Misty evening in Edinburgh, as the haar settled across the city at night, like a soft, grey blanket. I do love when the mist covers Edinburgh, especially at night – something about the way it softens the city, makes everything diffused, and the streetlights glow through the fog.
Walking in the Hermitage of Braid today, near the foot of Morningside (Miss Jean Brodie country). The trees are still mostly resplendent in their verdant coat of summer greenery, but Autumn, Autumn is whispering in Summer’s ear “my turn is coming….”
Just outside the Hermitage, over a tall wall of an expensive house, the branches of its trees were laden with the autumn bounty of apples. And me there without my scrumping ladder to grab any…
L’empereur de Paris / The Emperor of Paris,
Directed by Jean-François Richet,
Starring Vincent Cassel, Olga Kurylenko, Patrick Chesnais, August Diehl, Denis Lavant, Freya Mavor
Another evening at the Edinburgh International Film Festival, and this time it is a French period piece, based on a real-life historical character Eugène François Vidocq, who I must confess I had only vaguely heard of, mostly in relation to him inspiring later fictional works by the like of Poe and Balzac among others. This is classic poacher turned gamekeeper stuff, inspired by the actual Vidocq, a criminal who turned thief-taker, his familiarity with the Parisian underworld of the Napoleonic era and his own native ingenuity allowing him to track and capture the most wanted criminal gangs of the era in a way the regular authorities – mostly just watchmen with clubs and a heavy hand – could possibly manage. Vidocq is rightly famous in his native France as the founder and first director of the Sûreté Nationale and thought to be one of the first – if not the very first – private detectives.
But frankly, they had me at Vincent Cassel…
I’ve loved Vincent Cassel, with his charming bad-boy approach to so many roles, for many years, and the role of Vidocq seems almost tailor-made for his strengths, his ability to project competing, often contradictory qualities of ruthlessness, self-gain, dishonesty but also paradoxically heroism, resourcefulness, of doing the right thing when his back is against the wall. This role seems to suit Cassel especially well at this stage in his life and career, as he portrays the famous criminal, thought to have died in one of his infamous escapes years before, trying to go straight in Paris in 1805, but being drawn back into the underworld and the local law enforcement (the two are not as distinct as you’d expect, not back then). This is Paris in the era of Napoleon, but it has not yet been remade by Haussman as the broad boulevard Paris we know and love today, this is the older Paris, filthy streets, creaky, tilting old houses, tanners, butchers and washers working openly in the festering streets. The middle-aged Cassel’s more grizzled visage and a more world-weary sense about him fit into this scenario perfectly.
Yes, there are beats to this story you will recognise – the criminal trying to turn his life around, to be legitimate only to be dragged back into the murky underworld of crime (I keep trying to get out, they keep dragging me back in approach), the assembling of his own team to perform his task and win his amnesty, the creation of his opponent, just as intelligent and capable, and even more ruthless (his own Moriarty), you can spot all of these now common tropes, but it really doesn’t matter because this is beautifully done. The cinematography is gorgeous – you can almost smell old Paris, fights in crime lairs in the limestone tunnels beneath the city are lit by fire and candlelight to give them eerie aspects, contrasting against the opulence of the Imperial court of Napoleon.
Cassel is, as you’d expect, simply brilliant in this role – as I said, Vidocq could have been custom-made to be a Vincent Cassel character. Leo Carax regular Denis Lavant also essays a stand-out performance, twisting his body language and facial expressions into a cruel, mis-shapen, Fagan like criminal overlord, vile, despicable, ruthless and dangerous, without ever tilting that performance too far into parody (you believe how nasty and dangerous his gang leader is). A classy, stylish, period crime movie that should also introduce the rest of the world to the real, historic Vidoqc and his role as one of the fathers of modern policing and detectives.
Turning of the year also marks my birthday, and yes, it is a bloody rubbish time of year to have a birthday as everyone you know is busy with their own Hogmanay stuff, so it gets largely forgotten, even when it is one of those tedious “landmark” birthdays when you hit some supposedly socially important age. Quite why it is important, I have no idea, and given that, as usual on my birthday, I spent most of it on my own, it doesn’t exactly feel special, in fact it feels like a waste of bloody time, an event more likely to make me feel depressed and isolated than inspire celebration.
And yes, there are people with far more pressing problems than that, I know, but it still does little for one’s sense of self or self-worth or mental health, quite the reverse. What a bloody rubbish day. Birthdays, I wash my hands of you, especially “landmark” ages (Ohh, that’s a special age, you must be doing something big to celebrate!) Yeah, right. What? With whom?). It also really doesn’t help when someone tells you to “pull yourself together” or “others have it worse, what’s your problem”. That really doesn’t help when someone is in a depression spiral, in fact you make them feel worse with that well-meant but idiotic nonsense, instead you make them feel even lower – they’re right, I’m pathetic, I don’t even deserve to feel included or happy, no wonder I am like this, I deserve to be like this. And so on, the black spiral feeds itself, you turn in on yourself and see nothing but mistakes and wrong and it is very hard to pull yourself out of it, in fact you often then attack yourself thinking how pathetic you are to be so lost like this, everything feeds the black dog.
Time for some self pity cake, which of course I had to buy for myself and eat by myself. Wow, birthdays are such fun!
Look, an actual day when it wasn’t howling a gale with the rain coming down horizontally!
And it was also very mild, temperature-wise, in fact too mild for me to wear my winter coat, had to slip to something lighter. Such a weird winter, we’ve had endless storms of high winds and driving rains then spells where the temperature has risen so much we’ve seen daffodils starting to poke out of the soil (even in December!) and petals appearing on the cherry blossom trees, then back to winter chills and gales again.
But this day was dry (it even brightened up a little later too) and fairly warm for a January day, and since that coincided with a weekend lots of folks hit Portobello beach and Promenade (lots of kids wobbling around on new skates or bikes they obviously got at Christmas but have had little chance to play on because of the lousy weather). Also gave me a chance to play with the new camera (lousy weather means I’ve had little chance since I got it, especially during the sort daylight hours), still getting used to it.
I wasn’t the only one taking photos of course!
While others were lost in thought
And some just happy to sit down by the sea and relax…
And there’s always coffee and snacks from the Little Green Van to perk you up on your Promenade strolling
(as ever click the pics for the larger versions on my Flickr)
Or: “How I stopped worrying and learned to love the financial timebomb…“*
I’ve followed Darryl’s work for years, from his run as our resident cartoonist-in-virtual-residence right here on the blog through his developing work on the brilliant Act-I-Vate online comics collective, then his books, starting with the astonishingly powerful Psychiatric Tales, the insightful Science Tales and the fun of his Uncle Bob Adventures (a second volume of which will be heading our way from Blank Slate, yay!). Equally at home with humour or adventure strips, Darryl is however perhaps best known for tackling some pretty heavyweight, very serious subjects (mental health issues, the growing anti-science attacks by some, climate change and more) and through a massive amount of research being able to distil this research into complex – and often sensitive – issues and then creating an incredibly accessible explanation in comics form. In these endeavours I don’t think it is hyperbole to say Darryl has, for me, become to this explanatory branch of reportage comics what Sacco has become to war zone reportage, in that he shows all sides of a problem in a way the reader can understand, while never losing track of the human aspect in the complex issues involved, and all delivered in a way that only the comics medium can do.
With Supercrash he turns his attention to the global financial meltdown, the myriad causes that lead to it, the reaction of shocked governing bodies to it and the dreadful effects it had, not just on the companies but on millions of struggling individuals and even entire nations and continents (and indeed the effects it is still having, not just in economic austerity but in the attitudes that have come from it and which are affecting present and future political policies). It’s an extremely confusing, complex set of issues, and yet again Darryl manages to take those subjects and not just explain them in a manner any reader could absorb and understand, but equally crucially, he shows thenumerous links between many different causes, influences and events which lead to this dreadful meltdown, giving the reader a much fuller understanding of the various effects because they are now more aware of the causes.
“No one helped me, nor do I think it was anyone’s duty to help me...”
The book is broken into three main chapters: Ayn Rand, The Crash and The Age of Selfishness. Rand is a name probably familiar to many readers for her novels such as Atlas Shrugged, although many will not actually have picked up those novels and read them (I don’t recommend them, I have to say). But Rand was more than a novelist and screenwriter, she’s not only included here but given the entire first third of the book because of her political ideology and the cult she built up around it and herself, an ideology which influenced a number of people who would in later life be in influential positions of power, such as Alan Greenspan, a long-serving chairman of the Federal Reserve of the United States (from 1987 right through to 2006, a period when many of the protections and regulations created years before, some after the Great Depression, to protect the financial system from abuse, were systematically gutted, contributing directly to the great crash). Rand is a hugely divisive character, her personal ideology praising selfishness and attempting to justify it as a way for the ‘superior’ person to realise their potential without being ‘held back’ by the great mass of lazy and uneducated, and owing no responsibility to others (naturally she counts herself among the superior types).
It’s a very elitist stance and also seeks to explain why taxation is immoral, why someone who chooses to be a social worker is wasting their time and more that many people will find distasteful at best, downright repulsive and amoral at worst. Of course, others, including Greenspan, found her reasoning compelling, and a cadre of core supporters helped spread her message and, as with Greenspan, as they got older some of them found themselves in positions where they could actually influence national policies and put some of her teaching into practise, not least with a lot of deregulation in the financial markets which, it was argued, were not needed to protect markets and institutions and were in fact hampering progress and growth.
Despite the many flaws in both Rand’s reasoning and her personal character though, Darryl somehow also manages to portray a very vulnerable human being behind all her hateful rhetoric – this is not a character assassination, but an examination, and while many of her beliefs may be vile to many (although again he makes it clear she’s an icon to others) Darryl tries to give her some personal context, from childhood through to old age, personal relationships, money worries and other influences that shaped her and show why she was as she was, when a lazier author might have simply drawn her in simpler, starker terms that justified their own agenda, but Darryl is too good a writer for that. I also suspect the fact he is a person of great personal empathy drives him to try and depict her as an actual, complicated, imperfect, sometimes contradictory human being, whatever his own feelings on her views.
What makes this a far more fascinating and compelling book however, isn’t just Darryl being able to explain historic and contemporary root causes of the great crash, it is, as I indicated at the start, the fact that he shows the links between the different factors and influences and shows how they converged and evolved to create the fiscal tsunami that the world is still recovering from. More than that though, he shows how those causes such as Rand’s belief system – despite its many inherent contradictions (the powerful individual should thrive, those less able should perish, despite the fact those at the top require the work of those at the bottom and the society – hospitals, schools, infrastructure – that ‘despised mass’ makes happen, or her belief you make it on your own, no help, despite being helped repeatedly herself) – are still being used and still evolving with new generations on the right, with what I suppose we could term the children of the Thatcher and Reagan eras (we’re talking about the sort of top flight City workers who waved bank notes at a passing demonstration of public service workers protesting austerity and wage freezes fairly recently), and how some of these ideas have percolated into the far right and feed back into a general contempt for the have-nots (ie most of us), an overwhelming sense of superiority over the mass of the population and a crushing lack of human compassion, which we also see not only in the high finance business but in the political and media demonising of ‘welfare scroungers’ damaging the economy and straining public finances (at the cost of the ‘ordinary working family’) while ignoring those at the top who make enormous bonuses in businesses bailed out by the same public purse (so much for stand on your own with no help and the decrying of state intervention), or the dozens of top London Stock Exchange listed companies who use a complicated system of entirely legal methods to pay almost no corporate taxes, losing exchequers millions, if not billions, and yet the main political and media discussion still seems to settle on easy targets such as the disabled, long-time unemployed or immigrants, and, more worryingly, seems to be convincing a lot of regular people that these are indeed the main problems ruining our countries, a spiral of hate and distrust, bigotry, arrogance and lack of compassion that is breathtaking and which we are seeing and having to deal with right now in everyday politics, as well as in high business where those same attitudes helped foster the environment that encouraged the risk taking that helped fuel the financial disaster .
But this is not some tirade against Big Business or the rise of the Right. While Darryl does take a stance, he spends a considerable amount of time, especially in the final chapter, examining some of the main characteristics of the Liberal and Conservative (in political ideological terms, not the actual political parties), and he is commendably even-handed here, explaining some of their main thoughts and ideological planks to their side of politics and how there are both good and bad aspects to both, such as a family focus, strong law and order, personal discipline and so on which are hallmarks of the Right and the belief in the community spirit, the creative abilities to think outside the box and the adherence to personal liberties that are more associated with the Left, but also showing how both can be ideologically blinkered to simple common sense. I have to say he’s much more balanced here than I would have been, and again I commend Darryl for taking that sensible and mature approach. This isn’t to say he doesn’t indicate his own leanings and views, but he does so in a very thoughtful and balanced manner, backed up by a ridiculously huge amount of research, which he conveniently documents in the appendix along with a handy glossary of commonly used terms in the book (hedge funds, toxic debt and other phrases that have become common use through media reports yet which many of us probably only have a very basic understanding of).
I’m not going to get too far into the depths of the historical causes and arguments here, they are simply far, far to complicated for a mere review to try and paraphrase and condense, and besides, Darryl has done such an outstanding job in explaining so much of this that the best I can do is not try to explain some of it but simply advise you to read the book. All of this, as a bonus, comes with Darryl’s unique comic art, again taking deceptively simply cartooning that takes the reader easily into the heart of complex matters that have important influences on everyone’s lives and making it understandable visually as well as with words. His visualisations of Rand as she moves through her life somehow manage to be both intimidating – the dark-eyed, intense stare of someone who is sure they are always right and will brook no dissent – and yet often also suggesting the opposite, a harried, worried, frightened person behind that mask, vulnerable, needy and unable to articulate that need, hiding behind invented ideology instead which never fills that emotional void within, such that much as I despise her arguments (and loathe her badly written novels) I still found myself feeling sorry for her quite often as I read this.
The three main chapters regularly use a distinctive colour palette to easily differentiate them to the reader – pale greys, yellows and brighter reds for Rand, darker greys and blues for the Crash chapter (although other colours come in for spot effect and for a few pages set on a tropical beach he goes pretty much full colour for a nice contrasting effect of the ‘happy times’ of the booming bubble before the collapse) and a lot of yellows and red in the final Age of Selfishness chapter. And I was delighted to see Darryl work in a few cityscape scenes too – I do love a good Darryl Cunningham cityscape! It’s a remarkable read, visually clever and inventive, as you might expect from Darryl perhaps but still always a pleasure to see, condensing and simplifying complicated inter-related causes that combined to bring the great crash and the subsequent life-ruining austerity measures that have followed in the amazing way that he manages to make seem so simple (but which we know is the result of massive reading, research and thought before any panels were brought to life). A complicated yet eminently readable work on an important subject, this deserves a wide readership, and I hope like Darryl’s previous works this is also one with much to recommend it to book folks outside of the regular comics readership. Much recommended.
* – no, not really, of course…
This review was originally penned for the Forbidden Planet Blog
Okay, today I turn 44. Which I still find quite hard to believe, frankly – I mean how the hell did that happen? One day you just suddenly realise you’re a lot older, but in your head you aren’t. My dear dad hits the big seven-oh early next year and he said the same once to me, that in your head you don’t feel that you are that age. In my head I probably stopped around my mid to late twenties. Sadly my body didn’t agree with my mind on that and the bastard got older, wider and decided it could do well without hair on my head but suddenly deciding at the same time it would grow it in other places that required regular grooming in order not to look like one of those mad older blokes who never do anything about it and end up with what looks like badgers for eyebrows and the brushes from those old shoeshine machines you used to see in public lavs in the 70s sticking out their nose and ears.
Made slightly worse by watching the Lemmy movie on BBC4 on Friday night into Saturday (my actual bday) morning. It gave me an urge to rewatch Decline of Western Civilisation Part 2 – the Metal Years, a fab rockumentary that takes in the excess and silliness of the 80s rock and metal scene. I used to have it on VHS ages ago, I think I taped it way back in late 80s or early 90s when one Christmas season the BBC had Heavy Metal Heaven on several late night sessions during the holidays, fronted (in more ways than one!) by Elvira, and this was a part of the season. At that time I had hair which ran to halfway down my back, my second hand, cracked, battered biker leather jacket (but distressed is always cool for a biker jacket), festooned with badges (at my grad ball I was presented with a special award for most badges on a jacket) and painted, my bandanas, my DMs, enjoying college, drink, music and hanging out most weekends at Madison’s Rock Club with my college chum Metal Mel (who had been backstage with just about everyone in rock and had the pics to prove it, she did write ups on them all), headbanging away and dancing our arses off on the floor with all the other regulars. Sadly my long hair is long gone and even Madison’s is long gone, now a bloody restaurant above the Playhouse in Edinburgh. And this now dying year of 2011 marks 20 bloody years since I chucked work to go back to college in my 20s and do my degree (and meet a lot of new folks, drink a massive amount and explore some, er, other stuff that was highly enjoyable too, best time of my life, but dammit, it can’t be 20 years ago, can it? Can it?)
And part of me now gets what Homer was wistfully complaining about in the Simpsons many years back now, in the episode that spoofed Lolipalooza, where he flashes back to his long haired youth, rocking out with Barney, then to his middle aged, balding, expanding waist self… And he says to Marge I used to rock and roll all day and party every night, now I am lucky if I can find half an hour a week in which to get funky. I thought it was funny play on the KISS lyrics at the time, but now, years later, I find myself empathising more with Homer in that long ago episode, back when the Simpsons was still funny and worth watching (the fact I recall when the Simpsons was funny,fresh and original also marks out my age, I suppose!). Of late I have had a huge urge to get myself a new leather biker jacket, the proper Brando style one with the diagonal zip. I wore one for years, all decorated, with the bandandas and DMs and long hair, but then I think would I suit it now or do I want it only for nostalgic reasons? The DMs and long hair are gone, the bandanas are still there though (practically my trademark), but would I carry it off now or look like a middle aged bloke trying to find youth again? Maybe it is just middle-aged nostalgia…
Ah well, I do still rock out when I can and fuck yeah, I’ll air guitar to my fave tracks when I damned well feel like it. And rather than going into depressing middle age rant about how bad modern life is compared to what I thought it would be in my 20s, here’s some of the things I loved earlier in my life which I still think are bloody brilliant and make my planet a better place:
rock and goddam roll, obviously, the Holy Trinity of Bass, Drums and Electric geetar, from Hendrix to Nirvanna, from the ostentatious like Queen to the stripped down of the Ramones.
Movies. From the sugary confections of Vicente Minnelli to the super-smart work of Chris Nolan, from Tom’n’Jerry cartoons of the 40s to the stylised shadows and light of German Expressionism and the French New Wave, and not forgetting my life-long favourites I rewatch every year or so like Casablanca, Blade Runner and my all time favourite, Cyrano De Bergerac. Cinema – light flutters in a large, dark room full of people and magic happens, pulling you away from the everyday world in a way watching a DVD will never replicate and it’s why I have been in the cinema seven times this month alone. The older I get, the more life looks dark, the more wonderful the cinema seems…
Books. Books, books, books. Poetry, short, modern, or ancient like the Iliad, books on science, history, architecture, photography, art, novels, comics, graphic novels. I have devoured them all for as long as I can recall, I was reading well before I was old enough to go to school and I never stopped and I never will, there are too many fascinating new writers and artists out there crafting amazing books that demand to be read and despite the poverty of pay in the book trade I am glad and proud that I’ve been lucky enough to meet a lot of those writers, even go drinking with more than a few of them, and to write about and recommend and promote good writing to people. I still get a kick out of it when someone tells me they didn’t even know about a book until I wrote about it and my writing style convinced them they had to try it. I suppose one of these days I should really write one of my own… One day… right now I am too busy reading them and writing about them.
So 44 today, on the final day of the year. I have decided since I am such a film-head that I hereby decree that this year shall be my Dirty Harry year. As in 44 magnum, do you feel lucky punk? And if you don’t like that then you have to ask yourself a question? Did I fire five shots or did I fire six? Well to tell you the truth in all the excitment I kinda lost count myself… But seeing as this is a 44 Magnum, the most powerful handgun in the world and could blow your head clean off, you have to ask yourself one thing: do I feel lucky? Well, do ya, punk?
Friday 30th clicked over past midnight into Saturday 31st and that meant I was now 44. I have rock music on, a bottle of bubbly just popped and guzzling it with chunks of Toblerone. Rock and goddam roll, motherfuckers!
Gosh, haven’t done this in years – used to do it regularly along with some other online chums, each week Subliminal would post a list of words for a word association piece, you take them and put the first word that comes to mind in response (your first word, don’t spend time thinking about it). Let’s go back to trying it, here’s the latest set of words from Subliminal and my responses:
I say … and you think … ?
1. Reccomendation :: what do you like?
2. Toilet paper :: wash your hands
3. Scissors :: rock
4. Blaze :: Johnny
5. Frame :: job
6. Process :: recess
7. Flight :: of fancy
8. Irish :: coffee
9. Glasses :: full
10. Campaign :: bored
“I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked,
dragging themselves through the negro streets at dawn looking for an angry fix,
angelheaded hipsters burning for the ancient heavenly connection to the starry dynamo in the machinery of night,
who poverty and tatters and hollow-eyed and high sat up smoking in the supernatural darkness of cold-water flats floating across the tops of cities contemplating jazz,
who bared their brains to Heaven under the El and saw Mohammedan angels staggering on tenement roofs illuminated,
who passed through universities with radiant eyes hallucinating Arkansas and Blake-light tragedy among the scholars of war,
who were expelled from the academies for crazy & publishing obscene odes on the windows of the skull,
who cowered in unshaven rooms in underwear, burning their money in wastebaskets and listening to the Terror through the wall...” from the opening of Howl, by Allen Ginsberg.
I was lucky enough to get an advance viewing of the upcoming film Howl, inspired by Beat poet Allan Ginsberg’s famous poem, one of the seminal verse works of the 20th century and a major counter-culture landmark (right back when even the idea of a counter-culture was a new thing). Interesting to the literati, I’m sure, but some of you might wonder why I’m talking about it on the blog here. Well the film by Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman has an interlaced three-part structure, intercutting between 50s style ‘documentary’ footage of James Franco (Milk, Spider-Man) as Ginsberg and the court battle when reactionary forces in American society attempted to have Howl banned from print as ‘obscene’. Linking these two strands is the third element: some wonderful animation based on the artwork and designs of acclaimed artist Eric Drooker.
How much the resulting collage will appeal to you will, I suspect, depend to some extent on your appetite for poetry (I love it, but I know a lot of people don’t care for it, which is a shame, it’s a different way of looking at the universe, like magic is to science, or jazz to Classical music). Verse is always best read out; when it is read out the voice accentuates the rhythm and life inherent in good poetry. It floats like fine jazz, conjuring imagery and emotions out of your mind, linking them, making them flow and intersect and cross-breed to spark off more images and emotions. The faux-documentary scenes of young Ginsberg reading Howl for the first time to a live audience throb with creative energy (Franco does a terrific job), but for me it was the reading of the poetry over Drooker’s animation that really worked. Animation, poetry and jazz all combining, sometimes with literal (or at least semi-literal) interpretations of the lines, at other times more symbolic in nature, dreamlike, or sometimes a dark dream, semi nightmare (for some reason it occasionally made me flash back to some of the dreamlike animated scenes in Waltz With Bashir), the animated form offers up a far superior visual compliment to the poetry than live action ever could.
The court case scenes are based on actual records and alongside the famous UK court battle a decade later over Lady Chatterly’s Lover (also for ‘obscenity’) it marks an extremely important moment in the post-war Western world where artistic freedom and freedom of speech won out over the older, more conservative, reactionary forces in society; even if you’ve never read a poem in your life Howl and the victory publisher City Lights scored in those 1950s courts have had an impact on anyone who reads or who enjoys art, because it not only broke artistic boundaries, it helped secure the primacy of the freedom of speech, that element of any democratic society that any reader holds most dear. It’s an intriguing film and for me Drooker’s art (and the work of the rest of the animation team drawing from his designs) hold the other aspects of the film together, allowing the film-makers to indulge in something other than the straight biopic you might expect (and which would never have suited a work as unusual as Howl).
HarperCollins published a graphic novel of Howl with Drooker’s artwork recently with art similar to what you will see in the film; the film of Howl itself opens in the UK on February 25th.
This double review of the first two of Rebellion’s Complete Judge Dredd Case Files volumes (along with a bit of a look back at the very early 2000 AD back in the late 70s) first appeared on Emerald City back in 2006:
It is 1977, and a new international movie sensation called Star Wars is bringing SF to mainstream attention worldwide. In Britain punk rock jars with celebrations for the Queen’s Silver Jubilee. Something else is stirring in Britain though, a new science fiction weekly comic with the (then) futuristic title of 2000AD. With only Doctor Who and repeats of Space 1999 to watch, no VCR, no internet (no home computer!) and Terry Pratchett’s chart-conquering novels years away the kids (and some adults) were desperate for accessible SF. And here it was, in a weekly format in a comic you could actually find in any normal high street newsagent for “8 pence Earth money”. It was a comic book that would be an important career step for some of the best names in modern comics, including Alan Moore, Grant Morrison and Brian Bolland.
Judge Dredd was not the most popular character in the comic to begin with. In fact, he was not even in the first issue, making his debut with Prog 2 (2000AD has programmes, not issues). These days Dredd is known as the UK’s greatest comics character, and Rebellion are now collecting all of Dredd’s tales together in chronological order, from Prog 2 onwards, in large black and white volumes which are a little similar to Marvel’s Essentials series of graphic novel collections. Well, almost all of the tales — there are a few parts of the “Burger Wars” saga which certain fast food franchises have ensured will never again see the light of day. Some people have no sense of humour, while Dredd, for all its tough credentials, has always had a nice line in satire.
Even for readers like myself, who remember reading these tales the first time round, it is still surprising how different early Dredd is from the now-iconic character he has become. It is like watching early episodes of classic Star Trek, where the characters haven’t settled down and Spock seems a little too emotional — you recognise the characters but they don’t seem quite right compared to what you are now used to. (This is even more noticeable with DC‘s new Superman Chronicles which goes right back to 1938‘s first strips). The early Dredd is a little different, certainly much more human than he would appear in later years. He has a nagging Italian (stereotype) landlady, a comedy sidekick in Walter, his servant robot with an annoying speech defect, and he even smiles occasionally. The world of Mega City One too is somewhat different, with a mayor, a normal police force beneath the Judges, and citizens who are not quite as eccentric as they would become.
However, everything Dredd would become is here in rough form, including his incredible speed, reflexes and skill: the result of being trained since childhood in the Academy of Law. We are introduced to this establishment in the first volume, giving us a glimpse of children being inducted as cadets at the age of five, and of rookie Judges graduating years later to their ultimate test, action on the streets under the supervision of a full Judge. (In volume 1 we meet a character who would become a later regular. The future Judge Giant, then being trained by Dredd, is the son of the Aeroball player, Giant, from Harlem Heros, an early 2000AD future sport strip.) Dredd’s complete dedication to the law is made apparent straight off — littering will be dealt with as swiftly and harshly as robbing a bank. This has been a central aspect of his character ever since.
The fascinating and endlessly adaptable canvas of Mega City One itself is as much a part of the Dredd strips as the iron man of the law himself is. Even in some of the simpler, more basic early stories the reader is exposed to a fabulous futurescape of towering structures called Starscrapers (later called Cityblocks). These tower over the old Empire State Building (now a derelict building used by criminals to hide in). There are twisting roads which spiral up and around them miles into the air with no visible means of support, and fantastic future vehicles roaring along them (thanks to the imagination of Carlos Ezquerra). In fact so fast and numerous are these vehicles that MC-1 has it’s own version of Devil’s Island: a prison for violent offenders marooned inside dozens of lanes of constantly moving computer-controlled traffic zipping past at 200 mph. Underneath is the Undercity — a region so polluted it was concreted over — home to mutants and criminals (long before Futurama did the same). Few SF cities of the future had shown such an incredible vision since Metropolis. Bear in mind this is years before Blade Runner would stun our minds with its future vision of Los Angles.
The 22nd Century world of Dredd expands incredibly quickly in these first two collections. After some standalone stories to establish Dredd’s character, we quickly get the first big multi-part story, The Robot Wars. This provides the readers with their first sight of masses of Judges acting together to protect the city. It has a wonderfully camp villain in Call-Me-Kenneth, the droid who leads the robot revolution against the “fleshy ones.” Later in the first volume we see Dredd on the moon, because he has been chosen to be Judge Marshall of the Luna-1 colony for six months. As well as showing us more of the 22nd Century, this gave the writers an excuse to introduce some amusing Western-style tales, including a showdown with a robot gunslinger. (Shades of Westworld, but even Yul Brynner’s robo-gungslinger wouldn’t want to face Judge Dredd!). In the First Lunar Olympics stories we get to see something of the other cities beyond what used to be America in this post-nuclear war future. These include the Sov Cities, complete with their own Judges. (This may seem odd to us now, but remember the stories were written during the Cold War when no-one imagined the Soviet Union would disintegrate).
Volume 2, although still very early (covering Progs 61 – 115) is, for me, where Dredd really starts to come into his own. The multi-part Robot Wars had been very well received and, although the standalone tales would always be popular, it is with the epic tales that Dredd really began to draw in a big readership. This second volume contains not one but two of these early epics: The Cursed Earth and The Day the Law Died. In the former we get our first real look at the radiation desert between the mega cities. The Cursed Earth, blasted and irradiated during the great atom wars, is home to criminals, mutants and even feral dinosaurs (resurrected in a Jurassic Park style for dino national parks, but free to roam after the wars).
Dredd has to cross thousands of miles of hostile terrain. He encounters mutant gangs by Mount Rushmore (which has a carving of then-president Jimmy Carter added to it affording a good visual gag when an attacking mutant in a hover vehicle is shot down by Dredd and crashes into those famous teeth). He also meets rabid Tyrannosaurs, corrupt mafia Judges running Las Vegas, southern slavers who brutalise aliens as slave labour, and even the last president of the United States. The latter was sentenced to 100 years in suspended animation in a vault in Fort Knox by the Judges for the crime of starting the great atom wars (at which point the Judges took over the government of the Mega Cities, the only remaining civilisation in America).
This is all undertaken on the pretext of delivering a vaccine for a terrible plague to Mega City 2 on the West Coast (air transport not being possible for rather flimsy reasons), but that is simply a device to set up a terrific series of adventures as Dredd travels the ruined America in his Land Raider (famously based on a then-contemporary Matchbox die-cast toy — yes, of course I had one!). His companions include his bike-man, Spikes Harvey Rotten, ‘the greatest punk of all time’, with his grenade earring, right out of the punk rock scene. It also affords a classic cover (reproduced in the collection) which epitomises Dredd’s iron constitution and utter determination as a Judge. Clad in the ragged remains of his uniform, Dredd struggles on his knees through the radiation desert towards the end of his mission. The speech bubble with the words:
“This Cursed Earth will not break me. I am the Law. I am Dredd… Judge Dredd.”
The Day the Law Died shamelessly mines the history of Classical Rome and the more eccentric (well, stark raving mad to be honest) emperors such as Caligula and Nero. Deputy Chief Judge Cal uses his own version of the Praetorian Guard, the Special Judicial Squad (SJS), to secretly assassinate the Chief Judge and seize power (Chief Judges rarely die in their sleep in Dredd stories). Cal assumes dictatorial powers. Most of the Judges are conditioned to obey him through subliminal messages hidden in their daily crime briefing tapes (yes, tapes – this was the 70’s after all). Dredd is recovering in hospital from an attempted assassination and so avoids the brainwashing.
Along with some old and injured Judges who teach at the Academy of Law, Dredd leads a desperate resistance to Cal’s reign while Cal himself becomes increasingly unhinged. He punishes one Judge by making him carry out his duties in only his underpants, boots and helmet. He appoints his pet goldfish as Deputy Chief Judge (“Hail Deputy Chief Judge Fish!”). Yes it does sound crazy, but real life emperors have done far worse. When Dredd’s group gets too close Cal brings in huge crocodilian alien mercenaries, the Kleggs, to terrify the population and finish Dredd off. Fleeing to the Undercity, the resistance end up with the eccentric, hulking figure of Fergee, the self-styled King of the Big Smelly (as the polluted Ohio River is now called). He is still one of the most memorable characters in Dredd history. When Cal sentences the entire population to die (he starts alphabetically with Aaron A Aardvark who changed his name to be first in the phone book) Dredd needs every ally he can get hold of if he is to save the city.
While reprints of classic comics material are nothing new, there has been a recent — and welcome in my opinion — trend by various publishers to reproduce classic series with good packaging, in their original chronological order and with respect for the source material and the fact that they represent important parts of comics history. Examples include Titan’s Classic Dan Dare library and Fantagraphics excellent Complete Peanuts series. This does not mean that you should consider these volumes to be merely for those interested in comics history or looking for a little nostalgia (although I plead guilty on both counts) — while they do fulfil both those qualities they are also what they always were, inventive and hugely enjoyable comics. Older 2000AD readers like myself will enjoy these but they are also a perfect introduction to the back history of Britain’s top comics character for newer readers and look set to build into an excellent full Dredd library over time.
Judge Dredd: the Complete Case Files 01 – John Wagner – Rebellion – graphic novel
Judge Dredd: the Complete Case Files 02 – John Wagner and Pat Mills – Rebellion – graphic novel
In the interests of fairness…
… I need to say that tonight on the way home from work the regular bus driver saw me running to catch it at the bus stop and waited for me. So they ain’t all bad! I had a reply from LRT after complaining to them and they offered some mealy mouthed “we can only stop at the stops agreed for that route” or the world will end or some such crap; needless to say they ignored my question as to what they do in this situation if the passenger is elderly, or a child or disabled – does their driver not get some leeway to make a decision. Obviously an uncomfortable question so they simply ignored it (must take training from the same folks who coach politicians). They did helpfully suggest I check the timetable and the electronic board then I will know where it stops (so it is my fault, basically) – which is great except there is a pole for an electronic board at that stop but no display board yet installed (the pavement was ripped up to lay cables and the pole put in months ago, but they still haven’t bothered to actually install it) and the timetable in the shelter has no information on which few stops this limited stop service makes, which I had pointed out to him in my email, but again he had either chosen to ignore to make life simpler for himself. So glad to see they pay attention to their regular customer’s concerns, eh?
Still, at least they replied – the incompetent idiots at Royal Mail’s Parcelforce has still not replied to me about the package their incompetent (or just lazy) delivery driver dumped outside my house before Xmas (it was gone when I got home, just a card saying ‘left outside’). I called them that day, they promised to check with the driver next day and call back. Of course they didn’t. I tried calling again repeatedly but only ever got stuck on hold, so I gave up and emailed them. It took them a week to bother to reply to that and all I got was an apology but absolutely no information – why had this idiot abandoned my package, who was the registered sender so I can let them know, what were the contents listed as, what action will be taken against the driver, how do I seek redress from Parcelforce for this feeble service?
Ten days later and the buggers haven’t bothered to reply at all – perhaps they are thinking I will just shrug my shoulders and give up. Got the wrong bloke there. Sent them a furious email and will try calling them again too. How to impress your customers – lose their package then treat them with contempt afterwards when they ask what happened. No wonder the Royal Mail is constantly losing business to private companies, useless service, pathetic customer care. Moral of this is don’t use Royal Mail’s Parcelforce if you can avoid it folks, they abandon their packages outdoors then don’t give a damn about following up the customer’s complaints afterwards.