What on earth was Morrison’s take on Judge Dredd? And why is it something that seems to almost never come up when people talk about their work? Why is it almost buried and forgotten? What did they even try to do there?
We’ll explore that here, picking up where we left off….
Inferno– The Prototypical Dredd Epic
Morrison’s first Judge Dredd story would also be their biggest. They were joined by the legendary, defining artist of British comics and 2000AD, the co-creator of Judge Dredd himself–the inimitable Carlos Ezquerra. Ezquerra is a titan of British comics. If one were trying to find comparisons or American equivalents to contextualize for those unfamiliar with him, only Jack Kirby would do. He was an artist none could mimic, none could truly echo or capture in the same way, for he was too distinct, too idiosyncratic, and too special. His textured figures and worlds, as well as his dynamic composition and the maximalism of his expression, all of them expressed a unique voice that could not be recreated. And with letterer Tom Frame on-board, the stage was set, and the team was assembled for a new vision of Dredd.
Morrison could not have asked for a better artist, because they simply got the best. There was nobody else like Ezquerra, and there never will be. If you wanted defining, definitive Judge Dredd, you got Ezquerra. And so Morrison working with this absolute titan to craft a Dredd story? It meant something special. And the approach Morrison went for with the story was well-reasoned, too.
Inferno, as it was called, was to be a Judge Dredd Epic. The Epics being the sprawling ‘event-esque’ stories of great scope and consequence, which had at this point become tradition. And Carlos Ezquerra had drawn many of them, with his loud style suiting such bombastic mayhem of violence and chaos. And whilst there were many Epics over the years, the idea of a ‘Judge Dredd Epic’ was firmly codified and cemented in its ultimate expression- the iconic Apocalypse War storyline.
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A masterful work of genre-art, The Apocalypse War was the ultimate Judge Dredd story. Penned by John Wagner, the character’s co-creator and King Of Judge Dredd Epics, alongside writer Alan Grant, with a plethora of talented artists, including Ezquerra, it was an expression of Cold War era sentiments. It saw the American Mega-City One at war with its Soviet counterpart East Meg-One, as two visions of Judges clashed and all hell broke lose. Many event comics like to claim that they will be ‘Earth-Shattering,’ but the thing that made The Apocalypse War so special was the fact that it…actually was. It was Earth-shattering, both figuratively and literally. It was an explosive, charged storyline that took everything about Judge Dredd and turned the volume up to 11 and then left the reader in awe. It put its character in tricky, difficult positions and made them make choices that haunted you. And more than anyone else, it was Judge Dredd’s own choice that hit home. Dredd was willing to openly commit mass genocide on an unbelievably seismic scale and in such a way that it was hard to not be horrified. And the impact of that, the fall out of all that? It’s still being reckoned with in the Dredd comics to this day. It was that momentous, and for all that it was epic, earning the title of a Judge Dredd Epic, it was effective because it was rooted in character. It was rooted in their choices and the character drama that emerged from that.
It was a story wherein you could see and pinpoint the precise moment a young Garth Ennis’ mind exploded and re-assembled itself again. As he himself put it rather succinctly:
Finally, there’s the best bit of all, to me the greatest moment in comics history: part 22 of The Apocalypse War. Having fought a losing battle against the invaders, seen half of Mega-City One destroyed, massacred collaborators and euthanized the critically wounded, Dredd has led an elite team of Judges into an East-Meg missile silo. Following one of the best action sequences I’ve ever read in a comic, the Judges find themselves unable to gain access to the operations room, until Dredd simply bangs on the door with his pistol and shoots the curious halfwit who opens it point-blank. Our boys storm the ops room and seal the door. Anderson, the telepath (and only volunteer in the Apocalypse Squad- no peacenik cosmic wandering in those days) pulls the launch codes out of the silo commander’s mind. The nukes are targeted on East-Meg One. “Please, Dredd,” begs the commander, “There are half a billion people in my city–half a billion human beings! You can’t just wipe them out with the push of a button!” And Dredd doesn’t hesitate, not even for a second.
He can and he does. I still think about that today; what it meant about the character, and about the comic I was reading (aged 12). Even now I don’t know if Dredd was right or if he was wrong. It was the only way to win, to avoid the further slaughter and enslavement of his own people–but it was genocide. It was moral courage on an almost unimaginable level–but it was appalling. In the end, it was a dilemma not unlike those faced by a number of good and bad men in our own history, and if I had to sum it up in one line, I’d say this: what are you prepared to do when there isn’t any easy way out?
And that, I think, is why I’ve never been able to care about Batman, or Wolverine, or Iron Man… or any of them, really. Not because of what characters like that would or wouldn’t do, but because their publishers would never have the courage to have them written into such a situation.
A belated–but sincere–Happy Thirty-Second Birthday to the Galaxy’s Greatest Comic. –Garth Ennis
And it was this sort of legacy that Morrison was coming into in trying to construct a Judge Dredd Epic, particularly one that would be illustrated by a titan like Ezquerra.
So what was the end result?
Inferno would be a 12-part storyline, split into 6-pagers each, and it was almost designed and engineered to be a prototypical Judge Dredd Epic. It had all the necessary ingredients and pieces that one might deem as a requirement for such an enterprise.
But it rings hollow.
The storyline, centering upon an invasion of ex-Judges after their escape from an intergalactic prison, felt like a rough echo of many of the Epics before, particularly The Apocalypse War. You had Judge Dredd and his Mega City-One Judges confronted by their Dark Mirror Judges, you had all the familiar beats such a story involved from the Fall Of The Judges to the takeover of the City by the Dark Mirror Judges, and then the inevitable mounted final counter-attack led by Dredd to take it all back and save the day. You had the Walter the Wobot return appearance to wink to the audience, as well as a final conclusion centered upon a choice Judge Dredd makes that is meant to inspire horrific awe, like in The Apocalypse War.
And it’s not so much that repetition or echoing of the familiar beats is inherently a problem, as much as what that repetition and what those beats actually serve. What goes along with them, augments them, puts meat on those bones, and makes them weigh and mean something? In the case of Inferno, it turned out it wasn’t much. The strength of Wagner and Grant’s work with Dredd was precisely what that sentence implies: Dredd. The Lawman Of The Future was the most compelling part of the material, and it was their razor sharp unfurling of character that always resonated most. It’s why The Apocalypse War worked, and why that moment Ennis describes had such profound power. It was an interest in humanity, in people, and their monstrosity that gave it the sting it had. The bitterness felt personal rather than impersonal, it felt close and real. It’s why you felt it.
But you read Morrison and Ezquerra’s Inferno, and while Ezquerra’s a terrific draftsman as always, drawing page after page of bombastic action with characteristic power, it lacks weight. Morrison’s Dredd isn’t much of a character, as much as a thin caricature. He was a stock figure and a shallow action-archetype that felt more like an aesthetic than an individual. Like an action figure that says a ‘cool’ or ‘badass’ line when you pressed a button.
While Ennis’ distance with American Superheroes seemed to offer him an advantage and fresh perspective and a place for fun and fury, helping him pen Hitmans, Section Eights, and Punisher classics, Morrison’s distance with Judge Dredd and 2000AD seemed to only offer them…apathy. Ennis could use that apathy as fuel to find a reason to care or angle with bite to it, and thus weave a story with weight, but Morrison’s seemed to be totally incapable of doing that here. There was a sense of ‘going through the motions’ as it were, like a ‘Let’s just get it over with’ at an obligatory dance party.
And so when at the end of the story, Judge Dredd decides to press a button, like he did all those years ago in The Apocalypse War, to commit mass-murder upon the captured villainous Judges? It doesn’t evoke the responses that the classics it echoes do. It instead feels like a ‘Well, this is what people want, right? This is what they like and want out of these Dredd comics? So let’s just give it to them.’ It feels engineered in the way a McDonalds burger is engineered.
It feels like posturing. It lacks the sincere commitment to the bitter horror and humanity that Wagner and Grant’s best work had. It feels like it treats Dredd less like a character and more like a cool tattoo, like a Ghost Rider or a Spawn. And perhaps that makes some sense from Morrison’s perspective, as around the same time frame they’d just done a Spawn three-parter with Greg Capullo for Todd McFarlane. And the approach there was very much one of ‘Let’s give these kids who buy Spawn something cool and action-y, let’s give these Image audiences what they show up for!’ It wasn’t Morrison cutting loose to be most Morrison, but trying to write to an assumption of the task at hand. And in Spawn’s case, it seemed to work, particularly because the history and legacy of Spawn wasn’t terribly great, thus making Morrison’s competent multi-part story standout as strong material in that lineage. But in case of Judge Dredd? Where there is such a strong history with amazing, classical work reaching great heights? Such an approach plays very differently.
But perhaps, in fairness to Morrison, they were honest about it. They didn’t hide their feelings on the character in interviews:
What was it like writing Judge Dredd? Do you feel you’ve made any significant changes to him?
Grant: No. Not at all. The thing with Dredd is that he’s completely one-dimensional. Someone like Batman has at least two dimensions because he has a secret identity and a certain degree of psychological motivation and tension. Dredd’s just a big bastard with a gun, never anything else. There’s nothing under the mask. So I thought long and hard and then just wrote him as a one dimensional bastard with a gun. I did make a definite decision not to do a kind of quirky ‘isn’t life strange in Mega-City One?’ thing, since Garth has been blowing that trumpet with varying degrees of success throughout his run on Dredd. I wanted to do a Dredd story which was just like a Big Arnie film, so ‘Inferno’ is full of mammoth explosions and things falling over and fast cuts and useless one liners. That’s probably the big difference between my Dredd and the others we’ve seen; mine cracks more shitty jokes.
This tracks with the work presented in the pages of Inferno. Rather than try to bridge the gap of apathy and disinterest Morrison felt towards the character, rather than find an ‘in’ of sorts, Morrison elected to stick with their initial gut vision of Dredd as a flat one-dimensional figure. He’s a simple action caricature in shallow aesthetic action plots, dropping ‘badass’ one-liners. The whole enterprise, with Morrison writing to Ezquerra’s artwork, feels like watching a talented chef who is deliberately trying to cook up something very basic by following a recipe to the T, and it feels like a waste of their time and talents. You’d hope for something more, something better than that. You want to be surprised given the chef involved, and yet you’re not. All you find is a result that is…bland.
In the end, Inferno reads like a book that reminds you of how much better and stronger the works it echoes actually are. It makes you appreciate the Judge Dredd Epics that came before, because you understand what it truly took to make them so good. Inferno becomes an empty evocation of the past, a poor cover song that only accentuates the beauty of the original.
It’s a waste of potential and possibility.
[Inferno is collected in Judge Dredd: The Complete Case Files 19]
But could Morrison do better in their next attempt? Or at least something different, at the very least? This was only the first try, after-all. Having gotten this dull gesturing over with, would Morrison go bolder and dare to something new?
What awaited Morrison after this initial burst with Judge Dredd?
It wouldn’t be long before we got our answer.
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