Slightly overdue but very welcome nonetheless, the fifth volume of Rebellion’s outstanding Judge Dredd: the Complete Case Files has just arrived in-store and it’s a mighty tome, weighing in at just under 400 pages of classic 2000 AD goodness. Volume five has the massive epic from the 1980s, the Apoclaypse War and the precursor arc Block Mania. In Block Mania the Mega-Citizens are acting even odder than usual; tensions in a city of 800 million are always high and actual outbreaks of large-scale violence (Block Wars as they are termed, with rival blocks duking it out) not uncommon. But when most of Mega City One succumbs to Block War Dredd knows there has to be more to it and finds out that the chaos is being spread by a virus introduced by an East-Meg agent, Orlok.
What seemed to be a self-contained story suddenly (to readers like myself at the time) opened the door to a larger epic, the Apocalypse War. The mass chaos of Block Mania stretched the Judges beyond their limits – now the East Meg directorate strikes a weakened Mega City One, leading to an all-out nuclear war and then an invasion of the ruined city. From a metropolis of 800 million the 2000 AD team, at a stroke, reduced the city’s population by half and left it an enemy-occupied ruin. Naturally Dredd is not one to recognise defeat and leads a desperate guerrilla force of Citi-Def units and surviving Judges against the armoured might of the Sov Block, employing the powerful but dangerous (due to overheating and exploding) stub guns which have since entered 2000 AD lore, as visualised by Dredd co-creator Carlos Ezquerra in this classic Dredd scene:
Sure, it may seem a little 1980s to modern readers and indeed it was (and is), but that doesn’t invalidate the story. For my own part Block Mania and Apocalypse War were real revelations as a young comic reader – I wasn’t used to seeing a major character of several years die in a comic, certainly not without completing their objective in a ‘noble death’, but here we have (look away if you haven’t read this first time round) Judge Giant sneakily gunned down from behind just before he can stop Orlok. We have the respected Chief Judge brainwashed by the Sovs and Dredd and other Judges shooting civilian collaborators in cold blood as traitors. I didn’t know this happened in comics, much less in a comic which at the time still sold largely to youngsters. Looking back now I can also appreciate the linking from the previous story arc which moved readers unsuspectingly into the Apocalypse War and the other little connections, such as the prophecy of destruction espoused in the earlier Judge Child arc.
Also in this collection, as if those two major arcs weren’t enough, we have several standalone tales and also the return of Judge Death and his nemesis, Psi-Judge Cassandra Anderson as his Dark Judge colleagues, Fire, Mortis and Fear come to rescue him from the prison of Anderson’s telepathic mind. Twisted parodies of Judges from an alternate dimension where they decided all crime was caused by the living therefore life was a crime and killed everyone these undead foes would fit in very well with the current vogue for all things zombie and undead in comics at the moment (once again, 2000 AD way ahead of its time – see what American readers missed out on?). Anderson was simply too good a character not to resurrect and so here she is, once more illustrated by the brilliance that is Brian Bolland (I’ve loved Bolland’s art ever since my young 2000 AD days). The Death story also offers up what I think is one of the quintessential Dredd images of all time (see above): Judge Fear opens his helmet visor, his gaze so terrifying it can kill a normal man in a second. Except, as the text explains, Dredd is a Judge and Judges are not ordinary. For a moment Dredd stares at the terrifying (and to us unseen) face of Fear. Then punches his gauntleted fist right through it with the immortal lines “gaze into the fist of Dredd”. Moral of this tale: no matter how powerful and undead creature you are, never, ever mess with Judge Dredd.