Sunday, July 06, 2014

The Batman/Judge Dredd Collection Part 1, Judgment on Gotham

One of the first comic books I ever read, probably among the first dozen at the most, was the 1991 "prestige format" special Batman/Judge Dredd: Judgement On Gotham, a fully-painted, seemingly once-in-a-lifetime meeting between the most prominent and popular American superhero (who just had a major motion picture in theaters a few years ago, and had another one due the following year) and a character I was told was his British equivalent. That sure sounded like something to read!

It was one of my earlier exposures to comic book Batman, my first exposure to Batman villain The Scarecrow and, of course, my very first exposure to Judge Dredd and the members of his supporting cast that appeared within the story: Psychic fellow officer of the law Judge Anderson, archenemy Judge Death, and less-arch eneemy Mean Machine Angel.

I loved it, although re-reading it many years later, I see that I missed a lot of elements of it, particularly the fact that Dredd and the comics world that emanates around him isn't meant to be a straight one in the manner that Batman and his Gotham are. If Batman comics were usually meant to be read as serious, Judge Dredd comics weren't necessarily meant to be un-serious, but they were often written, drawn and intended with tongue-in-cheek, with parodic elements, with jokes. Not that it mattered to 14-year-old Caleb, who was mainly entranced by the art of Simon Bisley, who presented an exaggerated, heavy metal album cover world of Gotham City and Mega-City One, with garish, cartoony characters covered in realistically rendered muscles, flesh and textures. It looked like Dave McKean's Arkham Asylum, but read like a regular Batman comic from the era (Thanks, in large part, to the fact that it was written by John Wagner and Alan Grant, a writing team with plenty of Dredd and Batman experience; Wagner, of course, was Dredd's co-creator, and while he and Grant started out co-writing Batman comics for DC; Grant later went solo, becoming one of the more prolific and longer-tenured Batman writers).

I suppose Bisley's images of a topless Anderson didn't hurt...
Nor did a rather bravura splash page in which Bisely illustrates what Anderson sees when she takes a peak in Batman's head:

This, remember, was among my earliest exposure to DC Comics' Batman, and the suggestive painting of a strange, scary, brightly-colored world seen in that splash went a long way toward selling me on Batman comics. If that image was representative, what was I missing by not reading Batman comics...?

(It's interesting to look at again now, after having read hundreds of the damn things. The Joker, Penguin and Catwoman are all prominent; dig The Joker's bottle-green suit and Catwoman's peculiar costume, which echoes Batman's own, particularly as drawn by Bisley in this book). There's Judge Dredd and Judge Death, so recently on his mind. There's Robin, whose 1988/1989 death Batman was still rather pointedly mourning. There's a repeat of the shooting death of the Waynes, and a monster at crashing through glass, as in Frank Miller and David Mazzucchelli's version of Batman's origin. There's Judges Death and Dredd, obviously quite fresh in Batman's mind. There's a couple of nasty-looking guys in the upper-right hand corner that could be Batman villains of some sort, the one on the right looks a bit like Clayface III, but given Bisley's style of goon, it is likely just a random bad guy. The character I'm most intrigued by is the one just below that pair, who looks like Wildcat with a cooler, more articulated mask than he's usually given. I'm not sure if that's meant to be Catman, as he doesn't at all resemble the character as he appeared in a 1990 Alan Grant-written encounter with Batman, or Wildcat, who he does closely resemble but who at that point wasn't conceived of as having played any real role in Batman's life. I'm assuming its just Bisley's version of Catman, drawn from his own memory or imagination, or just his response to a script calling for the drawing of "a bunch of weird, dramatic, traumatic Batman stuff" as he saw fit. Cool drawing though).

As much as I liked the book, and as much as it served as a gateway into the world of Batman comics (and DC superhero comics in general), I never read the three sequels. Each of these was also written by Alan Grant and John Wagner, but none of them were painted by Simon Bisley (the major draw of the first one for me) and, by 1995 the very words "Judge Dredd" caused me to recoil in terror, having seen a movie by that title that...didn't really help sell that particular brand to me.

It is now 2014, of course, and in the (jeez) 23 years since Judgment On Gotham, there have been seven more Batman films, one more Judge Dredd film and I've read hundreds and hundreds of comics, including plenty of Judge Dredd comics (though still nowhere near as many as I have Batman comics) and learned the names and work of almost all of these other guys who made all of these other Batman/Dredd crossovers.

So remembering Judgment On Gotham the other day, I thought it was well past time I read all those sequels, and thought I'd see if they had ever all been collected and, naturally enough in our Golden Age of Collections, they have been!

In 2012 DC published The Batman/Judge Dredd Collection, featuring all four of the two characters' crossovers, with Lobo/Judge Dredd: Psycho-Bikers Vs. The Mutants From Hell thrown in as a sort of epilogue; despite its complete lack of Batman, it does feature Dredd crossing paths with a DC Universe character, and it is written by Grant and Wagner.

The collection is rather recent in vintage, coming after the New 52 reboot and after the intro of the new new DC Comics logo (which "2000 AD" appears directly beneath) in the upper right corner. They used Mike Mignola's cover for the Vendetta in Gotham, the second Dredd/Batman get-together, and the only one in this book that isn't painted (save the Lobo cover). I woulda used the Judgment cover, which both came first and looks a bit more prestigious, but I suppose Mignola is a bigger name than Bisley, and one that's moved more trades from the shelves of US book stores and comic shops over the years. On the right, all of the titles of the stories are listed (note how you can determine the particular Batman villains used in the final stories based solely on their titles), and, in a column on the left, the creators, with Wagner and Grant getting top-billing, followed by artists Simon Bisley, Glenn Fabry and, surprising to me at least, Val Semeiks (who only contributes the Lobo story) and then Cam Kennedy, who I would have thought a bigger name than Semeiks.

The tone of the collection seems to hew closer to that of 2000 AD than DC Comics, with the dust jacket issuing such warnings from the "Justice Department" as Warning: Explosive Contents—Handle With Care and Contains excitement levels that may cause unexpected side effects.

I considered reviewing the whole she-bang in one interminably long post, interminably long posts being, of course, the only kind of long posts I do here at EDILW, but I figured I would split them up, story by story, in part to make the piece more reader-friendly and, in greater part, so that I could kill the better part of a week reviewing a single book.

So let's start with 1991's Wagner, Grant and Bisley production, Judgment on Gotham.

The book opens with what must be one of the weirdest openings to any Bamtan comic I've read, the familiar Bat-symbol slowly morphing, over the course of four panels, into two people making out, and then we see a monster's POV sequence as the main villain of the piece sneaks up on his first victims:
Also, there's honest-to-God nudity in a DC comic!

Batman, who Bisley draws to look sort of like Kelley Jones' Batman—extremely long, horn-like ears, huge cape constantly curling its serrated edges like it has a life of its own, muscles bulging through the costume as if it were bodypaint rather than body armor, exaggerated emotion in every expression—but with the careful, painterly detail of Brian Bolland's Batman, hears the screams and reacts. He arrives to find the ghoulish Judge Death, a lisping creature with his own personal dialogue bubble style who "Jjjudgges" every living thing he comes across, plunging his bony claws into the victims, sentencing them to death, and then facing off against a few Gotham police officers.

After a brief melee in which Batman first impales Death upon a wrought-iron fence ("Impaled! I didn't mean to kill it--!") and then incinerates him in an accidental explosion involving stray gunfire at a gas station, Batman examines the corpse of Judge Death after its spirit flies away, screaming "Jjudggmenttt will be carried out ALLLL WILLL DIEEEEEEEeeeeeee", and our hero finds a strange belt, which—FAZZZT!—teleports him to Mega-City One.

There he meets Mean Machine Angel and after a fight that leads to Batman saving Angel from plummeting to his death, Judge Dredd assumes the pair to be in cahoots. Angel escapes using the "D-belt" device that allows for travel from the pages of 2000 AD publications into the DC Universe, leaving Batman to meet Judge Dredd.
He doesn't get along with this particular lawman nearly as well as he does Commissioner Gordon.

Unarmed and un-masked, Batman's being interrogated by Dredd and risking a fifteen year sentence just for the weapons in his utility belt, when Anderson arrives. After exposition explaining what the hell Judge Death is exactly—one of four extra-dimensional "Dark Judges" that believes since all crime is committed by the living, all life must be eradicated to prevent crime—Dredd and Anderson argue over whether they should journey back to Gotham with Batman to save the city and capture Death, or throw Batman in a cell and then throw away the key.

I loved and still love this scene where Batman punches Dredd in the face:
I'm not sure if this is what Grant, Wagner and Bisley intended, but it reads like Batman gets so angry and desperate to save Gotham that he's able to snap the ropes binding him to a chair and punch dread hard enough to shatter his visor and knock him on his knees, all in one single, fluid motion.

"Make it twenty!" is a pretty good, Hollywood action movie-like line, too. I think I'd rather watch a Batman V. Dredd: Punching and More Punching than a Batman V. Superman: Dawn of Justice movie...

Back in Gotham, the now ghost-like Death is seeking a new host body, and happens across Batman villain The Scarecrow in a morgue. In retrospect, I find it curious that Wagner and Grant chose to use The Scarecrow as their Batman villain, in large part because, in 1991, The Scarecrow not only wasn't Batman's archenemy, he might not have even made the top-ten list of most readers.

The two strike a deal and, before long, The Scarecrow and his henchman are providing a new host body for Death and doing their level best to come up with a costume that vaguely resembles the one he was wearing.
In Mega-City One, Anderson and Batman strike a deal of their own, which involves Anderson breaking Batman out and escaping with him back to Gotham, with Dredd hot on their heels.

It all culminates at a heavy metal concert in Robinson Park, where Scarecrow and Judge Death are drawn because of the huge crowd's number of potential victims. Mean Machine Angel is drawn there because he hears the band's name—Living Death—and assumes it refers to Judge Death, who stole the D-Belt from him and with whom he now has a score to settle. And Batman and the Judges show up because, well, that's where the bad guys are.

After a brief musical performance by Judge Death—a parody of the Rolling Stones' "Sympathy for the Devil," which I hadn't recognized as a teenager because I hadn't actually heard
any Rolling Stones songs as far as I knew at that point—everyone fights, and the good guys win.

Bisley gives both of the title heroes pretty bad-ass splash pages:

Dredd wants to take Batman back to Mega-City One with him in order to serve his time, but Anderson intervenes, convincing Dredd to back off for now, and he complies, noting of Batman once the Dark Knight is well out of earshot, "Bit of a tough guy."

Wagner and Grant naturally get the voices of their heroes and villains just right, and Dredd and Batman make particularly good foils for one another. Despite the fact that both are crime-fighters, the fact that Batman is a vigilante with a perhaps-unusual-given-his-vigilantism faith in the 20th century's legal system and Dredd is a completely uncompromising police officer, judge and jury all in one is more than enough to keep them bickering for as many pages as their publishers will allow them to share.

Re-reading this now, I'm also struck by how well the tones of the two strips match-up. The Batman side of things might be slightly more humorous than usual (The Scarecrow's fear gas comes out of a spray can labeled "Fear-O-Sol, Guaranteed Ozone Unfriendly" for example, and there's that awesome scene where Scarecrow shows Judge Death that which he fears the most), but, for the most part, the gag elements come from the Gothamites reacting to the invading characters. The sober, serious Batman more than once refers to the denizens of the Dredd strip as madmen.

But, as I said earlier the greatest attribute this story had, at least as far as I was concerned, was Bisley's art.

There's not a whole lot of difference between his Mega-City One and his Gotham in terms of lighting and texture, but his Gotham is certainly more cartoony and futuristic-looking than usual. There are collage elements used in providing signage, the cops tool around in a big, silver sports car and carry Cable-sized pistols, and most are extremely exaggerated in build and/or design, wearing out-sized blue hats.

I particularly like Bisley's Death when the character is incorporeal, at which point he has his regular head and sometimes hands, but otherwise looks like a rather filthy specter, composed of fluid, flowing ectoplasm.
The effect of his trying to enter other characters, like The Scarecrow here, is similarly neat.
And Bisley's portrayal of the "D-jumps," when characters move from one dimension to another, are pretty cool:
I sure have aged since the last time I read this story, but, surprisingly, it doesn't seem to have done likewise.

1 comment:

Akilles De Picosekunti said...

I didn`t like the script, myself. I`ve kept the one shot because of the art, though.