Tuesday, 23 April 2013

Books: Judge Dredd: The Cursed Earth Saga


Judge Dredd: The Cursed Earth Saga
Written by Pat Mills and John Wagner
Art by Mick McMahon and Brian Bolland

Available now from Islington Libraries
You can reserve this item for free here:

"I play with a ball... Dick and Jane play with a ball... Judge Dredd will not play with a ball."

At the last meeting of the Comic Forum someone (I forget who and I forget why) mentioned Judge Dredd: to which someone else responded - with a snort (I think it was Wayne but I can't be sure): "Judge Dredd? That's for children isn't it?" [1]

I mean: ok yeah - strictly speaking it's true: Judge Joseph Dredd: born and raised on the pages of 2000AD was created as something to keep young boys entertained and away from the evil grasps of punk rock or whatever back in the late 1970s: since then tho he's ascended through the ranks to the upper tiers of society and there attained the heady status of cultural icon: I mean - even if you've never read a comic (or seen the two film adaptations) you still know who Judge Dredd is and what he stands for - right [2]?

But - man - dismissing it as just being that is like thinking that adults can't enjoy fireworks: it's just - well: it's just silly (sorry Wayne). Because even though - yeah: it's been calibrated for the brains of teenage boys: when it reaches it's proper sweet spot and has all the right elements  in place (namely: concept, plot and the proper artists) then: well (oh boy) - it becomes (pardon me) transcendent.

Which brings us to The Cursed Earth Saga: and - well - basically (not that I want to build it up too much or anything) one of the best comics of it's era (1978 - a whole decade before all your Watchmens and Dark Knight Returns): I mean - yeah yeah - it is fantastic that Judge Dredd has managed to keep going and going and going well past the point that anyone ever thought that he would and that is obviously part of the reason why he's still such a thing and people are still making movie and whatever - but (and seriously I have no problem at all in saying this) even if 2000AD had been cancelled after this story was completed [3] - people would still be talking about it today and referring to it as a high-bench mark of - well - the science-fictional comic genre (I realise that maybe that sounds like faint praise - but it's not supposed to be).

(And - just so no one there gets too confused: I should point out that - this is a story that's been collected in the Judge Dredd: Complete Case Files 02: only Islington currently doesn't have a copy of that - so we'll have to make do with this mini-sized copy instead [4]).

But - whatever - what makes it so good then?

Well - like it says on the back cover ("A road trip through hell") this is an epic that takes Dredd outside from the comforting clutches of Mega City One and subjects him to the berserker craziness outside the walls: I mean - at this point it's pretty much a genre staple to have your heroic figure venture through an unforgiving post-apocalyptic wasteland [5] - but mostly (in film terms at least) that kind of thing is done because it's a hell of a lot cheaper to go and shoot in desert and pretend it's the year 2100 rather than: you know - build a future city with flying cars and whatever - of course - seeing that Judge Dredd doesn't have to worry about anything as niggling as a special effects budget - the writers are free to go as crazy as they want: and - hell yes: having an entire landmass to fill means that they give full rein to all of their sick and fevered imaginings - which means that it's total jackpot time for all the lucky readers out there.

Because - like I said: it's all basically written for the short attention spans of teenage boys (who we all know need constant stimulus or else their heads explode in a big fat sticky mess) the barrage of cool things is non-stop right from the get-go: as you should know - 2000AD is a weekly anthology comic and so all the Judge Dredd stories come out in 5 or 6 page installments [6]: over time the writers have got a lot more self-assured with spreading things out and not making things feel too crammed - but at this early point in time there's this great feeling of having nothing to lose and everything to play for and this amazing frantic energy that means that it feels like you're reading the entire thing on fast-forward with all the best bits jammed next to each other: with anything deemed unnecessary left on the cutting room floor ("Never a dull moment when you're a Twenty-Second Century cop!").

But - as it's all welded to a story that's timeless in it's simplicity (I've never read The Odyssey - but I'm guessing the story structure is exactly the same - get to the place and try not to get killed by all the monsters you meet on the way) it free to luxuriant in it's many splendid diversions: you know that phrase - it's not about the destination - it's about the journey? Well - it's in full effect here: with a feast of freaks and otherworldly sights and smells to enjoy: safe in the knowledge that if there's any of it that starts to drag - well: it won't be long until you're on to the next thing.   

What also makes it such a great trip is the company. I've remarked before (I'm sure) that Dredd isn't much of a character with interesting nuances or hidden depths (but I'd argue he's not really supposed to be) and as much fun as it is to watch him punch people - after a whole epic his one-noteness would (I'd fear) start to get a little bit worn out - thankfully then - he gets a lot of support from elsewhere (in fact - towards the end there's a massive double-page spread of everyone featured in the Cursed Earth that makes you realise just how populated a barren wasteland can be): number one mention has got to go to Spikes Harvey Rotten: a 22nd Century man who cribs all of his moves (and fashion-sense) from 20th Century punks (who were all the rage back in 1978): I mean - yes - on the one hand he's a bit of a stereotype: with dialogue full of "dis" and "dat" and not much in the way of subtlety - but then again: there's a reason why if you play Anarchy in the UK everyone in the vicinity will get up and start to jump around like their neck's on fire: it's loud and it's noisy and that's what makes it fun.

The artwork by Mick McMahon [7] is fantastic. The best way I can describe it - is that it's like Moebius woke up in a bad mood and a shaky hand: it's detailed and feels like you're only ever seeing a small part of a fully realised world - but conveyed in such a way that it's always "BAM!" and on to the next thing: like he was so excited to get this stuff down that he didn't want to get too bogged down in making things look too pretty: and it's absolutely perfect for the story.

And - yeah - the story: full of proclamations like "It was not a nice way to die." and "sometimes the human race makes me sick!" - it's beautifully stark and ugly in the world that it depicts. Unlike the majority of kid's stories nowadays where it seems that most of the muck and danger gets cleared away and put into tidy little boxes - The Cursed Earth is a sprawling, teeming mess of muties, criminals and - ah yes - dinosaurs.

I mean: I really hate giving plot points away - but I feel like I should briefly touch upon the dinosaur aspect of The Cursed Earth - especially seeing how (oh my god) it bears striking similarities to a well known 1993 film directed by Steven Spielberg. I'm not accusing anyone of deliberately ripping anyone off: I mean - we all know the story of how two people invented the light bulb at the same time right? And - (if you don't mind sounding like a hippy) Idea Space and all the rest of it [8]: well - yeah - I guess it just means that Pat Mills was the first person to stumble upon something and then - years later - Michael Crichton came (independently) to exactly the same place [9]: and - hell - if I was Pat Mills I don't think that I would ever ever shut up about this - but what can you do huh? (and if you think that maybe I'm over-selling this or whatever - then pick up a copy of this book and read pages 85 - 88 and we'll talk - ok?).

(And - also: yeah - to be fair - I should point out that there is a strange understanding of cloning happening - namely that clones have the memories of the subject that they were cloned from  ("For a moment, memories of his first life flashed through his tiny brain"): but then - that's a mistake that tends to get repeating in a lot of films [10] - so I can't really blame Pat Mills too much)

But that's really the only niggle. And - hell - there's so much style and wit infused throughout this whole comic (as my literary flatmate put it so succinctly: "Satanus is a great name for a dinosaur.") that it seems churlish to complain about - well - anything really. I mean - it's all just for kids right? So - just strap yourself you: marvel at the construction and the pulsating thrill power and get ready for the ride of your life.

"Oooh! I get so excited just looking at it's multi-level kill power."

"Calm down, McArthur. This is unseemly behaviour for a Judge... and kindly remove your hand from my uniform."

[1] You know, for kids.

[2] Or is this assuming too much? I don't know: people who don't read comics or watch science-fictiony films are a mystery to me: so maybe don't listen to anything that I have to say. In fact: I rewatched Dredd (Karl Urban version) with my girlfriend and it took her a while (until his "I am the law" speech in fact) to get into the swing of things: for the first hour or so she was screaming out in horror things like "This is horrible!" "These people are being brutalised!" and "The reason there's so much crime is because the system is corrupt." Still: eventually she acclimatised and towards the end was cheering along with the skull-smashing: which I guess goes to show that even if people have heard of Judge Dredd - they don't really know what it's actually about: it's like if people thought that that Doctor Who was a medical drama or something...

[3] And - holy moly - this was just progs 61 to 85 (progs = issues: with one per week) - which - to give you some perspective: last year was prog 1800: so - you know - this is practically (in 2000AD terms) the Jurassic period or something.

[4] For some reason (maybe they're aiming it at kids or something?) - unlike the Complete Case Files - this book is published at half the size of the original comics. As my literary flatmate put it best: "it's annoying small." - but what the hey - the story is so good that by the time it's sucked you in - you won't even notice. Me - I was just happy to get a chance to finally read the whole thing. Back when I was a kid I used to have Book Two but never managed to get my grubby mitts on a copy of Book One (and - shockingly - even tho it's been - what? - 15 years? - I can actually say that it was worth the wait - wooo!).

[5] The example that springs to mind first is Mad Max but - surprisingly for me - that didn't come out until 1979 - the year after The Cursed Earth came out: which I guess is just one of the many things that puts it ahead of the curve (see also: Jurassic Park - which we'll come to in a bit...).

[6] Yes yes - there's also the Judge Dredd Megazine which allows for much longer chunks of stories - but that didn't come out until 1990 - so at this point it doesn't really count.

[7] Ok - yes - and Brian Bolland as well: but (and I think this is due to the fact that Bolland is famously slow when it comes to turning in pages - a side-effect of the fact that his art always looks so squeaky clean and freshly polished) nowhere near (in percentage of pages or whatever) as much as Mike McMahon.

[8] I thought that Idea Space was a common concept - but looking it up - I realise it's something from Alan Moore and so (I dunno) maybe not in common usage? So - here's him talking about it (to help you realise what it is I'm talking about): "A space in which mental events can be said to occur, an idea space which is perhaps universal. Our individual consciousnesses have access to this vast universal space, just as we have individual houses, but the street outside the front door belongs to everybody. It's almost as if ideas are pre-existing forms within this space… The landmasses that might exist in this mind space would be composed entirely of ideas, of concepts, that instead of continents and islands you might have large belief systems, philosophies, Marxism might be one, Judeo-Christian religions might make up another."

[9] There's a good Grantland article that goes into the ins-and-outs (that - I would say - should (if life was fair) include a reference to the Cursed Earth - but what can you do?): "When was Jurassic Park hatched? We could start in 1924, when the American paleontologist Henry Fairfield Osborn wrote about an "alert, swift-moving carnivorous dinosaur" — Velociraptor mongoliensis. We could start in 1970, when Steven, a young movie director, and Michael, a young novelist, had a chance meeting on the lot at Universal Studios. But I'm thinking we should probably start in 1983. Entomologist George O. Poinar and his wife, Roberta, had begun taking DNA from insects trapped in prehistoric amber. They'd published an article about it in Science. One afternoon, a stranger dropped by their office in Berkeley, Calif. "Tall, pleasant guy," Poinar recalls now. "Really lanky." The man quizzed the Poinars about their work. He asked about amber mines in the Dominican Republic. Then, with his notebook filled, the man left. He never mentioned anything about a dinosaur novel. Michael Crichton, in fact, was already trying to bring dinosaurs back to life. But he'd gotten stuck. "It is always a problem for me to believe in the stories that I am writing," Crichton later wrote to Poinar, "and a dinosaur story especially strains my own credence." When Crichton discovered the Poinars and their bugs-in-amber, he stumbled onto the foundation of a billion-dollar enterprise. It was a beautiful premise for a thriller, in that it both contained cutting-edge science and was ridiculously easy to understand."

[10] (from TV Tropes) "While probably impossible, the popularity of this trope can be attributed to the Rule Of Cool, and how in Real Life biology, DNA acts like a form of advanced memory storage (containing massive amounts of data for production and assembly of various complex proteins). However, this won't become a fully Discredited Trope until and unless someone succeeds in creating a viable clone of an adult human being."

Links: Judge-Tutor Semple Review, Grovel Review.

Further reading: Judge Dredd: The Day The Law Died, Judge Dredd: The Complete Case Files 03Judge Dredd: The Complete Case Files 05, Orc StainProphet, CrossedWasteland, Just a Pilgrim.

All comments welcome.

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