I’ve mentioned before on this blog that when my brother and I were kids my mother took us on several long camping trips during the summer. We drove to Alaska, across the country to California and back, to Newfoundland, and plenty of places in between. On all these trips we would seek out local comic shops that had been listed in the OverStreet Price Guide. Comics were a great way to keep my brother and I quite in the back seat as my mother drove eight hundred miles across the plains of South Dakota or route 95 in the woods of Maine.
Visiting these comic shops introduced my brother and I to all sorts of new comics. I am pretty sure that one of the comics I discovered in some comic shop somewhere out there was Judge Dredd. I don’t even remember the first Dredd story that I read. Most likely it was an Eagle comic (US reprints of the British comic 2000 AD). I say that because I did not see a copy of 2000 AD until I was much older.
Judge Dredd just feels like one of those comics I have always liked, like Uncle Scrooge or Daredevil. Dredd is a gruff Lawman who sees everything in black and white, but in the hands of a talented writer like John Wagner (co-creator) or Alan Grant, the stories are not just authoritarian tales of the police punishing criminals. They can be excellent science fiction or horror stories. They can be pro-environment or anti-drug stories. They can run the full gamut of action and adventure.
The art in Judge Dredd is one of the things that kept me coming back time after time. The character was created by John Wagner, Pat Mills, and Carlos Ezquerra. Ezquerra’s designs are classic and simply amazing but for my money Brian Bolland’s art is my favorite. His art, whether in black and white or color is instantly recognizable and gorgeous. When someone mentions Brian Bolland the first thing that comes to mind, besides Judge Dredd, is his amazing work on Camelot 3000. If you have not read this series it is a must read comic. Mike Barr’s story and Bolland’s art make this story an amazing sci-fi version of the Arthurian Legend.
Over the years I read quite a few of the 2000 AD post-apocalyptic tales of law and order but some of the most memorable ones are the stories that featured the Dark Judges. In 2015 IDW published a series of reprints called Judge Dredd Classics featuring the Dark Judges. I probably have most of these stories buried somewhere in my collection, or mixed in with my brother’s comics, but I couldn’t resist being able to read these stories again all collected in one place. With that let’s jump right in with the first Judge Death story, originally published in 2000 AD #149 – 151.
Judge Dredd Classics: Dark Judges #1
Judge Death part I – III
Script Robot – John Howard (John Wagner)
Art Robot – Brian Bolland
Lettering Robot – Tom Frame
Colors – Charlie Kirckoff
Editor (IDW) – Denton J Tipton
I should start off by mentioning that these stories are reprinted on the standard US comic paper size and in these comics the panels do not take up the full page (see above). I assume this is done to preserve the original aspect ratio. If there is actually a different reason please let me know in the comments.
The story opens with a dark figure confronting a small time criminal known as Tiny the Tap as he comes up the stairs. Tiny is bragging how the judges will never catch him when a skeletal figure emerges from the shadows. This “Judge” is horrifying wearing a badge with the name Death inscribed on it. The standard eagle and pauldrons are replaced with a bat and bones. Without uttering a word the Judge reaches directly into Tiny’s chest and kills him. Finally he introduces himself as Death and says that he has come to judge Tiny.
Dredd and several other judges find Tiny’s body but they cannot determine how he died, except for the look of terror on his face. They do find a tissue sample under his nails which gets sent off to the lab. Next we find Judge Death on the prowl, searching for “That Hated Sound” of life. He finds a local discotheque and slaughters everyone inside. Meanwhile the lab reports to Dredd that the tissue sample they found is decomposed and thousands of years old.
As Dredd and the team of judges called to the disco enter they find Judge Death finishing his work and are overwhelmed by the smell of decay. An all-to-eager judge confronts Death and is killed instantly. Dredd and the other judges use their law-bringers and fire on the dark judge. He falls but almost as quickly rises and proclaims that they “cannot kill what does not live!”.
Chapter two begins with Judge Dredd trying to stop Death with incendiary rounds. This destroys the skeletal body that Judge Death has inhabited, but a ghostly form emerges from the corpse and flies off with Dredd and the others surrounded by bodies and not knowing how to confront their immortal enemy.
They take the corpse left behind back to the lab and bring in one of the Psi-Divison judges, Judge Anderson to help with this case. Anderson touches the body and tries to communicate with Judge Death. She is successful, and speaking through her, Death tells Dredd that he is from a world where all crime was committed by the living and therefore life was made illegal. Now that they know what the creature wants they have to figure out how to stop him. Anderson theorizes that he needs something or someone to finish his mission since the body he originally had has been lost.
Judge Anderson returns to her apartment after the ordeal of communicating with Judge Death. The ghostly form of the dark judge shows up outside and takes control of Anderson’s body forcing her to open the window and let him enter. He then possesses her body and forces her to go to the morgue where Death’s skeleton is kept. The doctors try to stop her but she pleads for them to back off, that she is not in control of her body. They do not listen and Death forces Anderson to kick one of the doctors through a window.
Judge Dredd finds the doctor in the street. He tells Dredd that Judge Anderson stole the skeleton and a meat wagon (ambulance). Dredd surmises that since Anderson is a telepath that Death must be controlling her. Meanwhile Anderson is fighting Death’s control over her body and she crashes the ambulance. Death then forces Anderson to carry the body through the streets to their destination, wherever that might be. While all that is going on Judge Dredd gathers a round table of Psi-Division telepaths together trying to reach out to Anderson to help her. One judge gets something from Anderson, just one word – “Boing”. Judge Dredd realizes that this might be important and thinks he knows what to do.
The judges eventually get Anderson’s location and speed off to try and stop her and Death. In a nondescript lab somewhere Death has forced Anderson to put the skeleton into some kind of tank that then is being filled with fluids that will restore it to a usable corpse. Judge Dredd enters the lab and orders the other judges to seal him in with Anderson and Death. Dredd blows the tank containing the decayed corpse to smithereens. Death forces Anderson to attack Judge Dredd. Anderson has Dredd in her grasp when she tells Dredd to open the Boing tin!
Boing, it turns out, is a plastic gel that encapsulates Judge Anderson completely. Now Judge Death and Judge Anderson are trapped together in some kind of suspended state, unable to do anymore harm, but also neither alive or dead. The story ends with Judge Anderson being placed in a clear coffin preserving her as a hero and trapping the evil Judge Death.
Well that was thrilling. Originally presented in chapters across three issues of 2000 AD weekly each part of the story builds up the fear and terror that Judge Death inflicts on Judge Anderson and his other victims. The story has a very bittersweet ending where Anderson sacrifices herself to prevent Judge Death from killing anyone else. Brian Bolland’s art really shines here. The character design for Judge Death is simple, really just a play on the existing judge uniforms, but has since become iconic. He is easily one of the most recognizable characters in the 2000 AD universe.
What also gets me are the facial expressions on Judge Anderson. You can really see the strain and anguish on her face when Judge Death first possesses her. When she tells Dredd to use the Boing the strength that it takes to communicate with Dredd is very evident. Across 15 pages we get a lot of action and emotion that leaps off the page.
This story really feels like it could be a TV show. In the first act we are introduced to a new villain. In the second act the villain commits an unspeakable act and then we meet the character who is hopefully going to save everyone. In the finale the good guys stop the bad guy, but at a price. It’s a story that has been done plenty of times before and since but in the hands of two very talented creators we end up with an awesome story that is a lot of fun to revisit again and again.
I hope you enjoyed this story as much as I did. I’ll close with a cover from an Eagle Comics issue that features Judge Anderson and all the Dark Judges!