Graphic Novel Reviews


Judge Dredd Classics: The Dark Judges

(2015) John Wagner et al, IDW Publishing, £18.99 US$24.99, hrdbk, 120pp, ISBN 978-1-631-40372-9

 

This is the latest omnibus edition of the Judge Death stories from the Judge Dredd and Judge Anderson strips that originally appeared as weekly serials in the comic 2000AD.

I am going to presume that you are aware of the Judge Dredd back-story and focus on this edition and in particular the provenance of the various 'Judge Death' graphic novels over the years.
 

PlotThe Dark Judges begins with all being well in Mega-City One, and a thief is running from the Judges. He thinks he has got away when he sees the shadow of a Judge ahead of him. However, it transpires that this is no judge but a parody of one with a skull-like face barely covered by old, putrid flesh and wearing a grim parody of a judge's uniform. This gruesome 'Judge' reaches out with his hand that enters the thief's chest to squeeze his heart and saying, 'My name iss Death, I have come to judge you!'

It transpires that this judge comes from another dimension where the dark judges, realising that crime was only committed by the living, outlawed life.  Judge Death's mission is therefore to seek out all life and extinguish it.  And so Death arrives in Earth's Mega City One.

With Judge Death being a supernatural being, it takes the Justice Department's Psi Division to take the lead along with Judge Dredd to tackle Judge Death. This is a seemingly impossible task as Death seems indestructible; destroy his body and his spirit form lives on…

While Judge Death is clearly a fantasy horror character, the presentation – like much of the supernatural in the Judge Dredd world – is wrapped up in a science fantasy coating: he has arrived in Mega City One using a dimensional jump device. The first Judge Death sotory introduces Anderson of Psi Division. Again the fantasy – as we eventually find out in other Dredd stories – is wrapped up in SF. Apparently the radioactive fallout from the war that turned much of the US into the Cursed Earth and created mutants, also resulted in some getting psionic abilities. Judge Anderson went on to have strips stories of her own (more below).
 

Provenance and previous editions.  Judge Death first appeared in a three-part story in the weekly comic 2000AD in 1980 in prog 149 and proved an immediate hit. So much so that on the 8th August 1981, in prog 224 (note that edition number as we will come back to this shortly) in a story entitled 'Judge Death Lives' that introduced three other dark judges: Mortis, Fire and Fear. This was followed up in April 1985 and prog 416 with 'Four Dark Judges' not in the usual Judge Dredd strip but Anderson Psi DivisionJudge Dredd Classics: The Dark Judges (2015) brings these three stories together in an omnibus edition for the first time in colour.

Now, for sercon tru-fans, here is the provenance of this Judge Dredd Classics: The Dark Judges 2015 edition for it is not the first time these stories have appeared in a Judge Dredd or even an Anderson Psi Division graphic novel collection. (Judge Anderson being a female Psi Division judge with telepathic powers.)  Way back in the early 1980s Titan books was publishing the first of the 2000AD graphic novel collections and in 1983 it reprinted 'Judge Death' and 'Judge Death Lives'.  Then in 1995 as part of a series entitled Classic Judge Dredd Titan published Judge Dredd featuring Judge Death which also included a non-Judge Death story 'Judge Dredd: Father Earth'.  Confusingly, in 2001 Titan published a hardback series with gloss art paper of 'Classic' Judge Dredd stories and Judge Dredd featuring Judge Death. This hardback featured different additional stories to the 1995 paperback edition.  But there's more…

In October 2002 Titan Books together with 2000AD (as a joint publishing exercise) published Judge Anderson: Death's Dark Dimension. This collection included just one 'Judge Death' story 'Four Dark Judges' in addition to the non-Judge Death story 'The Possessed'.  Finally, in September 2012, 2000AD published the mini-format (mass market paperback size) Judge Dredd: The Dark Judges which features exactly the same stories as this 2015 edition but different ancillary material (the original 2000AD weekly covers and other one-page artwork).

All the above earlier editions of Judge Death stories were in black and white: remember, back in the 1970 and '80s 2000AD was largely a black and white comic with just colour covers and a colour centrefold (the latter often being part of a Judge Dredd story).

This last specifically means that this 2015 edition Judge Dredd Classics: The Dark Judges, which is in full colour, is the first time that the original (first three) Judge Death stories have appeared in a graphic collection in full colour.  And it is with this full colour that this specific volume scores!

The eagle-eyed among you will have already noted that this 2015 edition is produced by IDW Publishing and not Titan, 2000AD or Titan/2000AD combined. IDW Publishing (which some of us not that into comics this side of the Pond may not have heard) is one of the United States big four comics publishers. It was founded in 1999 and soon established itself as one of the US's leading publishers of comics that in 2013 sold over five million comic books, a million copies of graphic novels and over a million in e-book format and accounting for some 6.5% of the US comics' market.  That year also saw IDW re-publish Judge Dredd strips in the typical monthly US format with new stories specifically for the US market.  And then in 2015 they got permission to reprint and colour the original three Judge Death stories, hence this Judge Dredd Classics: The Dark Judges (2015) full colour edition.  This edition does have additional material, but not from 2000AD. Instead we get some US artist portrayals of the various Judge Death, Anderson and Dredd characters. I'm guessing that these may have been used by IDW for standalone editions of some full colour monthly (US comics format) series based on the original black and white 2000AD stories.  Alas there is no introductory text to this graphic collection and so readers over here in Europe are left in the dark.  However here I must point out to what little is given us in that there is an error in the copyright masthead page which says that 'Judge Death Lives' was originally published in 2000AD progs 225-228. Actually, as mentioned above, it was progs 224-228. (Little gets by a sercon trufan.)
 

Authors and artists.  All the stories in this collection were written by Judge Dredd co-creator John Wagner: the original 'Judge Death' by himself but under the pseudonym John Howard; 'Judge Death Lives with Alan Grant under the joint pseudonym T. B. Grover; and 'Four Dark Judges' again with Alan Grant under the joint pseudonym T. B. Grover. The original black and white artwork for the first two stories was by Brian Bolland, and for 'Four Dark Judges' by Robin Smith. All are 2000AD regular artists. The new colour for this 2015 edition for all the stories was done by Cjarlie Kirchoff.  The lettering was done by original 2000AD stalwart Tom Frame.
 

Production.  Well, in addition to this 2015 edition being a hardback and in full colour throughout, it is printed on gloss art paper.  As such this will make this edition particularly sought after by sercon 2000AD fans this side of the Pond, and they will be sure to seek it out.

But this production does have its downsides.  Though the size of the actual art imagery is the same as the previous Titan and Titan/2000AD editions, the white margins differ. This makes the page size wider, but less taller than these earlier UK editions, and wider and a little taller than the current (post 2005) 2000AD and Rebellion (the current owners of the franchise) graphic novel size.  This means that it will not easily sit on the bookshelf with others. But, hey, one can't have everything.  The other regret is that some of the additional artwork in the various previous editions of the original three black-and-white stories have never been re-printed in colour and I for one would like to see the various dark judge pin-ups originally printed in prog 555-558 reproduced in their original glorious colour in a graphic novel collection. And then there are the 2000AD original weekly comic covers featuring the Dark Judges…  One can but dream.
 

To sum up, Judge Dredd Classics: The Dark Judges is a 'must have' for serious Dredd fans, and for those relatively new to Judge Dredd the first time for well over a decade that readers will be able to get a graphic novel reproducing the artwork close in size to the original comic publication. But it is a US production. Maybe, just maybe, 2000AD/Rebellion will produce a colour edition for their European followers over here, with, importantly, bags of art extras that this IDW edition does not contain.  Let's hope.

Jonathan Cowie


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