Drokk! Ep. 9: “Frightened, Beaten People Like Us”

October 28, 2019

Previously on Drokk!: The eighth volume of Judge Dredd: The Complete Case Files was the first to leave Jeff and I underwhelmed, and doubting whether it was possible that Wagner and Grant, who had seemed near invincible for the run so far, had utterly lost it completely, or whether they were just in a lull and recovery mode…

0:00:00-0:04:49: As we introduce ourselves and the fact that we’re covering Judge Dredd: The Complete Case Files Vol. 9 — AKA stories from 2000 AD Prog’s 424-473, from 1985 and 1986, written by John Wagner and Alan Grant and illustrated by a bunch of people — Jeff and I also very quickly get into the weeds explaining the references in the names of our particular city blocks this episode. It’s not a great start, let’s be honest.

0:04:50-0:26:56: You know what is a great start? The first story in this volume, “Midnight Surfer,” which boasts some amazing artwork from Cam Kennedy and supremely confident writing from Wagner and Grant, who clearly have their mojo back and then some. We talk about both things, and also why this story is the ideal introduction to this book, as well as Chopper’s place in the wider Dredd narrative as a hero, Dredd’s place as, as Jeff puts it, “an instrument of the government,” and also Jeff’s joy of balancing his ignorance of what’s to come with my, and the commenters’, knowledge of future storylines. All this, and whether or not Dredd shaves in our personal head canons!

0:26:57-0:31:41: The unmistakable greatness of “Midnight Surfer” is followed by the… dubious pleasures of “Nosferatu,” which I describe as being “shambolic on some level,” yet nonetheless not without its charms. Why do Wagner and Grant return to such generic monster gimmicks on a recurring basis? We talk about potential answers.

0:31:42-0:50:54: In a relatively wide-ranging section, we talk about the value of stories not outstaying their welcome in this volume, and the fact that this allows Wagner and Grant to both follow their interests and show off their diversity, even as their showing off may prove to be less showy than, say, Alan Moore. This leads into a discussion of influence — I ask whether Jeff can see the influence of Wagner/Grant (Really, Wagner) and Pat Mills on Alan Moore, and Jeff counters by talking about the clear influence Wagner/Grant had on Garth Ennis. Somehow, from there, we talk about the relative impact of Dredd as a strip relative to its strengths as great comics, and then get briefly into some of those strengths: namely, the expositionary powers of Wagner and Grant and the fact that these comics were written for children but not written down to children.

0:50:55-0:55:39: Another brief diversion, as we pit Otto Sump against the Fatties, as Wagner and Grant revive two running jokes once again in this volume, and Jeff and I have different favorites, and different reasons why each story works (or doesn’t) for us. Who knew that Jeff wasn’t into happy endings?

0:55:40-1:11:14: It’s not all greatness in this volume, as our discussion of the (almost impressively racist) “The Warlord” story underscores. We talk about cultural differences on either side of the Atlantic in the mid-80s, the failures of this story outside the racism, but also the things that come closest to saving graces: Cam Kennedy’s artwork, and also the surprising impact of continuity on this storyline’s final episode, but also the aftermath of it all. Slow world building — and the fact that Jeff and I have read nine years’ worth of this strip over nine months — means that, when the story suddenly and unexpectedly leans on the mythology of it all, the result can be surprisingly effective.

1:11:15-1:33:36: We skip through a couple of done-in-ones before reaching the story that is, arguably, the heart of the volume: “Letter From A Democrat,” which I describe as the story that breaks Judge Dredd as a strip — in a good way, I hasten to add — and which is also, potentially, a story that breaks Dredd. What happens when Wagner and Grant just wholeheartedly go in on the fact that the Judges are the bad guys? It’s a choice that has, arguably, informed so much of this volume — we touch on a few more examples — but it’s also something that resonates more today than it would have five years ago, Jeff suggests. It’s a wonderful, breathtaking story that makes what was already a great volume into something even better.

1:33:37-1:39:34: I confess that this volume exhausts me — it’s more than 400 pages long — as we talk about some other stories, including an extended Christmas episode that suggests, not for the first time, that Wagner and Grant do not properly understand how lobotomies work. Also, we talk Gribligs — not good — and Lemmings — very good — even as Jeff admits that he doesn’t like Brendan McCarthy’s art. (I know, I know; he’s ”problematic” to be very, very kind, but I still like his artwork a bunch; sorry.)

1:39:35-1:59:59: Is this a volume to recommend to newcomers? Jeff and I split on the answer, because he’d rather recommend it as a second volume, whereas I think it’s strong enough on its own merits to work as an introduction. We also list our favorite stories in the book — we both like “Midnight Surfer,” while Jeff adds “Letter From A Democrat” and “West Side Rumble,” and I go for “The Man Who Knew Too Much” (which we discuss a little) and “The Lemming Syndrome” — and I ask whether Jeff expected the volume to go quite as dark as it ended up going. Also under discussion: D notices, Ron Smith, and whether the decision to go full villain with the Judges was what revitalized Wagner and Grant.

2:00:00-end: We wrap things up our usual way, mentioning the Twitter, Tumblr, Instagram and Patreon, and also let everyone (including Jeff!) know that we’re not going to be doing Case Files Vol. 10 next time; instead, we’re going to be doing Judge Dredd: The Restricted Files Vol. 1, which includes stories from special issues and annuals from 1977 through 1985. Get ready, everyone; it’s like a crash course in the evolution of Dredd.


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15 comments on “Drokk! Ep. 9: “Frightened, Beaten People Like Us”

  1. John Q Oct 28, 2019

    I like the idea of ranking the Case Files so far. Would you rank them both by overall quality and accessibility to new readers?

  2. Voord 99 Oct 28, 2019

    I haven’t had time to listen to the podcast yet, but on the Twitter thread: I don’t think that Dredd ever shouts “Daystick!” and I would rather like it if he did.

  3. omegoku Oct 30, 2019

    This volume really brought me back into the fold after the slog that was the previous volume.
    I started Choppers’ story, not really feeling it, thought the idea of a sky surfer was stupid, but he won me over as the story, and the race, progressed.

    So much so that I too was chanting his name alongside the people of MC-1 when he was led away, a hero!
    Letter of a Democrat turned what was a fun, dark, funny strip into something more. I have kids and the end of that letter was enough to bring a tear to my eye as I imagined living in that world from her point of view. It is something that they do quite well again at the start of the America story too.

    It is great to see some of the things happening here, big and small, will still be making waves years later. With Dredd you don’t always know if you will ever see the character again when they leave for the cubes, or walk out into the cursed earth, or in the case of some rare cases, even after they die!

    I found a lot of the restricted files, which ye are touching on next, to be silly drokk indeed. But there is some fun stuff in there somewhere I am sure. It is the Daily Dredds I think that are something ye should consider. These things were being put out at an alarming rate, alongside the already incredible output of the weekly and they are, for the most part, also excellent.
    Dredd works so well, even when it is in a single page or a three panel strip! I have read all 3 of the daily volumes and enjoyed them all. They might be worth taking a look at in the future too, they run alongside, and within ‘canon’ as far as I can tell.

  4. Jared Oct 30, 2019

    I’ve been waiting for this volume since the beginning, since this is the point where the strip, as Graeme says, fundamentally changes forever. But before that, we need to talk about the racism.

    Wagner and Grant (and 2000ad in general, I remember it cropping up in an Andy Diggle strip in 2000) are way too in love with the idea that the comedy foreigner and their silly accent are automatically funny. And it it isn’t, it really isn’t. The Fatties are similar, but at least with there the usual plot of “It’s [GENRE TROPE X] but they’re all FAT” is so dumb it can occasionally boomerang into something funny. Wagner and Ezquera would take that approach as far as it can go with Al’s Baby, which is every single mob story cliche, except the hard as nails mafioso main character is also PREGNANT?!? There is none of that to the comedy accents, or every trip we take outside of Mega City 1 to a different Mega City that is buried in cultural stereotypes. The only exception is Texas City, but that’s because, speaking as a native Texan, Texas is exactly like that. Wagner eventually stops doing the comedy racism, but it takes him far, far to long to do so, and is a real black mark against him. This especially stands out because of all the ways in which Wagner and Grant are so far ahead of everyone else on so many other areas with Dredd and the rest of their 2000ad work.

    But yes, this is the volume where Wagner and Grant figure out the next step they want to go, and that’s just acknowledging the fascism of the strip outright as an element in story. I am fascinated by the evolution of the strip, and how it parallels so much of the current discourse regarding satire and the responsibility of people for the work they put into the world. Dredd, and 2000ad in general, started out in an almost South Park/Rick and Morty “Let’s see what we can get away with, we don’t take this seriously” style. The mindset was always that nothing mattered because they expected to be cancelled at any moment, so they all took the opportunity to do what they always wanted to do but couldn’t because of editorial and censorship. The death of Hookjaw as a strip is really the key to understanding early Dredd, in that they didn’t feel the need to hold back because they were going to be out of a job in a few months anyway. So there’s a certain edgelord like feel of “Yeah, we’re doing this. You got a problem with that?” feel to some of early Dredd. There’s also, I think, a certain naivete on the part of the writers that I chalk up to being both young and making this up as they go along. Mills, Wagner, and Grant were all either anarchists (Mills, Grant ) or socialist (Wagner, I believe, but please correct if anyone knows), and they assumed a certain intelligence and shared worldview on the part of their readership. They didn’t think they needed to spell out that Dredd was the bad guy because they constantly showed him acting appalling and ruining the lives of ordinary citizens just by interacting with them. Around this time, as I mentioned in the last show’s comments, Wagner and Grant had received so many letters from children who un-ironically loved Dredd and looked up to him that they had to acknowledge the limits of irony as a storytelling tool, and work to make sure no one reading the strip could think Dredd was in any way an admirable character. This is something that haunts that entire generation of creators. Look at how many people miss that Travis Bickle is very much the monster of Taxi Driver, and that the shootout in the end is not supposed to be a hero moment. That the problem of the bad fan continues today, with the people who insist on missing the point of Breaking Bad, says that maybe the anti-hero, look-how-terrible-they are storytelling approach may not really work anymore. But that’s a different subject, because Wagner and Grant’s solution is stunning in it’s effectiveness. Calling this the start of Dredd’s “mature period” isn’t right, as there are still plenty of willful immaturity and dumb jokes to be found, the citizens of Mega City 1 don’t suddenly stop being idiots, but it does represent the point where Wagner and Grant start taking the strip and their work seriously. It’s the move from edgelord nihilism of “Everything’s fucked, and that’s funny” to “everything’s fucked up, and that’s horrifying.” That’s probably also why you get real world changes, like McGruder’s resignation and Hershey’s promotion to the Council of Five. Not only are they confronting head on the political implications of Dredd, they’re thinking through what they want to do with the world beyond doing their spin on traditional hero stories and narratives. This is also seen in both bringing Chopper back as an antagonist/folk hero for Mega City 1. Now there’s someone with an actual alternative point of view to Dredd’s, who doesn’t care about the law or pulling crimes, who just wants to do his thing regardless of what people think.

    The difference between Wagner and Grant is a subject that hasn’t been mentioned much on the show, but I think it’s worth bringing up here. At this time Grant was a card carrying member of the British Anarchist party, and in his solo work has always treated characters as more vessels for and representations of ideas than as actual people with interiority. He’s also spoken many times that he thinks Dredd should not be a character, that there shouldn’t be anything behind the helmet. He should just be the personification of The State. Wagner, on the other hand, in his solo work has been less interested in Big Ideas, and more focused on character work. So I can absolutely see Grant being the one pushing for a more direct engagement with the repression of the judges. The “What are you, a liberal?” punchline feels like pure Grant.

    Two final things: As far as I have read, Moore didn’t become aware of Wagner as a writer until he became a professional and pitched to 2000ad. Which isn’t to say he hadn’t read Wagner before that, since British comics didn’t credit the creators until Kevin O’Neill started sneaking the creator credits into 2000ad. So while Moore could easily have read pre-2000ad Wagner, he had no way of connecting that to Dredd.
    Second, since you’re doing the Restricted files, have you thought about whether you’re going to do the Anderson collections? I think the next case files is the point where Anderson’s spin off title starts.

    • David M Oct 30, 2019

      Chopper does do just what he wants regardless of what people think. I think flying surfboards through Mega-City One traffic in tunnels is reckless endangerment of other people. I think that kind of reckless disregard for others lives is a crime.

    • Voord 99 Oct 31, 2019

      I suspect that one can probably put Wagner down as a Labour voter, but not someone who inhabits the same sort of left position that Mills chooses to see himself as inhabiting. (Wagner has descibed his politics as “fairly left-wing” — the qualifier is significant, I think.) This is, obviously, compatible with a definite strain of small-c conservatism, especially for someone from his generation. I think it’s not unimportant to the success of Wagner’s Dredd that he can simultaneously see the appeal of the character from a sympathetic perspective *and* criticize it.

      On the “liberal” bit. There’s a sting in the tail, there. Yes, it’s a rather lame and obvious joke – this was one of the great ages for British satire, and this doesn’t count. But it signals that the names of the cadets are meant to be meaningful — and one of the earlier cadets is called Cadet *Botha*.

    • Carey Dec 8, 2019

      While Moore may not have been aware of Wagner until he became a professional, the Dredd writing team were a huge influence on him as Alan Grant, who I believe was assistant editor of 2000ad at the time, was the first to take notice of Moore’s submissions to the comic and crucially, suggested improvements to them and encouraged him to resubmit. In terms of comic writers, I’d place Grant as probably the second biggest influence on Moore after his friend Steve Moore (whom, iirc, wrote for very early 2000ad and had such a bad experience with Pat Mills editing/re-writing his work that he swore never to write for them again).

      As to the bounce back in quality in this volume, I wonder how much that was down to the previous volume being written at a time when a weekly Judge Dredd comic was being planned by IPC. It was cancelled but many of the strips ended up in 2000ad, including Judge Anderson and Hell Trekkers (essentially the Oregon Trail meets the Cursed Earth) but may indicate why the stories became more generic. Also, the previous volume was during the era where Grant and Wagner’s use of pseudonyms became vital as there were several issues where they were writing every strip in 2000ad, which may similarly have effected the quality of things..

  5. David M Oct 30, 2019

    I know this isn’t the first work from Cam Kennedy on Dredd, but the authority with which he draws in this volume is remarkable. He ever sells absurd things like how far down Chopper’s forehead his hairline goes. I’m team Graeme for enjoying the almost delirious freshness of McCarthy’s artwork. Having said some harsh things about Cliff Robinson’s work, I was pleased to see him get a script that played to his interests and strengths. The formality and lack of action in McGruder’s departure suited his style.
    Surely Sump’s Smart Sweets are just a direct lift from Smart Drinks, which were first making an appearance around this time?
    While I agree the real reason for the shift in the relationship between the judges and the citizens are the writers’ interests, there are clear in-story reasons for the change as well. After the failures of the Day the Law Died and the Apocalypse War both the judges confidence in themselves and the citizens confidence are in pieces. The judges who stopped the great nuclear war and restored order to the point where people could have a life earned some loyalty. Now that’s gone.

    • Voord 99 Oct 30, 2019

      One thing that I’d add to what you and our hosts said about Cam Kennedy, especially in Midnight Surfer, is that he is superb at facial expressions. And that’s one of things that makes his Dredd so great, the fact that the helmet takes all that away for this one character. Kennedy’s Dredd inhabits a world where everyone else is wearing their feelings on their faces while Dredd himself is reduced to an inscrutable (and very large) chin.

      It’s one reason why I think it matters so much that Chopper takes off his mask and stops being the Midnight Surfer – he stops trying to challenge Dredd in the same way that the Executioner challenged Dredd, and embraces self-expression at all costs. And I think it matters that the identity that he chooses to express is his *created* identity from Un-American Graffiti, by putting Chopper’s name and smiley-face symbol on his board. He’s not embracing his “real” self — he’s embracing a self-creation that is not constrained by the rules. It also restates the conclusion of Un-American Graffiti: you don’t beat Dredd and all he represents by not being caught and getting away with it — you triumph by being caught and asserting yourself anyway.

      I take what you say above about how Chopper is recklessly endangering people, and in fact I think the story does, although it is definitely on Chopper’s side overall, acknowledge that, with the multi-vehicle pileup. (There’s something similar in Letter from a Democrat, when the story cuts away to the scabrously hostile depiction of the family where the father grumpily calls the hostage crisis boring and changes the channel — there too, although again the story is unquestionably on the side of the democrats overall — it has this little moment that changes the perspective and critiques what it’s saying in the rest of the story.)

      But overall, I think Midnight Surfer is developing a point with which I have a lot of sympathy, that on a human level we would be lacking something important if we didn’t feel an urge to break rules just because they are rules, irrespective of their content — that, when confronted with the sign that says “Keep Off The Grass”, there’s something a little sad if you don’t feel that twinge of desire to stand on the grass, precisely because someone is telling you not to.

      -Minor point about Midnight Surfer which I’ll throw in here: it’s a really nice touch how the roll-call of suspects/competitors at the beginning of part 2 conflates sports commentary with policing.

  6. Voord 99 Nov 2, 2019

    Scattered thoughts:-

    One aspect of the turn towards a more critical view of the judges is that the readership of the comic was growing up. E.g. “J Notice” — I commented a couple of volumes back that you couldn’t really approach a boy’s adventure comic by saying “Assume someone who reads the Guardian,” but now apparently you can.

    I don’t know when exactly was the first British one of those “Comics aren’t just for kids any more” articles, but there’s an interesting little artifact of that sort of thing in these issues in the appearance of the Hank Wangford Underblock. Hank Wangford (probably unknown to US readers, and he was unknown to my own young self, who was not exactly steeped in the world of left-wing semi-parodic English country-and-western singers who were also leading gynecologists) was the kind of minor figure who might be expected quirkily to turn up as a name for something in Mega-City One. But the thing was, this fortysomething man – a genuine adult – then wrote in to say what a big fan of the strip he was.

    Of course, in 19850=86 one can also safely say that the British Invasion is underway, and all of these stories must have been written with a sharp awareness that one could make more money writing for American comics. This gives a little extra interest to the Megaman story. It’s basically throwaway, and, as our hosts point out, something that had been done before. But its this-is-what-we-do-to-superheroes end functions differently in the new context — saying “We don’t do the American genre here” says something different, especially to getting-older teenaged readers who were well aware of Alan Moore’s

    Incidentally, what was was the exact date of the famous meeting in London where DC got all those British creators in a room and metaphorically started pouring money on the table? I’d be curious to co-ordinate it with Judge Dredd. One thing that I do recall from a few years after this is an interview in which Wagner & Grant talked about introducing the prototype of the character who eventually became Scarface/the Ventriloquist as the sports commentator in Mean Team and realizing that he was too good a character to be wasted on a nothing 2000 AD strip like that.

    -In light of the abortive religious turn in the previous year, Nosferatu is a more interesting story than it might be. It obviously has a lot in common with City of the Damned – enough that I wonder if there were aspects of it that were recycled from plans for that story that got dropped. City of the Damned had the blue vampires who were also depicted as rather spider-y, if obviously not as much as this. But the depiction of religion in “Nosferatu! Nosferatu!” “Why have you forsaken us?” (or, as our hosts point out, Nosferatu himself) is very much about it not being associated with Dredd, but as an alien force that has invaded Mega-City One’s secular world.

  7. Giles Nov 3, 2019

    I find it difficult to fully condemn The Warlord storyline. I do understand the criticism – the cheap racism and the hollowness of Shojan as cypher – but it does have a lot going for it. The art is spectacular throughout, from the scale of the Samurai (imposing but not ridiculously large), their arrows taking out H Wagons and Mantas, Shojan’s fade out teleport from the Hall of Justice and much more. It’s also such a consequential story: the Psionic Amplifier (“Think Man! the Sector House 9 affair”) returns; a Division Head martyrs himself; and a Chief Judge resigns to take the long walk (crucial to a number of future stories).

    However, the most incredible moment for me is something that epitomises the mix of humour and drama Grant did so well in the Dredd strips. The place in which the Seven Samurai are brought to life is Cyril Lord block, now in ruins. Lord was a high profile carpet salesman in the UK who had died the year before this was originally published.

    In the midst of the fierce fighting when McGruder is facing catastrophe and has just four panels previously been informed of Dredd’s (supposed) death she is told she can’t fire on the block because it’s a listed (protected) building. Her response “Cyril Lord is a luxury we can’t afford” is a direct riff on the carpet king’s jingle.

    It’s an extraordinary emotional shift amongst such dire circumstances, yet does not distract from the pace at all.

    • Miguel Corti Nov 9, 2019

      The name Cyril Lord was overused to the point I forced myself to look it up, and I found a Wiki entry for him, describing everything you did about it him. It also explained the judges’ weirdly contrive dialogue on that page. They basically out and out use some of the catch copy from one his rug commercials as dialogue. I wouldn’t mind that type of humor if it was more seamless, a la the Marx Bros. joke in another story. This one felt shoehorned in. At least I learned something obscure about British culture, I suppose.

      One thing that always irks me about supernatural fiction, especially the kind involving cops, is how no one believes anything supernatural is occurring. With the Seven Samurai, the judges don’t even bat an eye. It’s just another problem that matter of factly needs to be dealt with. I’d assume after dealing with the Dark Judges, the supernatural world is just as much on their radar as the natural world when it comes to being vigilant against crime.

  8. Voord 99 Nov 10, 2019

    Just picked up my copy of the reading for the next instalment. And there is an actual table of contents with credits.

    And right now, before I’ve started to read, I know that there’s something that will make me happy, because finally, at long last, after a gap of more than thirty years, I will again be able to read about Judge Dredd fighting Satan in rhyming verse.