In my younger, dumber days, I just assumed that Judge Dredd was some British variation on the EXTREME characters that I’d just yawned through during the ’90s. I mean, the movie came out around the same time as the Spawn adaptation, so who could blame me*? That was, until a friend explained to me that Judge Dredd had existed since the late ’70s, and was actually the U.K.’s Batman in terms of cultural significance.
Admittedly, I’m still not as familiar with Judge Dredd as I’d like to be, and as such The Life and Death Of… ended up being the second Dredd comic I’ve ever read, the first being a collection of the Judgment Day crossover. That said, just reading this collection of Judge Death-centric stories by original Dredd creator John Wagner, it’s clear that, like Batman, you can use Dredd and the world of Mega City One to tell a vast variety of stories — straight sci-fi, action, police procedural, (dark) comedy and even horror.
The Life and Death Of… is comprised of two feature stories (and a handful of one-off shorts) cherry picked from both 2000 AD and Judge Dredd Megazine over the span of 20 years, all revolving around Judge Death, the leader of the Dark Judges, supernatural beings from another dimension where being alive is illegal. Which should hint at the more horror-based nature of the stories within.
The first feature, “Young Death: Boyhood of a Superfiend,” drawn by Peter Doherty (not that one), follows a journalist whom Judge Death has enlisted to interview him to get the Dark Judge’s life story — a twisted, darkly comic upbringing that involves sending the family dog off the cliff and a father who’s a very cruel mobile dentist, all of which instills a basic disregard for the value of human right. Most unfortunate for that world when the ugly youth decides to take up a career as a Judge. Meanwhile, our heroes (including Judge Dredd) investigate mysterious a mysterious murder that Judge Death seems to have been involved with.
The result is reminiscent of early ’90s Vertigo, but much funnier and without the supernatural dreariness. The supernaturalness in “Young Death” is actually quite disturbing, with much of the book hinging on the tension of watching a mortal (and thus doomed) journalist interviewing the demonic being who loves to murder everything in his path. Doherty’s painted artwork is dark without being murky, which only serves to add to the dark comedy of young Judge cadets hunting down one of their own.
Like, say, The Punisher, Judge Death is more a force of nature than a person. Like nearly every single criminal that has the misfortune of wandering into a Frank Castle story, it’s safe to say that pretty much every character that has the misfortune of meeting Death themselves end up dead in the process. And this is even true after getting an origin story out of the guy — through Wagner’s bravado scripting and Doherty’s moody artwork, Judge Death’s human origins simply, paradoxically work to further dehumanize the character.
After “Young Death,” there’s a flurry of short stories. “Tea with Mrs. Gunderson” uses Dean Ormston’s psychedelic but comprehensibly rendered take on Simon Bisley to explore Judge Death’s relationship with his eponymous landlady — the only person Death has yet to kill.
The two-part (totaling 12 pages) “Death Becomes Him” follows the curious trend of Judge Death impersonators going a little bit too “method” during tours of Mrs. Gunderson’s apartment. It’s a fun story that’s actually a nice breather after the spooky stories preceding it, partially thanks to Alex Ronald’s very Frank Quitely-esque art.
The third intermission story, “A Night with Judge Death,” is the slightest of the bunch, but that’s almost to be expected of a six-pager about a drunk guy thrown into Judge Death’s former bedroom in Mrs. Gunderson’s apartment (again) on his stag night. The art by Andy Clarke and S. Baskerville is solid, but it’s ultimately just a silly story that reduces Judge Death to a goofy apparition. It’s placement in the collection, besides being chronological, is definitely apt, considering what comes next.
After the stag party, “My Name is Death” opens with a splash of Judge Death, perched spider-like above a field of skulls, a dead woman, and a crying baby, as if to reminds us who we’ve been reading about — the demonic enemy of all life.
“My Name is Death” is the first of a pair of stories that comprise the book’s second feature story, along with “The Wilderness Days,” both of which are drawn by Frazier Irving. In them, Judge Death ends up doing some seriously heinous things and then taking his show on the road, killing various folk on the countryside, doing some light reading, palling around with a pair of Natural Born Killers style thrillkillers and then finding an entire city to murder in the form of the corrupt, high-stakes city of Las Vegas.
Despite the presence of Judge Death and all the atrocity, “The Wilderness Days” is actually surprisingly comedic, with Death taking a gig as a boxer (seriously) and conspiring with a man with the body of a dog as part of his intricate plan to kill every living thing in Vegas. Like many of the stories in this collection, Judge Dredd tends to exist in the periphery, ready to pop in at the end and do something pivotal, and at the end of this one it’s surprisingly satisfying to see Judge Death get his for once.
This last pair of stories is especially great because of Frazier Irving’s pencils. Having been familiar with his work on Seven Soldiers: Klarion, Batman & Robin and Xombi, I’m used to his brilliant-color-heavy, computer-assisted art. Here, seemingly working in a more analog style, sans color, Irving proves just as adept working by hand as he does by graphics tablet. As such, he conjures some incredibly striking, scary images, heavy on the black. Also, Frazier Irving draws a hell of an explosion.
The best thing about The Life and Death of… is how accessible it is. I have about as much familiarity with Dredd (judge, jury and executioner in the futuristic Mega City One) as a regular person might have with Batman (Bruce Wayne, deals with childhood trauma by punching ludicrously themed bad guys in Gotham City). This being a handful of (serialized) stories from a long-running series, reading it had me facing the dreaded concept known as continuity, but it still ends up being a perfectly understandable comic book. “Young Death,” for example, comes in the aftermath of a major crossover, but I didn’t feel like I needed to read that crossover to understand what was going on in the book I chose to read.
It may as well have told me that the Joker poisoned half of Gotham and I’d get the idea, which is an example American comic books should be following. Tell the story and use continuity to enrich the story — don’t make it a prerequisite to reading the story. The Life and Death of… even has a dossier-style page that gives a quick rundown of who Judge Death is, what his aims and abilities are and even his first appearance. Superhero comics take note!
All it takes is one good, accessible comic book to convert a person into a fan of a certain character. I know a few people who got into Batman through “Hush,” and I can point to The Life and Death of… as my point of entry into the world of Judge Dredd. Good thing there’s a lot of it to get through.
Danny Djeljosevic is a comic book creator, award-winning film
maker (assuming you have absolutely no follow-up questions), film/music critic for Spectrum Culture and Co-Managing Editor of Comics Bulletin. Follow him on Twitter as @djeljosevic or find him somewhere in San Diego, often wearing a hat. Read his newest comic, “Sgt. Death and his Metachromatic Men,” over at Champion City Comics.