Judge Dredd: The Complete Case Files 03 (SC Rebellion US edition) – John Wagner, Pat Mills

4 out of 5

Dredd becomes Dredd. Wagner becomes the absolute de facto Dredd writer, and possibly without quite intending to – the dude is just a stream of quality ideas and characterizations – sets the right standard for how Dredd should comport himself; finds the pitch for the strip that’s right between social commentary and satire and sci-fi and action that no other long running comic has quite matched. And then there’s Judge Death. And then there’s Pat Mills.

Mills only shows up for a brief moment, for a clunky return of Satanus, but because of how much setting solidity and tonal steadiness Wags had brought to the mag for a massive chunk of issues prior, the clunkiness sticks out badly, and Dredd just sounds off, talking in Mills more cheeky style. This was more passable in the early days, before things felt so established, but the entire lead-in 5/6ths of the thrills contained in this collection are so damned consistent – consistently entertaining; consistently creative – that the sudden conversion to one-liner Dredd, and Pat’s hackneyed B-movie take, feel wrong.

Oddly, the one exception to Wags’ greatness is the appearance of Judge Death. Not because the Bolland art isn’t super cool, and not because it isn’t great to see it tie back in to Boing, which just underlines how good John is at adding these silly details into the world that still make sense, in context, and actually “matter” in their own silly ways – but rather because it’s one of the first BIG ideas Wags hits on that he just kind of throws away. John hasn’t been afraid to let storylines tail out to three or four parts as needed, but I’d also say his various creations along the way have been written with awareness of letting them run their course and then bow out, and he takes that same approach with Death… when, right from the start, it’s clear how cool of a concept he is. It’s surely possible I’m only able to say this with knowledge of the (eventual) long-running history of the character, and it’s also possible that John already had in mind how to bring the character back. But his appearance is still so relatively short that it feels like he’s treated with the same here-and-then-gone mentality of other villains, and so it’s a little disappointing – some oomph left on the table.

But we’re still looking at 40ish solid thrills, handled by artly gods like Bolland, and Tom Frame, and McMahon, and to the latter, Mike has tamed his wilder, blockier style into something super refined and slick at this point, making him top tier not just ’cause he’s a Dredd O.G., but because he’s grown with the strip alongside Wagner’s development of the world and its inhabitants.