5 out of 5
Is this actually perfect, if I’m going prog by prog? No, surely some bits are weaker than others, and the massive 25-parter that takes up the entire back half gets a little cluttered story-wise, and a little loose art-wise, but: this whole, massive tome is comprised of multi-part stories that either establish further Wagnerian terms / concepts, or add massive, world-changing events to things. This isn’t the Judge Child arc, where it’s just an excuse to travel through unexplored locales, or the Cursed Earth arc, which was mostly unimpactful mini, satirical arcs: it’s Wags making good on all of the potential of Judge Death, and then a huge undertaking – war with East Meg in ‘Apocalypse Wars’ – that’s rather masterfully, misdirectionally segued into from ‘Block Mania.’ Even the beginning stuff – two-parters dedicated to different crimes – though much more isolated, adds dimension to those crimes, showing how John was hard at work to define as much of the Dreddverse as he could. Judge Death’s reappearance is the massive ante up: I’d criticized his first appearance as short-sighted, and Wagner (and Brian Bolland!) appropriately run with it here, successfully making the dude (and his fellow dead judges) into quite frightening threats, and pushing on Dredd’s relentlessness – most writers would’ve saved the trip back to Death’s homeworld for its own arc, but Wags understands that Joe doesn’t leave a job undone. This would be doubled-down on during the Apocalypse arc, during which Dredd literally saves all of Mega City One just by dint of being motherfucking relentless.
I can’t express how cool the transition from Block Mania to Apocalypse was: while we are already pretty deep in 2000 ADs run by this point (200+ issues!) doing two long-form stories back-to-back, and stealth linking them, is bold, and I feel like was unique for the time. Heck, it’d be unique now! I also love how Block Mania starts out kind of silly, and is tossed off as the cits just happening to all go crazy at once, until Joe starts to question the way it’s spreading and we find out that it’s an East Meg plot – Orlok’s first appearance! – to destabilize MC1, and pave the way for Apocalypse War’s invasion, at which point things get quite serious. Yes, Wags has some fun making the Sovs into bastards, but this is still pretty heavy stuff, and Wagner remains principled: Dredd is equally a bastard; it just so happens that he wins this fight, but his tactics are essentially the same as the Sovs.
Apocalypse Wars also brings us a full, showy return for Ezquerra, who just owns the strip. While you feel like he might’ve been getting a bit rundown by the continual intensity of the story (which is, like, 100% large scale battles), even when his style slips a little bit, he bounces back a few panels thereafter, and keeps the grit and delivery going. And stepping back to that intensity, John also stumbles on it here and there, figuring out the best way to keep momentum when we’re dealing with tons of people and such a huge scale – that is, not pausing to go deep on planning, are to step away for side stories – but ultimately, the arc (plus the preceding Block Mania) is a massive accomplishment of plotting and artistry. That alone would likely override any negative progs included in this Case File, but seeing as how there aren’t any negatives, this is required Dredd reading.