Judge Dredd: The Complete Case Files 14 (SC Rebellion US edition) – John Wagner

4 out of 5

Necropolis – the build up to which (excepting The Dead Man) and the entire 26-part story cycle itself being contained in volume 14 of the Case Files – is the first Dredd epic that feels truly indispensable. It’s possible I’ve called other tales essential or some such, but I’d say everything prior to this comes with caveats; Necropolis has one too, but it’s more general: that you get the most value out of this by having read Dredd for the decade leading up to it. That might seem like quite a big caveat, but the difference is that, while that lends the tale its greatest impact – since this is a culmination of writer John Wagner (now sans Alan Grant) finding his way to something of a conclusion for his first era with the character – it’s not “required” to feel how epic it is, whereas I’d argue that other 25-parters ask you to buy in to the Dreddverse a bit first to actually care about them. But Necropolis can almost stand alone: its prequel stories set up Dredd being replaced by ex-Judda Kraken, leading to his Long Walk, and highlight the most important bits that chipped away at Joe’s belief in the Judge system prior to that – after effects from quashing, quite outside of the law, a Democratic “rebellion;” and the death of his mentor, Judge Morphy. While this might misleadingly suggest to a new reader that the Dreddverse didn’t start out much more standalone and silly, it’s equally true that the cynicism that infects Joe has always been there, albeit used more for parody than as an affecting plotpoint, as it is here. And once we get in to Necropolis proper, the story’s first half that tracks Kraken’s mental breakdown, slowly being overtaken by the Sisters of Death, and encouraged to unleash the Dark Judges themselves, is some of the most masterfully creepy and unnerving stuff John has written; the resultant nigh-genocide this results in is terrifyingly hopeless feeling.

All of that works as an isolated story that shows off how rich the Dreddverse can be, and its potential; as a cap to years worth of preceding stories that have slowly brought in more and more tonally serious stuff, it’s a gauntlet of intent. In both cases, it is gripping, page-turning material. I cannot imagine having to wait week to week to read this; Wagner makes it pretty clear that there’s not a quick fix about to happen, and so while we can know / suspect that Joe will come out on top, the question of what Mega City will look like after the fact is actually a palpable one, not to be retconned away in Marvel / DC fashion.

But… it isn’t perfect.

I still feel like there’s a slight disconnect between The Dead Man and the Judge Dredd strips that never quite gets addressed, thanks to the former needing to be executed as an undercover lead-in to Necropolis. While that was surely cool at the time, it makes Joe’s Long Walk feel much shorter than it should’ve / could’ve, and we’re shorted the weight such a story could’ve had in favor of a twist ending. Accepting that reading it in trade doesn’t mimic the aforementioned week-to-week wait, it would’ve been interesting to allow Kraken to actually function as a “normal” Dredd – instead of as a Sisters-corrupted version – for a while. This is somewhat accounted for by having Joe not even appear for Necropolis’ first half – this being, I guess, the time period when “The Dead Man” was wandering the Cursed Earth and regaining his memory – but Kraken is depicted on a downward slide that whole while, so we never really get any weeks where there isn’t a “hero” in the strip.

Some of the story bits are a little wonky. The device of using a written letter to an advice column to introduce the Sisters feels forced, unfortunately, though thankfully the story told via that medium is gripping as heck. And, oddly, the appearance of the actual Dark Judges doesn’t feel like it amounts to anything. It’s built up to as the main goal of the Sisters, and their reveal is major, but once they’re there, we switch over to Joe’s ride back in to town, so they end up feeling like background flunkies.

And, er, I have to snip over Carlos Ezquerra’s art a bit. Whenever Carlos uses this more watercolor wash for his colors, I feel like he sacrifices some of his layout strengths. When the storytelling is linear, it’s fantastic, but when he has to start flipping between Kraken, the Sisters, Anderson, and Joe, the psychedelic color mixes and paneling do not sell the transitions, leading to back and forths that feel somewhat clunky. The visual concept sells the utter destruction of the city very well – the swaths of sickly colors make us “feel” it in a way that more detailed penciling might not’ve supported – but when we might benefit from such details, such as during action sequences, the lack of clarity undermines the impact.

But the overall power of the narrative – and the rare linearity of how this is all, essentially, one long storyline, all scripted by Wagner – very much push past these negatives; the book is not defined by them by any means, just prevented from reaching that very top tier or perfection.

I’ve loved reading the Case Files, and look forward to catching up to date so I can go back through and reappreciate them. Necropolis is the first storyline that’s made me want to do that right away, though, getting the full impact of experiencing Joe evolve from one-liner tuff cop to this bitter old man, watching his city – and the way he understood the law to function – crumbling around him.