With Marvel's Judgment Day big launch, we're looking back at Judge Dredd's own Judgement Day
A 'serious' inquiry into the buzz behind Judgment Day...
Everyone, it seems, is talking about Judgment Day – the big summer crossover event with big stakes that could change everything. The obvious question about such buzz is, though: why is everyone so excited about a Judge Dredd storyline that first appeared 30 years ago?
'Judgement Day' – yes, with an “e” in the middle of the first word; this was the British spelling, remember – originally ran across 2000 AD and the Judge Dredd Megazine in the summer of 1992. It was, admittedly, a big deal at the time: the first big Judge Dredd storyline from then-neophyte writer Garth Ennis (with plot input from Dredd co-creator John Wagner), and co-starring Johnny Alpha from an entirely separate 2000 AD series, Strontium Dog. It was kind of crossover that British comics just didn’t really do, traditionally. It was certainly, unmistakably, an event. It was also pretty much a mess on almost every front.
The plot of “Judgement Day” is actually relatively straightforward, and filled with no short amount of potential: a necromancer from the far future has traveled back to the era of Dredd in order to escape retribution for his slaughter of an entire planet. Once there, he decides to slaughter humanity as well, via the creation of armies of the already dead. Dredd and fellow lawmen from across the globe fight back, aided by Johnny Alpha, who has traveled from the time the necromancer came from, and after a number of setbacks, they are ultimately victorious, leaving the necromancer in a state where he is defeated and left powerless.
Summarized in that fashion, Judgement Day sounds like the kind of thrill-packed adventure serial that 2000 AD readers had come to expect, filled with no small amount of the kind of hyperviolence, epic scope, and dark humor that readers were used to after more than a decade of Dredd by that point. Based on that summary alone, it fits into the long-established tradition of a “Mega-Epic”: a story that runs around half a year in length, told on a scale that regular Dredd stories aren’t. Earlier Mega-Epics had seen a search through space for a child prophesied to save the world, the destruction of the former Soviet Union, Dredd’s home of Mega-City One overrun by demonic entities that worshiped death itself, and, uh, a surfing contest in Australia – no, really – so a worldwide zombie invasion that threatens the very future of humanity? Sure! Why not?
The problem is, really, the execution. Multiple artists were responsible for the artwork of the storyline’s 20 episodes, and it’s safe to say that their styles were almost as dissimilar as could be imagined, as was their experience, creating a particularly disjointed reading experience. Depending on the sequencing, the brutal, dynamic clarity of Carlos Ezquerra’s art in certain installments would be followed by muddy, difficult-to-follow pages by Dean Ormston – yes, the Black Hammer co-creator at a particularly early point in his career – or Chris Halls’ faithful, yet surprisingly dull, attempts to recreate Simon Bisley’s painted aesthetic. (Halls would later go on to become a successful music video director under the name Chris Cunningham.)
Of course, other Mega-Epics had inconsistent art – 1987’s 'Oz' had no less than eight art teams across its 26 episodes, including Steve Dillon, Brendan McCarthy, and Watchmen colorist John Higgins – without suffering as poorly as Judgement Day. The roots of the problem with the story lay in the writing, with the young Ennis simply unable to juggle all of the elements of the story successfully enough to satisfy the demands of… well, just about anyone, really.
For a story that theoretically works on an almost unimaginably large, horrific, scale, Judgement Day fails to actually communicate the size of what it’s doing. Entire cultures are, we’re told, wiped out as part of the story. At one point, Mega-City Two, which is essentially the entire West Coast of the United States, is destroyed by nuclear strike because it’s filled with zombies – but it’s given so little attention either by Ennis or the characters in the story themselves that it feels as if none of it has actually happened. Similarly, the global zombie invasion is something that’s talked about in the story, but never clearly shown on the page, giving the storyline the feel of a low-budget movie without the resources to convince its audience just how dramatic events truly are.
The story’s lack of ability to sell its own premise isn’t helped by its central villain, Sabbat the Necromagus. Sabbat is a genuinely odd presence in the story. Ostensibly the primary antagonist, he spends most of the story passive aggressively talking to his sentient cloak filled with the souls of his victims and wondering aloud about how evil he is. Other characters talk about his previous evil deeds, or the rising number of dead around the world as events continue to unfold, but every time he actually shows up, any sense of menace evaporates almost immediately; how scary can a guy who argues with his own clothes really be, after all?
The feeling that Sabbat is inherently disappointing is only made worse by the story’s final installments, which reveal his origin story. He was bullied as a kid by a parody of British comic character Dennis the Menace, and then a kindly old woman taught him necromancy, apparently – before a climactic showdown with both Judge Dredd and Johnny Alpha reveals that his one true weakness was being punched a lot and then stabbed. Which, let’s be honest, doesn’t feel particularly impressive for a master magician or grand villain, in that it’s a weakness that literally everyone in the world shares…? Turns out, Sabbat’s only advantage for the majority of the story before that was simply being too far out of reach for anyone to punch.
Despite all of this, Judgement Day has some small amount of charm. Carlos Ezquerra’s art, in particular, is bold and exciting in a way that few artists could hope to match, adding a lot of energy to the chapters he’s responsible for. (Ezquerra, who died in 2018, would work with Ennis on a recurring basis for the next decade or so, providing much of the massively underrated Spanish artist’s exposure in the U.S.)
As clumsy as much of the writing is, Ennis is onto a winner not only by bringing in Judges from around the world to fight Sabbat – there’s a fun novelty in seeing the traditionally American idea applied to other cultures, even in these overly stereotyped forms – but, more importantly, by bringing Johnny Alpha back from the dead in his own strip to play hero here. Alpha was a fan-favorite character who’d been killed off in the regular Strontium Dog strip two years earlier, but gets to return here via a time travel gimmick that avoids any retcons or reboots in favor of simply getting down to business as quickly as possible.
If one of Judgement Day’s biggest flaws is Ennis’ love of machismo – something that runs through his entire career to date, admittedly, but is especially apparent in his early Dredd writing – then it’s to his credit, and to the credit of the goodwill both Dredd and Alpha had built up as characters in their decade-plus publication history by this point, that the final scene of the story is as successful as it is. Having successfully defeated Sabbat, Dredd admonishes Alpha for, basically, stepping on his turf uninvited, before Alpha mentions that they have a long walk back to civilization and relaxation. “You tell me, Alpha,” Dredd says in the final panel of the story’s penultimate page, leading into a full page splash of the two heroes standing next to each other, bloodied and looking purposefully badass, “Who the hell’s gonna mess with us?” It’s ridiculous, it’s over-the-top, and despite everything, it’s glorious enough to almost make you forgive everything that it took to get to this point.
Judgement Day celebrates its 30th anniversary this year, and both 2000 AD and the Megazine are going back to the well in the story’s honor. September sees 'Judgement Days,' a special event that sees zombies invade the entire multiverse of 2000 AD characters, running in 2000 AD Prog 2300, and Judge Dredd Megazine 448. The undead are back… but will their mission be any more successful this time around? They have had three decades to plan, if nothing else.
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