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.|
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.|
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.|
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.|
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.|
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".
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.|
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.|
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.|
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...|
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.|
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.|
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.|
Yassa: "Oh yes, I learned who The Dead Man was that day. But the price I was to pay would be terrible."
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.|
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...|