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The Triumph of Death: 2000AD’s Iconic Dark Judge

 

Time and again, I keep returning to 2000AD’s Dark Judges. There’s something about them which is innately magical, and I don’t just mean their supernatural powers. They seem to have a life off the page. I find myself thinking about them, dreaming about them, and seeing parallel versions, alternate realities where they are darker, or sillier, more human or less. Like all the greatest villains, they actually don’t have that much ‘screen-time’. Darth Vader is only on screen for 12 minutes in A New Hope, yet in those minutes he left an indelible mark on our culture, so much so that the latter films Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi featured more and more of him, and the prequels were entirely dedicated to his back-story. Whilst this latter move was perhaps inadvisable, it goes to show the sheer impact that villains have on us, especially when they tap into some deep psychological meaning, when they become symbolic. Vader, of course, was the ultimate Freudian archetype of the ‘Dark Father’, the shadowy patriarch looming over the promising child, who must be overcome so that the child can be free.

The Dark Judges are a vision of the Four Horsemen of the apocalypse, a version of them, that seems undeniable. They are radical philosophers who have realised the ultimate truth of the universe: all crime is committed by the living, therefore life itself must be a crime. They are heralds of the end-times, dimension-killing fanatics, tasked with a holy mission to bring all existence to its end. They herald from the Deadworld, a dimension once like our own, now expunged of all life. But they are not just poor imitations of the horsemen. There is something unique about them. Perhaps it is their aesthetic; there’s something of the punk rock-band about them, with their skin-tight trousers, chains, black leathers, gothic regalia, and medieval helmets. Perhaps it is their wise-cracking – the stupid puns that contrast the very real horror of what it would be like to face such monstrous, psychotic, and immortal beings. I think it also has to do with the fact they are cops – that effectively the greatest threat to the universe, the thing which will destroy us all, is a team of over-zealous police-officers. With a little bit of voodoo thrown in too, of course.

It is all these things and more which makes the Dark Judges fascinating. The iconic hissing speech, which is almost parody; the twisted reasoning behind their actions (it’s a logical train of thought, isn’t it?); and the immense powers they wield, which are never quite enough to stop Judges Dredd and Anderson from defeating them. They have featured in some incredible stories, over the years, written and illustrated by some amazing writers and artists – and the stories are still coming – so, I want to look back at some of my favourite moments from across this rich history, and share with you some of my thoughts on what make these stories and panels so brilliant, in terms of symbolism, character, colour, and narrative. Let’s begin with Necropolis.

NECROPOLIS

Published in 1990, this 26-part epic tells the story of Death’s sisters: Nausea and Phobia, the two witches of the Deadworld who made him into the ‘super-fiend’, and their attempt to turn Mega City One into a necropolis, a city of the dead. The Judges do not, surprisingly, feature that much in this mind-blowing and disturbing tale, and in fact it is Judge Mortis who gets the most panel-time. But, at the very end of the story, as good begins to turn the tide and fight back, finally defeating the sisters and the other three Judges, there is an incredible scene with Judge Death, a moment of Macbethian grandeur as he realises the sum of his failings and decides to end all on his own terms. Here is the iconic series of panels:

John Wagner’s writing here is extraordinary. We see Death gripped by despair, the very emotion which has pervaded the graphic novel from its first panel. After witnessing countless broad-stroke scenes of mass suicide, slaughter, and utter moral degradation, we are now, bizarrely, made to feel this despair intimately, sympathetically, through the villain himself. In this moment, the telescopic narrative suddenly zooms in, focusing its lens on one character alone. What beautiful irony this is, on a near Shakespearean level, that it is in Death we feel pain and despair most vividly. The panel work, too, is illuminating. Carlos Ezquerra captures perfectly the sudden fear as Death casts himself from the precipice – “Necropolis no more” – and the sense of profound emptiness as he spins down into the depths of Mega City One. In a way, Carlos echoes Turner here, for Turner’s famous The Fall of Anarchy c. 1825-1830 (more popularly known as Death on a pale horse) depicts Death lying, dead, on his pale steed. Death has been defeated. Death is dead. In Necropolis, Death commits suicide, a deeply symbolic, perhaps even Christian metaphor. Death is overcome in the literal sense. There is no more end of life in the story once Judge Death is gone.

Death on a Pale Horse (?) c.1825-30 Joseph Mallord William Turner 1775-1851 Accepted by the nation as part of the Turner Bequest 1856 http://www.tate.org.uk/art/work/N05504

The colour work for Necropolis is, in general, quite profound. Unlike later 2000AD output, which had near photorealistic artwork, this simpler artstyle leant itself to more limited pallets. Hence, there are eerie contrasts and transitions throughout the story. The start of Necropolis is almost entirely rendered in greens and purples, often bleeding together into unpleasant necrotic hues. Here, at the end, we end in reds, yellows and whites. Notice too how, as Death falls, the colour hue lightens steadily, like blood draining from a corpse.

There is also a kind of intertextual joke in these panels. Death’s masterpiece is “incomplete”, and we too feel a sense that more was supposed to happen, that maybe this time the Dark Judges were supposed to win. After all, Judge Dredd, the alleged hero of the story, doesn’t appear until about halfway through. And Judge McGruder even remarks to the great Dredd: “You look like Judge Death” – as though their roles have been reversed. It’s as if we’re supposed to be rooting for the Dark Judges in some warped way. That, perhaps, is the magic I referred to earlier. The Dark Judges are, against all sane reasoning, likeable.

DIE LAUGHING

In 1998, we saw the culmination of several Judge Dredd-Batman crossover comics. The reviews of these were mixed, but I personally loved the work Alan Grant and John Wagner did during this time, particularly their collaboration on Die Laughing. Die Laughing was a zany gore-fest, with panels by Glenn Fabry so photo-real you could also smell the blood dripping from them. In contrast to these exceedingly visceral and dark panels, the Joker’s goofy humour – he becomes the Fifth Dark Judge and can explode heads by laughing – and the familiar wise-cracking of the Dark Judges is ramped up a notch.

There has always been an element of dark hilarity about Death. When, for example, in Boyhood of a Super-fiend, he describes his father as the most psychotic, sadistic, twisted individual… [pause]… a dentist! He mocks Judge Dredd for his doggedness, his sheer mono-dimensional incorruptibility. The slurred serpentine speech, and the odd politeness: “Greettinggsssss” go some way towards this as well. That grin of too-many-teeth, beneath the visored helmet, it is almost an acknowledgement of his own absurdity. Unlike the other Dark Judges, Fear, Mortis, and Fire, who take themselves seriously, Death recognises his own ridiculousness. And he sure enjoys “dispensing justice”, as he terms it. In a way, Judge Death and the Joker are two sides of the same coin, though Death is more of a religious zealot, and the Joker a court jester; seeing them together is interesting and challenging, and as a result, in parts of Die Laughing, we see a slightly different Judge Death. We see an over-confident one. But perhaps with good reason:

Feast your eyes on this double-page masterpiece! If ever there were call to re-use the title of Pieter Bruegel’s 16th century oil work, The Triumph of Death, is it here. Death emerges from the roil of blood and flesh, impaling two “sinneerrsss” with his iconic claws. In Necropolis we witnessed him at his most humane, recognising defeat. Here, he is utterly victorious, Death at his very Death-est. Like Hieronymous Bosche and Bruegel, Glenn Fabry captures the epic scale and minuatiae of hell-scapes. The religious influences are more than appropriate, for Death is not only a symbol of death, but also of Satan. Outcast from a kind of heavenly state – at one with the law and order of the world – for taking his philosophy too far, he now dispenses justice on the unrighteous. The setting of the hedonist’s Pleasure Dome for the action of Die Laughing was utterly inspired, for it represented his spiritual role, as well as also giving us, as readers, a grim sense of schadenfreude – a satisfaction in seeing others punished for misdeeds. Again, in a weird way, the writers align us with the Dark Judges. They are misunderstood anti-heroes, not really villains.

The Triumph of Death, by Pieter Bruegel the Elder

THE FALL OF DEADWORLD (BOOK I)

Last year, 2017, we were treated to the first instalment of a new series by Kek-W and Dave Kendall: The Fall of Deadworld. This epic story will tell of how the Dark Judges came to conquer Deadworld and eventually enter the universe of Mega City One. What’s clear is that these two understand the Dark Judges, their fragility as well as their power, at a bone-deep level. Dave Kendall’s Goya-inspired panelling is possibly some of the most haunting and iconic yet produced by 2000AD. It really is magnificent to behold, capturing the profound weirdness of these almost-human characters with abyssal intensity. Even the “ordinary” people in Deadworld seem a bit off, as though they’ve started to go gangrene but haven’t realised it yet. There’s a rot behind it all, and as you read this tome, you can feel it taking hold of you too. There’s more than a healthy dose of Lovecraft in there, but it never overshadows the true heart of the story, the unique feeling which is the Dark Judges and 2000AD.

Kek-W has masterfully drawn on Stephen King for inspiration with the narrative; the anti-hero, Judge Fairfax, Judge Death’s favourite to become his fourth disciple, must protect the Child, a girl who dreams of being a Judge, who is prophesied to defeat Death. This new dimension to the story is electric, and both characters are ones who you deeply root for. More than any other Judge story, The Fall of Deadworld feels like true epic-fantasy. The setting of ancient Deadworld, where all the technology seems slightly outmoded against Mega City One’s (though still sci-fi) – facilitates this. Deadworld seems, too, to have much more potential than Earth for psychic occurrence, magic, and the supernatural. Here, the four Dark Judges are not the only fiends to contend with. There are other dark forces at work, and these new terrors add a delightful freshness to the story.

The Judges themselves seem to be stronger in their home-turf. Judge Fear, in particular, reclaims some of his lost face (pun intended) from being punched out by Dredd so often in the 80s. But more than that, the characters feel as rich and deep as they were always meant to be. At times, especially towards the latter end of the spectrum post-Wagner, the Judges had increasingly felt shallow, resorting to one-liners, comic relief, and often being dealt with in laughably easy ways. Now, they are back on form and one feels that this is finally it, this is the story where the bad guys get to win. And it ain’t gunna be a picnic, that’s for sure. We can be pretty sure that Deadworld will fall from what we’ve been told in so many other tales. And hell, it’s in the damn title. Of course, their victory may not be as absolute or sweet as we imagine, and I’m sure there are plenty of surprises in store. Book I of this series was full of many fascinating and unexpected subversions, new angles on old characters and ideas. Sometimes, it can be a joy to experience new hands on the wheel of your favourite car. This is one of those times.

I won’t show too much of The Fall of Deadworld, because I honestly think you must go out and get it yourself. It doesn’t matter if it’s your first foray into the Dark Judges, you’ll still get a huge kick. If anything, you might get a little more of a kick than a veteran, because you’ll see them for the first time in their full majesty. But I will talk a little about these two panels featuring Sydney De’Ath, AKA Judge Death before his full transformation, because they encapsulate his character to a tee.

Cruelty is something Sydney understands all too well from his terrifying childhood. As a Judge, of course, he has been conditioned to believe it is “admirable”, but what’s brilliant here, and completely in tune with his psychology, is that he would seek to rise above it – to use it for “good”, or his own version of it. The artwork reflects his inner complexity, with the ragged lines – suggesting he is old beyond his years – and the sunken eyes, as though he is withdrawing from humanity. The stark contrast (there is your Goya styling) between the pitch-dark backdrop and his pallid skin-tone makes it all the more unsettling. There is no crazy loon smile here. Not yet. He has not yet become the “fiend” in the literal sense.

Here, we see the beginnings of the grin, the dark hilarity that makes Judge Death so interesting and iconic. And it is notable it comes at the exact moment that Sydney pulls the trigger, the exact moment he ends a life. As well, the punchline, that the ‘e’ in his name (De’Ath) is actually silent, his humour emerging, like the first droplets from a cracked faucet. I almost cracked a grin myself when I saw this panel.

So, we begin a new journey into the dark heart of the apocalyptic judges, and I, for one, am very glad. The greatest myths are told and re-told, with many different hands and writers attempting to render them. In olden days, before copyright and the pervasive sense of ownership, writers shared much more readily. There were many versions of the same stories, all being told simultaneously. This is sometimes linked to the “oral tradition”, but really, it goes deeper than that. People intuitively knew that heroes, monsters, villains, narrative, did not belong to any one person. It belonged to the collective unconscious. The originator, whoever that might be, had found a way of tapping into the dream-language of the soul, into the root of things. We do this sometimes, often by mistake or seeming accident. We dream a dream. We sleepwalk into a discovery. We allow the raw tainted imagination of the cosmos to pour through some kinetic gateway into our consciousness. And some of these images and words are iconic, so much so they become archetypal, ever-speaking, and the Dark Judges are certainly in that category. Whilst they may not be as well known as, say, The Avengers or Justice League, they are in a league of their own for those who know of them. And growing. Even the Incredible Hulk cannot stand against Death itself in the long run. He might “smash” and break him, over and over, but the Dark Judge and his colleagues will keep crawling back, hisses frothing at those bulbous Mick Jagger lips, a smile showing tarnished teeth.

The real triumph of Death is not that he will win, but that the stories of his defeat will be told forever.

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If you enjoyed this blog, why not follow me on Twitter @josephwordsmith? I offer writing advice, editing services, and tell stories of inter-dimensional horror. As always, thanks so much for stopping by! お幸せに!

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Good Writers Turn Weaknesses Into Strengths

So often we talk about what good writers do well. Or what bad writers do badly. Or to perhaps be more even-handed: what makes good or bad pieces of writing what they are. We rarely talk about the sometimes chronic weaknesses even the greatest writers exhibit or how they turn these seemingly inhibitive habits or traits into some of the strongest aspects of their work. I think this is one of the most fascinating topics, and examining it can help us less well-known writers improve dramatically. Half of becoming good at anything, after all, is learning how to play to your strengths, and fight the battle on your terms. If you were facing off against someone in a boxing match, and they had an incredibly swift jab, it would be a mistake to try and punch faster than them. Rather, you might find another way around, perhaps maintaining a good distance so their jabs are useless, or else waiting for the jab to come before making any kind of offensive manoeuvre so you can catch it with a parry. The same applies to writing. Whilst we can always work on and improve our weaknesses, sometimes it is also pertinent to steer the writing away from areas we might struggle with.

Let’s start with the one-and-only Stephen King.

Stephen King, in case you’ve been living under a rock for the last thirty years, is perhaps the greatest Horror writer alive today, and one of the most successful novelists of all time. His trademark is his compulsive un-put-downable prose style that drags you into its undercurrent like a vindictive ocean. However, despite King’s penchant for thrilling narrative and terrifying scenes, he is surprisingly indirect when it comes to unfolding his story. In fact, he loves to meander, sometimes going into literally hundreds of pages of sidebar for the sake of setting up his characters. For example, in 11.22.63, it is almost 250 pages, a third of the book, before we get to the main thrust of the narrative, in which our time-travelling protagonist meets the beautiful school-teacher Sadie back in the 60s. Imagine any other romantic novel in which the love interest was introduced so late… In The Stand, similarly, it is something like 600 pages before we even have all the heroes gathered in Boulder in order to prepare for the confrontation with Randall Flagg. Part of this is King’s self-professed discovery writing, feeling his way into the story by remaining emotionally true to his characters rather than planning his narrative arcs out at length. Another part of this, at least in my opinion, is that he is simply in love with his characters and cares more about their everyday humdrum than you might expect from a writer of fantasy.

You’d think that this tendency to get sidetracked, especially for a writer of genre fiction that necessitates a degree of plot and pace, would be career-crippling, but on the contrary, King has made it into a strength in many ways. Firstly, he uses these sidebars to build tension, which is essential for any Horror writer. He plants a seed of something sinister in our minds, then meanders off onto another topic: perhaps a mechanic fixing a car, or a kid playing with a paper boat in the rain, leaving us with this slowly growing dread as we sense something brooding out of the corner of our eye, something the ‘camera lens’ of the narrative refuses to focus on. Secondly, he uses it to deepen his characters so that we care. King said that horror is “rooted in sympathy” and so by taking his time to set up the people in his story and drawing us into their worlds, he makes the Horror, the tragedy, the tension all so much realer when we get to it. All good Horror movies, in fact almost any movie with real high-stakes storytelling, has to have that set up, that golden period before everything goes wrong. The Lord of the Rings is one of the best examples of this. Think how much time we spend in the Shire at the start of the book and films, how disproportionate it might seem in comparison with all the other important stuff that comes later and is so key to the narrative. But, without that time in the Shire and all the details of Bilbo’s birthday and this ludicrously pleasant and peaceful way of life, we cannot understand what is at stake, and even deeper, what Frodo must lose at the end.

Awareness is key. King is aware of what his genre requires and aware of his own style and his preferred way of writing it. What he’s done is found a way to draw the two together. He has made discovery writing and a habit of fleshing out seemingly mundane scenes into the perfect tool for creating intense horror.

Let’s look at another writer with a very different kind of weakness.

J. R. R. Tolkien, the creator of Middle Earth and its many languages, acclaimed Oxford scholar, author of The Lord of the Rings and numerous other best-selling works, has been accused time and again of simplistic storytelling. Michael Moorcook wrote a devastating essay on the topic in which he accused The Lord of the Rings as being no more stylistically worthy than Winnie the Pooh. It is perhaps for this reason that The Lord of the Rings has never been academically acclaimed, despite its enduring popularity, its mythological dimensions, and its undeniable power. Only now is The Lord of the Rings being studied at Universities in the UK but I would argue it is the very simplicity of Tolkien’s language that proves the driving strength of his narrative, and that gives it the incredible emotional payoff. Tolkien, it must be remembered, was an extraordinarily academic person, an expert in languages. He had an immense vocabulary at his disposal, however, he chose deliberately to write in a childlike, innocent way, forgoing long Latinate words that many of his Modernist contemporaries favoured and instead using the humbler Anglo-Saxon words as his foundation. What emerges is a prose-style that is unlike any other, and quite simply heartbreaking in its innocence.

Naivety is something publishers often reject upcoming writers about (I’ve been rejected for it myself) and the success of gritty stories such as Martin’s Game of Thrones (or A Song of Ice and Fire as the book series is called) reinforces this view that we want more violence, more sex, more horror, more realism. Tolkien, however, defies the idea that readers/viewers want gratuity, turning what might appear to be naivety into an astonishing purity, something so intertwined with the narrative that the story would literally have been impossible to tell without it. Think, for a moment, what The Lord of the Rings might have been like if halfway through we were treated to a graphic sexual scene between Aragorn and Arwen because “that’s what couples do”? Actually, it’s probably not wise for me to ask this question of the internet; invariably this has already been pictured at great length in some dark corner of the web… but you see what I’m saying about how that kind of grittiness would destroy the beauty and myth of their relationship?

The final scene at the Grey Havens is so moving because of the elegiac simplicity of the prose, as well as the simplicity of the story itself. Frodo and Sam’s relationship is heartwarmingly true, truer than almost any other friendship in the history of fiction, and so to see it ended, when seemingly nothing should now stand in the way of them growing old together, is almost unbearably sad. But then there is also hope, hope that Frodo might finally find rest. The Christian message at the end is pretty unmissable – and is another reason The Lord of the Rings comes under fire from the likes of Moorcock – but Tolkien here exposes, at least to my mind, a profound truth: regardless of what our rational beliefs are, any sane person desires that catharsis, that hope for something beyond death, beyond parting with loved ones, beyond the sorrow of the world, beyond pain and grief. People of extraordinarly widely ranging beliefs are still moved by what George R. R. Martin called the “bittersweet” ending of LOTR, and I think its because Tolkien taps in to how desperately we crave this better world, even if we think it’s fantasy.

Tolkien was no stranger to grittiness. He fought in World War I and returned home with trench-fever and shellshock, taking nearly a year to recover. He lived through World War II also. He was one of the last British soldiers ever to ride a horse into battle (and now you see why those cavalry scenes are so well done). He knew about grittiness, and there are moments where we get hints of it, such as when Frodo and Sam sit on the “blasted heath”, within view of Mordor, listening to the sound of fatal drumming in the distance. Does this sound like a soldier waiting on the hill, listening to bombs dropping in the distance? Less can be more, and Tolkien certainly makes it so. Tolkien’s prose has far broader appeal in some ways because it is less graphic. We populate the battle scenes with our own sense of what fighting looks like (although with the advent of the films we now most likely visualise these scenes). We populate the romance with our own degree of intimacy. And we feel the story at the deep level of a childhood fable, one that sticks with us and shapes us for all time.

Whereas King uses his “weakness” to enhance the effects he’s trying to achieve and work within his genre, Tolkien used his “weakness” to resonate on a deeper emotional level.

I’m now going to go back even further back in time and talk about the legendary poet John Milton.

This weakness, I believe, did not so much derive from the writing itself but from his personal circumstances.

Milton wrote the epic poem Paradise Lost published in 1667, depicting the war in heaven and the fall of human kind at the hands of Satan, who is, bizarrely, the hero of the narrative (or one of them). Milton is sort of going out of vogue at the moment. His writing could be described as a polar opposite to Tolkien: Latinate, extravagant, borderline bombastic. His language is difficult to access for those who have not read Greek and Roman literature, and he re-tells a Christian story in a very explicitly Christian way. Or so it seems. I actually believe the perception of Milton as a “stuffy academic” is completely false, because Paradise Lost ripples with sensual subversion, scenes of haunting sexual and violent intensity, and problematic morality. For one thing, Satan is a figure of empathy in the story, one who heroically defies the tyrannical God, using every ounce of his cunning to subvert the natural course of the universe and bring humanity to its knees. Is this the work of someone enamored of the status-quo? Methinks not.

As it stands, I do not believe that Milton’s taste for high-styling and complex writing was his weakness at all, though some would argue this was the case. Instead, I would argue it was something simpler and more overt: Milton was blind. Partway through writing Paradise Lost, he lost his sight. At the key moment, when he most needed vision, he was unable to see. For most writers, this would have proved a fatal blow. How could you compose poetry without the ability to see the text in front of you, or, to look out into the natural world and draw inspiration? But Milton found the strength to go on, and, helped by his daughter who transcribed his spoken composition, he finished the work. In the below extract from Book III of Paradise Lost, we see how Milton breaks the fourth wall, speaking directly to the reader about the absence of his sight and calling on God and the angels to give him a different kind of sight, an inner vision. Effectively, he kindles his own imagination, knowing that he can no longer draw on the world around him in the same way:

Thus with the Year
Seasons return, but not to me returns
Day, or the sweet approach of Ev’n or Morn,
Or sight of vernal bloom, or Summers Rose,
Or flocks, or heards, or human face divine;
But cloud in stead, and ever-during dark
Surrounds me, from the chearful wayes of men
Cut off, and for the Book of knowledg fair
Presented with a Universal blanc
Of Nature’s works to mee expung’d and ras’d,
And wisdome at one entrance quite shut out.
So much the rather thou Celestial light
Shine inward, and the mind through all her powers
Irradiate, there plant eyes, all mist from thence
Purge and disperse, that I may see and tell
Of things invisible to mortal sight.

In this astonishingly moving extract we see quite clearly how Milton turned his disadvantage into an advantage. He dispensed with the real and conjured pure imaginative thought. I think it’s fairly safe to say, like it or not, that he succeeded. Paradise Lost is one of the most richly vivid, visual, image-laden pieces of writing ever produced.

So, there you have it. Three writers who, in very different ways, turned their very weaknesses into astonishing triumphs of power and imagination.

Let’s open it up! What weaknesses do you think certain writers have and how do they overcome them? Let’s keep it respectful, peaceful and interesting; looking forward to hearing your thoughts!

Au revoir,

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