Judge Dredd: The Complete Case Files 04 (SC Rebellion UK edition) – John Wagner, Alan Grant, Kelvin Gosnell

4 out of 5

I started reading 2000 AD somewhere in the 2010s, and haven’t looked back since. I didn’t really “understand” Judge Dredd prior to that, in the sense that I didn’t question where these random trades from authors I recognized (Grant Morrison, Garth Ennis) featuring the character came from – I just assumed it was a UK character akin to any Marvel or DC creation: random writers come and go, creating a mellifluous continuity you can pick up at any point. And while that’s essentially true, 2000 AD – and Dredd – are vastly different from those Big Two and their characters, and once I was onboard and reading the prog weekly, I came to appreciate (and love) those differences.

Over the years, I’ve become aware of major Dredd storylines that were before my time, but unlike Marvel and DC, these things actually feel like they matter. Yes, historical events are referenced by Spider-Man and Superman and whoever, but it doesn’t necessarily feel connected to whichever issue you’re reading, 10+ years hence. It’s just a reference. In the Dreddverse, though, while it’s still true that you don’t need to have read those classic storylines, there is the legit feeling that the characters (and world) have experienced them, and as I’ve added to my knowledge from the Case Files, I get to be part of that experience as well. It’s rewarding stuff.

The Judge Child saga was a big ol’ storyline I was really looking forward to reading. It just sounds important.

And it’s kind of hilarious how unimportant it actually is.

Case Files 04 kicks off the a psi judge foretelling of disaster for the Mega City, saved only by the leadership of “The Judge Child” – a child with an eagle-shaped birthmark on his forehead. Dredd is tasked with tracking the kid down, which takes him on a 26-part saga through The Cursed Earth, and then into space. Structurally, you could say this is very similar to The Cursed Earth saga itself, since you have some destination that requires travel, and then 2-3 part mini-arcs detailing that travel and featuring strange characters and occurrences, but there’s really one main, very important difference: this is written by John Wagner.

Now, again, to be clear – the Judge Child arc is really of zero consequence (the kid and the story are discarded with humorously quickly in the last couple chapters), but I suspect this was just John’s way of breaking out of Mega City walls and getting his crack and muties and aliens. And instead of the occasionally flat satire and pacing grind of Pat Mills’ Cursed Earth traversal, Wags’ travelogue is a hoot, with every new creature and concept just brain-breakingly inventive. And I said zero consequence, but that’s not exactly true, as the Angel Gang are introduced, giving us Mean Machine and several other related threads that would continue hereafter.

The latter half of the book shifts between some 4-part arcs and oners, and has the first Dredd writings of Alan Grant, and it’s wholly solid stuff all around. Mike McMahon returns in prime form, and Steve Dillon’s sole appearance (in this collection) is really amazing – it’s very obviously Dillon, but before he’d settled into the more formalized style of his Preacher years, and the pages have this sense of freshness and motion to them that I feel like his polished stuff ended up lacking. The evolution of Ron Smith is also interesting, as the artist can’t quite seem to decide how realistic or fantastic to draw things, and it makes for an odd balance at times. I find Smith’s paneling and pacing to be my least preferred in this collection, at least at this point in his career.

As to the rating, while I would say I enjoyed the contents of this book front to back – obviously some thrills are better than others, but the overwhelming Wags presence and the shocking amount of creativity on display just makes the “average” thrill, at worst, a really fun read – we have a splash page problem that the Case Files printings just can’t deal with. During these years they seemed to love 2-page opening shots, with word bubbles right in the crease. The collections can open pretty wide and lay fairly flat, but text (and art) still gets lost in the crease. There’s no way around it besides changing the printing format (or doing something dumb like shrinking the pages or something), but it’s just an unfortunate blip that mars the overall reading experience. To make up for this, they’ve start to include a ton more covers, which are fun to match up to whichever story or arc.