Ginger Nuts of Horror
For a certain generation of British men, 2000AD has a similar resonance as the likes of Spider Man or X-Men for our US counterparts:
For those of us who were children of the 1970s and 80s, 2000AD was a cultural monolith: copies to be found on every news agent and corner shop shelf, hardback annuals of the comic regular stocking fillers come Christmas time.
But, unlike its Marvel and DC contemporaries, 2000AD has always been a horse of a different (radioactive, post-apocalyptic) colour.
Whereas those franchises (which were also readily available here during the era) tend to occupy themselves with moral absolutisms and cultural reinforcement, 2000AD has always been a far more deviant beast: in terms of its subject matter, more graphically violent and overt; willing to show the consequences of violence in a way that super hero comics rarely have (anyone who has read the likes of Judge Dredd, Slaine, ABC Warriors or Rogue Trooper can testify), in terms of its stories, tone and ideas, more counter culture; lampooning and parodying science fiction and fantasy tropes and cliches, as well as “real world” politics and social concerns.
As a kid, the gallows sense of humour that pervades almost every tale in the comic's history didn't consciously register; I was more intrigued by the imagery, the violence, the horror; the gore and monstrosity on display, as well as the truly incredible artwork, which varied from story to story, but tended to have a more detailed, painterly quality to those churned out primarily for US markets.
I recall lingering over certain images: that of Slaine physically warping and mutating, swelling and transforming as he was overcome by his battle rage and bloodlust, of Rogue Trooper encountering a notably Lovecraftian, occult entity that wove makeshift and truly bizarre bodies for itself from the flesh and corpses of its worshipers.
Most lingering of all: The Dark Judges, the undead superfiends that fast became favourite antagonists of the comic's headline Judge Dredd strip.
My first encounter with the undead entities came, as with so much that snared my attention back then, from a single image in one of the 2000AD annuals that a friend had for Christmas: a small image of Judges Fear, Fire and Mortis, their rictus-grinning master, Judge Death, looming at their backs.
Already being immersed and in love with horror, I couldn't fail to be immediately entranced by these creatures; the manner in which their rotted, tattered uniforms and armour resembled those of the “Judges” from Judge Dredd's own setting of Mega City 1, but twisted and perverted: badges of office replaced with skulls and demonic visages, armoured plates with rib cages and chunks of bone...even the iconic Judge's helmet parodied with Death's own portcullis visor.
As a child, I didn't comprehend the irony; that Judge Dredd's own peculiar brand of moral extremism can only be contrasted by another SO extreme that it results in mass genocide: all I saw was a fantastically cool, zombie-judge nemesis and his unliving cohorts, who exhibited some familiar but enticing imagery and provided an immediate “hook” for me to draw me deeper and deeper into the comic itself.
Most aesthetically engaging of all was and remains the skeletal Judge Mortis, a withered, humanoid figure that boasts a skinless yew's skull for a head, whose touch brings rot and decay. As a child, I found the imagery he incorporated distressing and disturbing, which in turn made me want to know all about him and see more of him.
Sadly, it wasn't until much, much later that he and his fellows were properly “fleshed out,” so to speak, when the sheer, macabre adoration fans exhibited for the Dark Judges made an origin story inevitable:
Young Death, following on from the zeitgeist shifting Necropolis story arc, in which the Dark Judges and their allies, The Sisters of Death, take over Mega City 1 and turn it into the eponymous city of the dead (the scenes of mass slaughter and bizarre, occult horror still notable in scope and invention, even to this day), provides an autobiography for the undead super-fiend, provided from his own receding lips:
As in all things, 2000AD does not opt for the easy or expected; it would have been so easy to make Judge Death far too morbid and morose; to lend him a tragic or abusive back story, that explains how he came to be as he is.
Instead, Young Death paints the story of a psychopath born and bred; a resident of another dimension, not massively removed from the one in which Judge Dredd operates, in which the Judges are the ultimate authorities, where life is no sacred artefact; death and suffering merely facts of life.
Into this world is born one Sidney De'Ath (or “Ssssssidneeeey,” as Judge Death himself reluctantly confesses); not some warlord or prince or occult practitioner, but an oddly pudgey, swollen-headed little boy who starts to exhibit classic tendencies of psychopathy from a young age. The story charts his early life; his mutilation and murder of animals, his attempts to harm and mutilate his sister and other members of the family, until his eventual ascension to the ranks of that dimension's Judiciary, where he excels with his non-compromising approach, and quickly earns himself the epithet that will become the one we know and love him for: Judge Death.
The story is a wry and bleakly humorous look at how the most unassuming, fairly pathetic individual rises to become the bane of an entire world: it isn't long before “Sssssssidneey” encounters the Sisters of Death; Phobia and Nausea, occultists and necromancers, who are themselves well on their way to becoming the spectral monstrosities encountered in Necropolis, who allow him to realise his expanding philosophy of life itself being a crime by transforming him into the undead entity familiar to the comic strips.
Perhaps more engaging and intriguing than the personal life of Death himself is the politics of the world in which he operates; even more totalitarian and extreme than Judge Dredd's post-apocalyptic reality, murder and violence are treated with degrees of casuistry that allow Death, even in his undead state, to rise through the ranks of the Judges, slowly escalating their efforts into mass progroms, until he and his followers become the ultimate authorities in the land, spreading their taint across the face of the planet and slowly murdering or tainting everything living, which they deem corrupt.
Whilst Young Death focuses on Death himself as a character, and therefore somewhat glosses over the details of how he and his cohorts manage to infest the cultures and political systems of his world and thereby destroy it, a recently published series delves far more intimately into those concepts, providing a close focus on the world and human culture as it slowly rots from within, as Death and his “Dark Judges” spread not only their metaphysical corruption, but their philosophy, one of the underlying and most subtle ironies of the entire story that masses of the living adopt his philosophy of life itself being a crime, even though they know that it will result in their own deaths. In this, The Fall of Dead World, a story that fans of 2000AD have been hankering after ever since Young Death was published way back in the early 1990s, cleverly parodies certain present day movements and phenomena (Brexit, Donald Trump et al) without being too overt or on the nose; a fairly misanthropic examination of how human beings will happily and readily act against their own long term interests out of tribal affiliation and identity, for a moment of ephemeral power and authority.
In this, the story exemplifies everything that is best about 2000AD, and demonstrates how, whereas other franchises have degenerated or lost their identities over time, the title still exhibits the same deviance and cultural awareness as it did back in the 1980s and 1990s.
The only obvious and overt difference here is budget; the art in Fall of Dead World has to be seen to be believed; every frame hand-painted with care and detail that other comics would only reserve for their cover art. This is a genuine labour of love, enormous amounts of work gone into the designs of characters, settings, machinery and architecture, so as to render what will become Dead World distinct from Judge Dredd's reality, yet eerily reminiscent of it; enough so that it isn't too far beyond the realms of possibility for it to suffer the same fate, by and by.
Whereas previous titles have tended to focus on Death himself (or his previous incarnation as “Ssssssidney”), here, Death hardly appears at all, and even then, only tangentially: this story focuses more on the world around him as it slowly, irrevocably decays: as the rot spreads out from the Judiciary to wider culture, not only ideologically (many adopting Death's bizarre, antithetical philosophy or degenerating into total lawlessness) but also physically, in the form of the “Dead Fluids.”
This is an element of the Dark Judge's back mythology that has been around since they first featured way back when: an alchemical matter that they use to “ripen” the dead bodies they inhabit, but which has always been a somewhat undereveloped and tangential concept, until now.
Here, the “Dead Fluids” are the means by which they introduce worthy initiates into their unliving flock, those touched or tainted by the matter slowly dying, but also transforming in the same manner as Death and his first lieutenants (Fear, Fire and Mortis); becoming abstractions and morbid exaggerations of themselves. As such, the Judiciary is soon populated by undead, semi-demonic entities that murder without restriction or compunction, that themselves spread the Dead Fluids to their victims, making them an army of undeath that slowly chokes all life from the planet.
More, the story introduces the concept of the Dead Fluids polluting into the environments and eco-systems of the world, resulting in great swamps, deserts and wastelands of rot and decay; of twisted, animal un-life, of tainted rivers and food supplies, meaning that the remaining living of the planet are met with the choice of dying of thirst or starvation or allowing themselves to become tainted.
The reader is introduced into this escalating state of decay via Judge Fairfax; one of the few still living Judges who opposes “Ssssidneeey's” regime, who remembers the man from when he was just a cadet, and the then aspiring Judge took him under his bony wing. The two have a connection that is not fully explained or explored in this volume, but which results in Death's agents pursuing Fairfax across the face of what is fast becoming Dead World, encountering small pockets of resistance, anarchist movements and others along the way, most of whom end up either tainted by the Dead Fluids or graphically and hideous dispatched, along with a young girl whose family are slowly either tainted or killed as the rot spreads even to their small, rural corner of society.
Apart from being aesthetically beautiful and inventively distressing, this first half of the tale is also brilliantly written, elegant and engaging: not wasting time on exposition or introducing characters, it has the quality of a well written film script; hurling the reader into situations and the company of characters that have little in the way of explanation, assuming that they are imaginative and intuitive enough to pick up what's happening from ambient details. Nor are aspects of the world and its culture particularly harped or commented on; much of its depth and resonance occurs off page as a result of some well-placed and subtle suggestion, both in terms of the script and the artwork.
As wryly humorous as it can be, the comedy here is pitch black, married to imagery that would be better suited to a work of all out, dystopian and metaphysical horror; the various forms of mutation and mutilation on display are truly spectacular, from eyeless, precognitive preacher-children (their capacities exacerbated by the Dead Fluids) to rotting skulls sprouting spider legs and given their own hideous animus by the same vile matter, there is more than enough grue, gore, monstrosity and disturbia here to sate the most hardened and hungry horror fan, but with it layers and gradations of complement and contrast; the kind of depth one would expect from an independent project or far more “artistic” piece, rather than a mass produced trade hardback.
Following the first half of Fall of Dead World (which ends on a cliff hanger whose resolution is going to be...interesting, to say the least, given that we already know the ultimate and horrific end of the tale) is a series of four short stories collectively titled Dreams of Deadworld, which follows each of the four classic Dark Judges after their victory; how beings that are truly immortal occupy themselves, now that their crusade is ostensibly over.
This is the true marrow of the collection; apart from the action and atrocity that defines The Fall of Dead World, these tales are short, intimate and quiescent, developing the classic Dark Judges in ways that the fan base have been clamouring for since their introduction, but that has rarely been explored, outside of the likes of Young Death.
This is where the writers and artists let their imaginations fly; exploring not only the Dark Judges, but Dead World itself; its plains and wastelands and cityscapes all boasting a macabre and twisted beauty; streets not only choked with corpses but constructed from them, great structures and temples and citadels risen from bone and rotten flesh, dead seas filled with the corpses of great leviathans and krakens...here, Dead World is rendered with as much style and detail as its four remaining denizens, lending it a character all of its own.
As for the Dark Judges themselves, in the absence of a crusade to follow, a cause to fight (and slaughter) for, they have each begun to devour themselves in their isolation; Fire consumed by old passions and vendettas that he vehemently denies to himself, Fear by paranoias and conspiracies in the shadows...the only one who demonstrates any contentment in his situation is Judge Mortis who, in a peculiarly bovine form here, occupies himself with small and petty distractions, all of which have a delightfully morbid flourish: tending to a garden of corpses, brewing a vile wine from compressed and fomented corpses...Judge Death, on the other hand, bears his isolation with a degree of grace; artfully dispatching those other Dark Judges (excluding, of course, his three original lieutenants) that don't quite fulfil his ideal then simply waiting in patience for what he know will come: extra-dimensional travellers, who will lend him the means of purging other dimensions, of spreading his gift and grace to other realities.
These stories are perhaps the highlight of the entire collection; foregoing science fiction and horror action for something far more intimate and intense, the story of Judge Mortis in particular evoking a twisted domesticity that is extremely fitting for the character, but also profoundly disturbing.
It has been a long wait for fans of the Dark Judges to experience this tale, but it has been worth every moment: the trade hardback of Fall of Dead World is glorious; a stunning product with some of the most morbidly beautifuly, deleriously grotesque artwork and design imaginable, a fantastic script, captivating and enduring imagery...
My sincere hope is that this book is found by others; children and adolescents who were the same age I was when I first came across 2000AD, and that it obsesses and inspires them as it did my younger self.
A more unambiguous recommendation I cannot give.