5 out of 5
The second collection of annuals and specials, covering what, from my opinion, is one of the mag’s first true set of “golden years” from 1986 – 1989 – Wagner and Grant had done much world building by this point, and several big events were in the rearview, allowing stories to draw from a comfortable sense of history. This also gave the creators room to push and pull on the tone a bit, venturing out into more fantastical realms, or gazing inward for more serious / less satirical commentary. While this growth is also maybe what led to that writing partnership splitting – we see the first few solo-scripted tales at the end of this set – that ultimately was also for the good of the world, I’d say, as it probably put us on the path to bringing in more voices and ideas.
Anyhow, the result of this is that the caveat that applied to the first collection – that the one-off nature of the stories made them very incidental – isn’t nearly as obvious here. While it’s also true, the solidity of the established Dreddverse by this point (plus more practice at adding to it without it seeming random) puts these stories on par with any standalones from the prog proper. Additionally, the specials had started to stretch out at this point, going to multi-part and occasionally 15+ page stories, meaning there’s a nice range of pacing and experimentation in here, and it naturally works out in the chronological sequencing so that it bounces back and forth between simple stuff and more extended stories. Into this era, we also have a deeper pool of amazing artists (Ezquerra, Kennedy, Gibson, Talbot, McCarthy…), and though some of their experimentations might not always be successful – John Higgins going surreal isn’t necessarily the best fit – it again adds to the page-by-page fun of the collection, a lot of which is in color this time out.
Earlier Case Files and the first Restricted have some churn. Due to how much material there is, that still happens in some later Case Files, but this particular Restricted set stumbles across some choice years and stories that, while certainly silly at points, and not necessarily making lasting impacts, are always interesting, both in writing and art, each medium pushing at the confines of the Dreddverse frequently and excitingly.