the characters, and not disregard or acknowledge these stories – but they do suggest new ways of looking at them that we might not have considered ourselves, and for me that means that when I reflect on those old stories, the scale of them will be entirely different.
Achieving this is largely down to some truly inventive work from Richard McAuliffe, who wrote the stories, and manages to perfectly capture the Dredd style of writing, while deliberately opting for spinning horror vignettes, rather than the action-sci-fantasy usually delivered.
Art duties are performed by Conor Boyle, whose work is really rich, with bold, illustrative skill that makes individual panels look amazing and visceral. The only complaint I have about it is that the visual storytelling is sometimes awkward in the first book, but it seems ungrateful to mention it when it looks so good. Besides, this aspect of the art is so much better in the second book that the stories flow perfectly, and I’d love to see Boyle work more.
All in all, these are damn good comics. It’s hard to be sure how much readers with no previous history with these storylines will get out of them, but they present solid enough horror shorts that I suspect they’re more likely to drag readers into the old stories than exclude them
For people already familiar with Judge Death et al, these books certainly won’t disappoint, and will probably add an interesting new facet to stories that’d long become frozen in memory.
Dark Judgement #2 will be available at ThoughtBubble.
[Edit to add: You can also now buy these books at Futurequake! There’s a bundle!!]