Monday, 27 June 2016

The Dead Man (2000AD #650-662)

"I don't know why or what I've done... but I've no right to inflict it on you good people" - The Dead Man

In 1990 2000AD ran a year long storyline called Necropolis.  This epic tale bought back the always popular Dark Judges - Death, Fear, Mortis and Fire, and introduced the "Sisters Of Death" the magic using  Phobia and Nausea.  What was interesting in retrospect was how much build up there had been prior to the start.  Although there was a strip that lead into it clearly marked "Countdown to Necropolis" pretty much all the several months worth of Judge Dredd strips in previous months had been setting the scene and introducing characters who would go on to play a major role in the storyline.  And then there was this story, "The Dead Man".  A quiet story to start with about a mysterious, badly burned and scarred man who is found out in the Cursed Earth by friendly natives. And who, in the company of a child from the village that takes him in, goes on a trek to discover who he is and how he ended up where he did. And slowly it starts to dawn on the reader that what seems like a stand alone story about a new character, is actually the lynchpin story of the whole mega-arc.  I'll try and preserve the mystery of The Dead Man until the reveal towards the end in this post in case you want to try and figure it out for yourself as we go.  Long time UK comics artist John Ridgeway provides the delicate, fine lined artwork making the Cursed Earth feel as arid and desert like as it ever has.  Keef Ripley scripts it with a well paced and sensitive hand.

The Cursed Earth is the expansive area outside Mega-City One.  It is a wasteland mostly populated by criminals, bandits, monsters and mutants.  But as the radioactivity has lessened it's also become home to small communties of normal human beings just trying to scrape out of a living of their own, and it is one such community that finds The Dead Man.  The story is narrated by a young black teenager called "Yassa" who introduces the story:

Yassa: "It wuz me who found The Dead Man... It was me who touched him - felt his skin.  All cracked and baked like a bad stretch of the Cursed Earth.  It wuz me looking right into his face when The Dead Man's eyes opened."
Yassa finds the Dead Man.
As this narration plays out we're shown Yassa, a friend and his pet dog called Dog discovering the wreck of a man and soon the whole village has come out to see him.  Yassa's mum gives him some water then they take him back into the village, "Bubbletown".  They load The Dead Man into a buggy to get him there and Yassa reflects:

Yassa: "Me I wuz praying for him.  I dunno why. I guess I kinda owed it to him. me being the one who found him. What I didn't know then wuz who he wuz - or why he had to stay alive. And I never dreamt of the evil he would bring down upon us all."

They take The Dead Man back to Yassa's house and lay him on a bed and bandage him up. The note the old bullet wounds on his body.  The local mad preacher, Larry, says he's "A man of violence!  A creature of evil!"  but the folks just ignore his rantings. Eartha, Yassa's mum says maybe The Dead Man won't survive to see the morning, but what kind of people would they be if they didn't give him a fighting chance?  And she chases everyone out the house.
Yassa's folks take the Dead Man in.
Mad Larry bellows she's bought "Doom!" upon them as he goes.  Yassa reflects if they'd known what was coming maybe they should have paid more attention to Larry. The Dead Man has a restless night and talks in his sleep.

The Dead Man: "Servants of Evil!  I know you...! What devilment is afoot?  Damn you!  I won't.. huuuhhHH! - Die for you!"

A pall seems to descend on the house.  Dog starts barking and in his room Yassa wakes up to a prescence that seems passes through him and as it does so he feels it "more full of blind evil than anything you could imagine"
Yassa's first nightmare.
His mum and dad come in and comfort Yassa who is shaking and crying.  He says he heard it scream, like a "saw scraping on glass".  His father says maybe The Dead Man will be able to tell him what it was when he wakes up. Two days later The Dead Man's fever recedes under Eartha's tender care.  The Dead Man finally comes around but when they ask him who he is he responds, "I remember... nothing."

A week passes and the fear everyone felt in Bubbletown the first night The Dead Man stayed there didn't come back, but it left Yassa feeling jumpy, looking at shadows and thinking he could hear screams. They ask The Dead Man about the things he said when he was feverish but he doesn't know what he meant, his whole life is a blank.
The whole town comes for a gawp.
Eartha says to Yassa that his memory would start to come back in time and she wasn't going to throw him out of the house just because everyone said she should.  Larry keeps protesting outside of their house saying "they're bringing doom upon us all!"  The rest of the town come and ask questions of The Dead Man but he can't answer them.  When they leave he says to Yassa, "They all stare at me - like some.. monster.  Am I that ugly?"

He then picks up a rifle and starts examining it.  He asks what it is and Yassa says it's dangerous.  Then he says that as far as he is concerned if Dog thinks The Dead Man is OK then that's good enough for him, "smart animal" says The Dead Man and he and Dog shake hand and paw.

The Dead Man is recovered enough to go outside.  Yassa takes him to where they found him in the hope it triggers some memories.  It doesn't, but Dog picks up a trail and they follow it.  It leads further into the canyon and suddenly they are ambushed by a group of sub-humans called "Grunts".
The Dead Man discovers his gun skills.
There is a struggle and the rifle is knocked from Yassa's hands.  The Dead Man picks it up and with precise efficiency kills several of the Grunts with pin-point accuracy. With all of them dead, Yassa is amazed that this morning The Dead Man didn't even know what a rifle was, now he's  crackshot with one.

Yassa: "Maybe I can't tell you who you are Dead Man.  But I know one thing - you're the meanest shot I ever saw!"

He tells the folk of Bubbletown but they aren't too pleased at the proof The Dead Man is a killer.  They tell The Dead Man that ever since he arrived in town things haven't been right with the animals, the rains are late and more Grunts have been coming down close to town like they've been spooked.

They come right out and tell Eartha they don't want The Dead Man in town anymore.  That night he stands outside Yassa's house thinking.  Yassa watches him and thinks he hears that terrible scream again, "as if it too had learned something about The Dead Man".
Another nightmare.
That night Yassa has a nightmare that he is being chased, a crowd of hands grab at him and a shadow bears down on him and he wakes with a start.   But in the room with him is a hooded figure who pulls her cloak back to reveal a bueatiful woman.  She reaches for him saying "where is he?  You'll tell me won't you boy" and then she transforms into a hideous monster.  And he wakes for real this time screaming his head off.

As he tells his parents and The Dead Man what he saw there is a banging at the door.   An old man had taken fright and died of a heart attack and the villagers blame The Dead Man for bringing the terror, "he brought a curse down on us all!" The next day The Dead Man tells Yassa and his parents he is leaving as he feels responsible for what has happened since he arrived.

He asks to take Dog as he wants to retrace his steps and thought Dog had his trail the previous day.  But Eartha says Dog stays with Yassa and Yassa won't be going with him.  She packs him some supplies and Yassa's dad gives him a rifle and a map.  The villagers turn out to see him off, though they are glad to see the back of him.  Yassa and Dog surruptitiously follow him through a corn field and catches up with The Dead Man at the canyon saying his mum changed his mind about him coming along.

Yassa: "Scared as I were of the terror.  It sound like too good of an adventure to miss. Fool that I wuz".

They carry on and when Dog loses the trail, they wait for him to sniff it out again.  Dog returns with a scrap of material which Yassa identifies as the same kind burnt onto The Dead Man's body when they found him.
Yassa and Dead Man make camp.
That night they make camp and The Dead Man says he knows Yassa is there without permission and that tommorrow he goes home.  Yassa says he can't send him back, he needs Dog. He says The Dead Man said it was important he found out what happened to him and who he is, and at that The Dead Man decides to keep Yassa and Dog with him.

They are ambushed by Grunts the next day, but The Dead Man sees them off and they arrive at a place with several burnt out dwellings.  Yassa comments:

Yassa: "Funny, you coming all this way when you were so near dead. Musta been somethin' mighty powerful drivin' you on."

They realise the trail leads directly into Grunt country. When Yassa says no one is ever stupid enough to go in there to find out how many Grunts are there, The Dead Man says, "maybe I was".  So through there they must now go.
More grunts dispatched.
They reach a wooded area and Dog finds more of the material.  The Dead Man says he recognises the place.

The Dead Man: "I have a picture... a memory cloaked in shadow. I'm staggering - lurching blindly. Pain exploding in my head - every step - but.. something's driving me.  I've got to keep going.  I've got to get away."

For some reason the Grunts didn't attack him then, which Yassa finds strange as he was already cooked.  But the Grunts aren't holding back now and they walk into a trap.  The Dead Man is yanked upwards via a rope trap.  He fires on the attacking grunts and gets himself free but not before they have carried Yassa off.

Yassa is tied up as the grunts light a big fire.  They grab him and Dog and drag them towards the flames to cook them.  Then they all hear the eerie scream and the grunts flee in terror and the hooded figure appears before them.  Yassa uses the knife he was going to be killed with to cut his bonds then he and Dog make a run for it.
Grunts take Yassa.
The Terror keeps chasing him.  The Dead Man lights a flare to guide him but Yassa stumbles and falls to the ground.  Dog leaps at the hooded figure but just passes through it.  Yassa is too scared to move, but before the hooded figure can do anything to him, The Dead Man appears and fires on it.  "You!" The figure says, "put that toy away you cannot hurt me."
The "Terror".
The Dead Man asks what it wants of him. It tells him when he knows himself it'll be back for him and disappates into thin air.  They follow the trail out of the grunt woods and come to country Yassa doesn't know about.  He reflects on what happened:

Yassa: "Even funnier to think the Terror had saved me from being eaten by grunts.  But I didn't feel like laughing.  I didn't feel good at all. I had a feeling it had only saved me for something worse."

They come to a river that is made of acid.  The Dead Man's memory is triggered again, he remembers stumbling through it, feet burning as he did so and he falls into it, "I'm on fire.  Pain.  The pain is unbearable."  But something stronger was driving him on, he could not die.  He thinks the final answers to his identity is over the river, but how to get across?
Fractured memories return...
The Dead Man says this is as far as Yassa goes, there is real danger over the other side of the river and he's already exposed him to far to much already.  Yassa pleads with him but The Dead Man says his mind's made up.  Then he fires his rifle at a tree on the other side and it falls making a temporary bridge across. 

But as he crosses, Yassa and Dog follow and can't go back as the tree burns away.  The Dead Man is annoyed by this and tells Yassa not to follow him, but Yassa refuses to comply and trails behind him.

Yassa: "Why did I go? What damn fool notion made me so eager to go rushing headlong into disaster?  It's a question I've asked myself many times in the madness where I now dwell;  when I awake screaming, reliving the terrible events of that day - remembering her face, her touch upon me..."

They finally happen upon another village called "Crowley" although there are no signs of life.  This is where The Dead Man will find the answers to his questions and discover who he is and what happened to him.
Crowley, where the answers lie.
Outside the town Dog lies down and will go no further, "he could smell the evil waiting for us there." Yassa still feels compelled to follow The Dead Man to find out who he is, caught like a whirlpool in events surrounding him.  They find several dead bodies, all burned to a crisp, there is no one alive in the town.

The Dead Man is lost in a mass of flashbacks, him confronting something evil, saying "I won't... die for you!" to his attackers.  "Servants of Evil I know you!" he says to them.  He and Yassa explore further, and find a helmet and the remains of a motorbike and finally a badge with a name on it.  "Who are you?" urges Yassa.

The Dead Man: "I am... Judge Dredd".
Best cliffhanger ever.
Even Yassa has heard of the legendary Judge Dredd.  But what is he doing here?  Dredd says he took the Long Walk (which is when a Judge retires, he goes out into the Cursed Earth with just his gun and bike to dispense justice until he or she is killed).

Dredd: "A hundred days bringing law to the Cursed Earth and then... they came... Creatures with hearts so dark and twisted nothing on this earth could have spawned them!"

He says they are denizens of a world where living was judged a crime and the population wiped out, Judge Death's world.  And the creatures who attacked him were "The Sisters Of Death!" I wrote about the origins of them in my coverage of "Young Death: Memoirs of a Superfiend."

The Sisters of Death.
Then the Sisters appear and approach them.  Dredd fires on them but one says "you cannot kill what does not live".  Dredd tells Yassa to run, but Yassa is frozen to the spot in terror.  And we get a full on look at the two sisters "Phobia" and "Nausea".  Dredd struggles with Phobia while Nausea takes a hold of Yassa and says she wants him to suffer and presses his face to her manky bosom.

Yassa: "Oh yes, I learned who The Dead Man was that day. But the price I was to pay would be terrible."
Dredd yells to Yassa that they can't hurt him if he doesn't believe in them.  But Yassa is terrified and Nausea rams her fingers in his eyes and blinds him.  Dredd curses them saying Yassa is unimportant to them.

Phobia: "All life iss important!  All mussst be punissshhhed!"

Dredd says they couldn't kill him the first time, and they can't now.  Phobia says they have damaged him physically before but Dredd says that was a momentary aberration. He grits his teeth and tells them:

Dredd: "You're not here! You're just an illusion- a nightmare... your power was strong enough to hurt me - even kill me.  But only if I surrended to it.  You're somewhere else! Yes! If you'd been here you'd have made sure of me."

Dredd resists and they find they cannot hurt him anymore so they leave and Dredd says, "tell your brothers I'm comin' for them".  Yassa had blacked out which Dredd says it what saved him from further harm.

The Sisters were currently elsewhere and using projection to attack people's minds.  Allowing them to inflict physical harm by tricking the mind into making it real.   Dredd picks up the blinded Yassa and says sadly, "what have I done?"  And takes him back to Bubbletown.
Dredd takes Yassa home.
All the folks in Crowley had died because they thought what was happening was real, but Dredd just refused and that's why he survived.  Back in Bubbletown, Yassa's mother says she can't forgive Dredd for what happened to Yassa.  Dredd says there may be a way to help him in the future and he is now going to head for Megacity One where he believes the danger originates from.  He leaves a traumatised Yassa, trapped in a cycle of nightmares and terror.

Yassa: "Dear God, I wish I could forget - lose my memory - become a Dead Man too. But I don't suppose is wise to envy The Dead Man.  Somewhere out there he's got his own nightmare to face."
And a new quest begins...
And that brings "The Dead Man" storyline to a close.  It leads directly into "The Tale Of The Dead Man" which relates the story of how Judge Dredd came to become disillusioned with the Justice system and the reason he decided to take the Long Walk into the Cursed Earth. I shall be covering that story in my next UK comics month. This story however is a really nice little tale, building up a solid mystery and leaving you feeling much sympathy towards Yassa, a brave young man who just wanted to help Dredd find his memories.  I remember being legitimately surprised at the reveal of who The Dead Man was at the time, this story was running at the same time Dredd strips also were in the comic so there was no reason to connect the two.  It also was our first glimpse of The Sisters of Death and the first major clue that something was going terribly, terribly wrong in Megacity One.  There was still many weeks to go before the Necropolis storyline started properly and the sense as "The Dead Man" story drew to a close that something big was on the horizon for the Dreddverse was palpable.  Dredd's promise to Yassa's family that he will find a way to help him is not forgotten, but there are more dreadful things to deal with right now. John Ridgeway's art is beautiful here, imbuing the human characters with dignity and strength while giving us a repulsive look at Phobia and Nausea.  His and Keef Ripley's Dredd is just the right blend of vulnerable and badass in this story and his bond with Yassa, even though it dooms the poor boy is well conveyed.  All-in-all a triumph of serial storytelling that is stil an enjoyable read when you know the twist ending.  Good stuff.

Thursday, 23 June 2016

Devlin Waugh: Chasing Herod (2000AD #1149-1157)

"What were we thinking of all those years ago?" - Devlin Waugh

"Chasing Herod" is the first in a linked series of storylines starring the titular Mr. Waugh but I shall be eking them out across future UK comics months same as The Ballad Of Halo Jones, oh I am such a furious tease.  Rather like Devlin himself in fact, a flamoyantly gay, incredibly muscular and virile man who used to work for the Judge Dredd world's Vatican City dealing with matters of the occult.  During the events of Swimming In Blood, which I have covered previously, he became a vampire as well and retired from his Vatican post to enjoy a life of aesthetic pleasure and cat breeding in the company of handsome young men.  Becoming a vampire doesn't really affect him, it's just gives him one more fluid he likes to feed on (oo-er missus) and he has no shortage of admirers willing to let him sup from them.  "Chasing Herod" sees him somewhat unwillingly dragged back into the kinds of things his former job required him to deal with, but the inciting incident is such an immediate threat that he can't help but risk everything to try and stop it escalating into something far more horrific.  If you've checked out his first storyline you'll notice that the art style here is rather different.  I think it's because by design "Swimming in Blood" was a deliberately over-the-top homoerotic paen to muscles, blood and guns, parodying the then envogue fashion in comic book art for completely unironic muscles, blood and guns.  With this story coming several years after we all grew up a bit, and with the subject matter being more about spiritual horror than body horror, Steve Yeowell's art works that much better.  John Smith is back on writing duties as well, Devlin being very much His character.

We start with a prologue reintroducing the character of Devlin to the reader.  It's been narrated in the form of a last will and testement of a journalist called Ronson "Ratso" March.  It was twenty years ago he first encountered Devlin in action, in Brit Cit fighting "Ghost Dancers" inside a "Spirit Cage" round a church. 

He gets too close and is attacked by "qlippothic larvae" and spends three months in deep sedation, when he comes to, he is blind.  This proves to be a blessing in disguise, he gets enhanced bionic eyes and becomes one of the top five photo journalists in Europe.  He's followed Devlin's career ever since.
Devlin defends his 'tache.
His next big photoscoop was when "The Cult of the Purple Fist" kidnapped Devlin's mother and "threatened to expose her to the Black Mirror if he didn't shave his moustache off on world sat-TV".  However Devlin tracked them to their lair and defeated them.

Ratso goes through some more of Devlin's triumphs including Olympic Gold for Flower Arranging despite a scandal later when he was found having abused steroids.  His announcement of his retirement after the Aquatraz incident suprised everyone, but then he is discovered to be a vampire, "but that doesn't make me a bad person" says Devlin at a press conference confirming the rumours about him.
Ratso is sad he retired, "the world was a duller, greyer place without him".  Devlin withdrew completely to his Cote D'Azur retreat, which was seven years ago.  Ratso writes that there have been "whispers and rumours of war".

Ratso: "They say something is coming.  Something from the outside.  Something hungry for the world.  I fear for the future.  Who's going to save us now?"

And he puts a gun in his mouth.  The next panel is black.  With that done, we start the story proper.  At Fortress Neuschwanstich in the Bavarian Alps, "Lady Fading Light" is welcoming "The Fakir".
The Fakir and Lady Fading Light.
She wants him to steal some occult relics deep in the Vatican's catacombs.  The psi-defences are state of the art, but they have a "sleeper" in place.

Lady Fading Light: "We're using Red Sect ritual in conjunction with Dreamshopper Voodootronics.  A Delta-T satellite array broadcasting the signal.  We can activate our Trojan Horse anytime during R.E.M sleep."

She says they relics are for an auction, the invitations have been sent and in three days time anyone who is anyone in the occult underworld will be there, "all we need now is the merchandise".
The Vatican night shift.
We then cut to the Vatican where the night shift is beginning. A dark skinned woman in tigerstriped clothes and glasses called Lucy Melmoth says "everyone in Rome is having nightmares".  They are picking up broadcasts of some kind of "EM Cypher pulsed at key brainwave rhythmns".  She says if she was paranoid they could be looking at "Mindwar".

We are introduced to "Jenny Hanniver" who lives in a flotation tank and "dreams of other places.  Soft places between worlds".  She babbles that "they're coming". Lazlo Fuerst checks the I Ching with trepidation. Then we meet a sleeping "Cardinal Agrest" who shouts "get out of my head!" as he has nightmares.  Lady Fading Light orders him to wake up, he is their Trojan Horse.

Then we join Devlin and his latest gentleman friend, Antonio as Antonio reads him the various begging letters Devlin gets asking him to perform exorcisms and the like.

Devlin: "Enough! Enough! Why should I be forever expected to martyr myself for the worlds misfortunes when I can't even decide which cravat to wear?  Whatever will they want next? Blood?"

And he grins, showing his fangs and asks Antonio is there is a chance of some "liquid refreshment" before the premiere?  Antonio says he is drained from last time, but allows Devlin to drink from him anyway.
How can you resist Devlin wanting your bodily fluids?
Back with Cardinal Agrest, now under Lady Fading Light's control, he dresses and walks down to the restricted area and gains starts to gain access.

At Canne a TV reporter is telling viewers that Devlin is making a rare public appearance because the film being premiered is called "Swimming In Blood" and based on the Aquatraz vampire outbreak seven years ago.  There are lots of fans there screaming for Devlin.

He walks down the red carpet basking in the adulation, with Antonio by his side.  Antonio is the actor playing Devlin in the film which, as a TV anchor says, "despite being a retro action flick, the film is hotly tipped to win the Palm D'Or."
At the Vatican City Cardinal Agrest is moving through the many levels of security to get to the relic room.  Meanwhile Jenny is freaking out, "the b-black rope! The King of Skin!  I can see him!"  Finally Cardinal Agrest reaches the relic vault.  Lady Fading Light asks if The Fakir is ready?  He says he's had thirty-six lifetimes to prepare for this, he is more than ready.
Cardinal Agrest, the sleeper.
At the party before the Cannes premiere, Devlin and Antonio are mingling with various guests and reporters.  They are bing bothered by a female reporter who snidely says to Antonio that she never expected him to be "fraternising with vampires."  Antonio responds that the entire industry is full of bloodsuckers, "at least Devlin's open about it".  She says they'll see if his devotion is warranted when the film goes on general release in three days time.

Devlin: "In three days you'll be killed in a car crash when your chauffuer has a heart attack at the wheel. So I'm afraid you'll have to do your gloating from the other end of a ouja board."

They leave her and move on while she is left lost for words.  While over at the Vatican, Cardinal Agrest is vomiting up a length of rope.
Rope vomit.
The rope stands up straight and a portal opens up at the top of it and The Fakir appears and climbs down it.  The Fakir then tells the bamboozled Cardinal Agrest "welcome to Kali Yuga.  The beginning of the end of the world."

The hugely fat man called Chubby in the control room with Lucy says he thinks something isn't right.  He says he feels sick and he is hearing Jenny shouting and screaming in his mind.  Lucy says it's probably the crazy signal, but she'll recheck the defence protocols just in case.

Then an alarm goes off, a foreign aura has been detected in the "Iso vault zero".  The Fakir using the still confused Cardinal Agrest takes the relics he has been tasked with stealing.  He says he's been detected and has three more minutes before the Judge Inquistor get to them.  As security rush there, Lucy puts the Vatican on full lock down, "the exus are on the prowl and this creep's out of luck..."

Deviln tires of his fans.
At Cannes Devlin is regaling a group of admirers with tales of his exploits.  They all demand more stories from him, but he makes his excuses and goes and joins Antonio saying they should go for a walk.

Devlin: "If I am forced to recount yet another dreary tale of my mispent middle age I will be violently sick all over the canapes."

In the Vatican's Iso-vault Zero, Cardinal Agrest's body has been found dead, but still warm, killed minutes ago.  Lazlo Fuerst demands to know where the killer is.  They have psi-blockers and teleport suppressors an every level and the vault was locked from the inside. "Could we be looking at a shining window?  Perhaps somekind of untradimensional entity?" he wonders. 
Checking what was stolen.
They recognise the cord that strangled Cardinal Agrest as belonging to a Thuggee cult that worships the death aspect of the Goddess Kali.  A Judge checking what was taken says it wasn't much, but it included a skull marked as Artefact 666.  Lazlo freaks and says they should have destroyed it thirteen years ago when they first acquired it.  Lucy says they better get in touch with Devlin, "if anyone needs to know about this it's him".

Devlin and Antonio are out for a stroll.  Devlin says he hasn't been this "deliriously happy" since boarding school.  Before Antonio came into his life, he had resigned himself to one of quiet desperation with his painting, cats and well-stocked wine cellar.

Devlin: "Now I shouldn't care if the moon fell or the stars stopped in their tracks, just as long as you were beside me.  Antonio, I think I might be falling..."

But he is cut off by an interuption from a messanger bringing him a phone with a call from the Vatican waiting to be answered.  Annoyed, Devlin says he is done with all that "beastliness" but he picks it up and speaks with Lucy anyway.

She get straight to the point and tells him, "it's the Herod... someone's stolen the Skull of The Herod".  This sends Devlin into a despairing panic as he remembers facing off against The Herod before, a huge creature he fought in Bahrain.

Narration: "The funeral pyres.  Oil fires in the nuclear desert.  Firestorms and black rain and corpses stacked like timber.  Charpits burning... Hell on Earth. Herod in the ruins."

All Devlin can say in reponse to this news is "God help us.  God help us all".
The prospect of the Herod getting loose turns Devlin serious.
The news media have got hold of the story that there was a security breach at the Vatican's occult tracking facility and that at the same time Devlin was called away from the Canne premiere, an admirer said "he's back in the driving seat just like the good old days."

Lucy and Lazlo are watching the news, Lucy grumbles about where these people get their information from, the 0800 psychic hotline?  Lazlo says it is probably the skull's doing:

Lazlo: "There's over two thousand years of sickness stored up in that thing.  Bringing it into the open must have scorched the massmind for miles around."

Chubby announces that Devlin is here.  Lucy says she's always wanted to meet him, he's been her hero since pre-school. 

Devlin comes storming in yelling "You utter bloody fools!" They've allowed the most dangerous destructive force since the A-Bomb to be stolen.  He says he should have fired it into the sun, "and to blazes with psychoarchaelogical study."  Lazlo says they still have a chance, the skull takes skill to reprogram, if they can intercept it before that the damage can be contained.  Devlin says he is afraid and wants to run away to a desert island and put his head in the sand:

Devlin: "But The Herod would murder the world if it could.  Where do you hide from something like that?"

At Lady Fading Light's fortress she thanks The Fakir for taking special effort to conceal his trail back there.  He asks if it is true about her "psychometric" talents.  She says yes, her people (the Masai) can "divine the history of an object by touch."  The Fakir tells her in that case be careful of the skull, "it bites."
The loot.
At the Vatican they figure out the thief used "tantric death magic" to open a door into the vault.  After praising Lucy's work on the case, Devlin says he had an expert of his own look over the cardinal's autopsy reports. The M.O. is the same as a killer they have been trying to catch for years, The Fakir:

Devlin: "I refuse to go into detail about his perverse yogic practices.  But he is able to fold himself through space like some kind of fantastical contortonist".

He think though he may have left traces in the astral fluid.  So with the help of Jenny he is going to go on an out-of-body reconnaissance mission, "we shall follow his spoor straight to his front door."  The all go down to where Jenny is.  Devlin asks what happened to her? Lazlo says:

Lazlo: "She was left quadriplegic six years ago after an allosaurus attack in dinosaur park.  She's been like this ever since.  She may seem spacey and strung, but when it comes ti the high strangeness cases she really knows her stuff."

Devlin links up with her and their astral projections fly of together and quickly find Castle Neuschwanstein.  He praises the place which was built by a lunatic, as a "marvellous location for a secret base."
Devlin and Jenny astrally project.
The auction attendees start arriving.  Devlin indentifies them or sends images of them back to Chubby to indentify as well.  A man with four arms is "Harry Kiri" who Devlin bested in a martial arts exhibtion match some years ago.  Chubby says the dwarf with him is "Vicomte Henri Labas" he was born in Paris in 1849, but catapaulted into their time during a sex magic ritual gone very wrong.

A man with four horns is "The Jack of Mice".  Devlin says he's killed him twice, but "you can't keep a good cloneshark down".  A parasite creature attached to a human body is one of "The Sunless Ones", a qlippothic lifeform that shouldn't be in their reality. A woman with the lower body of a snake is "Countess de Borjaque" and her lover is a werewolf called "Lovebite" who can only communicate in barks and growls so she translates for him.

The last one to arrive is "Mr. Zurich, The Blind Watchmaker" who seems to sense Jenny and Devlin watching them.  But he dismisses it after a moment.  Lady Fading Light assures him that the Castle itself is protected with "hunter/seeker systems at every level".  Devlin wants a look inside the castle, Jenny cautions against it:

Devlin: "The skull of Herod is down there somewhere and I refuse to be deterred by schlock horror fear frequences and infra-psionics".
Devlin tries to peek inside the castle but is repelled.
He starts to push his way through the black barrier surrounding the castle when a many mouthed and multi-tentacled creature attacks him sending his astral form fleeing back into his body.  Once there he collects himself then tells the others:

Devlin: "Assemble a strike team, right away.  We've done all we can in the spirit.  I think it's time we payed a visit in the flesh."

The guests for the auction are mingling and chatting.  Lady Fading Light goes to meet the final attendee, "The Catechist".  Now the auction can begin.  As the bidding starts on the various relics, The Jack of Mice tells the Countess he is after Herod's Skull.

Countess de Borjaque: "Not you too? Herod is the name on everyone's lips it seems.  I think we'd all give our pound of flesh to get our hands on that thing".

The auction continues, but before they get to the Skull a flying ship smashes into the castle and Devlin disembarks, armed, with Lazlo, Lucy and a group of Inquisitor Judges in tow.
Devlin and the Vatican team crash the auction.
Devlin orders the hand over of the Skull, but Lady Fading Light tells her guests the "antibodies are online" and for them to get as far away from the intruders as they can.  In the confusion, The Jack of Mice grabs the Skull of Herod and dodging gunfire, leaps through a window and races off.  Devlin jumps out of the window after him in hot pursuit. He chases The Jack of Mice through a snowy landscape as the Vatican forces withdraw from the castle to go and help him.

The Jack of Mice breaks into a house and kills the couple inside.  Using their blood he draws a magic circle.  Devlin catches up with him and says "if you don't put down that knife I'll kill you here and now".  The Jack of Mice just grins at him and says "too late Devlin.  Say hello to The Herod for me".  And he slashes his own throat.  His blood splashes on the Skull which starts to grown and sprout.  In horror, Devlin can only watch and pray to Christ until The Herod is restored and standing in front of him.
The Herod tosses Devlin through the window of another house with an elderly couple in it.  People come running from surrounding houses to investigate the noise, a badly beaten Devlin yells at them to get away.  But too late, The Herod comes crashing out and kills everyone, "bones shatter like toffee.  Meat of the chopping board. Murder by moonlight".
The Herod keeps killing until only Devlin is left, it starts to approach him but the Vatican ship flies overhead and drops down a line for Devlin to grab on to, which he does and they pull him aboard just as an avalanche hits The Herod.  As Lucy tends to him, he says "Oh God. Oh God.  It's still out there.  Hungry for the world. And it's still out there."
Devlin saved in the nick of time.
We jump forwards three weeks, The Herod is inert in a mystery location being discussed by a man and woman.  The woman says as it was activated by the Jack of Mice, they only had to use his "DNA Decrypt codes" to disarm it so they can get it ready for "The Deluge".  Which can't come soon enough for the man.  The Herod is not at full power yet, they plan on enhancing it too:

Man: "We need to interace it with ambient temperature superconductors and implat an aethyric skeleton key so it can travel via mirrors.  Then it is just a matter of reconfiguring its kill parameters"
And it will need to be ready for July 23rd, to user in an invasion, "and then.. we change the world".
The Herod offline... waits.
And that brings this first part of a three part storyline to a close.  It's not often a comic sends me scurrying for my dictionary but John Smith really goes all out with archaic and strange words which are well suited to a story on magical mayhem. It's interesting how humanising it is to see Devlin, something of a self-centred, overly confident bastard face something that utterly terrfies him.  It shows that a lot of his bluster is just that, bluster, he returns to his old job without a word of complaint once he knows the stakes involved and takes the lead in facing down the threat of The Herod despite his previous experiences with it causing him so much fear.  Once again it's refreshing to see an out and proud gay man starring in his own series, the UK was definitely ahead of the US on these matters.  It's also heartening to think in the future the Vatican would have no qualms about him working for them either.  The mixture of the religious and the occult is interesting, and that policing the realm of the supernatural would fall to the Vatican does make sense if you consider there are still priests out there in our time performing exorcisms and the like. Steve Yeowell's art deals with the psychedelic aspects of the storyline beautifully and the rest is good as well, it's quite different from his work on the Zenith series.  John Smith's scripts are complex, but do feel like the sort of things people would say when existing in that world and with The Herod has built up a creature that is obviously going to cause more trouble in the installments to come...

Sunday, 19 June 2016

Judge Death: The Wilderness Days (Judge Dredd Megazine vol.2 #209-216)

"I'm a natural born killer." - Judge Death

Of all of Judge Dredd's many enemies, the Dark Judges and their leader Judge Death in particular, have to be the most popular and enduring.  No matter how often they are defeated and imprisoned, they'll always find a way out to continue judging the living merely for the crime of being alive.  Their warped thinking is that because all crime is committed by the living, life itself must be a crime.  They quickly wiped out the population of their own Earth and via reality shifting shenanigans, came across to Dredd's Earth to continue their mission.  This storyline focuses on Judge Death, the only one of the four Dark Judges to escape in a previous storyline, and his road trip across the Cursed Earth (the radiactive wasteland outside of Megacity One) as he considers how to enact a quantity over quality policy of judgement. Normally he likes to do his killing up close and personal, pushing his hand into a person's chest and squeezing their heart until they die.  But feeling that judging a whole world alone might be a bit beyond him, he starts to search for weapons of mass destruction to aid him in his task.  This storyline also gives us a peek into his mind as he interacts with the various humans he meets along the way.  The story is penned by veteran 2000AD scribe John Wagner and the art is by Frazer Irving whose thick, black linework gives it a medieval woodcut look that befits the somewhat dark subject matter in hand.

A small farmhouse in the Cursed Earth, a family working outside it.  A rangy figure comes into view.  It is Judge Death and "I mean you no harm".  However the woman points a shotgun at him while the old man says "It's the Devil Incarnate" and the two young boys cower behind them.  The woman tells Judge Death to get lost or she'll cut him down where he stands.  Judge Death shrugs and says:

Judge Death: "I can ssee I am not wanted.  Sso be it.  I havve never been one to impossse myselff.  What happened to the old tradition of welcoming ssstrangers."

The woman says he is "too damn strange" for her liking so he leaves, bidding her a "good day" as he does so.  But he lurks close by waiting for nightfall as he needs to be careful out here, he has no way of repairing damage to his body.
Not even children are safe from Judgement.
It is out in this wilderness that he understands the vastness of this world and his task.  So many born every minute, faster than he can bring them to justice, "each one a new sinner born into crime". 

He returns to the farmhouse and lures the woman out to the barn where he impales her on a pitchfork and shoots the old man with her shotgun.  She yells at the children to run before Judge Death kills her via a squeeze to the heart.  The boys run, but Judge Death has found the quad bike and is able to catch the older one and runs him through with the pitchfork.  The younger one hides in the cornfield until Judge Death gives up looking for him and moves on.

Next day his father, Hocus Ritter, returns home to find his family killed apart from Morty who he holds tight when he finds him alive.  He says Morty can tell him all about what happened once they have buried the others.

Biking across the Cursed Earth, Judge Death comes across some circled wagons and kills everyone there.  He makes use of the gun, but:

Judge Death: "Where possible I have come to prefer passing sentence face-to-face.  Up close and personal.  Justice with a smile".

Next day he comes across a lone dwelling, feeling vaguely unsatified by the previous nights judging.  There is a man sitting outside the house drinking tea.  He is blind and invites Judge Death to sit down and have a chat and a cuppa.
The friendship of the blind.
He asks if Judge Death is travelling far, and Judge Death complains that it is such a big world with so many sinners, maybe he should leave back to his own world or find one smaller.  Then he scolds himself saying if he shrinks from the magnitude of his task he has no right to call himself a Judge.  And his brother Dark Judges need freeing as well. 

The blind man seems unfazed by what Judge Death is saying, and just makes polite interjections every now and then.  Three men walk past and shout at him that Judge Death "doesn't look right".  Judge Death shoots two of them, the other flees.  The blind man says he should be careful with the gun, "somebody could get hurt."

Judge Death reiterates his philosophy that crime is committed by choice, therefore choice is a crime.  "Simple logic.  Yet so few of you seem to grasssp it" he hisses.  The blind man comments that "you sure have a lot on your mind stranger".
Truly an evil book!
The blind man decides to let Judge Death into a secret of his saying, "you seem like a decent sorta fella."  His home is on top of a "mine" that leads to a library of books that predate the war that saw the formation of the megacities, "the answers are all in there stranger" he says.  Although he cannot read them, he likes to hold and touch them, "be warmed by the knowledge burning inside."

He leaves Judge Death to read in peace.  Outside the friends of the two men Judge Death gunned down have arrived looking for revenge.  Judge Death meanwhile has found a book called "Great Mass Exterminations".

Judge Death: "As I absorbed the words of the ancients, my course of action became clear.  I must complete the task I had begun - the annihilation of the human race.  Satisfying as individual executions may be, I had to be prepared to make sacrifices.  Sheer weight of numbers demanded I seek a more comprehensive solution".

The gang outside seal the mine up with a huge rock, but Judge Death tosses it aside easily and kills several of them, he allows the rest to flee because he will kill them later instead when he enacts his new plan.
You shall be Judged!
When it is just him and the blind man left, sadly the blind man says "don't usually get a man so wrong" as he realises he is next to die.  And Judge Death slowly squeezes the life out of his heart.

Judge Death: "And I took him down and laid him out in the place that he had loved.  Among the words of the ancients.  He had been useful.  He deserved no less.  And they say I don't have a heart".

Still following his trail of death is Hocus Ritter.  He finds one settlement in which only some nuns survived and leaves his son with them to continue his quest for vengeance.  Meanwhile, Judge Death's bike has broken down, but he is almost immediately picked up by a kill crazy couple, the female "Nirvana" and male "Slide".  They shoot people as they drive past and Judge Death thinks, "sinners, perhaps.  But their hearts were in the right place."
"Jay" makes some new friends.
They stop at a small settlement and go order food in a diner.  Nirvana asks the other patrons if they know where there are weapons of mass destruction as "Jay" is looking for some.  When the patrons try to leave, she shoots them and Judge Death kills the diner owner when he protests.  Then the three of them go on a rampage and wipe the settlement out.  Later while Slide sleeps, Judge Death and Nirvana go on a bicycle ride.  She asks if he wants to sleep with her, he kills her with an arm through the chest in response.

Judge Death: "I fffear I'm well passt that ssstage, my dear.  Ssstill.  Iff we're talking fffull penetration..."

I can't believe they got away with that joke! Anyway, then he goes and kills Slide and takes all their weapons and the car and sets off again, looking for clues to something to help him wipe humanity out.

After a couple of days and nights travelling he finds himself in "a veritable den of iniquity", Las Vegas. Unable to control himself he passes judgement on a man playing the slots. He is arrested by a pair of Judges and allows himself to be taken, thinking he'll get closer to the seat of power that way and maybe get some information on tracking down some W.M.Ds.
"Spin, spin, spin the Wheel Of Justice.  See how fast the bastard turns!"
The Hall of Justice is in fact a casino with a Vic and Bob style wheel of justice that has various punishments people can bet on as it is spun, with the sentence carried out there and then.  Judge Death's turn comes up and the wheel picks disembowelment for him, but he kills the two Judges sent to carry the sentence out, then he rips the wheel off its mount and flings it at the other Judges coming for him.  The Chief Judge, now somewhat freaked out, agrees to see him in private in the Council Chambers.

There he tells Judge Death that sometime ago a Judge called Dredd came through the town and put "The League Against Gambling" in charge.  So they bided their time and struck back and ran the "goody-goods" out of time bar one, the former Chief Judge Rudy who is just a head on a small dog's body.  Rudy is somewhat surly and is on the receiving end of a few zaps from a device the Chief Judge has.  Asked what he wants, Judge Death says he is after W.M.Ds to end the human race.

Not-at-all put off by this answer, the Chief Judge says he can help but only if he gets some quid pro quo.  If he agrees to a ten night run fighting in the arena as "The Dark Destroyer" with people paying 10,000 creds to fight him for the chance of one million if they defeat him, he'll help him out.  Judge Death grits his teeth, thinks of his mission and agrees.
The "Dark Destroyer."
His first bout lasts less than one minute as he punches his opponent's head clean off.  We then get a montage of him punching through various challengers, when one opponent tries to avoid him using fancy footwork, Judge Death briefly possesses him and crushes his skull.  When his first night comes to an end, he is left alone in his dressing room.  Then Rudy appears and says he has important information for Judge Death.

He knows where he can find W.M.Ds. But first he wants Judge Dredd's assurance he'll wipe the whole of Vegas off the map with them, Judge Death agrees so Rudy shows him his information. He taped a council meeting where the Chief Judge states they will string "the Dark Destroyer" along for another ten night run then kill him, because even he won't be able to withstand twenty guns.  This enrages Judge Death and as Rudy tries to stop him, he marches to the Council Chamber killing everyone in his path, "sometimes the effrontery of sinners would try the patience of a saint - and mercy knows I am no saint".
Immortal but not invulnerable.
Sadly for him, he can't indeed stand up to twenty guns and his body is blasted to bits, while his spirit howls "Foools! You cannot kill what doessss not livvve!"  Along  with Rudy they escape the building.  Rudy says he's got them into a fine mess, but Judge Death says they can make him a new body.

They sneak up on a nurse out with an old male patient, Judge Death takes control of the nurse and goes and buys a Judge Death cosplay outfit the merchandisers are stocking due to his popularity.  Then he takes the old man back to the hospital and into the pathology lab, dresses him in the outfit, kills him and uses the "dead fluids" to soak the body and turn it into a vessel for him.  He leaves the nurse and takes control of it, and kills her.  Rudy is unsure he should be helping him now, "I was a good guy once" he says.

Judge Death: "I prefer you consssumed with hatred and bitterness.  Ifff you know what'sss good for you, keep it that way."

Back with Hocus Ritter, his horse collapses with exhaustion but he soon comes across another settlement decimated by Judge Death.  When they hear of his mission of vengeance they give him a car and he keeps following the trail of the dead.

Rudy shows him the silo.
Judge Death and Rudy arrive at what is labelled a "research facility" but Rudy says "everyone in these parts knew what they were up to".  Judge Death rips his way through the fence and goes inside and is greeted by a tank ful of robot troops.  When they hear he is looking for W.M.Ds they take him to see the General.

The General is old, wheelchairbound and practically senile.  When he admits during a rant that he is the only human left in charge, Judge Death possesses him.  He orders the robots to take Judge Death to the weapons and obey his every order, but first they need to leave them alone.  He relaxes his hold on the confused General and then strangles him.  Afraid, Rudy tries to sneak off, but Judge Death says he hasn't had his reward yet.  Then he goes with Rudy to inspect the missiles, ready for firing in forty-five minutes.

Ritter has made it to Vegas, but when he sees someone dressed as Judge Death he attacks him mistaking him for the real thing.  Then he sees more and attacks them too.  Two Vegas Judges arrest him and when he realises his mistake he apologises, but it falls on deaf ears and they drag him off to the Hall of Justice for sentencing.
Ritter arrives in Vegas.
Back at the missile silo, one of the robots says they are supposed to receive confirmation for launch on the Red Phone.  Exasperatedly Judge Death possesses it and makes it ring which is enough to get the launch codes given to him.  There are not enough missiles to wipe out the whole human race so he picks Megacity One and Las Vegas as targets.  Rudy nervously thanks him and tries to sneak off, but Judge Death says "you can't go just yet.  You'll miss the best part of your reward!"

Rudy is tied to the missile aimed at Las Vegas so he can see the destruction "firssst-hand!"  Then Judge Death launches all the missiles.  In Megacity One interceptor missiles are dispatched to deal with them.  Meanwhile in the unsuspecting Las Vegas, Ritter's punishment is the electric chair.  As they start to fry him, he calls for his horse, while Rudy and the missile he is strapped to hit Las Vegas wiping out everyone in a mushroom cloud of death.  But Ritter and his horse's spirits are suffused in a heavenly light much to his confusion.
Unleashed destruction!
Unfortunately for Judge Death none of his missiles aimed at Megacity One get through.  He is philosophical about it though:

Judge Death: "Ssstill I never exxpected it to be an inssstant sssolution.  No victory worth havving comess eassy".

However in retaliation, Megacity One launch a couple of missiles of their own at the base and it is blown to bits, Judge Death along with it, "Fools!  You only postpone judgement. I shall return!" vows his disembodied spirit.
Ritter's revenge after death.
On the astral plane he is in for a nasty surprise.  Hocus Ritter is waiting for him and Judge Death is shocked when Ritter hurts him.  Ritter keeps attacking him.

Ritter: "Not enough! Nothin' can ever repay you for the hurt you handed out!"

They fight and Ritter calls for help and a whirlpool of angry souls appears and grabs ahold of Judge Death.  "This cannot be -! Thisss iss my domain! I hold power here" he cries.  But he can't stop himself being dragged down by the "lost souls cryin' out for retribution! Such power is greater than you!" says Ritter.

Ritter: "Burn Devil Judge.  Burn in the pits of Hell!"

And Judge Dredd disappears, hellbound, with one final "it cannot be!" And then he is gone and the storyline comes to a close.
The end of Judge Death...? (nah)
It's an interesting ending for a 2000AD/Megazine story.  The world of those two publications has tended to strike me as somewhat atheistic, although there are outliers like the Devlin Waugh stories that confirm the Catholic church at least has survived in some form.  So a biblical punishment for Judge Death seems like it's been a long time in coming.  Is it the end of Judge Death? Well I am only a humble trade reader but I assume he manages to find his way out of hell, he's too good a villain not to use.  Because he is so full of go-ahead, can do enthusiasm for his self-imposed quest to wipe out all life, and does it with such a blackly comic approach you almost forget about the truly awful stuff he does, which is why having Hocus Ritter as a sort of morality anchor all the way through works so well and pays off so nicely.  There's also an interesting indictment of the effectiveness of Judge Dredd's approach to problems as well with the reveal that it didn't take long for the clean-up he enacted on Las Vegas while passing through to revert back to the same-old, same-old with Rudy as the victim of a pretty horrible transformation.  With no one in any position of strength left to defend the cleaned up Vegas Dredd's reforms were basically ignored in the long term after a short term gain. As I said in the intro, Frazer Irving's art is superb, very individualistic and striking, while John Wagner proves he still has what it takes to make the Judge Dredd world live and breathe.  If you don't want to track down the original Megazines, it is also collected in the trade paperback "Judge Death: The Life and Death Of..." along with a couple of other serials and one-offs, including "Young Death" which I have also covered on this blog (and a big thankyou to my very good pal Lucy for the book).  Highly recommended.