Judge Dredd: The Mega Collection #71. Originally serialised in 2000 AD Progs 273-274, 331-334, 440-441, 1054-1057 & 1694, Judge Dredd Megazine 4.01-4.03, 227, 307, 308 & 310 and Judge Dredd Annuals 1982 & 1985.
It’s July 1982. Reading this collection of stories that range from 1982 to 2011 in one go in 2019 is an interesting, slightly uncomfortable and question-raising process. This review isn’t going to be super-long, as the stories contained in this Volume are largely variations on a couple of themes that are explored, so breaking them down story-by-story would be fairly repetitive.
The first two stories – “The League of Fatties (1982)” and “Requiem for a Heavyweight (1983)” – introduce and expand the idea of a sub-culture of the morbidly obese, and Wagner uses the aftermath of the Apocalypse War to allow Dredd and the Justice Department to crack down hard on their demands for food during a time of shortage. These two earliest stories are the most – to use a very 2019 word – problematic. Michael Molcher has a very well-written and argued essay at the back of this Volume exploring some of the difficulties of mocking the overweight and how John Wagner and Alan Grant are acting within a wider tradition of satire. Reading these two stories in particular now, and it’s hard not to see them more as cheap laughs at the expense of the obese. For all that Wagner and Grant are gifted and cutting satirical writers, I don’t get much of a sense that they’re thinking much further than the comical idea of hugely overweight citizens fighting the Justice Department.
This fits in squarely with the idea of examining the extreme excesses of humanity through the citizens of Mega-City One, but seems more complex now because as a society in the 21st Century we have taken a more complex look at issues of obesity. There’s almost a guilty, transgressive thrill to these stories – if “fatties” were being introduced in 2000 AD today it would certainly be done in a very different way. The completely extreme nature of this group is effective in deflecting some criticism – belly wheels and insane competitive eating events push these stories firmly away from any sense of realism.
The rest of the stories in this collection largely move away from being directly about obesity, to using the competitive eating contests as a parody of organised sports. “Requiem for a Heavyweight” is a thinly-veiled take on Rocky while the next few stories focus on the corruption and greed at the heart of the competitions. The eating completion stories are more successful for me, as the parody is clearly drawn and the contestants themselves are often the most selfless and heroic people in the story. The real targets of Wagner’s writing here are those that prey on them – and by extension, us as the audience of these kinds of events.
Collecting these stories back-to-back probably doesn’t help their effectiveness. An excessive parody like this is best sprinkled in with other stories – popping up occasionally between 1982 and 2011 would have allowed these tales to be detours and diversions, rather than the solid block we get here. Having them all together highlights the fundamental issue with the collection – they’re all a bit too similar. The stories are entertaining enough by themselves, but “The Maginificent Obsession (1985)” doesn’t tell us much which “Eat of the Night (1984)” didn’t tell us, or “Fast Food (1997)” tells us. It doesn’t seem to me like Wagner really had too much to say about the ‘fatties’ after a certain point.
We also get a pair of outliers with “Hot Night in 95 (2011)” and “Fat Fathers (2010)”. “Hot Night” uses an eating event as background to a solid tale about Dredd and Hershey reconnecting after the events with Chief Judge Sinfield, while “Fat Fathers” explores how children fit into the world of the incredibly obese. I wish Wagner had given himself more than one episode to deal with “Fat Fathers”, as he touches on some loaded issues – custody battles, making choices for children – but has no time to really explore them.
There’s a particular scene in “Fat Fathers” that encapsulates a lot of the themes:
At the end of the day the society of Mega-City One has created the ridiculous stories in this collection. People are prepared to make the choice to take part in this kind of life, as there are no other reasonable options. It’s a biting few lines that read even more clearly today as we face rising inequality. “What’s the alternative?”
Another issue with this collection is the ordering of stories – there are some arbitrary decisions to re-order stories that I can’t understand, and are frankly pretty distracting. I can’t think of a good reason to have “The Bazooka (2001)” ordered before “Fast Food”, given “Fast Food” was originally published first and introduces a couple of key characters and motivations.
But what is clear, and what lifts the collection somewhat, is how much fun the artists are having. There’s too many to go into here, but they are all having an absolute ball. Many of these stories almost feel like gifts to the artists – apparently Cam Kennedy directly requested Wagner to write a ‘fatties’ story so he could draw them! The complete excess of the competitors, the grotesque nature of the eating contests – these are great for visual storytelling. Possibly that’s the best way to look at these stories: the creators involved having a lot of fun.
Next time: The much-missed Carlos Ezquerra gets the spotlight as we look at the first of three Dredd volumes for the Ultimate Collection: Return of the King.