Where does it all begin? This is it. This is the “Big One.” The story that pulls back the curtain on the hows and whys of how things came to be. After nearly 30 years of doling out the law atop his Lawmaster and with his Lawgiver in hand, Judge Dredd’s biological parents, John Wagner and Carlos Ezquerra, brought the world “Origins.” While, yes, it does ostensibly provide an origin of sort for everyone’s favorite scowling enforcer, it is so much more than that. Wagner provides an explanation for the entire world of Dredd in a massively impressive, tightly woven epic that incorporates 30 years of continuity without it ever feeling overwhelming or a rambling history lesson. Interspersed with present-day conflict and intriguing episodes that each could serve as their own independent adventure, “Origins” is smart, thought-provoking and drenched with mystery, action and an occasional laugh. Most surprisingly, it is also poignantly straightforward in stating, “Hey, in case it wasn’t beyond clear for the past three decades, the Judges aren’t actually the good guys.” If you’ve never read Dredd or if you’ve only read some and felt like you were missing out on something larger, this collection is the cure for what ails you. Political thriller, sci-fi western, social commentary, police-procedural and action adventure all rolled into one, this is where it all begins and where it all ends. The buck stops here, creep. Let’s begin.
Opening with a prologue deftly illustrated by Kev Walker, “The Connection” is deeply rooted in the classic crime oeuvre. A steady, heavy rain falling over the darkened Mega-City One at night, Dredd investigates the appearance of two cursed-earthers who snuck into the city with false papers. Like so much of Wagner’s Dredd work, there’s so much more happening than what meets the eye, only what does meet the eye is so damn engrossing that when the larger picture comes into focus, it punches you in the face like so much green gloved justice. It culminates in a wild chase after a mysterious package that keeps changing hands, but Wagner also introduces very ominous dreams that a very veteran Dredd is experiencing. It reads like a dream, smoothly playing out like a futuristic police-procedural that doesn’t tip its hand as to what’s coming. What is already an incredibly compelling detective yarn is in reality setting the stage for something far grander in scale, much like how “Block Mania” revealed itself to be merely a stepping stone for “The Apocalypse War”. Kev Walker crushes it on every aspect of the art. His style seems influenced by Mignola in its angles and use of spot blacks, Frank Miller in its Sin City-like texture and posturing, and slightly playful in its deceptively simple cartooning. The colors keep it a perfectly somber affair, cold and rainy as is its setting with some great use of negative space to outline those instantly recognizable helmets and shoulders. It is dark and fun as hell, feeling free in it’s self-contained, small-scale narrative until you reach the final panel and turn the page. And then you realize it’s over and everything you just read, that felt like a fun ride through detective land was akin only to waiting in line to get on the damn rollercoaster.
That box turns out to be the catalyst to the 23 issue arc that makes up “Origins”-proper. Inside is something that seems impossible to those who understand what’s at play, and a ransom note. And thus begins the journey through time and space that cleverly takes a look at all that’s been laid before us and put it together into something all its own. Wagner and Ezquerra have Dredd cowboy-up and ride off like the riders in the storm out into the vast wasteland of the Cursed Earth in search of the truth. What he finds is a sordid web of lies and deceit atop painfully heavy truths that will change how Dredd (and the reader) sees this world we thought we understood. That might sound overly dramatic and perhaps it isn’t a full-blown life altering experience, but it is unquestionably a forcible impact.
After trudging across the decimated scorched and radiation-soaked plains of the Cursed Earth, Dredd and his small posse of Judges fight off Mad-Maxian marauders, stumble upon a mutant tribe that will plant the seeds for future tales of mutant rights and fall victim to a bizarre backwards Old West town of mutated descendants of the first Chief Judge, Eustace Fargo. Then things start getting interesting. Wagner splits his narrative into an A and B plot, one focusing on the current predicament of surviving the Cursed Earth and getting to the bottom of the established mystery and the other a flashback saga of how everything in the familiar Dredd-lore came to be. And it is Grud. Damn. Awesome. What Wagner does so beautifully is balance the two tales so that one can experience the tension of the current threats, but still dig incredibly deep into what makes Judge Dredd so engrossing. The flashback tale, the real meat of the story, is pure satire and pure science fiction perfectly blended. The satire examines and pokes fun of our current world (specifically, our post-9/11 world) and comments on our fears overtaking our freedoms. The science fiction does what the best of the genre cleverly does and serves as a warning for where we can find ourselves. It’s all laid bare, but never spoon-fed as Wagner puts good intentions under the microscope while building a terrifyingly real world. Corruption and fear and force helped build this world and each is explored with a knowing wink as we see the roots of how America died. Once the two plots reunite, Dredd doesn’t look entirely the same to you as he did when he was blasting big-chinned hillbillies only a few pages earlier. The final scene, with Dredd’s final utterance hauntingly hangs there like a decoration on a dead Christmas tree.
Carlos Ezquerra is a master of his craft. His attention to detail and sharp eye for texturing, from the bespeckled skin of Dredd to the dirtied shoulder pad to the bombed ruins of a lost world, all instantly pull you in. There is so much happening on any given page, it’s easy to get lost in the detail, but Ezquerra lays it out in such a way to make the story telling flow without a hiccup. One of his greatest strengths is his ability to use that attention to all the finer points to transition from a fully satisfying small-scale scene explode with the turn of the page and a thousand nuclear missiles destroy half a continent. He goes from small to big to huge to small again effortlessly and it is mesmerizing in its ability to pull you in and then knock you back. Visually, this book would be a clinic in fine line work if it were in black and white…but its not. The coloring is, sadly, a detriment and a hindrance on Ezquerra’s tremendous work. Whether it is primarily a product of its time or Ezqurra’s own lack of experience in digital coloring (he indicated as much on his appearance on the Thrill-Cast podcast episode 4) it is regardless, a distraction. The effects are discordant with the art, the bright flashes of light or the inserted photographs or the forced blending of color all equate to something that to the modern eye look like an Adobe Flash mouse-click game. Whatever the reason, it’s a shame, but it is not enough that it should deter anyone from reading and marveling at the artistry underneath that is second to none. Ezquerra is a beast with a penchant for making everything unabashedly real and tactile, even while depicting the most impressively jaw-dropping sequences you’re likely to see.
Phew, catch your breath because this collection still isn’t over. After all the gravitas and shock of the preceding tales, there’s still one short epilogue from Wagner, Dredd master artist Colin MacNeil and colorist Chris Blythe. It is, of all things, a Christmas story and it is a solemn apéritif that feels right at home following the massive epic of “Origins.” Titled, “The Spirit of Christmas” Wagner lays out a tale all about perspective. About how things can look the same, feel the same, but be changed nonetheless. Dredd busts a couple of drugged out juves breaking into a pharmaceudical center on Christmas Eve (the one night the Mayor permits snow to fall) and it turns out to be the same hospital that played an important role in “Origins.” MacNeil’s clean, hard line once again demonstrates why he belongs in the upper echelon of 2000 AD artists and Blythe’s colors almost steal the show in how perfectly they maintain the quiet, still mood of a once holy night. It’s touching in its quiet austerity and shows us a Dredd that could only be after the events out in the Cursed Earth. Things change. There’s hope. Even for old grim-face.
Judge Dredd The Mega Collection Book 4: Origins doesn’t only have everything a Judge Dredd fan could want; it has almost everything a comic book fan could want. With the exception of one unfortunate coloring misstep, this collection is vastly more than a Year One story or a simple origin flashback story. It’s about legacy, about our world and the world we could inherit. It’s bitingly funny at one moment only to give way to a cold sense of familiar violence. In so many way it’s the Alpha and the Omega of the Dredd universe – at once its beginnings and the end of it as it has been known. Never read Judge Dredd before? Start here. Read a lot of Judge Dredd? Read this and gain new perspective. Let Wagner and Ezquerra show you the skeleton of the fully formed world they birthed some 30 years earlier. It’s only the beginning.