3 out of 5
Another uneven Dredd collection from the Millar era, although undone moreso by other writers this time, then nearly rescued by the back half being an almost perfect set of Meg strips – notably led by Wagner, rather taking control of the narrative / character once more.
We have a few longer Dredd strips here – the 7-part Book of the Dead, where Mark is joined by Grant Morrison and Dermot Power on art; Millar’s Frankenstein Division; and Alan MacKenzie and John Tomlinson’s Sugar Beat, Ron Smith on art. Mark’s / Grant’s work here is inoffensive at worst, and then actually mildly entertaining at points. Grant’s contributions are a mystery – the version of Joe in those strips still completely bereft of personality – and Millar maintains a baseline of violence, but neither run has the obnoxious overreach of Inferno, or try to push their villains (both more interesting than Grice, it should be said) as anything more than temporary roadblocks for a one-line slinging Dredd. Book of the Dead even has some moderate appeal in trying to spread the Judge mission to Egypt, which would’ve been cooler to explore more, but of course we have to go towards evil mummy territory. Frankenstein Division, with art by Ezquerra, has some meta elements to consider that I doubt were intended, with the baddie stitched together from Sov remains from the Apocalypse War (i.e. Judge Dredd having been stitched together from Wagner story elements ever since Ennis took over…), but it more rightly succeeds just by being dumb.
And that actually is what makes Mark’s stuff “work” here: that he embraces his dumb style, and lets Joe be the action figure his kid self must’ve seen him as. It doesn’t make any sense world-building-wise, but that wasn’t the intention: being silly and gruff and explode-y was. Either we’ve been beaten into senseless by the previous volume, or Mark actually toned down his most extreme tendencies, but whatever the case, I really didn’t mind his work here.
A written / drawn John Higgins two-parter is notable for being confusing as all heck. I have zero idea what was going on in this one.
But here’s the death of the 2000 AD half of the collection: Sugar Beat, the most extendedly racist thing the series has ever featured (at least in the Dredd strips). Wagner brought in a lot of cultural stereotypes along the way, undeniably, but Sugar Beat feels like the first story that uses stereotypes as its main vehicle for the plot, and for its humor. And Ron Smith’s art feels lost here, his choreography incredible confused. Joe goes to track down the drug trade (sugar) in Pan Andes conurb. Combine the same tuff-talkin’ Millar style Joe with the aforementioned racism, and it is just painful, embarrassing stuff to read.
MacKenzie moderately redeems himself by being the only writer to actually seem to try and inject some continuity into the strips, consistently referencing events from Millar’s run (which Millar can’t be bothered to do), but this is also a bit off: the continuity specifically concerning MacGruder is all mixed up; she’s either in a coma post Inferno, or she and Dredd are at odds post-Mechanismo, or she’s still a strong and capable leader.
The back half, as mentioned, takes huge steps to weigh the collection onto the positive side of the scale, with a perfect run of strips, all by Wagner (and one from Gordon Rennie – his first so far in these Case Files, maybe?), and great art all around from some of the stronger names of the time – Colin MacNeil, Doherty, Greg Staples. It’s a Dreddful Life is a fun and rewarding Sprit of Christmas-style recap of big Dredd events; Bury My Knee at Wounded Heart and Freefall! both show the different, nuanced sides of Dredd that other writers simply haven’t been able to balance: the stern law man, as tempered by all he’s been through with America, Mechaniso, Necropolis… And You Are the Mean Machine! is Wags being silly as all heck with the titular character, making us laugh without the crassness Millar / Ennis employ. The multi-part Giant brings the junior judge from rookie to full eagle; it’s a thrilling, earner “graduation” that again reminds us of how Wagner has shepherded this series and its characters for long stretches.
Alas, the Megs aren’t perfect – Howler, featuring a returning Mick McMahon on art in the extremes of his expressionistic art style, is nearly unreadable. The story, by Wagner, about an MC-1 visiting, brash alien, must’ve been written explicitly for McMahon, and to give him room to draw as he pleases, because it’s almost entirely without character, humor, or any motivation. It’s like Mick had an alien design he wanted to use, and John wrote something around that. How this stretched out to four parts is a mystery. It’s not that Mick’s art is unappealing, necessarily, but it’s unreadable for a serialized comic, and sucks out any pacing or tension or humor. And done up in a flat color palette, also looks bland, despite the artist’s wild pop-art stylings.