Artist: Dave Kendall
Letterer: Annie Parkhouse
Publisher: Rebellion / 2000AD
As someone who has gotten into Judge Dredd in his late 20s, I have a lot of opinions that would, undoubtedly, mark me as a heretic in the 2000AD fan community. Some of them are small matters of taste (Henry Flint is the best Judge Dredd artist), others are of age (The Judge Child Quest really fails to hold up to modern audiences), but one of the biggest is my refusal to accept that longtime Judge Dredd archenemy Judge Death (and his Dark Judges followers) is scary in any way, shape, or form. I don’t think he was ever scary. Great Brian Bolland design for sure – a creative exaggeration of Dredd’s own proto-fascistic uniform and attitude with lot of neat small touches (Judge Fear wielding a bear-trap as a weapon) – but nothing to ever lose sleep over.
Because most Judge Dredd fans seem to encounter the Dark Judges (a supernatural alternate universe version of the Judges who kill every person they meet because they consider all life as a crime) at a rather young age, there seems to be an attempt to make them “scary again” whenever they are brought back from mothballing. (To be fair, they are as underused as major recurring villains can be in serial comics.) 2015’s Aliens-riff Dark Justice saw them brought back by original writer John Wagner and heavy-metal-inspired artist Greg Staples for a well-received mini-series; the collected hardcover open with a series of emails between writer and artist with Staples saying he’d love to make them “dark, scary and atmospheric.” I think Dark Justice is a very fun ride. Staples is delivering some great bombastic work, but I would never call it “scary.” You can’t really have a scary story with Dredd at the center, because Dredd doesn’t get scared, he just gets angry. Also, the reader knows Dredd isn’t going to die. (Judge Dredd: Titan by Rob Williams and Henry Flint comes pretty close to successful horror because the fear is not about whether Dredd will make it – it’s about he repeatedly fails the city and the citizens and therefore is unworthy of his title.) Which is why I think all these attempts to make the Dark Judges scary again are bound to fail – the people making them are chasing a feeling they had as kids, a raw emotional reaction to a striking image that is near-impossible to replicate as an adult.
The ongoing serial Fall of Deadworld, which recently had its first part collected in hardcover form, seeks to solve the problem by removing Dredd himself from the equation: it’s a prequel, taking place in the final years of Judge Death’s takeover of his own Earth. Some of this stuff has been explored in previous Dredd stories and spinoffs. (Young Death by John Wagner and Peter Doherty filled in most of the character details while the “Half-Life” arc from Judge Anderson showed us that world before Death took over.) But this one has some fresh territory to develop: Judge Death has taken over the justice department / the government and begun transforming other judges into undead monsters, but he is not yet all-powerful and there are signs of rebellion brewing. Former street Judge Fairfax refuses to submit – going on the lamb with his malfunctioning AI bike and a family of farmers, with the minions of Death on his tail.
The biggest problem with Fall of Deadworld is the assumption that you already know everything about the background of this world. (2000AD classic was very good at just throwing you into the thick of the action with enough details for you to get the hang of it.) For this book to work, in plot terms, not only do you need to know who the various Dark Judges are but also who Sidney De’Ath (Judge Death’s civilian name, before his transformation, because as far as classic Judge Dredd stories are concerned “subtlety” is a dirty word) is and what the Sisters of Death are. It’s a spin-off for a spin-off from a spin-off! Sheesh, give the readers a little background before throwing them into deep end.
Otherwise Fall of Deadworld proves itself one of the more successful of the various Judge Dredd spin-offs we got in the last decade and one of the better of the last crop of 2000AD strips. A lot of that is thanks to Dave Kendall’s art; while it is less showy than the stuff Staples did, it lends itself well to the creeping, decaying world-building of the story. You could probably erase most of the text and still get the proper sense of dread. (Sorry, I had to.) There’s palpable texture to it all, the smell of rotten flesh and dead trees is there on every page. The colors bring to mind the palate of 1990s Vertigo, the infamous browns & greens, here utilized in a proper manner. They show us a world that is already gone to shit (literal and metaphorical) and express how little hope there is to Fairfax’s quest; Death had already mortally wounded the world and we are witnesses to its last breaths.
It’s the kind of stylistic choice that could easily lend itself to confused under-rendered character work (all late-‘90s blotches of paint and little readability), but Kendall is at the top of game here, moving from fight scenes to visions of horror to smaller personal moments. The “Dreams of Deadworld” segments (short stories in the vein of Future Shocks with the Dark Judges) finds him at his atmospheric best, giving dreamlike quality to Judge Mortis’s gaunt appearance as he plans yet another genocide, or finding the sublime in the eternal burning that is Judge Fire.
Writer Kek-W seems to have snuck up on me unaware, despite writing comics for the best part of a decade, scripting the amusingly surreal one-shot Cap’n Dinosaur, with artist Shaky Kane, and writing the ongoing serials The Order and the recent revival of Indigo Prime (which really can’t be collected soon enough). Kek-W has that rare talent to fit the style of the story to the artist, as seen in the powerful paint work of John Burns complimenting the mythical structure of The Order.
A Kek-W story is often identifiable from the writing alone, favoring the off-beat stylings of folk such as Grant Morrison and John Smith while keeping the characters and language more down to Earth. (I always thought As I Lay Dying would work better if it had more fight scenes and a bike that curses – turns out I was right!) There is a joy to having a writer who works with the artists rather than attempting to impose a story on them. While Deadworld and Dark Judges lend themselves to otherworldly visions, there is always something human to hold on to; Fairfax’s grim determination to see things through, Byke’s rudeness and foul language covering for how much he cares, and Gate’s desire to please a master who would never care for him.
And there are the Dark Judges themselves, seen both from the outside (in the main story) and from within (in the shorts). They are still not scary, I don’t think they could ever be to me, but there is something oddly pathetically identifiable to their being now. When they first started they were a mirror to Dredd, a mirror he always refused to look at, but now they are mirror to too many people in the real world; those who would gladly tear down the world because they see nothing of value in it, because they see nothing of value in themselves. Kek-W’s Judge Fear is the standout here; a monster capable of so much harm yet who suffers from performance anxiety whenever someone stands up to him.
In many ways the problem is that villains of the piece end being far more interesting (these damaged fiends with delusions of grandeur) than the thousands of people they kill. The final image of the Judge Mortis story – alone in a death-world he made with nothing to look for but more killing and nothing to do once it’s done – offers one that the readers will take with them: not sympathy for the monsters, but the knowledge the monsters end up dooming themselves.