Pour yourself a stiff shot of whiskey and get that deepest blues album on the record player; you’re going to need it. Even by Judge Dredd standards, the sixth Mega Collection, Mandroid, is punch you in the gut, then punch your puppy, then once more in your gut depressing. Touching on causes and, more importantly, the effects of PTSD combined with the requisite commentary on vigilantism in world ruled by fascists, Mandroid is a tale where the only winner is Mega-City One itself and there’s no triumph in that victory. What happens to Nate Slaughterhouse (subtle, right?) is nothing short of a Sophoclean tragedy and in turn we see Dredd himself venture into the grayest depths of his black and white world at every turn save for the last. Bleak, brutal, and visually wrenching, Mandroid shows you what happens when one man falls so hard nothing can stop his descent.
This Mega Collection compiles four separate Dredd tales, with the titular Mandroid being both the first and by far the strongest found within. You’re familiar with the origin of The Punisher, right? Well, John Wagner and Kev Walker’s grisly tale makes that story read like a nursery rhyme in comparison. Much like Mr. Castle, Slaughterhouse has virtually all he holds dear stripped away from him by Wagner in a manner that is as delicate as a round of Hi-Ex to your face. However, Wagner handles the underlying themes of this tale with great nuance and we see that a soldier traumatized both physically and mentally by war has been completely failed by the system from the moment he was injured. Rescued from the brink of death, this already formidable killing machine was transformed by the military into a far more literal killing machine only to be granted a discharge and released back into “normal” society. It just so happens that Mega-City One’s version of normal is akin to being pushed through a meat grinder.
Wagner typically uses the Justice Department as a stand-in for all authoritarian organizations, but with Mandroid (and its follow-up) he puts the organized military in the firing line of his typical biting social commentary. There’s a lot to unpack in this tale, not the least of which is how the military will mold someone to their wants and spit them out without regard to their altered being and the effects it has on those around them. There’s also the question of vigilantism and how it works within Dredd’s world, where the law is absolute, but where true justice is often elusive. The real magic that Wagner performs though, is in making Slaughterhouse a sympathetic killer. Throughout it all Nate Slaughterhouse is a victim, one transformed by the military and thrown aside to face horrors that he’s unprepared for at every turn. Is he likable? Not necessarily, no, but he is understandable. Much like Dredd himself, Wagner ensures that the reader sympathizes with Slaughterhouse just enough that they are willing to bend oversimplified morality (or The Law, in Dredd’s case) to root for him even as he goes on to dole out his own form of misguided justice. He’s a constant victim of his surroundings and circumstance and the story is an intriguing examination of how far one can be pushed before the murky social guidelines become completely obscured and irrelevant.
It’s an impressively dense story and one that feels comfortably familiar, even in its brutality. While the twist at the end is just ever so slightly predictable, the thematic elements and moralistic questions raised are vastly interesting and, while utterly bleak, well worth multiple reads.
All of this thought-provoking storytelling is bolstered by the impeccable art of Kev Walker. Stylistically, it is reminiscent (in all the best ways) of Frank Miller’s Sin City and is lock-step with the noir laced tale unfolding. Walker’s line is razor sharp regardless of the varying weight employed and his use of shadows lends itself perfectly to the somber, morally-blurred tone of the story. The color palette is perfect; a washed-out, flat affair that feels like a cloud of dust has settled atop everything in this world save for the glowing lights of various robotic nightmares. Walker’s layouts are key to controlling the pacing of the story and it reads with intentionally plodding steps from one horror to the next with a multitude of panel sizes and grid formations that know exactly when to expand or retract. In all, Mandroid is amongst the best Dredd has ever looked and arguably the best Mega-City One has ever looked, which is obviously saying something considering the echelon of artists who’ve dipped their inks into this title.
Unfortunately, the three remaining stories collected here are nowhere near as absorbing or impressive as Mandroid. Wagner pens a direct follow-up with Mandroid: Instrument of War with art from Simon Coleby, Carl Critchlow and colors from Peter Doherty. In some ways continuing Slaughterhouse’s story with Instrument actually undercuts the poignancy and gravitas of the original’s tragedy. It’s still well written and executed, for sure, but Slaughterhouse himself continues to be the constant victim to his surroundings without adding anything new to the commentary other than he is perhaps more gullible and/or deluded than we previously thought. Here Slaughterhouse is being manipulated by a former General who wants…well, that’s really the biggest problem here. General Vincent is ostensibly a mustache-twilring villain here who essentially believes that the Justice Department is too soft and that those best suited to dole out true justice are former military members. Except they’re all, you know, completely mentally fried. So in continuing Slaughterhouse’s ’tory, Wagner seems interested here in revisiting the idea of the motivations behind vigilante justice and couples it with the tragic metaphor of one man losing his humanity towards a more robotic means of existence. It’s good, but it doesn’t feel like it adds to the original story. Instead, continuing Slaughterhouse’s story feels almost cruel; why must he again be the vehicle for this type of story? Wheras the various sequels to America each used the original story as a jumping off point into different types tales, Instrument of War feels like a re-hash even if there is a salvo of redemption at the end.
Visually, Instrument looks great if not slightly discordant switching between Simon Coleby to Carl Critchlow. Celoby starts things off (originally published as the first two Progs the story’s 11 Prog run) and really grounds the story with a style very much in the Michael Lark and Sean Phillips school; gritty and realistic with a heavy dose of shadows. Critchlow then takes over and the shift isn’t overly jarring, but it is noticeable in how characters become more expressionistic; think Jock levels of sketchy exaggerations. Luckily Peter Doherty marries the two styles together perfectly with consistently atmospheric colors devoid of any semblance of hope. It’s murky in palette, but never muddied in application. Instrument is a gorgeous thing to look at and every bit as visually soul-crushing (in a complimentary sense) as it needs to be.
The final two tales are a rather confounding addition to this collection. Obviously, 2000 AD should be commended for putting these thematic anthologies together and the sheer breadth of material at their disposal must have been incredibly intimidating. Not everything is going to tie together as tidily as one would like and that appears to be the case with having to follow such complex works as the two Mandroid tales with Escape From Atlantis and Bad Mother. Tonally, it’s a mighty large leap to dive into the lighter fare that are these two tales. They’re both good, fun, and intelligent, but the shift is uncomfortable. Perhaps that was the intent, to make for an uneasy experience reading this collection, but it still doesn’t gel well enough to have that much of an impact.
Escape From Atlantis, written by Wagner with art by Paul Marshall and colors from Chris Blythe, sees Dredd get caught up in an undersea prisoner move escort gone awry. Whereas the first two stories feel like a tragic opera by way of police procedural, this feels more like a PG-13 Saturday Morning Cartoon installment of Dredd, with the main thematic tie being…there’s androids? The thematic connection is difficult to find to say the least. It’s fun and Atlantis itself is really well introduced and developed, but you can’t help asking yourself, “how did we go from that to this?” Marshall has a simple, but classic style that delivers some great moments, but Blythe’s colors are a little too saturated and pop to a degree that some of the lighting effects overtake the art, especially after following coloring style of the two Mandroid-centric tales.
Bad Mother is exactly the type of satire that Dredd is known for, taking aim at reality television and one could argue there’s a subtle vigilantism attitude being addressed as well. Written by, who else, John Wagner, Bad Mother is actually quite funny in its scathing delivery, but again is a real leap from the prior entries that it’s hard to adjust to. It definitely wraps itself up far too easily to be truly satisfying as if the actual plot took a back seat to the commentary dished out. Cam Kennedy’s art is great at establishing mood, with fun detail in the settings and action storytelling, even if characters feel a little stiff and Blythe’s colors here are far more effective and toned down than they were in Atlantis.
As a complete package, Judge Dredd Mega Collection Book 6: Mandroid is a bit of a mixed bag, but the strength of the opening story is more than enough justification to add it to your collection. Depressing as hell and delightfully deep, Mandroid shines a light on the nature of justice and its relationship to revenge, all while delivering a somber look at how the system failed a man and how that man, in turn, failed beautifully in a blaze of bullets, blood and hopelessness.