Julian Darius on the DC Cinematic Universe and the State of Pop Culture

What’s your feelings about Batman v. Superman teaser trailer? Do you like it or does it make you bored?

My original reaction was underwhelmed. I know it was only a teaser trailer, but there’s not a lot in it. It’s thematic. It also happened to come out around the new trailer for Star Wars Episode VII, and I don’t think it could compete with that. I also watched the teaser trailer on my phone. I had a few discussions about it online, mostly about how dark it was, but it didn’t impress me.

Then I saw the trailer in a movie theater, where it played before Avengers: Age of Ultron. And it had a totally different effect on me. The opening focus on Superman as a god, or how he’d affect society, is smart stuff. It’s so important to look at these aspects. I think people initially reacted more to how darkly lit this rather moody sequence was, but there are crucial ideas at work here. The ending, with Batman’s powered suit from Frank Miller’s Dark Knight Returns, also worked in the movie theater. Earlier, I caught the reference, and just stopped there. But in the theater, I could feel the excitement more.

And I’m looking forward to seeing Affleck as Batman and Jeremy Irons (a personal favorite of mine) as Alfred. Not to mention Jessie Eisenberg as Lex Luthor. So I’ve recently gone from disinterested to kind of cautiously optimistic, based on this teaser trailer.

Why isn’t the positive, bright side of Superman interesting for viewers and creators anymore? Is the whole atmosphere of Zack Snyder’s universe connected somehow with America’s crisis in politics and relations with other countries nowadays?

I don’t think it’s necessarily true that America isn’t interested in the positive, bright side of Superman. I think it’s just that Zach Snyder has a vision of Superman, and it’s not the bright Superman of previous generations. If you look at the movies of Marvel Studios, there’s a decent amount of brightness. It’s not that America won’t embrace those movies.

Superman’s a special case, because he’s been slurred as a boy scout for so long. For two decades, an awful lot of people have said that Superman just doesn’t work anymore – that you could update Batman for a darker, more realistic era but not Superman. So I do think there may be some reluctance to do a happy, silly, brightly-lit Superman movie. If you do that with Guardians of the Galaxy, it’s interpreted as a breath of fresh air. But if you do that with Superman, you risk people saying it’s lame, that it’s a throwback to the 1950s TV show. I don’t think this concern is well-founded, but I think it’s important to acknowledge that Superman has a different history and a different kind of buzz about him, which might make people more reluctant to go the happy route.

However, your question about how Zack Snyder’s universe reflects America’s politics is perceptive. America’s very depressed right now, and that’s strange if you think about how we’re doing better economically than almost any industrialized nation. But we’re very divided. Some on the right think Obama’s against business and against God, and they don’t like that he believes in diplomacy; they seem to prefer a less compromising, prone-to-invade America. Those of us on the left feel like we constantly have to fight with the right just to fix tiny things. We passed Obamacare, but the states and the Supreme Court have fought it and whittled it away every step of the way. It’s absurd, especially since it’s self-destructive for the states to refuse federal money. On the left, we also see police brutality, corporate funding of politics, climate change being ignored, massive income disparity, and lot of other things that need addressing but that we can’t get done due to massive right-wing resistance to even very basic reforms. So basically, almost everyone in America is unhappy with the status quo in one way or another.

It’s a climate of distrust. And I think Zach Snyder is reflecting that. Superman’s arrival is a huge deal. Some people would literally worship him. Some people would appreciate him. Others would distrust him. There would probably be a big surge in gun sales and militia movements, even though these weapons wouldn’t do anything against Superman. The first half of that teaser trailer is all about this, and it’s very important to depict. It’s a lot more realistic than having everyone loving the super-hero.

But you asked about America’s international politics. It’s true that Superman can be seen as an embodiment of American might. America is a superpower, and Superman has super powers. In the 1950s and 1960s, Superman was unquestionably in the right in his stories, even though he was a jerk a lot of the time. He worked with the police, and he embodied the idea that America had unprecedented military might but would use it for good, because America was special. I think we know that was never entirely true, even if the United States did some good things along the way. But the fiasco of the Iraq Occupation has made it very hard for most of us – or at least, the sane ones among us – to believe these old myths about our country. So if Superman is the embodiment of American military might, it’s very hard to imagine that’s a good thing, or something that shouldn’t be questioned.

I’m sure there are other readings to be made here. I’ve long felt America feels that it’s in a post-empire slide. We’re the biggest economy and by far the biggest military, but we’ve always been terribly, terribly insecure. We’re slowly shifting to a service economy, as happens when you get rich enough that wages rise, and we see nations like China on the rise. Also, because of income disparity, the American Dream doesn’t feel likely for most Americans anymore. I’m sure Snyder’s Superman reflects this.

Are you worried about the future of the DC Film Universe? Some fans and critics said it iis collapsing already… How it’s connected with moving DC from New York to Burbank? What does this movement tells us about the future of this universe?

I think that movement to Burbank reflects that DC is an entertainment company. It used to be in the magazine publishing business. But the trend has been for companies to shift to multiple media. If you look at Marvel, it failed at toys in the 1990s and went back to doing comics, but its immense growth since 2000 is largely due to its movie and TV projects. So I think that the move to Burbank reflects how DC is a larger media company now, looking to exploit its characters across all sorts of media.

I think the key thing to understand about the DC Cinematic Universe is that it’s not designed to be like the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Marvel has tried to present its characters in versions that feel “definitive.” Inevitably, that will change, as plots continue to twist. For example, the characters introduced in Age of Ultron don’t feel definitive, partially due to contracts with Fox. But in theory, Marvel’s movies and connected TV shows are designed to be the definitive versions of these characters.

Warner Bros. has always operated differently. What’s good about that is that the company gives people like Christopher Nolan and Zach Snyder a lot of freedom. Marvel couldn’t keep Edgar Wright. Warner Bros. has basically let Nolan and Snyder do what they want to do. DC also has a lot of different universes going, and embraces the idea of different takes on the same character, whereas Marvel wants everything in the same universe. So we’re apparently going to get a DC Cinematic Universe in which Krypton looks like a fantasy planet, Batman was around long before Superman, Batman’s cast is much older than Superman’s cast, Alfred’s dead, and most of Batman’s history occurred unseen. It’s not at all a definitive take on these characters. However, it’s a much more visionary, artistic take. Is it too dark? Certainly, for some people’s tastes. There are things I like about Man of Steel and things I don’t like. But it’s very much Zach Snyder’s Superman.

I do worry about the DC Cinematic Universe. I worry it won’t be good, or that its continuity will be confusing. I also worry that kids are going to think Man of Steel is the definitive Superman, simply because it’s the movie Superman and thus the most prominent. I know I’m going to have conversations with teenagers in which they think Krypton was always a place with dragons that used to colonize other planets. I also worry that Snyder’s take, partially because it’s dark, won’t be as successful as the Marvel movies. Essentially, we’re never going to get a “definitive” shared DC Cinematic Universe, and that’s kind of sad, even if in general I’m in favor of artistic freedom.

At some point, the current super-hero fad is going to end. And even if DC produces a dozen movies first, we won’t have gotten a DC Cinematic Universe, in the same way we’ve gotten a Marvel one. I’d like to think that tastes would shift, and there’ll be a shift towards smarter super-hero movies. For all of his faults, Snyder seems to want to make smarter super-hero movies that push the envelope, and I think that’s good. They might fare better, if there’s a shift towards smarter, more adult super-hero stories. But everything I’ve seen in American culture has been shifting towards dumber, more childish stuff, and I don’t see that changing soon.

How deeply are superheroes representations of our fears and emotions? Is it accurate only on an individual level, just like in Dean’s Trippe comic book Something Terrible?

Super-heroes definitely reflect society and psychology. Probably everything does, but super-heroes are often present-day myths, in which these social concerns and psychological elements get written onto a kind of mythical tapestry.

Dean Trippe’s Something Terrible is absolutely wonderful, and I recommend it immensely. It’s beautiful and touching. Everyone should read it. I do think it’s personal, or individual. In terms of super-heroes, it’s about how he was moved as a kid to see super-heroes as defenders of what’s right and rescuers of the innocent. How this played out in his own life is totally individual, and it’s profoundly touching.

But I also think there are less individual ways in which super-heroes represent our emotions. For example, most of us dream of having power. Some of us dream of specific powers, like flight. We also live in a celebrity-obsessed culture, and super-heroes are celebrities. So they tap into our hopes and fears. I think, ultimately, that the super-hero is a kind of exploration of power, of the way power works and whether we can use it responsibly. Most people wouldn’t. But that’s a tremendously resonant idea, and it’s reflective of our politics (as you’ve pointed out) and of the various privileges that exist within our society.

What is the current status quo of pop culture in general? Is it more mature or maybe only ‘grim and darker’ to simulate maturity?

That’s a good question. I definitely think you can point to things that are “grim and gritty” in a way that simulates maturity, but isn’t really mature at all. A lot of 1990s comics were more like that, and it wasn’t just Marvel’s Punisher craze. It was also at DC, in the Superman titles after he returned from the dead, and in the Batman titles when he got his back broken by Bane.

But I don’t think this is always true of darker or more realistic stories. For example, some people have said Watchmen is needlessly grim. But it asks important questions about the super-hero in history and in relationships, and the story gets at universal ideas that transcend the super-hero genre.

I think Snyder’s super-hero movies are needlessly violent. They put too much violence into slow motion, and too much of that violence has characters with gritted teeth punching through walls. This is silly stuff. But he’s also interested in asking important questions. I’m not sure Man of Steel is a good movie, but it does depict a superhuman fight as having real casualties and real implications, and it doesn’t pretend that being Superman would be easy. Sometimes, it goes too far, like in the way Clark’s father doesn’t want him to use his powers and needlessly dies. Some of that does seem to come from the idea that dark material is somehow more serious. But there are serious and good ideas in that movie too.

Is there any significant change in Western pop culture that happened in previous 25 years? Please show some crucial moments in the last two decades, important for today’s shape of entertainment and for what will come in the near future.

25 years ago, it was 1990. Just the year before, Tim Burton’s Batman debuted. It largely made Burton’s career, and it made Batman cool again. It’s amazing to think how important that movie was, now that we see how super-heroes have become cool. In terms of super-hero movies, 2000’s X-Men and 2002’s Spider-Man were the key moments. They’re a lot closer to Burton’s Batman than to Nolan’s Batman, by the way. I said so earlier, but I don’t think the current dominance of Hollywood movies by super-heroes is going to last. I think there will inevitably be some big-budget flops, and Hollywood will tone down its super-hero output.

25 years ago, the internet didn’t exist for most people. Today, books and comics and TV and movies are all distributed online, and I think that trend is going to continue. Sequart Organization has been able to make documentary films largely because the cost of production has dropped so much, and after having written comics all my life but seen none of them produced, I’m producing my own comics now. So I think the trend towards digital is tremendously exciting.

In comics history, by far the biggest development was the 1999-2005 period, in which comics coloring improved dramatically. Comics started looking a lot better. At the time time, writers like Warren Ellis rose to prominence. WildStorm did amazing work. This was also the heyday of Marvel, which under Joe Quesada created the Ultimate universe and brought writers like Grant Morrison over to Marvel. There was also a trend towards a new kind of story that combined the intelligence and literary devices of the 1980s with this new beautiful artwork, and these super-hero comics weren’t usually very dark but were relatively realistic and intelligent. By 2005, crossovers were coming back into fashion, and this tremendous energy started disappearing again.

Since you asked about popular culture more generally, I’d also mention the development of very artistic and high-budget TV shows. The Wire came earlier, but it wasn’t a success, and The Sopranos was really the key development. Since then, we’ve had Game of Thrones and other HBO shows, and other networks (like AMC) have gotten into the same game with shows like Breaking Bad. A lot of creators have been saying for years that they prefer TV, because it gives them more time and space to tell their story, and movies have responded by creating big-budget, special effects-heavy, action-heavy “event” movies, in 3D and IMAX, which TV can’t compete with. I suspect these trends will continue.

Another trend has been towards diversity and inclusiveness. 1990 was another world, in which homosexuals were mostly used as a joke. Racial and ethnic and gender diversity still has a long ways to go, but I think the market is there for these stories, and the expansion in the number of comics and TV shows produced means there is going to be more room to tell these stories. I think that’s for the best.

One thing that hasn’t happened is that the American market isn’t as international as we hoped it would be. American popular culture has embraced some British shows, like Doctor Who, but it’s limited. Similarly, America has embraced Japanese comics, but not comics from all over the world. South Korea has had some success in popular music. And because most big-budget cinema is international now, involving international companies, there are a few foreign films that have done well over here – and thus around the world. But if we’re moving towards a global world, I’d like to see the global entertainment market become less America-dominated.

Ultimately, I believe in meritocracy. I’d like to see all of these ideas and stories competing against each other, and I’d like to see international and independent voices having a fair chance against big American companies. But I’m not sure that’s going to happen, even with the internet “democratizing” things.

One thing that hasn’t happened in theatrical animation. Animation itself has exploded, but it’s still largely used for comedy. The Simpsons led to South Park and Family Guy, and Cartoon Network’s Adult Swim is hugely influential. DC has been especially successful in creating direct-to-video movies. But I still feel like the promise of animation largely hasn’t been fulfilled, despite occasional exceptions. I hope that’ll change in the next 25 years.

More and more women are interesting in reading comics and playing video games… Nevertheless there are still productions which reproduce some well-known stereotypes about gender. Is it the only problem in pop culture right now? What can you tell us about feminism in pop culture, especially in the comic book and film industries?

I think there’s been a huge change on that topic in the last few years. A lot of it goes back to DC’s 2011 relaunch, which was not a great case of female inclusiveness. It produced a backlash, and that got people talking about gender in comics in a way I’d never seen before. Since then, we’ve gone through several such controversies in comics, and we’ve also gone through GamerGate in video games. It’s a remarkably different landscape today than in 2011. Some people are still producing the same old stories, but everyone is aware of gender in a pretty keen way. They may not always get everything right, and there may be more work to do, but it’s a different world today than even four years ago.

In popular culture, there’s definitely been a very frightening backlash against discussing gender. GamerGate is the worst, but we see it in comics too. It’s incredibly common for female critics to get death threats and rape threats. I find this totally unacceptable. To a lot of the men who are angry, women are forcing their comics to change. And that’s true. But the truth is that if you want to make a comic or a video game in which the only women have big breasts and are prostitutes, you can. You have that freedom, and I’d defend that freedom. However, everyone else has a freedom to criticize these stereotypical depictions. Sometimes, I feel like it’s not right to blame an individual work for a stereotype, because the problem is the stereotype, not a single work. Some stories are going to only feature men, or only feature a narrow range of characters. However, I agree with a lot of the critics, and some stories go beyond a lack of diversity into some ugly racist or sexist material. What I don’t think the angry male fans understand is that this criticism doesn’t mean that anyone is going to come confiscate their comics or video games. It’s just talking. It’s just women being allowed to have an opinion. Personally, I think we haven’t had enough female perspectives in comics and video games. We need those perspectives, and listening to other perspectives usually make us better people and better artists.

So I don’t understand the anger, because even if everyone says Grand Theft Auto is sexist, they can still make Grand Theft Auto, and you can still enjoy Grand Theft Auto, and that’s not going to change because someone posted something online. If a store stops selling it, it’s not censorship. Just buy the game online or at another store. It’s not a crisis. Or it shouldn’t be. But these angry male fans feel like they’re under assault, and anytime that someone changes their plans due to criticism, these fans feel like it’s censorship. Companies change plans due to criticism all the time.

I should say that these angry male fans are probably less than 10% of comics and popular culture fans. Probably most male fans don’t agree with feminist criticism, at least in America. But they’re not very angry about it. Of course, there’s also a lot of diversity in women’s opinions. Some have no problem with the most sexual and stereotypical images, but others do. Ultimately, I simply believe that all opinions should be allowed to be voiced, and people shouldn’t overreact to them.

We’ve also started discussing transgendered issues and representations, and that’s expanded greatly in the last year or two. Even in the way I’ve discussed this issue, some people would say that I’ve presumed it’s only male and female fans and voices, whereas the reality is a lot more complex.

In the long run, I do believe that we have to examine gender in more detailed ways. I’m vehemently against sexual repression, and I think heterosexual men tend to objectify women largely by nature, not simply because they were exposed to sexist examples. Men and women are different, and we should acknowledge that, while also permitting everyone to defy these generalizations and be whomever they want to be. A lot of times, when I read feminist criticism, I agree with almost all of it, but there will be some line about how these stereotypical depictions lead to sexual assaults, despite that most of the evidence is that they don’t. Or a critic will describe how she feels looking at these images and then ask how a creator has the right to make her feel that way. Well, obviously, a creator has the right to make those images without regard for anyone’s feelings. But I’m honestly sad to read how that critic feels, and it’s a perspective we ought to think more about. I don’t have to agree 100% to appreciate a writer’s intelligence, perspective, or courage. Ultimately, I think we’ll work through all of this, and I hope we’ll come to a point when women are allowed to make these criticisms, and are taken seriously without harassment, but where we also understand that gender stereotypes aren’t entirely arbitrary or culturally programmed. I also think that a lot of these sexual stereotypes will disappear from mainstream comics aimed at a general audience, but you’ll always be able to buy comics with them if you want.

In the meantime, I’m not usually interested in pointing out my own thoughts, because right now a lot of women don’t feel safe simply expressing their opinions, and we have to make women feel safe in popular culture communities before we can really hash all these things out. Right now, we need more female participation, more female critics, and more female creators. And when people are being threatened or silenced, it’s time to end that. This was probably always the case, but no one today can pretend they don’t know it’s happening.

How will new technology impact not only mass culture as a whole, but the stories and scripts as well? Does the ‘Japanisation’ of US and UK pop culture still have an impact on entertainment? I’m really interested about your comments on this in the context of the next big changes for Batman, i.e. turning the Dark Knight into an Appleseed-ish GCPD  robot superhero.

I think the idea that technology will lead to democratization is perhaps exaggerated. It is true that technology has allowed more people to create books, comics, and movies than ever before. However, it is really, really hard to get people to read and to buy those books, comics, and movies. It’s actually a very frustrating problem.

Let’s say that you spend years and produce a comic that’s really good. The writing is good. The art is good. The cover is good. The coloring is good. The lettering is good. You’ve gone over every single page, pixel by pixel, and made sure there are no stray lines and that the lettering is properly aligned. You still see these errors in the most prominent comics. You’ve tweaked the writing endlessly, to make sure that it fits the colored artwork, which inevitably makes things clear that were ambiguous in the script and doesn’t make things clear that you thought would be. You’ve poured time and money into this comic, and the end result is pretty stellar. Then you try selling it, and you can spend months trying to get 100 people to buy it. Then you publish the second issue, and there’s the usual drop-off in terms of sales, except that now it’s starting from a base of 100 people. There’s no way you’re going to break even; you might need to sell 1000 or more copies to break even.

Meanwhile, every month that passes, you see the silliest, most crudely produced product being published not only by Marvel and DC but by other companies. Some of these comics get massive publicity and praise from critics, and they even get awards. You’re confident your comic can stand up to almost any of them, but quality and hard work don’t matter if no one reads. You see a comic in which Spider-Man fights vampires, filled with mistakes that indicate no one cared to tweak things the way you have, and it’s selling 30,000 copies purely because it’s Spider-Man and has Marvel’s publicity machine behind it. It’s profoundly depressing.

Some people thing that technology allows people to find these projects, not only produce them. And that’s true, to an extent. You can garner followers on social media. You can connect with people. But it’s because of this that you can sell 100 copies. True, some people create webcomics, and they do so for years without pay, and they slowly work up an audience of thousands. But most people don’t expect to have to do this, or they can’t. And I can tell you that even with my connections and the reputation I’ve built at Sequart, this is very hard work. Meanwhile, you see someone who puts egg salad on Kickstarter, and it gets thousands of supporters. But it does so as a joke, because it went viral. It’s not a measure of the quality of that egg salad, or a demonstration of how quality work finds an audience. 50 Shades of Gray became successful online, but it’s terribly written, and there were probably 10,000 better-written novels that averaged 10 copies sold.

So technology has been democratizing. It lets people make books, comics, and movies. And it lets them find an audience. But it’s not a meritocracy, and 99% of these new creators are suffering personally and losing money. I’m still glad these opportunities exist, but we shouldn’t romanticize them or imagine that they’re much of a threat to the solidified corporate power that rules our entertainment and publishing industries.

But technology has changed things. It’s certainly changed how we read comics. More people now read them digitally than ever before. I know I do.

This has also changed how comics are produced. For example, I’m now totally against double-page spreads, or linked pages, unless every two pages are linked in this way. The reason is because I can’t stand how digital readers handle double-page spreads. You’re used to certain dimensions, and all of a sudden comes a new page that’s twice as wide. Sure, it’s supposedly two pages that are linked, but the reality is that it’s really a page with different dimensions. The text is half as big, and it’s hard to read. When you think about it, double-page spreads don’t make much sense anyway; when you print them, you have to include part of the other page in the center margins, to get the pages to print correctly. And the entire way we read comics is that we see the page as the central unit, then go through panels on that page; a double-page spread breaks that by saying “okay, this two-page spread is the central unit now, but we’ll go back to the old format in a second.” So I’m against double-page spreads now.

Similarly, in print, it used to be popular to shift certain pages ninety degrees. This happened all the time in the 1990s, but you can still see it occasionally today. Readers would turn the comic book to read the next page. But that doesn’t work in digital. On phones and tablets, if this sideways page was put into the file literally, you could never read it, because the device would detect that it was turned and would keep flipping the page around to preserve its orientation. In a digital file, you have to rotate these sideways pages, which means the pages are of inconsistent dimensions.

I still think we’re working through some of the consequences for comics storytelling. Most comics are still a set number of pages. DC’s comics are 20 pages long. Most of Marvel’s average 22. This comes from when comics would be printed, and since we usually print books and magazines in multiples of four pages, most comics are 32 pages long, plus the cover. This means that 10 to 12 pages are usually advertisements and letter columns pages. But the idea that every chapter in a story, or every story in a collection, should be precisely the same length is absurd. Imagine if someone hired you to write a novel but said that every chapter had to be precisely 20 pages long. This makes no sense. Some chapters need to be short, and in comics we just combine them with the next chapter. Other chapters need to be long, and in comics we just break them up. Digital allows for more flexibility, and I hope that this will lead to a greater variety of page counts, which let comics be written in a more mature way, closer to how we write books than the old system of comics production.

On the subject of “Japanization,” by far the biggest effect has been that comics have become more decompressed, or spaced out. If you read most European comics, they’re filled with dialogue and captions. Under the French system, a very productive artist might produce 46 pages or so every year or two, and that’s sold as a hardcover album for the equivalent of around $16. Obviously, readers want to get their money’s worth, so a lot has to happen per page. Under the Japanese system, comics are generally serialized in huge magazines, printed on cheap paper. Japanese comics are incredibly spaced out, and this emphasizes the visual. A character might walk down a hallway for three pages, then burst into a boardroom, leading to two full pages of reactions. It’s a totally different style of storytelling. And if you look at American comics, they started much closer to the European style, and continued essentially without major change until the 1980s. As manga started selling, American comics started shifting slightly towards the Japanese style of pacing. Frank Miller was one of the first to change, and you can see this in his Sin City series. We’re still closer to Europe than Japan, but we’re not as close as we used to be.

But I think your question was looking more at cultural aspects. If you go to a comics convention, you’ll see a lot of Japanese-influenced cosplay. Japanese cartoons are still pretty popular. And I think that American culture has embraced some of the cuteness, the style of manga, and how Japanese stories don’t have to make sense in the strictly logical way that American and European stories traditionally did. All of that has happened, and there are trends in all of these directions.

I don’t know what to make of the Appleseed-like Batman, set to debut shortly. It’s not clear how long this is going to last. It’s not clear if it’s Bruce Wayne inside that armor. Batman’s worn armor before, not only in Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns but in Kingdom Come. I suspect that what’s going on is that the idea of Batman in armor, from Kingdom Come, has simply gone through a Japanese filter. It’s interesting, but I’m not sure what to make of it. It’s certainly the case that Japanese elements remain popular, and you can see them all over the place. But I’m not sure this is more true today than ten years ago, when American comics companies were producing their own manga volumes. But time will tell!

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Michał Chudoliński (born in 1988) is a comics and film critic. He is a lecturer on American popular culture, with an emphasis on comic books (“Batman’s mythology and criminology”; “Comic book Canon”; “Comics Journalism”), at the Collegium Civitas. He is the founder and an editor of the Gotham in Rain blog. He writes for magazines like Polityka, Nowa Fantastyka, Charaktery and International Journal of Comic Art (IJOCA) and is a guest speaker on the Polish Radio. Currently he is working at AKFiS TVP and is the Polish correspondent of “The Comics Journal”. Co-founder of the Polish Science Fiction Foundation.

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