The Chronicles of Judge Dredd: The Dead Man TPB (1991 Titan edition) – John Wagner

3 out of 5

Spoilers for a 30ish year old story, although I think Titan (publishers of this collection at the time) were already assuming things as spoiled, given that it’s kind of in the title.

I’m mostly of the mindset that things can still be enjoyed despite knowing how they end or twist, but that’s generally assuming that the journey along the way has value. Still, I can’t deny that I wish some things hadn’t been spoiled for me, and then there are reads like Dead Man that just can’t fully function as intended unless you were there at the time.

There at the time: reading this serial by unknown writer “Keef Ripley”, with John Ridgway’s terse, Severin-esque Western-style art, while Judge Dredd went on with his adventures in the same magazine, occasionally having crises of conscience (a la Young Giant), but due to the weekly publishing format, just as often going through his usual bustin’ creeps and perps m.o. When the scarred, amnesiac, Cursed Earth-wanderer of Dead Man ends up being revealed to be Dredd, post his Long Walk and a run-in with the Judge Death-related Sisters of Death, I can surely imagine spitting up my bologna sandwich all over the prog, mind blown. That works because it’s so bizarre, to have this running concurrently with a strip where the character is hunky-dory, and also because the lead-in to that reveal is relatively sedate: the mystery man, discovered by some Cursed Earth townsfolk, has the associated mystery of not remembering his past, and there’s some shared nightmare of a creature everyone ends up having upon his arrival, but there’s not much “drive” to understand these things – it’s very casual. Delivered in 6-page installments, it’d be a minor distraction in the prog, very unique looking amidst the other tales, for sure, but just a one-off curiosity to burn through between other, more active strips. Until you get to that mighty twist, spit up your bologna, and wonder at who the hell the Sisters of Death are, and when the hell Dredd went on a long walk, and then when Dead Man ends, you jump right into the followup story Tale of the Dead Man, which puts the pieces together. Epic stuff.

Read after the fact, of course, it can’t have that impact. Since this is collected outside of the main Dredd Case Files, you’d have to know to hunt it down, and knowing that, you’re already aware it’s part of the proper Dreddverse, not to mention – as stated above – that the giveaway is kind of in the name. And when it’s read as a separate story, not given the buffer of other thrills, it’s pretty sparse stuff. The Dead Man is discovered, he mutters some cryptic things and has vague dreams, and our narrator – a child of the Cursed Earth, Yassa – tries to hype things up by mentioning, ominously, how terrible everything would turn out, but it’s still a waiting game of the Dead Man tracking his trail back through the CE, to a burned out town and the discovery a badge with the name Dredd on it, 11 chapters out of 13 into the story. And if you’re reading in publishing order, this being the first mention of the Sisters of Death and Dredd’s Long Walk feels very odd; Wags has been building up to something, with Dredd starting to question himself in the main progs, but it still feels like a jump, and sort of anti-climactic to pin the events in the trade on a bad guy we haven’t yet met. It puts a different, less positive intonation on the What the hell is going on? question.

But you can tell how cool this would’ve been at the time. And even reading it now, once you’re over the somewhat lack of punch, the post-reveal aspects of the story work: Ridgway’s designs for the Sisters are perfectly gross, and the very downtrodden last couple chapters bring to the fore how serious some of Wags’ Dredd stuff had gotten, appropriately setting up his return to the Mega City.

Titan’s 1991 printing of this is oversized, and well-printed – clean pages, relevant covers inserted at good points. There’s also a foreword which does help set the stage, similar to my ‘there at the time’ prattle above. But the context only takes it so far, and it feels near impossible to replicate the experience now, leaving us with some fantastic artwork, tight, fittingly minimalist writing from Wagner, and an entertaining, if ultimately slightly underwhelming story.