Comic Reviewer: Will Cooling
Title: Judge Dredd: Judgement Day
Written by Garth Ennis
Art by Peter Doherty, Dean Ormston, Carlos Ezquerra & Chris Halls
Lettered by Tom Frame
Publisher: Rebellion > DC Comics
Ah it’s a New Year and already I’m posting reviews late…still on the plus side this makes it now two weeks in a row for me giving you your regular dose of Brit-tastic action. This also marks a change in my reviewing priorities; now instead of the weekly 2000AD reviews I’ll be concentrating on reviewing small press/indie titles and the new line of DC 2000AD Graphic Novels. We start this week with a review of the infamous Garth Ennis written Dredd mega-epic Judgement Day.
In 1990 Garth Ennis had replaced John Wagner as the lead writer of Judge Dredd’s 2000AD stories as the later went off to write for the spin off publication Judge Dredd (The) Megazine. Now, it has to be said that his run on the character was/is highly controversial and yep that’s my way of saying most people think it was pretty crappy. Strangely that includes Ennis himself who has repeatedly lambasted his efforts as unoriginal and uninspired. Now I actually think that much off his work stands up pretty well with stories such as Emerald Isle, Death Aid and Goodnight Kiss being very good stories but I’m in the minority. As for why his stories are generally poorly regarded; well the most frequent criticism was that he approached the whole task as a chance to relive old Wagner/Grant stories with the likes of Bonny Staples, The Hunters Club and PJ Maybe all being revived to go for another 10 rounds with Joe (and that’s before we get to the whole Helter Skelter fiasco), so stopping the emergence of any fresh take on the series. However, to me this was just another manifestation of his extremely reverential attitude towards the character that jarred with the more sceptical approach that Wagner (often with Alan Grant) had taken to the character in recent years. It also caused him to often be guilty of turning Dredd into a Batman style superhero whose strength, intelligence and will power are of such levels that they were almost meta-human.
Anyway, the story in question is Ennis’ sole mega-epic (a 20+ plus Judge Dredd story) and in many ways the finale of his run as the lead 2000AD Judge Dredd writer. The scenario is simple; a supremely black magician named Sabbat comes to Dredd’s world from the future and proceeds to raise the dead. He hopes to use this army to first conquer the planet and in the process create the undead army that will conquer the galaxy. Across the world Judges are placed under immense pressure but with help from the future mutant bounty hunter (and star of 2000AD series Strontium Dog) Johnny Alpha they soon devise a plan to take the fight to Sabbat. However, with literally hours to go before the living are overrun by the dead can they defeat the necromancer in time?
This is a mega-epic of firsts; it was the first to have a genuinely worldwide scope, the first to be a 2000AD/Judge Dredd Megazine crossover, the first time 2000AD’s premier iconic characters had co-stared in a major story and the first non-Wagner mega-epic since Pat Mills’ The Cursed Earth in 1978. However, its not these flashes of originality that are remembered but the fact that this was the third time in a row that Mega City One/Earth had faced a devastating attack and for the third time in a row old Joe was the one called upon to save the day. And yes in many ways this criticism is fair, but it does miss out on the many of the innovations that separate this from the usual mega-epic fare. The worldwide level of the threat is a significant difference and one that Ennis does a fairly good job of highlighting. It also changes the mood with the variety of places creating an entirely different mood than the average mega-epic fare. He expands the role of the citizens’ reaction with apocalyptic doomsayers frequently appearing. There’s also a more episodic feel to Judgement Day than most mega-epics with the growing threat being shown with a good degree of menace. There’s also a different style to his writing than Wagner, with the narration being brought more to the fore and having more character than the norm. All these together give the writing a very different feel than any other mega-epics and certainly dispute the commonly held belief that this is a mere rehash.
However, there are significant flaws with Ennis’ writing that hurt the story, the most notably of which is his reverence towards Dredd. Dredd is elevated to an almost God-like status with the ability to lead the good fight with broken ribs and punctured lung. A man who has Chief Judge Mcgruder going round in a state of awestruck wonder (ignoring their often prickly relationship). A man who is able to despatch major characters Japanese Judge Sadu and Johnny Alpha with complete ease. Whilst we can accept that Dredd is the most respected Judge in the world the extent to which Ennis makes him out to be a superman is at times stomach churning especially in his duel with Alpha where he ignores the deliberately even battle that Wagner had them fight to portray it and the rematch as one-sided squashes. Indeed. Alpha comes out of the story pretty badly full stop with Ennis being unsure as to balance between hero and amoral bounty hunter he should strike. That said Ennis does produce some nice character moments with Mcgruder (aside from her creaming over Dredd) being at her crazy best whilst his Dredd is superhumanity aside fairly close to the original concept.
One of the most controversial aspects of the story is the villain Sabbat; an all-powerful magician from the future with an unnatural interest and affinity for zombies. In many ways he’s a perfectly servable bad guy but he’s undermined by two problems. Firstly, he’s the first mega-epic bad guy since Chief Judge Cal not to have a backstory built up behind him before hand-the Sov Block had been a growing threat for nearly five years before the Apocalypse War, whilst the Dark Judges had been around for nearly ten years before Necropolis and later mega-epics such as The Wilderness and Doomsday similarly had years of backstory behind them. Sabbat on the other hand literally just pops up one issue, declares war and that’s that. The effect is that his character is never given time to breathe or be defined fully and so harm’s his effectiveness. The second problem is that Ennis isn’t entirely sure whether to play him straight or not with much of the slapstick humour that undermine early issues of his Marvel Knights Punisher run (the ongoing book) being present in such things as the cynical cloak of faces and the dancing zombies. Whilst there’s nothing wrong with a bit of humour at times it undermines the seriousness of the character and at others it looks downright self-indulgent. Still there’s enough about that’s enjoyable to read and in many ways after a good few years of “serious” bad guys having one with a bit of a sense of humour makes a nice change. It just jars sometimes.
Moving onto the art, there seems to have been a breakdown in the commissioning process. Whilst none of the three major artists are bad (well Chris Hall only does one episode) there seems to be a division between Dean Ormston who wants to play it as stylised horror, Carlos Ezquerra who wants to draw a war comic and Peter Doherty whose naturalistic paints place him somewhere between the door. Whilst such variety may be good the jumps from one to another is so vast that it hurts the story with Dean Ormston heavily stylised art being several worlds away from Carlos Ezquerra’s (or standard Judge Dredd) artwork. Whilst the changes rarely hurts the story seriously it does jar and the whole story would have been a more cohesive effort with a more naturalistic artist replacing Ormston. However, to be fair he does produce some fantastic pages.
So as we finish this review what can we say about Judgement Day? Well firstly it’s not as bad as you may have heard. It’s certainly flawed but at its heart there’s a good enough story to be read. The flaws are spread evenly between the writing and the art with Ennis writing being of a similar quality to the first four issues of the Punisher MK ongoing with the same imperfect mix between serious action and slapstick comedy. The art is in places excellent with Peter Doherty and Carlos Ezquerra producing great work however the stylised paints of Ormston and Hall are an acquired taste. This is well worth a read by any hardcore Dredd or Ennis fans and anyone else whose up for some zombie killing. However there are better Dredd trades, Ennis trades and zombie killing trades available.