I’ve been re-reading the “Day of Chaos” run of Judge Dredd over the last couple of days — two trades collecting the entire story are getting U.S. releases in September and October — and just marveling in its scope all over again.
My admiration for Dredd as a strip continues to grow the more I read it, and the more I read other material, as well; it’s a shared universe property that is still, more than three decades after its debut, shaped by its creator. John Wagner, who writes the entirety of “Day of Chaos” — all 48 episodes of it, plus the Judge Dredd Megazine episodes that plug into the collected edition here — was the man who created Dredd in 1977, and who continues to write the character today. It’s one of the things that marks Dredd as an oddity in modern comics; “Day of Chaos” is a showcase for all of them.
For one thing, it’s a storyline that works in large part because of the history of the strip; not just its longevity or referring to something that happened in a story 12 years ago or whatever — any long-lived comic can do that — but in demonstrating the way in which the characters have changed and evolved during that time, and their relationships to each other have deepened as a result. There’s a quality to seeing Dredd (now crankier, but also more aware of his responsibilities and the futility of the system he’s nonetheless dedicated his life to uphold) interact with Hershey — who, in the course of the series’ run has gone from rookie to Chief Judge to former Chief Judge, with the increased wisdom and bitterness that comes from that journey — or Beeny, who wasn’t even born when the series started, but is now a judge herself, that rings true and feels real in a way that other comics just don’t.
“Day of Chaos” also feels expansive in a way that other comics rarely manage. Whereas superhero comics routinely smash worlds together and end realities, they feel increasingly small and… not intimate, exactly, but tightly focused, as if what’s happening has a very narrow impact on a handful of characters at best. The horrific, inescapable events of “Day of Chaos,” on the other hand, feel far more important. Part of it is the way in which Wagner shifts the story beyond Dredd as focal point at times, even as things are building; the story is viewed from multiple perspectives at almost all times in a way that few others attempt these days, never mind manage. (Ever since reading The Spirit earlier this year, I keep thinking of Dredd, and especially Wagner’s Dredd; there’s something there that feels like the true successor to what Eisner was doing in his strip, way back when.)
And above all, there’s the tone of the whole thing. One of the strengths of Judge Dredd as a strip — and another way in which it feels like The Spirit‘s spiritual descendent — is the way in which it can be multiple things at once, without contradicting or undercutting itself. Even within the horror of “Day of Chaos,” there’s comedy and pathos, social and political satire and more, all told with a mix of passion and experience. It’s exciting to read, not a chore — again, this is almost a year’s worth of weekly episodes; you’d expect there to be a lull somewhere, but there’s really not, just a slow burn that becomes increasingly inevitable and compelling as a result.
In terms of Dredd mythology, it was something that set up a number of subsequent classic storylines (“Trifecta” comes out of this, in a roundabout way, a rare example of a crossover done exactly right) and, despite (because of?) the carnage, reinvigorated the series in entirely unexpected ways. “Day of Chaos” is everything you’d want out of a massive event storyline, done in such a way that you’ll find yourself wanting more even at the end. If only more comics could measure up.