Judge Death. A name that is as recognisable and iconic as Judge Dredd, more recognisable to most people than more regular characters from the Judge Dredd books such as Judge Anderson or Judge Hershey. Before I’d even read a single page of Judge Dredd I’d hear about Judge Death and the other Dark Judges.
Judge Dredd Classics: The Dark Judges collects together the first three stories to feature Judge Death, and his three cohorts, in one single volume, allowing people such as myself, who know about the legacy of the Dark Judges but has never read it, a chance to see how it all began.
The three stories collected in this trade come from the early 80’s, and begins way back in 2000AD #149, and you can tell this. The first story in particular, ‘Judge Death’, is very simplistic in the way it’s written compared to a lot of later Judge Dredd stories, using a lot of narration boxes and captions to fill in the story beats. In a way, it reminds me of early DC books from the 1940’s and 50’s, where they had a lot of ‘tell me’ rather than a ‘show me’ way of telling a story.
This simplicity carries through most of the story, with Judge Death being beaten in an incredibly simplistic way. It’s actually extremely shocking that this was the first appearance of Dredd’s greatest foe, because he feels like a weak villain of the week style bad guy. Whether this was an intentional choice in order to lower expectations before his huge return a year later, or if he just proved so popular that they knew they had to bring him back, it’s still very jarring to read.
I was also surprised to learn in this first Judge Death story that it was also the first appearance of Judge Anderson, a character that would go on to play a major part in the Judge Dredd mythology and last for decades.
After this story, the book goes on to include the first introduction of the fellow Dark Judges, Judge Fear, Judge Fire, and Judge Mortis. This is where the book gets really good, building up the mythology of the Dark Judges and their home dimension, creating a solid foundation that would go on to remain relatively unchanged for years.
With the inclusion of the other Dark Judges we get to see how much more of a threat Judge Death is, as the four of them tear through Mega City One, leaving a trail of corpses in their wake.
Despite being a Judge Dredd book, all three of these stories firmly push Judge Anderson to the forefront, with the third story actually originally published as a Anderson Psi Division title, and Dredd himself only appearing in a handful of panels throughout. Whilst this may be surprising to some readers it does make for a nice change, and it gives another of the series’ main characters the opportunity to shine.
Because the older 2000AD books were produced in black and white, the story has been completely revamped, with the stories now presented in beautiful full colour. It’s a big change from the original source material, but the colours used here actually accentuate the story. The Dark Judges have dirty, muted colours, whilst the rest of Mega City One and it’s inhabitants are bright and colourful. It helps to tell the story, it allows the characters to leap from the pages in ways they didn’t before. And most importantly, it accentuates the original art without detracting from it.
Judge Dredd Classics: The Dark Judges is a great collection, bringing together the origins of some of the most iconic villains in both 2000AD and comics in general. Whether familiar with these stories, or only vaguely aware of who the Dark Judges are, this is a must read for any fans of the Judge Dredd mythology.