Judge Death: The Life and Death Of… TPB – John Wagner

3 out of 5

Can you get enough of Judge Death? That’s really the question this collection of “Jay De’Ath” post-Necropolis strips poses, and not just because the character features in all of the storylines, but because writer John Wagner has blown past any limitations in how the character is handled, and presents him as blown out of proportion as possible. Depending on your take on the different variations of that – which tend to be more absurd than horrific, although an undercurrent of viciousness is always there – will determine how successful this trade is for you; me, I’m good with a little goofiness with Death, since I think that’s been inherent in his character since the get-go, but the equation does get a rather out of whack when Wagner sends Jay on a cross-Cursed Earth road trip, as arted by the absurdist black and whites of Frazier Irving.

It starts so strongly, though, with “Young Death,” the origin story of Death and the planet from whence he came, as serialized in the initial Judge Dredd Megazine issues. Dredd Reckoning seems to bash on this tale a bit, as it goes for some slapstick with Death’s landlord, Mrs. Gunderson – Death, licking his wounds post-Necropolis, logically has to find a place to live, and stumbles across an opening in the nearly blind and deaf elder’s building, but I found the balance to be perfect. As mentioned, I think that Wagner has always written the Dark Judge with a note of camp, and the character sitting down with a reporter in order that his history may be told to the masses, educating them on why they’re full of sin… there’s something so gloriously loopily perfect about it that just fits with how I could understand Death’s logic working, especially after suffering another failure at the hands of Dredd and crew. And there’s a really good balance of creepiness, here: artist Pete Doherty includes plenty of comedy beats, but doesn’t sell short on the gorier stuff, as Death recalls his buildup from torturer to murderer to, y’know, Judge Death. Him turning to a death cult for the final transformation feels maybe a bit underwhelming (it’s sort of like a deus ex machina for this sole purpose), but Wags doesn’t just throw that set piece / concept away – he builds up to it and digs into it for several pages. The coda to this tale finds another great art match with the angular Dean Ormston at the helm; it’s chronology is a bit odd, since we skip over Death’s imprisonment after battling with, er, Batman, but this is another one Dredd Reckoning took issue with but I quite enjoyed: the inconsistency of Death finding the single-minded Mrs. Gunderson to be the sole non-sinner on the planet feels right, as I think Death is more interesting with these illogical flaws in his “life is a crime” mentality. The followup two-parter with Alex Ronald on art then finds a fun way to “serialize” the Dark Judge, as his presence has infested his former apartment, leading to others getting overtaken by a Judge Death persona, and so Wags can return to this device about 50 progs later with Andy Clarke on art to similarly amusing effect.

And now it’s time for Frazier Irving, whose art is very much an acquired taste. I think his craggy, swooping linework can be quite striking, and it definitely makes for some damn creepy shots in the two extended strips he illustrates, but it’s not the best for conversational chatter, or straight-up action; much of My Name Is Death and The Wilderness Days just doesn’t land for me, and is almost inscrutable at points – the Sin City-esque use of negative space not always applied with clarity. There’s also the sense that Wagner wants to use Irving’s heavy, gothic look as a vehicle for making Death scary again. My Name Is Death gets off to a good start on that, but it starts to fall flat too quickly: it’s a cheesy see-through villain plot, sucking out any of Death’s previously shown creativity, and, when Cassandra responds to him, taking his bait, it sets her back to rookie Judge status in terms of competence. The boldness of Irving’s style and the pretty spooky opening scene (Cass spots a vague image of Death in the back of someone’s dream) set us up for something pretty grand, and it just kinda boils down to a straightforward showdown, nothing special.

The Wilderness Days has Death wandering The Cursed Earth, and again starts out impressively mean, with Death outright slaughtering an entire family, no holds barred. Irving’s art has, in terms of readability, improved for this strip, and this sequence is especially effective. There’s an interesting idea after this, with Death discovering a library with which he inculcates himself with all of humanity’s many tragedies, but Wagner couldn’t get figure where to take that, and so just starts riffing on various timely concepts and ideas – Death’s looking for WMDs; Death pairs off with some Natural Born Killers-types; Death heads to Las Vegas and maligns humans’ greed… It’s very, very silly, and now only the faintest image of the Death we’ve seen, prior to Irving’s strips, almost at Mean Machine levels of dumbness.

So that’s the see-saw of this collection. Half of it is My Name Is Death and The Wilderness Days, and it’s that half that was more of a drag to read, whereas the former half was so much fun – a dark comedy that kept both the darkness and inherent humor of the character well in check. Whether or not Irving’s stories / visual style work for you – or the Doherty stuff, for that matter – all of the art is very noteworthy in that there are poster-worthy panels galore, since we always love glory shots of Death. And if you’ve been able to chuckle at the character’s previous appearances, I think Wagner delivers on his ridiculousness for enough of the volume to make it a worthwhile addition.