Apocalypse Now! (The Apocalypse War)

Judge Dredd: The Mega Collection #36. Originally serialised in 2000 AD Progs 236-270.

It’s October 1981. So much of the early years of 2000 AD and Dredd were experimental, figuring things out as they went along, getting a handle on the series and characters they created in the pressure of a weekly publication. Given that, it’s frankly incredible how much of that creativity and work has loomed over the series in the decades that follow – all the way to today. It’s tough not to argue that “The Apocalypse War (1982)” casts the biggest shadow. It’s not the first major turning point – you’d have to point to “The Cursed Earth (1978)” for that – but it’s the biggest turn so far, and its the first that really uses the idea that Dredd’s world is moving in time at the same rate as ours.

ff3ceec0-8060-4661-9dd6-2f0e52429873-1In essence, throughout the course of this collection of two stories John Wagner and Carlos Ezquerra take the world they had such a huge hand in creating, and blow it up. And because of the way Dredd works, there isn’t a reset button at the end. This matters. That’s a big move in any long-running series, but in a time of endless reboots and resets it’s still gripping nearly 40 years later to see these creators take a gamble like this, and play it out over almost an entire 8 months of storytelling.

There’s nothing really I can add to the critical consensus on this story that hasn’t already been said. The set-up is brilliant. The 9-part prologue “Block Mania (1981)” is great on its own, and seems to fit neatly within other “citizens go crazy” stories we’ve had before. The idea of blocks going to war with each other like mini city-states is always a great idea, and the constant escalation episode-by-episode feels normal – we’re just waiting for Dredd to solve the problem. And then, he doesn’t. And everything falls apart around him and the Judges. It’s confident and bold, and something that really only works so well in this weekly, 5-6 page format.

So we escalate into full-scale war between Mega-City One and the Sov-block – and then Wagner just keeps escalating things from there. Somehow a double-page spread of an entire planet in another dimension being nuked to dust is simply a natural progression of what we’ve just seen! A year or two before re-reading for this blog I read “Block Mania” and “The Apocalypse War” one episode a day, and experiencing it that way really highlights Wagner and Ezquerra’s economical use of plot. We don’t need a massive info-dump at the start of each episode, and its possible to pick up and follow what’s happening quickly – yet every plot turn is built on the previous one, and makes sense. This is much harder than it seems, and the fact that it’s so easy to read in collected form masks how much work the creators are doing in the background.

Wagner and Ezquerra’s previous comics work with war-based stories is obviously a huge help with this, as this is really Dredd at War (much like “The Judge Child (1981)” was Dredd in Space). Turning a cop show into a war movie is less of a stretch than it first seems – the Justice Department is already pretty militarised, and their approach to brutal enforcement of the Law often sits more comfortably in the “us versus them” simplicity of military conflict rather than legal judgement. Tellingly, Dredd adapts to the role of military leader with ease.

Destroying (or almost destroying) Mega-City One will be used several more times in the series, but the first time is always the most effective. Ezequerra’s mammoth effort in drawing all 25 episodes here is best highlighted in the slow destruction of the City, as Dredd and the Sovs prowl around an increasingly decrepit background of bombed-out buildings and carnage. Ezquerra’s straightforward and gritty art is perfect here – even the huge nuclear explosions are presented as matter-of-fact events, awe-inspiring and terrifying but not flashy showpieces.

In terms of drawbacks, there’s only a few things worth nit-picking. The inclusion of Walter and Maria is, as it always is, distracting and unhelpful. For me it would have been good to get more of a sense of how East-Meg One works as a city of actual people – we only get the Sov-Judges and the military here. But really, the overall sweep of the story covers up the small issues I have.

So much of the analysis of “The Apocalypse War” nearly 40 years later is also predicated on how much its events still affect the series. Dredd’s decision to wipe out East-Meg One, essentially committing genocide, has repercussions that will challenge Dredd personally and lead to future pain and trauma for Mega-City One. That Wagner felt comfortable with moving on from “The Apocalypse War” with the lead character having committed an act of murder on this scale is pretty incredible. The fact that we’re still following that story now might be even more incredible.

Next time: This town’s gettin’ too hot for Sam Slade, so let’s head to Brit-Cit as we tackle Robo-Hunter: Volume Two.

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