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.
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.
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.
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 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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