Comic Book Review: The Best of Judge Dredd

Comic Book Review: The Best of Judge Dredd edited by Tharg

It is the dark future of the 22nd Century.  Nuclear war and environmental devastation have made large portions of Earth’s surface barely inhabitable, and the majority of the remaining population is crowded into sprawling urban areas called Mega-Cities.  Overpopulation, high unemployment, and a general social despair have caused crime to skyrocket.  To combat this, most law enforcement has been turned over to an elite force of Judges, who act as police, the judicial system and the prison system all in one.  It takes a special breed of human to become a Judge, and the most legendary of these is Judge Dredd.

The Best of Judge Dredd

Judge Dredd first appeared in the second issue of the British comic weekly 2000 AD in 1977, but quickly became the magazine’s flagship character.  The strip combined dystopian science fiction with dark humor and Dirty Harry style violence.  Over the course of the first few years, the Judges went from an adjunct to the regular police force to the only viable government of Mega-City One due to repeated disasters.  As a literal police state, the Judges tackled any problem by criminalizing it, the flaws in this becoming more obvious with time.

Dredd himself is an antihero, an incorruptible man who is trying his best to make the system work, but the system is so oppressive that it crushes the people beneath it, even when properly applied.  And one of the recurring themes is that the Judge system lends itself to corruption and abuse, and fails even at its most basic purpose of reducing crime.  Judge Dredd may be fair, but he’s harsh.

The first story in this volume is the first Judge Dredd story, and contains only the seeds of these themes.  “Meet Judge Dredd” by John Wagner (writer droid) and Carlos Ezquerra  (art droid) introduces Dredd as he avenges the death of a fellow Judge.  The criminals are holed up in the old Empire State Building, now a dwarf building compared to the mile-high construction around it.  The Judges’ advanced crimefighting motorcycles and firearms are introduced, but it is the prison the head criminal Whitey is put in that shows the most imagination.  “Devil’s Island” is a traffic island, surrounded by mega-freeways constantly flowing with high-speed traffic.  There’s no wall or fence, but just try crossing to safety!

There are several fine single stories, including the first appearance of Rico, Joe Dredd’s corrupt and vengeful clone-brother.  While he dies at the end of that chapter, Rico’s legacy affects Dredd for decades.  This volume also has bits of several of the epic stories that ran for months in the strip, including the Cursed Earth saga and the Judge Child storyline.  If there is one flaw in this volume, it’s that they only have those fragments.

However, all of “America”, which was the first storyline in the Judge Dredd Megazine monthly magazine, is included, in full color.  This hits the dystopian elements hard, as the child of immigrants is named after their dream of a better life, but the America they’re thinking of is long dead, and eventually so is the title character when she tries fighting for her ideals.  The story is told from the perspective of her childhood friend, with a bizarre science fiction twist at the end.  It’s a hard-hitting story, and perhaps the best in this book.

The weakest story for me is “Mrs. Gunderson’s Big Adventure.”  A profoundly deaf and legally blind senior citizen is embroiled in the escape of a crime boss who has unfortunately for him attracted the attention of Judge Dredd.  The “humor” stems from Mrs. Gunderson being almost completely unaware of what’s going on around her due to her sensory handicaps, and swiftly grows tedious.

Also of note are the first two appearances by serial killer P.J. Maybe who is only thirteen years old at that point.  It feels like the second story was created first, and the first story written to make sure the reader realizes that Maybe is not the good guy here.  In the first story, he kills two random people and their pet vulture, just to establish that he can.  In the second, Maybe wipes out the obnoxious relatives that stand between his family and a fortune in manufacturing.  (It took a long time for Judge Dredd to figure out that there was a serial killer, let alone that P.J. Maybe was him.  Years later, Maybe was the best mayor Mega-City One ever had, while remaining a remorseless serial killer.)

In addition to the expected ultra-violence, there’s some nudity and sexual situations.

This volume is a good choice for an introduction to Judge Dredd and his setting, with a variety of his writers and artists (including Brian Bolland) represented.  Recommended to fans of dystopian science fiction and dark humor.

Anime Review: One-Punch Man

Anime Review: One-Punch Man

Saitama used to be an unemployed salaryman (white-collar worker) whose life was going nowhere.  When a (relatively weak) monster attacked, Saitama remembered his boyhood dream of becoming a hero who could defeat any opponent with a single punch.  He trained really hard, and became that hero…but if you can defeat any opponent in a single punch, your victories become hollow.

One-Punch Man

There is now an anime series based on the manga I have reviewed before, streaming on Hulu as of this writing.  In twelve fast-paced episodes, it covers all the way up to the Boros Saga.

It’s a comedic series that parodies superhero comic book conventions, but also touches upon deeper themes.  The best example of this is the Sea King Saga, which asks (and partially answers) the question of what it truly means to be a hero.  (The Boros Saga is more about how the world’s most powerful hero group, the S-Class heroes, haven’t grasped this concept yet–they’re a collection of loners, many with dubious motives, not a team.)

Good animation and some excellent voice work make this series a good adaptation of the manga.  Also appreciated is some expansion of minor character roles, foreshadowing of things in future plotlines and cameos of characters from previous storylines, letting us know how they’re getting on.

Content issues:  There’s quite a lot of violence, some of it gory–these heroes and villains mostly use physical attacks to deal with their problems.  The Mosquito Woman is, as one viewer described it “proof that ‘Sexy Halloween Costumes’ have gone too far”, but there’s quite a bit more male nudity.  Speaking of which, one hero, Puripuri Prisoner, does all his fights in the nude…and he’s a gay stereotype that may make some viewers very uncomfortable.  I’d recommend parents of younger viewers skip this one.

The season finale provides lots of sequel hooks, to the point that it raises more questions than it answers.

A fun view for grown-up superhero fans.

Manga Review: One-Punch Man 01

Manga Review: One-Punch Man 01 story by ONE, art by Yusuke Murata

Saitama wanted to be a hero when he grew up, the sort of good guy who could beat any monster or villain with a single punch.   Like many people, he forgot that dream as he prepared for a more realistic career as a salaryman (white collar worker.)  That didn’t really work out for him, and Saitama became unemployed and stuck in the hell of applications and interviews and rejections.  Until he saw a monster about to attack a child, and it reawakened his desire to be a hero.

One-Punch Man 01

He managed to beat the (fairly weak) monster, and started training to become a hero.  After three years of intense training, his hair had fallen out, and Saitama had gained great power, the ability to defeat any foe with a single punch.  Now you may be thinking, “that sounds way too easy; surely there is some horrible down side to these powers.”  And you would be right.  For a hero who lives to battle evil, defeating any opponent in one punch makes the victories hollow.

Comic book fans sometimes talk about the “Superman problem”; a protagonist so grossly overpowered that he can solve most difficulties is difficult to write interesting stories for, since normal challenges just don’t work.  A skilled writer can overcome this problem, but you also end up with a lot of Kryptonite stories where the hero’s powers are arbitrarily reduced to provide a challenge.

This series takes a different approach to the problem.  The first few chapters set up what would normally be world-threatening dangers, which Saitama defeats with ridiculous ease as he notes how he’s become detached from his own emotions, mechanically going through the motions of fighting monsters, but  feeling hollow inside.

Things start to change with the appearance of angsty cyborg Genos.  He’s the first person to really see Saitama in action and understand just how impressive he is.  Thus Genos becomes Saitama’s sidekick (although “disciple” is closer to what he acts like) and his first real friend.  They battle the Mosquito Lady, which brings them to the attention of the first arc villain of the series, the House of Evolution, which specializes in uplifted animal monsters.

This manga has a different backstory than many, as it started as a webcomic by ONE, who is an okay artist but not first-rate; as far as I know it’s still running.  However, the webcomic had strong writing and a good sense of comedic timing, and became a huge success.  A deal was made to have top notch manga artist Yusuke Murata (of Eyeshield 21 fame) redraw the series for magazine distribution, with some minor story edits where ONE felt it was a good idea.  This also became popular, and now there’s an animated adaptation as well (currently streaming on Hulu.)

There’s quite a bit of over-the-top superhero violence in this series, so more sensitive young readers might be uncomfortable.  Mosquito Lady is simultaneously a parody and example of oversexualized female supervillains (why does an insect need mammary glands?) but Saitama is fully naked during the same sequence so you may think it balances out.

The characterization is relatively simplistic in these early volumes, but as more continuing characters appear, the storyline gets deeper.

Highly recommended for superhero fans.

Book Review: The Island of Dr. Moreau

Book Review: The Island of Dr. Moreau by H.G. Wells

Edward Prendick, a young man of independent means, decides to take a natural history sea voyage (ala Charles Darwin) aboard the Lady Vain.  Somewhere in the Pacific, that ship crashed into a derelict and was lost.  Prendick and two other men managed to escape in a dinghy, but after a disastrous attempt at cannibalism, he was the only survivor.  Prendick was found by the tramp ship Ipecacuanha, which happens to be carrying a passenger named Montgomery, who nurses Prendick back to health.

Bela Lugosi as "The Sayer of the Law" in "The Island of Lost Souls", a movie based on this story.
Bela Lugosi as “The Sayer of the Law” in “The Island of Lost Souls”, a movie based on this story.

Montgomery, as it happens, is a former medical student who had to leave London in a hurry a decade ago (for reasons never fully explained.)   He and his odd-looking manservant have engaged the ship to deliver a supply of animals to a certain island, including a full-grown puma.  At the island, the animals are delivered to also odd-looking but differently so boatmen, and Prendick is not invited ashore with Montgomery.  On the other hand, the ill-tempered, alcoholic captain of the Ipecacuanha won’t let him stay on board either.

Thus Prendick is dumped back in the dinghy.  After some parley, Prendick is reluctantly allowed to land on the island by its master, the highly antisocial Doctor Moreau.  Prendick recognizes the name as someone who also had to leave England in a hurry under a cloud of suspicion.   After some initial misunderstandings, Prendick learns the secret of the island…which I am fairly certain you already know.

This 1896 novel by H.G. Wells was the second of his book-length (but just barely) speculative fiction works.   It still stands up as literature thanks to the multiple levels it works on.   It’s a chiller about a man stranded on an island of beast people who are rapidly going feral, a warning against cruel/unnecessary animal experimentation (Prendick is not opposed to vivisection per se, but becomes even more disgusted with Moreau once he realizes the doctor has no actual goal beyond turning an animal into a human being to prove he can), and an allegory about the animalistic behavior lurking beneath the thin veneer of human civilization.

Prendick, like the Time Traveler, is a bit of a stumblebum.  He has a smattering of scientific education which allows him to follow along when Moreau and Montgomery give explanations, but not enough knowledge in any given field to be useful in survival.  He also burns down Moreau’s lab entirely by accident, and is repeatedly bad at making rafts.  Prendick only eventually escapes when he stumbles across the Ipecacuanha‘s lifeboat, with the captain’s corpse inside (which is never explained either.)  On the other hand, Prendick turns out to be an excellent shot with his very limited ammunition.

Montgomery is the most nuanced character, a man who lets his weaknesses (primarily alcohol) guide his actions, but with frequent decent impulses.  We learn that it is in fact, he, not Moreau, who came up with the Law that the Beast People follow, in an attempt to help them not regress to the animals they once were.   He also shows small kindnesses throughout the book until his death.

Moreau, conversely, is very much the mad scientist.  He starts with the knowledge that body grafts are possible on a small scale, and decides that turning an animal into a human being would be a really cool achievement.  There’s no scientific method involved, he doesn’t bother with anesthesia, and he loses all interest in his creations once they fail to live up to his expectations.   Like Victor Frankenstein, he’s so busy sculpting his new humans that he fails to step back and look at the aesthetics of his creations until he’s already done.  Unlike most real scientists, he fails to apply any ethical standard to himself or his work,  although he does feel that he is religious and that the pain he inflicts is meaningless in light of his higher nature.

The Beast People are victims of Moreau, animals carved into humanoid shapes (and sometimes blended for fun, like the hyena-swine), given limited speech and intelligence, yet just human enough to realize that they are not fully human and never will be.   Yes, they are dangerous, and a couple of them may actually be evil by human standards.  But they never asked to be made or abandoned; for them death is a kind of mercy.

It is nigh impossible to re-create the experience the original readers might have had, not having seen anything like this story before.  I note, however, that the trope of deformed, degenerate sub-human tribes of natives tucked away in the depths of Africa or the Pacific was common in adventure literature of the time, and the first readers might have believed they were getting such a tale from the early chapters.

The framing of the story is old-fashioned; there’s an introduction by a nephew of Prendick’s, explaining that this manuscript was found among his uncle’s effects, and while the shipwreck part is true, and Prendick was found a year later in a lifeboat that might have been the freighter’s, nothing else can be verified.  The only island in the area of pick-up shows no sign of the events of the story, and Prendick claimed traumatic amnesia regarding the missing year during his lifetime.  (Prendick explains in the story proper that he did this to avoid being locked in a loony bin.)

This is a good read for both horror and science fiction fans who can handle the old-fashioned vocabulary and slow start.  The vivisection theme makes it more suitable for junior high on up, and parents of younger readers may want to discuss proper scientific ethics with their wards.  One of the classics.

“Not to go on all fours, that is The Law.  Are we not Men?”

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