Judge Dredd: The Complete America TPB – John Wagner

4 out of 5

America, the Judge Dredd tale, is a wallop. Necropolis, as the “result” of the interesting Dead Man gambit, is also massive, but it’s also somewhat of a runaround to facing up to the emotional consequences of Joe’s long walk, and the Democracy cause that eventually led him to that; it’s still a Judge Dredd epic, with a major villain and lotsa death and a big ol’ battle. Post-Necropolis we had some vignettes that touched more directly on Dredd after his return, but they’re mostly one-shots and thus somewhat limited in scope; Garth Ennis, taking over main writing duties, practically skipped over any real fallout. Within the pages of the Judge Dredd Megazine, though, starting at the same time, we got the seven part America, which is the proper followup, bookended by splash scenes from artist Colin MacNeil of Dredd, almost re-radicalized in his taciturn narration, but tweaked beyond the pale of dark comedy that otherwise has played through Mega City-One’s police rulership. The shift is slight but quite brilliant: Joe has “recovered” from events by saying that he believes whole-heartedly in the rights of the people… who are law abiding. And that otherwise, Democracy – we’re talking about the people’s movement, right? Not the principle in general? – is a joke.

Put your “hero” front and center, and have him denounce what’s intended to be a primary guiding force of certain modern societies. Also, because subtlety isn’t required, have him shoot down a character named America, waving a flag, onto the steps leading to the Statue of Liberty. (…Which sits in the shadow of a much larger, looming statue of a Judge.)

America is not just a wallop for its content, but because this is the kind of comic you’d never see at Marvel or DC, unafraid to bite, but also to go about it in the most unusual, Wagner-ian fashion, starring an up-and-coming comedy singer named Bennett Beeney who had the star-crossed misfortune to fall in love with America Jara, the activist who’s participation in the quashed Democracy march only led to more “active” forms of protest. Note that the story is named after this character, because it’s not a Judge Dredd story; he’s moreso peripheral, tracking America’s rise through the ranks for that final foiling of lawlessness. And yet that changed focus is what makes it such an effective criticism / commentary upon Joe, and the judges, and evolves the character in a way that makes too much sense.

Colin MacNeil’s painted art is perfection; moody but full of life, letting sunlight ever so briefly into Bennett’s world but draping much of it in shadow. I don’t think the sort of indistinguishable-from-one-another way he frames the judges is purposeful – it probably would be good to be able to pick Joe out in some panels, when we can’t – but it does work with the way the narrative renders them as, essentially, faceless.

And I’ve spoiled the ending, but I haven’t spoiled the ending after this, which is, again, something you’d simply never find in “canon” at a major publisher. It’s a brilliantly sad way to not just return things to a status quo, keeping the America legacy alive in an emotionally resonant fashion.

The Complete America also includes the Megazine followup to this story, Fading of the Light, published some years later. Now coloured digitally by Alan Craddock, the story is more recognizable as taking place within the modern Dreddverse, Necropolis in the rearview, and Wagner uses this familiarity effectively, to consider Bennett’s fate in such an environment. The tone is again heavy, excepting some missteps during an awards ceremony where Wags can’t help but toss some celebrity satire in there, and it unfortunately throws the otherwise tight pacing off – these few panels really aren’t necessary. While you could criticize the story for not directly dealing with certain aspects of Bennett’s lifestyle, it’s equally interesting how normalized it is; and once more, it makes the way the legacy is passed on perfectly haunting. It’s a fitting sequel, even with its slight tonal hiccup.

The trade has some introductory pages on the Megazine, and the Democracy movement, both good for context, and one additional cover.