Reviews / October 5, 2018
Episode Three: Progs 5 and 6
ROBERTS: Before we start on this episode’s Progs, let’s talk about, in my mind, the definitive Dredd illustrator—inarguably a definitive comics illustrator—Carlos Ezquerra, who passed away this week at the age of 70.
MCKENNA: Yes, what a shame. Ezquerra’s art is probably one of the main reasons that I can’t be doing with most modern comics. Dense, scrappy, sometimes uneven but never anodyne, never with that deathly, smug slickness that takes the place of personality. His work had personality exploding out of every line—I can’t think of another artist you could possibly confuse his scratchy lines and commanding compositions with.
Ezquerra said that his main inspirations were Hugo Pratt and Alberto Breccia—a couple of giants in the world of comics—but though you can see the influence of both the European and South American schools of comic artwork in his output, Ezquerra’s work always feels like it’s very much its own creature. As a young scribbler myself, I can’t remember ever wanting to draw like Ezquerra, but just the sight of his work was enough to make you want to pick up a pen and start drawing: each of his frames feels like it’s alive with an aesthetic. It’s strange to think that someone whose vision became such a defining element of a generation of British comics was actually from Spain—another reason for hating fucking Brexit.
If I’m totally honest, even though he created the character, his version of Judge Dredd wasn’t my favorite. Don’t get me wrong, it was amazing, but by the time he ended up actually regularly drawing Dredd, I was already more enamored of other strips of his, namely Strontium Dog and 2000 AD’s adaptation of Harry Harrison’s The Stainless Steel Rat, both of which seemed to give freer rein to his baroque vision. I get the feeling that we perhaps never really got to see just quite how talented he actually was, though, because he was always working under the gun of notoriously demanding British comics deadlines.
ROBERTS: His work was nothing less than shocking to me: at the time, I was almost exclusively reading American superhero comics, with the odd DC title (Vigilante) and some of the Epic titles (Dreadstar, Alien Legion). And here’s Ezquerra, and his heroes aren’t really heroes, they’re these bedraggled punks gaunt with hunger and flaws. In short, they’re human, albeit in a world that is, more often than not, inhuman. And Ezquerra was the total package: his dangerous and absurd environments, his techno-surreal cities and architecture (yes, he could rival Kirby), his vehicles, his mutants, his guns, his mushroom clouds!
And yes, his vision. Go back now and look at his panels. The amount of drama packed into his strips is incredible, and yet it’s not forced at all. He’s always shifting the perspective, using all the angles, keeping it alive. As we’ve talked about many times, restrictions often breed creativity.
MCKENNA: That’s very true: despite my atrocious memory, most of the comic frames I can actually remember from my childhood are by him. And Prog 5 is where poor Ezquerra, who had been shafted by editorial politicking and hadn’t got a shot at the first few issues, makes his first appearance on Dredd. It’s also where Dredd makes his first appearance on a 2000 AD cover, in a startling tableau by Barry Mitchell that pretty much sums up everything fucking amazing about the character to 6-year-old me, and—to be honest—to 47-year-old me too: a giant robot ape stands astride the skyline of an Angus Mckie-esque Big Meg (because I am never going to get tired of saying “the Big Meg”) while, bike cannon blazing, Dredd rides his Lawmaster straight at it and an onlooker screams “WE’RE TWO MILES UP!” They could have just sold me that picture without a comic and I wouldn’t have felt cheated.
This was, of course, the same year that Dino De Laurentiis’ unjustly maligned King Kong remake was released, and if there was one thing that 2000 AD was good it, it was taking something that was infesting the zeitgeist and running with the bastard. Even better, taking inspiration from the backstage shots of De Laurentiis’ robot Kong—with its workings visible—that I vaguely remember being in circulation at the time, and producing this surreal riff on it. That is one of my abiding memories of reading 2000 AD back then: it seemed like some sort of Dadaist newspaper reporting on world events. You’d have been older when you read Krong, Kelly—what do you make of it?
ROBERTS: I don’t remember this particular Prog, to be honest, but it’s glorious. Dredd “relaxing” in his apartment reading a book called “LAW”; the Italian cleaning lady lamenting that he “never have no fun”; a murder mystery that’s a love letter to B movie monsters. “I hate sensor-round because they bring stupid dream worlds into people’s apartments,” the killer, a curator of a special effects museum, says. “Nobody wants to see monster movies anymore.”
It’s a prescient anticipation of CGI and the Internet, and possibly a jab at the “stupid dream worlds” conjured up by American TV and American film—maybe even American comics. (Universal Pictures developed a subwoofer-generated “Sensurround” effect in 1974 for the film Earthquake.)
(Also, I’m letting that “unjustly maligned King Kong remake” comment go.)
MCKENNA: Again, there are so many great little touches in this episode, like the “spiral road” to the top of the Sensor-Round building and the killer’s almost touching demise, as well as his gloating one-liners to his victims—and, silly as they were, I did love the vignettes of Dredd’s homelife when he was still, to some extent, a “regular Joe.”
In the UK, the background noise to all of this was IRA bombings, the Sex Pistols, industrial action, and the appearance of the MTV1, a two-inch screen TV set, created by a man who—both aesthetically and psychologically—would have made a pretty good Dredd villain: Clive Sinclair. Technology, violence, and disorder were definitely on our minds, and Dredd sometimes feels like an accurate (however unwitting) barometer of that. I don’t mean people were literally scared of giant mechanical apes, but something about these angry robotic shades of the past rampaging through the present feels somehow pertinent to what was going on. Or possibly I’m talking bollocks.
Historical monsters also feature in Prog 6’s episode, which starts with one of the all-time great speech bubbles: “Outta the way! Our boss Frankenstein 2 wants that body! He makes the original Frankenstein look like a jelly baby!” The heights of squishy, stitched-together body horror this seemed to imply—especially to ill-informed infants like myself, who were still convinced Frankenstein was the monster—weren’t quite reached, but it’s still a fucking great strip.
ROBERTS: On-demand reconstructive surgery was a plot device in Prog 3, and here we have the “perfected” art of transplant surgery. The procedure was banned in Mega-City One because “people could almost live forever,” so Frankenstein 2 and his cronies steal fresh dead bodies and use the working parts to make whole their debauched, wealthy clients. This one’s rather interesting because Dredd comes off as a friend of the people, as opposed to a fascist stooge: after he kicks the villain’s ass, he tells the would-be transplantee, “It’s rich cats like you who kept Frankenstein 2 in business. You are the real villains.”
This anxiety over advancing technology—you can’t get more obvious than invoking the name of Frankenstein—permeates these early Progs, as you say. Yet another theme I never picked up on as a kid.
MCKENNA: That’s partly the reason why I remain a bit unconvinced by the “There was always a Dredd-is-a-fascist element to our music” story: as often as not, in the early Progs, Dredd was an enemy of the wealthy and the vested interests that used their financial muscle to stomp on the faces of the poor plebs of the Big Meg.
One last thing. That name “Frankenstein 2” sums up so much of what gave 2000 AD its electricity—something that sounds like the title of a B movie and implies an entirely new way of thinking about names, something that’s both tawdry and exciting, utilitarian (not The Frankenstein of the Big Meg or New Frankenstein, but Frankenstein 2) yet evocative. I’m going to say it—punk. It was those inspired little touches that kept the thrill-power levels through the fucking roof.