When a couple of Mega-City One Judges bust up a dance club dealing in illegal sugar, the last thing you expect them to do is toss off their helmets and get funky on the dance floor. But that's what you get in the latest from 2000AD in Judge Dredd: When Judges go Bad.
One of the odd things about 2000AD world is that you are actually rooting for the fascists. Mega-City One is a locked-down police state, where the Judges dish out instant judgment and sentences with unquestioned authority. One careless misstep, one absent-minded moment of litterbuggery, and you could find yourself in an Iso-Cube for 15 years. No trial. No appeals. A Judge's word is unquestioned. They are held in check only by their own carefully instilled sense of duty and righteousness. Judge training starts young and takes decades, during which they are hardened through rigorous drilling and psychologically programmed to not abuse their power. But the occasional bad apple manages to slip through.
Power corrupts, right? That's how the saying goes. Rogue Judges have been a part of the Judd Dredd mythology since 1977, when Judge Dredd's clone-brother Rico went to the dark side. The next year in 1978 gave us the most famous rogue Judge of all, the insane Chief Judge Cal who took over Mega-City One during the classic story arc "The Day the Law Died." None of the Judges in Judge Dredd: When Judges go Bad are quite on that scale; we are dealing with standard-issue murderers, grafters, insane spree-killers, and Judges who demonstrate that most unforgivable of traits, mercy.
Judge Dredd: When Judges Go Bad delivers eight tales of rogue Judges from across the years. The earliest story is from 1989 (Progs 615-618) and the most recent is from 2012 (Prog 2006). As you would expect, there is a wide range of art throughout the book, and you can see how art fads came and went with the decades. Will Simpson in "Banana City" (Prog 623-625; 1994) has a Bill Sienkiewicz-inspired style that is ultra-slick and expressionistic. Nick Percival in "Crime Prevention" (Prog 872; 1995) is all Simon Bisely chunky, exaggerated and over-the-top fun. Greg Staples in "Class of '79" (Prog 2006); 2012) gives us a grittier, more realistic look at Mega-City One without the excess of the '90s.
"Class of '79" is actually the stand-out, with a perfect cowboy mix of heart-warming and melancholy. Judge Dredd, in a rare burst of sentimentality, checks in on Christmas with one of his Academy of Law co-graduates from the Class of '79. Like a proper Christmas fable, this story tugs on all the right heartstrings but like a good 2000 AD yarn you don't get a happy ending — good intentions and the cheer of the season won't stop Dredd from putting the Law above everything else. Greg Staples delivers some beautiful art on this story, and he manages to pack some emotion into old stoney face himself.
The two-episode story of Judge Manners ("Bad Manners," "Rotten Manners") was another favorite. Unlike most of the Judges gone bad, who were victims of some psychological attack, Judge Manners is just a standard-issue corrupt cop who knows how to cover his track. Manners made the best antagonist for Dredd because of his lack of crazy. Having a blue man in your head that makes you do bad things can be fun, but Manners who sees himself as basically a good Judge that doesn't mind expediting justice or taking advantage of the perks of the job makes for a better villain.
"Judging Ralphy" shows why this Batman doesn't take on a Robin. Judge Dredd extends his hand to an orphan boy, then stands firm when the boy doesn't make the grade and is expelled from the Academy of Justice. Dredd is not anyone's idea of a father figure, as this story shows. The two-part "Crazy Barry, Little Mo," about a mentally unbalanced Judge who has an imaginary blue man that lives in his head and tells him what to do, is one of the less exciting stories. Because of the easy antagonist, this story lacked the emotional punch of the others. "Crime Prevention" doesn't quite fit the theme, showing Judge Dredd using statistics to arrest people before they commuted crimes. "The Man Who Broke the Law," about a man who gave the Judges the ability to live out their personal dreams if only for a moment, would have been on of the top of the collection if the art didn't drag it down.
I have a small collection of these themed collections from 2000 AD and they are hit-or-miss. The collections mine 35 years worth of Judge Dredd stories and bundle them together on a theme — either a single character like the Judge Anderson collection or of a single writer like the Grant Morrison collection. When you are digging through that much back stock, not every story is going to be a hit, and some of them are going to be out-and-out stinkers.
Fortunately, there are not stinkers here. Judge Dredd: When Judges Go Bad was about 80% great, with a smattering of 20% pretty-darn-good. With all of the stories on a single theme, this book makes a good introduction to the harsh world of Mega-City One and the Law of Judge Dredd.
Zack Davisson is a freelance writer and life-long comics fan. He owned a comic shop in Seattle during the '90s, during which time he had the glorious (and unpaid) gig as pop-culture expert for NPR. He has lived in three countries, has degrees in Fine Art and Japanese Studies, and has been a contributing writer to magazines like Japanzine and Kansai Time-Out. He currently lives in Seattle, WA with his wife Miyuki. You can catch more of Zack’s reviews on his blog Japan Reviewed or read his translations of Japanese ghost stories on Hyakumonogatari Kaidankai.